Interview taken from Sang Bleu 6
Born and raised in Delaware,BJ Betts tattoos from his own Trademark Tattoo on a quiet strip of Lancaster Avenue in the state’s largest city, Wilmington. The place has character, a real buzz, and an energy that comes from a keen balance of perfectly executed tattoos and the street sensibilty. Betts and his partner, Damien Guerin, are fonts (pun intended) of knowledge. While getting tattooed by Betts, I spoke to him about tattoo lettering and trends of body placement. When applicable, Damien added some thoughts. They have fun at Trademark Tattoo.
Case in point…
BJ: Johnny Knoxville, from MTV’s Jackass, is like, ‘I want that.’ Talking about the Wawa logo. Damien is like, ‘What? You want a coffee? I’ll get you a coffee.’ He’s like, ‘No I want that tattooed on me.’ Damien is like, ‘You jackass, that’s a convenience store. That’s like getting 7/11 tattooed on you.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah but that’s awesome.’ So Damien did the Wawa bird on him and the word ‘Wawa.’ That’s awesome. It’s like a Yo! MTV Raps tattoo. Anyway let’s talk about lettering. I know we talked about you getting your first tattoo and it was your name. I kind of like that story, I think it’s a good starting point.
BJ: Looking back at it, that might have been the introduction for me into lettering as far as being attracted to it in a tattoo. Definitely like drawing graffiti and all of that played a big part in it for sure. I was always attracted to the shapes and the forms of the letters-a few lines and you got it. As far as the unlimited-the options are unlimited as far as-I think that once you have the basic shape-everybody knows what letter A looks like so once you have that basic shape laid out it’s like, you can change it to whatever you want and you’ll stay have the letter A unless you’re getting too fucking wonky with it. Once you start getting too much frosting and no cake then it becomes unrecognizable. For the most part, the basic lettering structure, I mean look, we all know what the fucking letter A is, it’s two lines up and down and one across. That’s an A. When you turn it into something, that’s when the magic happens, man. You can always just make it fun. I think that the basic three lines, that’s all that you have really. I was 14. The guy that did it, after I got done getting tattooed, he was like, ‘Your mom is Martha, right?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God you’re going to tell my mom.’ He was like, ‘Alright don’t tell her it was me.’ I guess they were friends, I thought it was going to go the other way. Me and my brother were like, ‘Oh my God, dude, he’s going to fucking tell mom and we’re done for.’ I hid that thing until the night before I went to bootcamp and by then, I knew it was going to be safe. I went to bootcamp when I just turned 17. My mom was so upset that I was going away that I figured it was cool, that was the only time I was going to get away with it. I told her, I was like, ‘Ma I got something to tell you.’ She’s like, ‘Oh God, somebody’s pregnant.’ I was like, ‘No, I got a tattoo.’ She was like, ‘No you didn’t.’ So I showed her and she was like, ‘Well what am I going to do?’ So after that, that was the cue that it was okay to get more. My pop, he was like, ‘He can serve our country, he can get tattooed.’ My mom was like, ‘Yeah whatever.’ Damien: But you still can’t drive my car.
BJ: That’s right, ‘You still can’t drive my car.’
You were in high school with Andy Cruz, who founded House Industries, and you guys were in the same classes. Were you interested in lettering then?
BJ: Absolutely. It played a big part in it and even at that point, Andy was likeobviously this is way before the inception of House Industries—me and Andy talked all the time. Every graffiti writer has the black books, I had them and Andy bought one and was like, ‘You gotta show me how to do that.’ He was just fascinated by it as well. Fascinated by the whole font, the whole dynamic and the impact that that letter can have. Something so simple that we take for granted everyday. It’s such an important part-for the most part, graffiti is lettering, you got characters and shapes but for the most part that’s your tag. When you get up like that, that’s all it is man, people know that. Like I said, I was super fascinated by the whole concept of that and how awesome, especially like growing up around Philly area and going to New York when I was younger a lot, seeing such a different style. It’s definitely a recognizable hand style from Philly to New York. That played a big part in my development and what looked right and what was pleasing to my eye.
When did you start tattooing?
BJ: I did my first one, the very end of 1994 right after my daughter was born. I was still in the military at the time and a good friend of mine had just got some tattoo equipment and he was like, ‘Come on over and try it out.’ My wife is like, ‘What do you got to lose? Let’s go over there.’ The first one I did was crap, it was this tribal barbed wire around my buddy Jeff ’s ankle. Funny enough, it wasn’t even lettering but my second one was.
I remember Jeff telling me like, ‘Dude you should looking through these magazines, I don’t even see any cool lettering, you should like start doing something with that.’ I remember tattooing my buddy Sean, doing his daughter ’s name on him and it was pretty crude but I could see I enjoyed doing it, it could be cool, the potential was there for me to do some cool lettering and that’s exactly how it happened. Years later, here we are.
What was the first shop you worked in?
BJ: The first shop I worked at was called August Moon in Bear, Delaware. That’s where I did your ribs, right? That was the second time I worked there was when I did your ribs. I was there from early 1997 to the summer of 1999. My mom got pretty sick and there was a lot going on and I just had enough of the current situation there. I needed a change, I felt like I wasn’t really going anywhere, I felt like it was a dead end type of deal. My mom was sick, I wanted to take some time off and be with her and make sure she was okay. I had a pretty good opportunity to work in another shop and I went from there. Years later, there was another opportunity that presented itself to go back and work at August Moon again and it was with a few good friends. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time and it worked out for a while. Natural progression and it was time to move on. I worked in Philly for maybe six years on South Street.
I’m interested in working onSouth Street and the nature of the customer base and if it was useful in developing some of the lettering.
BJ: Absolutely, yeah. As a street shop, one of the staples was lettering and your ability to do lettering. It’s the same baby mama name and whatever you can think of. It’s like, how many of those names I did when somebody came in and wanted their kids name and I’m like, ‘Okay how do you spell it?’ They would be like, ‘Do you have a phone I can use?’ I’m like, ‘What the fuck, really?’ They’re like, ‘Yeah, really, I don’t remember how to spell my kids’ name.’ It was crazy. That was a difference between East Coast and West Coast style of a tattoo font, it was just a straightforward sailor style.
The single pass style can trace its roots back to Norfolk or wherever there was a military base or fort. It was just super fast, one pass, one line, assembly line style tattooing. Back then, it was like somebody did the line, somebody did the outline, somebody did the black shading, somebody did the color. With lettering, the person that was good at lettering in the shop would generally make more money because they didn’t need to split the money with anybody going down the assembly line. I think over the years, that was what was missing out of a lot of people’s tattoos. You’d see a super nice tattoo and it comes with the lettering and it just blows. Like, ‘Man what happened? How come nobody’s doing a better job with this?’
Was that the impetus for your lettering guides?
It was. Actually, the first book was done to give away to my friends. I did a bunch of these lettering books and I’d be at a convention. I printed a bunch of books, I was going to the Richmond Convention one year and I printed 100 books just to take and give away to my friends because everybody would be like, ‘Hey, man, would you mind drawing this name for me real quick?’ I’d be like, ‘Dude, I’m right in the middle of a fucking tattoo.’ They’d be like, ‘Come on, man, it only takes you a minute.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, whatever, man.’ That’s how the first part of it started, I did that because I kind of got tired of being interrupted by people asking me to sketch out a name real quick. I printed out all those books and just took it down there and started giving them away to my friends. I’d be like, ‘Alright dude, here’s how I do it, stop asking me.’ That’s how it started. I gave one to my buddy Jerry Riegger and he was like, ‘Man you should start selling these things.’ I’m like, ‘Sell them for what? Who the fuck is going to buy this?’ He’s like, ‘You’d be surprised.’ So he sent someone over to my booth and he was like, ‘Hey man, I want to buy one of those books.’ I was like, ‘They’re not for sale.’ He was like, ‘Oh Jerry Riegger sent me over here.’ I was like, ‘Maybe I’m on to something, maybe I can help out the tattoo industry or whatever.’ From what I’ve gathered, they’ve been pretty helpful or successful for everybody.
What year was the first book?
It was well received and it just took off. Years later, now I got four and I really haven’t had any negative comments which is awesome. I get a lot of emails saying how much the books have helped and it’s crazy to me how something that seemed such a staple and such a simple thing as lettering. You know, everybody starts to write in kindergarten or first grade…
I told you that Benny Gold (a streetwear designer), the first time I met him, had one of your lettering books.
Yeah, that’s crazy to me that something that simple people just don’t have a grasp on. Some are amazing tattooers. Even now, I’m fortunate enough lately to do a bunch of seminars, some of the people I’m glad they came, and I’m not talking bad about anybody but they could definitely use some help. It’s been pretty interesting to see where everyone’s at like along the path. We were all there at one point and I don’t know.
A lot of the other people who you think about tattoo lettering came to tattooing later in their artistic life and were graphic designers or typographers prior to that. Stephanie has a very different style to her lettering, it’s really based type-set lettering. You’ve still got, obviously there’s that graffiti influence and an emphasis on handstyle, but you don’t have a shitload of graffiti letters.
Like I said, I think it’s been cool, everything has developed along the way. Over the yearsit’s hard these days to come up with a new font. I’ve always wondered what your process was.
You know what, man? It’s tough, a lot of it is just by what looks right to me, I don’t have a formula and that’s why it’s kind of hard to teach the seminars because a lot of it, I don’t have a real formula for it. I have a basic kind of structure but I don’t do it, it’s more subliminal, I kind of just go with it.
I don’t know, I don’t really have a—when I was first sitting down to put a little bit of a lesson plan together for doing a seminar, I really had to sit there and think like, ‘How do I do this?’ Because I really didn’t have a plan. More so, by look and how many times I’ve drawn a letter ‘S.’ I don’t know.
What are the most memorable letter tattoos you’ve done?
I think it was an older guy, I think he was in his 80s. He came to the shop one day and he was just like, we all looked up and he was definitely the oldest person to come in the shop. We’re all like, ‘Hey, man, how are you doing?’ He’s like, ‘Alright, pretty good.’ He just looked around a little bit. We’re all like, ‘Can we help you out?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I wanna get tattooed.’ We’re like, ‘Okay, man, what are you going to get?’ He goes, ‘I want to get my wife’s name.’ Esther was the name. I drew it up and start getting everything ready for him and I’m like, ‘Hey if you don’t mind me asking, why’d you wait this long to get this tattoo?’
He was like, ‘My wife never wanted me to get tattooed.’ I was like, ‘Well why now?’ He was like, ‘Well she just died and here I am.’ So I did the tattoo and that was it and he went on his way. It was cool, I wish I had a picture of it but that’s the other unfortunate aspect-maybe not unfortunate-that’s another aspect of tattooing that is a little weird sometimes. We as tattooers, we do it, that’s our job and when that person leaves it’s just, that drawing or stencil it just goes in the box, it goes in the bin and we move on but that man, that meant a lot to that guy. There’s people I’m sure that remember me or whoever does their tattoo, I don’t remember every single tattoo I’ve done at all.
What about trends for where on the boby people want to get the lettering? Has that shifted over time?
I think so. I think the ribs seemed to be more popular and lettering on the neck and the hands. Honestly I think it’s whatever the hot artist is, like how many times over the years did I do the Goldberg tribal when he was a wrestler? Like he had that tribal on his arm. It’s just about in general, about how tattoos go. I think that’s how it goes, I think it goes by what celebrity is wearing what. I think I’ve noticed that when it’s more of a mom or a loved one tattoo, as faras lettering goes, they want to have it a little more visible, especially if it’s a mom or a relative passed away, they want it to be a little more visible versus gettinga phrase of some sort.
Wouldn’t you say, Damien?
Damien: Yeah, the side.
Everyone wants to write a book.
BJ: Everyone wants to write a paragraph on their ribs. I don’t know where that came from.
Damien: Me neither. Verse 21:48 whatever, somehow if it’s on the side, it’s more profound. For you, as a consumer, have you noticed anything?
I definitely think I’ve seen more hand tattoos in the last year than I’ve ever seen before. I think in the last few years, I’ve heard more people talking about getting ribs done. I think the hands thing is the celebrity thing, the ribcage I can’t really tell. I understand a lot of people are getting quick and dirty bodysuits now and maybe that plays a role in the rib interest. Or people think it’s hidden. It’s the new version of under-the-arm.
BJ: It’s like the new lower back.
Damien: It is the new lower back.
I mean all the girls that I know that got little tattoos recently got rib tattoos and they can barely handle 10 minutes. What about stomachs?
You started tattooing right after Tupac got his stomach rocker.
Yeah, pretty much.
I don’t know anyone that has gotten one of those in the last few years.
A thug life or a stomach rocker?
When was the last time you did a stomach rocker?
You’re right, years probably. I think it went from stomach rockers to collar rockers and then it was like, across the shoulders. Across the shoulders was always popular, that was the last name across the shoulders kind of deal. That was one of my first lettering tattoos like big lettering. ‘End Racism’ across my shoulders. I saw it in a ‘House of Pain’ video. One of the guys had it, I don’t even know if it was one of the guys from House of Pain, I don’t remember really but they showed a quick little view of a tattoo on his back and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m about right there.’ Now, I’ve had it all these years, I got that probably 20 years ago. Now it’s covered up but I’ve already ended racism so I guess I’m allright.
Living in Fishtown (a working class neighborhood in Philly), I saw a lot of quck lettering on the hands and neck. Similar to what Allen Iverson (former star of the Philadelphia 76ers) got.
Oh for sure, Philly for sure, Iverson got whatever…
Iverson got ‘Money Bags’ on his hands.
BJ: Right and then everyone wanted to get that. Or ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ or whatever phrase is popular amongst the NBA or hip-hop community, that’s what we did.
Damien: ‘Streets is watching.’ BJ: ‘Streets is watching’ is another one. I did a few, yeah.
We can talk about North Philly tattoos but do you do a lot of the street neighborhood tattoos?
BJ: I’ve done North Philly, South Philly, stuff like that. Was there ever a moment on South Street where people were like, ‘No we aren’t going to do neighborhood tattoos?’
BJ: Not at all, man.
Because in England, I know there are certain people that are like, ‘No, we won’t do football tattoos.’
BJ: I think they definitely take that a little more serious over there than it was in South Street. We didn’t really get down with club stuff as far as motorcycle stuff, that kind of club.
We just wouldn’t do it and honestly, man, nobody would even come in to ask about it because of that reason. Those club guys they know who to go to, to get their lettering done and we weren’t it so they left us alone. But for the most part, all the years I worked up there, that was a good part of my tattoo experience. We would do 50 tattoos a week, week in and week out. That’s a couple hundred tattoos a month, week in, week out, month in, month out for years, it adds up. Being that busy it just means experience and building up a repertoire of different letters and styles and trying not to do the same thing on everybody and make that letter ‘T’ a little different for that dude and the next dude. I think to just build up that whole rappore, the whole-my mental portfolio of everything I wanted to do. If someone did come in and want whatever, I didn’t have to look at any reference I’ve done it so many times like, I didn’t need it. I got that.
How many “TRU ” tattoos have you done?
BJ: None, man. No actually one. I did do one. It’s weird how it’s whatever the year, how people don’t really have a clue what the name of a font is but whatever they can relate it to like I’ve had people talk about script but they’re like bible letters.
Where’d that come from? ‘Let me get bible letters.’ Obviously I kind of know what they mean but that just tells me that one of their friends was calling it that and somebody else got it-it has to come from somewhere.
What about knuckles because the last few…
Damien: Lettering…Basically how everyone thinks they’re a fucking West Coast gangster now…
Well, lettering seems to be super popular now.
BJ: Lettering does seem to be popular. It’s almost like it’s a safe bet.
The question I was going to ask you was about tattoo trends that you go from when you started, you have tribal, you have barbed wire then you have a tribal band, then you have a lot of people getting the ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ type of religious tattoos and now people are getting shitloads of stars all over their necks and hands and also the lettering. It seems to me that almost the last couple years, simple cursive tattoos are perhaps the biggest trend.
BJ: Yeah I think it’s been almost a safe way to go, it’s like people want to get tattooed but they don’t want to commit to a big…
They’re like fashion tattoos.
BJ: Yeah for sure, it’s
like where tribal left off.
Tribal was a safe bet, to most people it didn’t have sort of deep meaning, it was some weird shapes that somebody put together.
Or with Asian lettering, you could say you were getting something with meaning without really just getting shapes.
BJ: Yeah but because someone didn’t want to commit to actually having an image. They maybe wanted to get tattooed to fit in or be cool or whatever the case may be so they get some lettering, they get something safe like ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ or whatever.
Something that’s not threatening, something that can be safe in five years, it’ll be the same thing. It seemed like that’s how tribal was back then, people wanted to get tattooed but it’s like, ‘Play it safe. Tribal.’ It’s not a black panther, it’s not threatening and it can’t be misconsrued as something else. It’s tribal, it doesn’t mean much, to them.
Have you done any full text sleeves?
BJ: I haven’t, I would love to do that. Have you ever seen that? p 429 sang bleu 6 bj betts I talked to Stephanie about that because she’s done a few type sleeves, totally different, and I’ve seen Jimmy Hayden do a full bible verse body suit or work on it. The dude had four angels and shitloads of bible verses. Some hustler dude walked in, took his expensive watch and all sorts of shit off… disrobed and had crazy bodysuit. All bible verses. BJ: How’d it look?
It looked a lot cooler than a lot of rappers’ bodysuits because at least it was…There weren’t clouds all over the place but it unexpected to say the least, to see that.
T ell me a little bit about working with the House 33 Crew and when you worked with them and what Andy wants from you and the difference between doing hand lettering where there’s sort of outside directive versus when you’re coming up with thingsfor the book which you’re clearly, you’re also thinking partly tattoo with the book.
BJ: With Andy, Andy is definitely a perfectionist. These guys know their shit like nobody else I’ve seen in my life and I don’t know the first thing about illustrator or any kind of font program at all and that was almost attractive to them, to work with me, that I didn’t know that shit. It was still me, picking up a brush or a pen and still going for it. It’s so rare these days, from what they told me at least, that’s their world, and from what Andy tells me, nobody does that anymore it’s like the lost art of just doing hand lettering and then scanning it in and making it into a font. That’s a lost art, I just never figured it out because I’m lazy. I just figured it would take me much longer to figure it out on the computer then I can just draw the shit. It’s funny, to engineer a font, you have to do every letter of the alphabet, you have to do them two and three and four times each, you have to do all this stuff to prepare for every option. Like the letter ‘A’ and the letter ‘E’ combo. A letter ‘R’ and an ‘L.’ Andy just wants you to do everything possible so nobody can say, ‘That’s cool but you didn’t have this.’ He wants to have all the bases covered and I think working with him, over the years, has made me transfer that into tattooing. It’s been a great experience and it’s been me bringing something different to the table to their side because they’re not used to working with anything as permanent as what we’re working with. In these days, you can get laser surgery but with those guys, they can just hit delete and it’s over. Start again. Not with this, this is what you get. I think that’s what attracted them to it with me was the permanence of it and just the fact that someone would get that on them but because we have tattoos, we get it. But none of those guys that work there, none of them have tattoos from what I remember, I think they asked me to do it but no one has a tattoo.
[Steve, a young kid in the shop, walks over] We are talking about lettering and body placement, have you noticed any trends over time?
Steve: I have noticed the lettering trends over time. I’m going to say, for instance, I think that adding a distinct flourish, or orniment, never was predominant in any lettering, ever, until maybe, eight or 10 years ago. It’s not seen in East Coast 90s letter tattoos.
90s lettering tattoos always look straight up to me.
Steve: I’ve noticed that there is a lot more fluidity as far as consistency in letter weight like sometimes I’ll see letters which obviously the capital letter should be weighted more but you’ll see it get big and then little. Actually, I noticed when you, BJ, did the ‘Sacrifice’ in the very first lettering book, the ‘E’ is obnoxiously large in comparison to the other letters, in terms of weight value. I’ve been doing that a lot. Maybe obnoxious is not the right word.
BJ: Noticeably larger?
Steve: Noticeably larger. I think it’s a lot more fluid. That might be it.
Body placement? Wrist?
Steve: Ribs for sure.
BJ: Wherever Angelina Jolie gets it.
Steve: Wherever Rihanna gets it.
Damien: Remember when everyone got their stomachs because they thought they just came out of fucking San Quentin?
Steve: That’s what I did, I thought I was hard.
BJ: I still think you are.
Damien: Everyone thought they were hard.
What about machine concerns with lettering? Like what you use for lettering versus normal tattooing? BJ: It doesn’t really make a difference for me. I think I’m pretty constant with using the same machines for everything.
There’s times where if I’m going to do a heavier outline or a larger needle grouping outline I’ll use, but same as with any other tattoo. If I’m going to do a big bold, 8 or 10 needle outline, I’m going to want to use a machine with a little more ass behind it and the same way with lettering, I’ll approach it the same kind of way. That’s how I approach most of the lettering and that’s where a lot of people struggle, because they try to actually write it and if your handwriting completely sucks, you have to come up with another method to make it not suck so much. So, I think people who are really good tattooers who suck at lettering, they need to draw the lettering as if you’d draw a panther or an eagle or any other tattoo. To actually draw the letter, we all know what the letter looks like, so you draw that shit. I think that’s kind of what’s been helpful for some people, that I’ve told them that over the years, it’s been like, oh shit, you can almost see the lightbulb come on.
Damien: I think that’s an excellent analogy, you know why? People write like shit, they don’t really know their grammar. So grammatically, they can’t write a grammatically correct sentence but they can speak fluently. That’s the same thing with tattooing. I think people take it for granted. ‘Oh I can write the letters therefore my script is fine’ and really it blows. The same way they would try writing a grammatically correct sentence but they can’t.
BJ: I notice every year, like I say, we know what the letter ‘A’ looks like so draw it, draw it accordingly. Like Damien just said, when people hear that, they’re like, ‘Shit, man, why not try it? At this point, what can it hurt?’
Damien: So many people try to fake it and it looks exactly like that.
BJ: It’s like with anything else, man, this shit you can’t fake it, you can’t hide it.
When it comes time to show and prove, you can talk about doing lettering and you’re good with it, but when it’s time, what you got?
Damien: You’ve gotta put in the work, man.
BJ: You have to draw and draw and draw and draw. When you’re done, you have to draw some more and then you’re kind of getting there. It seems, for some people, the notion, as with any tattoo, is that it should be legible.
Legibility is number one and then everything else is secondary I think. Once you get that basic structure down that you know needs to be there, then you can start tweaking it and adding your extras here and there. When you start doing that shit first, man, it’s like cart before the horse-it’s 99 percent of the time not going to come out right because you have to have that basic knowledge of what you’re doing like with any tattoo, you need to know what goes first, you need to know-like whatever, if you’re doing a panther, one foot isn’t going to have three claws and the other have four claws, it’s painfully obvious you didn’t know what you were doing. Same thing with lettering, I can pick that shit apart in fucking no time but that’s because that’s what I love doing because I study the shit out of it. Just like if somebody didn’t really know their Japanese tattooing well and they did a koi going the wrong direction and a Japanese artist that knows what’s right, sees that shit and he’d pick it apart-it’s the same thing for me with lettering, it’s like, ‘Come on, bro.’ It’s just consistency, that’s another thing that needs to be there. Consistency over the entire word or words, spacing, consistency, all of these things play a big part in it. That’s part of something where Andy Cruz had a big influence on with me, getting back to the basics, and just saying like, ‘Hey dude, we all learn this shit, make sure that spacing is right, make sure that kerning is there, make sure every little bit of that lettering is right.’ Especially more so for me than him. Like I said, I have a lot more to lose than he does. He can start all over again, I can’t. I think the terminology, I don’t know I love everything about lettering, sometimes during the seminars, I can see what I’m talking about, I try to explain everything I can but it’s like, the kerning and the letters and people look at me-sometimes if I start getting too type-geekish about it, you can look out in the audience and it’s already over. It’s done, once they hear a few words they don’t get, they’re like, ‘I don’t need to know about kerning I’m a tattooer.’ It just shuts off and they wait for me to talk about something they can relate to or not.
It seems that there are very few people talking about it in that respect.
Yeah because it’s not really relevant-I think it is-but they don’t think it’s very relevant to the tattoo that we’re doing. When did you become aware of some of the older guys who were known for lettering like Jack Rudy? From the very beginning, I was always into it so much. In the very beginning of my tattoo career, I was so attracted to lettering that when I saw something that I liked, I wanted to learn more about it. So all the old Jack Rudy flash from the 80s and I’ll always remember this one sheet that he did and the word ‘Kathy’ was on there and it was all flourishing underneath. It was in the first shop I ever worked at so it was older and looking at his older stuff, there was more than script. Jack doing all the old national banners for tattoo conventions and stuff like that, there was six or eight different fonts. It was definitely more of an illustration type of thing. There was six or eight or whatever different types of fonts on the one thing. You know, me going to a vo-tech high school, I was always interested in different fonts, I thought that shit was amazing. I was like, ‘Why isn’t nobody tattooing that?’ Why does it have to be only on this illustration for the tattoo convention? Why can’t you bring that to the skin? Why not? Why does it have to be only Olde English or whatever. I think that played a big part in me wanting to explore different options. Other than Jack in the 80s and early 90s, who was doing stuff that you noticed?
Well early, Mike Brown and Charlie Cartwright and guys from the Pike-Freddie Corban, a lot of L.A. guys, I guess I was drawn to that style, I just loved the look of that so much. It was just so different than what I was used to seeing. I was used to seeing that East Coast sailor style so much and it was something different like, ‘Whoa look at how fucking cool that looks.’ I wanted to learn it, but not rip it off and kind of try to develop my own style where it wasn’t… Have you seen other tattoos from the Pike on guys that you knew in the Navy?
I did, when I first when in, I went to boot camp in 88 so there was still guys in there that went to boot camp in the late 50s and early 60s so they had a lot of old, cool tattoos like the crossed anchors on their hands, old Pike lettering like the zigzag dude. Cool old Vietnam tattoos, a lot of cool shit. It seems like for so many people that definition of lettering is so narrow to be script. A lot of people are just talking about script, a lot of people known for lettering are just doing script.
Yeah it’s like a one-trick pony. The guys who I really like at lettering, I like their lettering for a couple of reasons because it’s not the normal, just cookie-cutter style, they can do whatever you need. Also, the lettering needs to fit the tattoo.
You’re not going to get your grandmom’s portrait, and use an East L.A. gangster font under it where you want her name. It doesn’t go unless grandma was fucking gangster. Other than that, it ain’t going to work. You need to make the lettering according to the design when you’re basing it on the tattoo you’re doing. Do you want an Olde English ‘Rest in Peace,’ are you doing a nice, soft black and grey rose? You may not want to put some hard-ass Olde English up against that, you might want to keep a nice flowing script with it. This all comes with experience and talking to your customers on what they like and knowing what’s going to work the best with that tattoo. You, yourself, being an artist and doing this long enough to realize like maybe that isn’t the best choice and sometimes the customer isn’t always right. This ain’t fucking Burger King, you can’t have it your way all the time.