BJ Betts: The Complex Guide To Tattoo Lettering

By Nick Schonberger
Courtesy of Complex Few tattoos are as classic as “Mom” emblazoned in a banner with heart. Or, as ridiculed as a mistaken ode to a now former girlfriend.

Regardless of inspiration, letter based tattoos are  as common as they are easy to screw up.
We know you don’t want to end up on LOLtatz or a year-end “fails” list. So, Complex enlisted BJ Betts, type titan and author of several acclaimed tattoo industry lettering guides to ensure readers get it right. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be well on your way to the text-based tattoo of your dreams. Check out The Complex Guide to Tattoo Lettering...

Step 1: Look At The Artist’s Portfolio
BJ Betts says, “Looking at an artist’s portfolio is always the first step to getting a tattoo. The stuff on the wall, that is just traded flash, images that help decorate the shop. Those images won’t help you understand what the artist can do in the shop. So, first things first, check the portfolio. Do the guys even do letters? That’s important. Lettering isn’t for everyone. Do some research. Type in “tattoo lettering” into Google and see who the leaders are. Find the artist near you who loves letters. You’ll be happier that way.”

Step 2: Pick the Font that Fits the Tone You Want
BJ Betts says, “If you’re getting a portrait, you don’t want gang-banger lettering. All the shapes need to fit the whole feel of the tattoo. If you want your stomach done (for example) you might want it to look hard. You want the lettering to ‘wow’ and look a little gangster. It needs to fit the look you want to accomplish. Don’t just run and say, ‘that looks cool, let’s do it pretty’. Tattoo lettering needs to portray the feeling you want for your tattoo. The right font will do that. Additionally, don’t get carried away with ornament. If the tattoo is all frosting and no cake, you won’t have the desired effect. The lettering needs to read clearly, just like any tattoo. Again, don’t get caught up in the unnecessary. The approach to lettering is like a drawing, make sure it is clear and legible. Make sure the letters you choose have the basic structure they need for legibility.”

Step 3: Make Sure the Word Is Spelled Correctly
BJ Betts says, “All the bad lettering you see spelled wrong, that is as much the consumers fault as yours. Don’t be intimidated to make sure the word is right. ‘Only dog can judge me’ isn”t cool. Spelling your girl’s name wrong will also get you in a spot of trouble.”
Note: Tattoo above certainly not done by Mr. BJ Betts.

Step 4: Make Sure the Tattoo Fits Your Anatomy
BJ Betts says, “Like any good tattoo, tattoo letters need to fit the part of the body they will live on. Script doesn’t look going down- with stacked letters -it just won’t look cool. If you want something bold, you also want it fit. Psalm 23 in Old English the size of a dollar won’t work. That goes back to the portfolio too, what is your artist capable of and comfortable doing. Don’t get roped into the wrong thing. Hopefully, the guys at the shop are honest.” Tattoo by BJ Betts.

Step 5: Sit Patiently
BJ Betts says, “Tattoos hurt. Big or small. Be patient when getting tattooed and everything will work out. If you need a short break, don’t be afraid to ask.”
BJ Betts tattooing Aaron Lewis of Staind.

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