ETP - Intro to Lettering

Lettering Best Practices

The first thing to learn about lettering is how to properly space the words and letters in order to make the total effect pleasing to the eye. This needs to be planned in advance, and because of this, no matter how simple the request a stencil should still be used. A stencil will give the artist time to pre-plan the lettering, and also to allow the client to consent to the style and placement.



Not all letters are sized the same, however. Uppercase letters are usually similar in size in most fonts, but aren’t in all of them. In lowercase fonts, there can be quite a bit of difference in the width and sizing of letters. For example, the letter “I” is typically much thinner than the letter “O”, even if the upper case I has lines at the top and bottom in the traditional style.

Because of this, simply dividing the word between the number of letters if there is an even number, or dividing through the middle of there is an odd number, is not enough. It may work quite a bit of the time, but when it fails, it looks awful. Because of this, the midpoint of the actual lettering should be found, even if the midpoint falls in the beginning or end of one of the letters. Perfectly even spacing doesn’t always look right, however, so while it should be considered, the most important result is the overall beauty of the design.

Punctuation needs to respect the rule of the midpoint as well. A perfectly balanced sentence can become weighted poorly if the punctuation within it adds space that hasn’t been accounted for. An exclamation point is unlikely to be large enough to create an issue, but an ellipsis (a series of three or four dots) could be, as could a comma or period in the middle of a phrase. By taking punctuation marks into consideration and working with them, spacing issues can be worked out as the design is being drawn and before it is placed on the client’s skin.

In order to draw the lettering while respecting the midpoint, the midpoint itself must first be found. All of the letters being used should be drawn to size. Measuring the entire piece and dividing the number in two will give the midpoint from either edge. This is the letter or punctuation mark that should be drawn first. From this point, the lettering should be drawn on either side of the middle mark or letter. For example, with the word “MOM,” the “O” would be drawn first. Then, each “M” would be drawn in turn. If the word or sentence were longer, the additional letters to the right and left of the midpoint would be drawn from the middle toward each end.



Care should be used with the balance of the design when it comes to letters that are taller or longer than others as well. Depending on the font and capitalization, words heavy on certain letters might create a visual imbalance. Some letters like lowercase o, a, c, and e, are usually shorter than lowercase h, k, d, or b. Lowercase j, g, q, or p will usually drop lower than other letters as well. Most words and phrases have a balance of letters, but placing the text in a way that finds the visual balance with the combined shapes of the letters is also a consideration.

The clients’ wish should be respected in these cases, but it is the artist’s job to discuss these potential issues when designing the lettering.

You can also give yourself a bit of wiggle room when it comes to top and bottom spacing, if your lettering appears on a banner or similar background. Make sure that you finish the lettering before finishing up the banner, so that if you have the option of adjusting the size or layout of the banner to better frame the text should it get off kilter. If you tattoo the banner first, you will be unable to make any changes if you notice that the spacing is off.

Technology has changed how lettering is done. In the past, the artist would hand draw the letters either by sight or by using a stencil. In this case, a stencil is a hard, thin material with a design cut out that can be traced, not the stencil applied to the client’s skin to transfer a design. These stencils are still used for design, but the sheer number of design programs available to artists these days makes them unnecessary. Unlike stencils, a computer program can change the size and angles of the letters. The program can switch fonts and capitalization easily, twist the words into different shapes, and show what different colors and effects will look like, all before the artist draws a single stroke.

Technology hasn’t removed the need for the artist, however. No matter how fancy computer designing gets, the artist’s eye for design, weight, flow, and balance will still be critical to designing quality art. Also, the artist will still need to actually perform the tattoo, a practice that will always require considerable practice and talent.

If the lettering is done on an area of the skin that is quite curvy, there may be a need to apply the stencil (transfer) more than once. Sometimes, lettering is distorted on flesh in ways that are hard to visualize before the design has been applied, making it less legible than it should be. Simply remove the design, take note of the curves, and adjust the design accordingly so that the next stencil transfers in a more harmonious way.

Perhaps the most important aspect of lettering is the need to spell correctly. Run the text through a spell and grammar check on a word processing program if necessary. Be careful, however; if the word is spelled correctly for a different meaning of the word, the program may not catch the error. Double check every word and be sure it is exactly what the client wants.

Misspellings of common words will look ridiculous on a client’s skin, but misspellings of a client’s name, or the name of his or her loved one, can be heartbreaking.

Clients often request words or phrases in other languages. It is rare that the artist speaks or reads the language being requested, so most artists ask that the client bring in the proper spelling and wording of the requested lettering. It is harder to verify that these tattoos are accurate, so the artist should be very clear with the client that it is the client’s responsibility to ensure that the tattoo is correct. We usually have a client spell check the design 3 times: Check the sketch, the stencil, and again on the applied stencil before tattooing. It just takes a few moments, but can prevent a mis-spelling and the hassle of trying to correct / fix the mistake.


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