Dan Rhatigan and his typographic tattoos

The Typography Tattoo Project

By Jenni Miller

Dan Rhatigan's heart isn't on his sleeve—it is his sleeve. The former graphic designer, now Adobe Type senior manager, turned his love of type into an ongoing art project with his first tattoo twenty years ago. That tattoo, which Rhatigan designed in Adobe Illustrator, is a unique family crest with an “R” at its center. It's a “big, swashy letter ‘R’ I found in a book of old woodtype,” he says.

Once the design was inked on him forever, Rhatigan realized a couple things. “I wanted more tattoos,” Rhatigan says, “and what I loved the most about the one I had was the expressive letter ‘R.’ I had this epiphany that I love type in this very pure and abstract way; I should just keep getting beautiful letterforms that I love.” Since then, he’s acquired different letters and numbers in carefully selected typefaces from artists all over the world, including a lowercase “e” from Sodachrome, a chromatic face he designed with Ian Moore. “I love the way it came out, and it had a graphic quality that lent itself to tattooing, because it’s meant to be a multi-colored design,” Rhatigan explains.

Preparing for a new tattoo is an exacting process for Rhatigan, who keeps a master Illustrator file with designs that interest him. “I just look at designs I’m fond of and try to find letters that particularly capture what I like about the design of that typeface,” Rhatigan says. “I try not to repeat letters, but I’ve started to have a couple of repeats because I’ve been doing this for a long time now.” Upper and lowercase letters count as separate forms, as do letters with accents.

Once he selects possible letterforms from his archive of favorites, he uses Illustrator to size them, then prints and tapes them to where the design will be inked. “I feel bad that I’m not asking the tattoo artist to be creative,” Rhatigan says. However, some tattoo artists view his project as an interesting technical challenge. “When they respond well to working out how detailed it has to be, getting the curves just right, then I usually know that they think the overall idea is cool, and it becomes an interesting exercise for them to replicate something as perfectly as possible.” So far, his only regret is a lowercase “y” from Cooper Black that an artist didn't draw correctly.

Rhatigan's typography tattoo project has evolved over the decades. “I better understand what tattooing is like over time, which feeds into some of the choices I make," he says. "I know they’re going to blur a little bit. I know that the black is going to recede, and some other colors will stay a little bit more vibrant.”

Some fonts are better than others for long-term tattoo legibility. Here are a few tips for anyone interested in getting type tattoos:

Don’t be so sensitive. “I stay away from very delicate lines or very, very fine details,” Dan says. “If what’s interesting about the form is its delicacy, it’s not a good choice for this kind of a project. Because I’ve also seen other people with very delicate tattoos years on, and they become something else, which is not quite appropriate for letterforms.”

Think about your future. Yes, tattoos are (more or less) forever, but they change as you and your skin age. “If you want the word to remain legible, remember that it's going to blur and get a little bit heavier and softer over time,” he says. Therefore, letters “should have open interior shapes. They probably should be big enough that if the space closes up over time, they’ll still be readable.”

Readability is fundamental. Rhatigan’s biggest pet peeve/tattoo tip won’t sit well with fans of traditional-style script tattoos: “Do not use any script typefaces or black letter typefaces in all caps! Scripts and black letter are meant to be uppercase and lowercase letters, and they’re almost impossible to read when they’re caps.”

Go big or go home. Type shouldn't be teensy because “it will blur and fade over time, and it will become hard to read. Don’t be afraid of going a little bit big if you want words,” he advises. “And try to pick typefaces that are not too skinny or too bold or packed too tightly together.”

Take some tips from a pro. To peruse tattoo-friendly fonts, start with Rhatigan's website, where he identifies the typeface of each of his tattoos.