Think tattoos and the first thing that springs to mind will probably be eye-catching images – but there are other choices. Word tattoos are a popular alternative in contemporary tattoo art. Single words, often with an inspirational meaning, are affordable, understated and quick to get done, though there’s no reason not to go for a whole poem or any other longer text that you like.
Words make perfect standalone tattoos, without any other embellishment, but there are still various design details to think about. Because it’s the message or meaning that is especially important in word tattoos, let’s start there.
The great thing about one-word tattoos is that you have millions to choose from and we all know a huge number of them. Most people choose a word that has some kind of uplifting meaning and has special relevance in their life.
For religious or spiritual meanings, think ‘faith’, or ‘believe’. For mindfulness, how about ‘breathe’? For creatives, ‘imagine’ says it all. Words that speak of inspiration and a great future include verbs that are calls to action, like ‘persevere’ and ‘commit’. You get the idea. It’s all about what resonates with your personality and experience and reflects your aspirations.
Almost by definition, all tattoos express identity and selfhood. One-word tattoos can amplify this very specifically, and once again, the possibilities are almost endless.
Are you, were you, or do you aspire to be:
- a warrior
- a seeker
- rock chick
- joy bringer
Images are more ambiguous than words, so single word tattoos can make a clear statement. Not that you have to do that, of course. Tattoos are all about play, and an apparently random word with no obvious meaning – or one that evokes lots of different meanings – could be subversive, quirky and fun talking points.
Names have long been used in tattoos, particularly the names of sweethearts. Names commemorating the birth of children are popular, and people also ink names in memory of those who’ve passed away. Autographs in the handwriting of loved ones or famous people have an extra personal dimension, beyond the name itself. Significant life events or dates are other possibilities.
Say It In A Sentence
All languages are filled with pithy sayings, aphorisms and proverbs that contain concentrated truths. ‘Seize the day’ says so much in three words. You could even have it in Latin: ‘Carpe diem’. World cultures often provide unfamiliar expressions of these universal truths, as in the Japanese proverb for success: ‘Fall seven times, stand up eight times’; or the Italian saying: ‘If you can’t live longer, live deeper’.
Many famous aphorisms are also quotations from great thinkers, like writers, great statesmen or philosophers like Confucius (who said ‘Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart‘. That could be a useful rule for anyone deciding on a tattoo!). In your local library, or online, you’ll find dictionaries of quotations that you can search by theme or author. They include great quotes from figures as diverse as the Buddha (‘I am the miracle’), through Wittgenstein (‘If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done’), to Kurt Cobain and contemporary icons of popular culture.
Literature, Poetry, Songs and More
Everyone has favorite books or poems, songs and films that speak to who we are as individuals. Literary works are written by wordsmiths and contain skillfully expressed observations, truths and ideas suitable for tattooing. Poems express ideas in an even more condensed form. (Think of Emily Dickinson, whose poems pack a punch with very few words). While it’s perfectly possible to have long textual passages inked, the longer the piece, the harder it will be to read.
Sometimes famous quotes can be abbreviated. A popular quotation from E.M. Forster is ‘Only connect’. The full quote is ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer’, but just the first two words convey most of the message, without sacrificing meaning.
Song lyrics or titles also work like this, because just a few words from a well-known song evoke the message of the whole. Taglines from movies and TV shows are often poetic: ‘The truth is out there’ (The X-Files) or ‘Love is a force of nature’ (Brokeback Mountain).
The great thing about tattoos is that almost anything goes, so if conventional sources like Shakespeare or the Bible just aren’t for you, there are plenty of left field catchphrases to be found: consider advertising slogans, video games and local sayings from a place you love. And there’s nothing stopping you from creating your own.
Words may not be images, strictly speaking, but word tattoos are still visually designed and can be given a variety of treatments to elevate them into word art. Things to think about include font or script style, scale and color. The fonts in your word processor may provide initial inspiration, and there are hundreds of tattoo fonts available for download.
Online tattoo font generators allow you to see a preview of what your tattoo should look like. Competent tattoo artists can also easily replicate your own handwriting or other text styles you like.
Fonts, styles and words need to be matched up. The graceful, flowing lines of cursive, or longhand, script always look attractive and are especially well-suited to heartfelt, sentimental or spiritual messages. You probably won’t want Comic Sans Serif for a memorial tattoo.
If your tattoo says ‘Hellraiser’ you probably need something more spiky and bold, like a gothic font. Plain block letters in black ink are clean, clear and create good contrast, but tattoos in all capital letters can be hard on the eye. The fonts used for movie titles and advertising signs are often well-designed mini-artworks in their own right and are worth having a look at.
As with any document you create, there will be further style decisions. Bold or light? Big or small? Size will depend partly on where the tattoo will be. Not only do you need it to fit, but it should also be in proportion. So, for a minimalist wrist tattoo, designed for subtle impact, a single color, lighter line and smaller size are the better options.
If you want something that’s a bit more than just words, there are many clever ways to embellish them. Plain text, especially cursive fonts, can be jazzed up with text flourishes, which are ornamental lines that add visual interest. Small accompanying images can add the finishing touch. If your tattoo is ‘Come fly with me’, then a tiny bird or plane could be worked into the design.
Although we’re used to text that runs in a straight line, your word tattoo can be designed to follow the contours of your body or shaped into other forms. For example, your text can be inked as a spiral or infinity sign. It can be contained within a shape, like a heart or a triangle, with or without a border outlining the shape. Word clouds, or tag clouds, as they’re called, can also be generated online beforehand.
Some last words on text tattoos: check your spelling and, if you’re having a foreign language tattoo, verify the translation. You probably don’t want to appear illiterate, and a spelling error can change the meaning of a word, so do your homework. You’ll be living with any embarrassing mistakes for a long time, so make sure you get it right.