Types of Tattoo Letters

Written by donny quinn
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Types of Tattoo Letters
Select whatever font fits your tattoo style. (Ryan McVay/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Lettering for tattoos comes in thousands of variations; so many that choosing can quickly become overwhelming. When selecting lettering, choose one that adds to the aesthetic quality of the tattoo while maintaining readability. Match the lettering to the tattoo style. For example, a tattoo of a circus clown might work better with circus lettering than a black letter font. For a personalised tattoo and with a little extra money, you can even employ your tattooer's skills as an artist to create a font specifically to your liking.

Black Letter Fonts

The history of black letter fonts, also known as "Old English" or "Gothic," date back to the origins of the printing press, where Gutenberg used these fonts in his first typeset. He borrowed the typeface from the monasteries, which used the font in renditions of the Bible (also known as illuminated manuscripts). The difficulty in reading the letters, however, caused Gutenberg to later settle on a much simpler font.

Despite their uncommon use in contemporary printing, black letter fonts retain their tattoo appeal. Because black letter fonts can sometimes be difficult to read, they work well for initials or tattooed words with a few letters spaced at a good distance.

Types of Tattoo Letters
Black letter fonts recall the work of ancient scholars. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Chinese Lettering

Asian lettering holds a certain level of popularity in contemporary tattoo design, especially in the United States. But even among the different Asiatic languages, each language has different lettering systems. For example, Chinese contains six different lettering systems: Oracle Inscriptions, the Great Seal Style, the Small Seal Style, Clerical Style, Regular Style and Running Style. (See Reference 2.)

While modern Chinese language only uses Regular and Running Styles, any of the styles can and are used for tattoo lettering, where aesthetics often mean more than modernity. With Chinese lettering, however, make sure to double check your tattoo artist's work for accuracy.

Circus Font

Perhaps the circus is making a comeback, or perhaps it never went out of style. Nevertheless, the current popularity of burlesque and circus performances makes the circus font a popular choice for tattoos. Famous for the outlined and partially shaded letters, the difficult-to-read circus font fits for the same types of tattoos as black lettering -- initials and words with few letters.


Currently, many scholars argue about whether or not cursive holds the same value it did before computers became household appliances. Regardless, the cursive font still remains popular as a tattoo style. Often used for the names of loved ones, the cursive font adds a certain romantic quality to tattoos. In some cursive fonts, however, the ornate lettering can border on illegible.

Types of Tattoo Letters
Mister Cartoon's hand tattoos use a cursive font. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

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