Hot! Lettering 101—To Letter or Not to Letter: That is the Question

With Uncle Tim Heitkotter

Recently, at the Ink and Iron show, on the Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California, my booth partner, Rick Webster (Gold Coast Tattoo, Monterey, California), and I were having a conversation about lettering and tattoos. He said that he liked doing lettering, but he also felt that it “cheeses up” the tattoo. Even though I am a lettering guy in this business, I have no choice but to agree with him, to a point. So, when is lettering appropriate and when is it not?

Before I continue with this, I want to share this idea I had. I went around to most of the booths at the Queen Mary show and gave them a card with my cell  number on it. I asked them to send any lettering tattoos to my booth so I could photograph them and put an article together for this website. Much to my chagrin, I had no visitors showing off their fancy lettering. Unfortunately, I was busy tattooing and had virtually no time to enjoy the rest of the convention, let alone photograph other people’s ink. By the time I finished up my appointments, it was 7 p.m., on Sunday, and it was time to start packing up. The show was heavilly attended and walk-ins easily filled in the gaps. I really can’t complain that people still want my tattoo art, but I wouldn’t be Uncle Tim if I didn’t bitch about something.

One of the highlights of the show was meeting Henk (Hanky Panky) Schiffmacher again. I haven’t seen him since the 1997 J.D. Crowe Tour show in San Francisco. When I gave him my card and asked for lettering tattoos, he realized who I was and came over to my booth. He said to me, “I think anybody who does not have a hand-painted banner should be excluded from tattoo conventions.” Well, that would exclude a lot of people. After all, we are tattoo artists, not sign painters, however, with me and guys like Henry Goldfield, Papa Joe Dawson and Dave Gibson, it sure helps to have that experience. I have to admit, it’s easy to pick out the hand-painted banners. You simply cannot compare one that is computer generated with one that is beautifully hand-painted. Back in ’97, I wasn’t quite known yet. Henk told me he had been reading my Lettering 101 articles in Skin&Ink, off and on, since I started writing them in 2003. He asked me if I wanted to come visit and teach lettering in Amsterdam. So, guess who’s going to Amsterdam this fall? Yee Haw!


Getting back to the original question above, my feelings tend to align with Mr. Webster: No, lettering is not always appropriate in tattooing. Many of us tattoo artists roll our eyes at the request of a lengthy Biblical verse on the ribs or putting kids names in ANYTHING! For one thing, the body is not a flat piece of paper and lettering changes and distorts as it moves around the various body parts. Careful attention must be paid to this fact. Another thing is that I don’t like the idea of the body as a human billboard. I do enjoy chest rockers arching proudly in declaration of ones clever viewpoints, like Momma Tried or Fallen Angel. I love the dangerous aspects of this trade. However, when I see stupid things like band names or products like Harley Davidson or Ford or Burger King or whatever, it makes me angry. Honestly, if I have to do one more stupid tribal design with kids’ names in it, I’m going to kill the motherf***er!

We all have to do lover’s names, to pay the rent, as this is as old as tattooing itself but I always feel better if they are included in the old traditional Hearts and Flowers-type designs. The ones with a rose and a banner with “Mom” in a little banner underneath. Of course, memorial tattoos sport such slogans as “Gone but not forgotten” or “Always in my heart,” and are always appropriate. We all have a favorite philosophical slogan thathelps guide us in life’s trek across the universe. If they are incorporated within an appropriate design that fits the piece, then I think it’s okay. The standard rule is to always keep it simple. Excessive lettering just looks unnecessarily busy, to me.

So, when is lettering appropriate? The obvious answer is when it embellishes a piece in a way that makes it clever, humorous or adds to it in a way that it wouldn’t look as good without the lettering. Example: I once saw a design drawn by a friend who drew this shot glass with a small bird. Within a banner underneath it read, “Just A Little Swallow.” Great idea! Who wouldn’t agree that a “Love Thy Neighbor” design would look better with the words included in the banner underneath? It just fits. I like doing Angels surrounded by glowing clouds with things like Blinded By Faith or other wording that make the two elements fuse together in an obvious way. If it fits the curvature of the body and adds to the idea of the piece, it can work.

Maybe it’s all just a matter of personal taste, but I like to believe that there is a certain air of discretion that still exists within the tattoo trade; at the very least, by the people who still have some semblance of respect for their clients and the trade as a whole.

Another good question is, WHERE is lettering appropriate? I love to see tough looking guys with their knuckles proudly displaying  letter slogans like TUFF LUCK, HARD KNOX, HOLD FAST or GOOD GAWD! To me, lettering on the face or neck looks ridiculous and extremely cheesy. I am not a fan of facial tattooing unless it’s an indigenous tribal tattoo, like the Maori designs from New Zealand. Any facial lettering tattoo says to me, “I’m a habitual screw-up loser and my life is dismal at best.” I think that discretion is the word that will save many of us from regretting our tattoo decisions. “Think before you ink” works for both sides of this equation. There are way too many shops these days that will tattoo anything on anybody, for the money. I always believed it was our job as tattoo artists to help educate the buying public. Then again, that’s just my opinion.

I would like to sum this up by saying what I said in my very first Lettering 101 article: “It breaks my heart to see an absolutely beautiful tattoo ruined by crappy lettering.” I still see it today. I am also thrilled to see well done lettering. Guys like Boog amaze me with their proficiency. I like to think that I have some influence on other tattoo artists who struggle with this issue. I do not share this information with people because of an unbridled ego or a need to be in the spotlight like some people accuse me of. I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about lettering. These series of columns are simply my way of giving back to a trade that has been very good to me.

I am including some lettering photographs of my own tattoos that I think is enhance the design. So far, I haven’t found a way to take photos of crappy lettering from some top artists without insulting them (or the collector), so mine and some random photos I picked off the internet will just have to do for now. If any of you would be interested in a lettering or banner-painting seminar, I could design one for the Santa Rosa, California Tattoos and Blues show next February. Let me know if there is enough interest and I will put one together. I would be honored to share my knowledge with you.

Faithful servant to the trade,

—Uncle Tim Heitkotter, Blue Tiki Tattoo, Hanalei, Hawaii


  1. I agree wholeheartedly. Getting a paragraph tattooed is almost always a bad idea. I’ve never seen a long passage that really looked good.

    Thanks so much for these articles, too. Handcrafted lettering is such a beautiful and, unfortunately, increasingly rare art.

  2. He he, I totally feel you. Lettering for sure diminishes the appearance of the piece, in most cases. Nice article, by the way. Trying to learn how to tattoo here. I always like to hear experts opinions and views.


  3. May I reiterate my request for topics. If any of you out there want to know something about lettering, let me know. Love to hear from you. I don’t know everything but, what I do know I am always willing to share….UT

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