As someone who loves words and languages, is able to use three languages fairly well and is into tattoos, it was inevitable for me to end up with a text tattoo sooner or later (as a matter of fact, it was ‘sooner’!). What I do care about the most here is words and emotions they carry for me but the more interested in tattoos I become, the more I come to appreciate such factors as aesthetics, functionality, legibility, boldness, size. With Vince Hemingson’s new book on alphabets and scripts, one can start from nothing and build their knowledge on the subject gradually or one can just embrace the subject and enjoy the thoroughness of the author’s research and easy to grasp language the book is written in.
In my review of the (hopefully) first volume of the Tattoo Design Directory, I wrote that the book is decent but also both too general and not detailed enough. Not the case this time as the author did an awesome job on researching the subject and came up with tons of useful information, interesting trivia and a wonderful, very admirable respect toward both languages and cultures that stand behind them.
Introduction is usually this part of the book I view with suspicion – sure it’s useful but it’s also a prelude before the more interesting parts. In this case, skipping the Introduction would be a big mistake. Hemingson shares here some of his own insight on the subject, stating how ‘[the words] have the power to convey concise meaning with enormous emotional impact’ (and there’s a simple, obvious and true power to these words) and then does something great – presents his readers with a Q&A spiel with experts on typography, an academic Ina Saltz, a designer Daniel Will-Harris, tattoo artists (Thomas Lockhart and Shanghai Kate) and designers who love both graphic design and tattoos. As I personally see it, this part of the book can both serve as a means to show the vast amount of options typography presents to us but also as a lesson to teach us what challenges both human body and text tattoos present both to tattoo artists and people who want to make them a part of themselves.
The main body of the book consists of three parts and all of them are quite fascinating to read.
‘A brief history of text tattoos and alphabet’ discusses text tattoos in historical context, with an insight added by Chuck Eldridge. A short history of alphabet sheds light on the process of developing the alphabet as we know it now (and, of course, writing ‘the alphabet’ I mean the Latin one!) and the hidden meanings of numbers. In short, a great, (too brief for my taste) piece of history of culture.
‘Alphabets and scripts’ is the biggest part of the book and, in my opinion, the most interesting one. Hemingson discusses here the history of many systems of writing, from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the Cyrillic to the Elvish alphabet. What we get is not just a few pictures of a given alphabet and a few lines of basic information but quite detailed a description of the origins of a given system of writing and basic information on how it works and how it should be written down. What’s more important, Hemingson displays his anthropological vein and asks us to approach an alphabet of our choice with respect and caution!
The third part of the book is ‘the tattoo font library’ that briefly discusses the history of fonts (again, interesting trivia and setting everything in a cultural context) only to present a small range of font styles we can choose from. It’s interesting on its own and even though I’ve always been a fan of Franklin Gothic and ‘Creepy’ fonts, I might also become a fan of Flood or Trajan Regular now.
Do I find anything missing from this book? I would love to see here at least a page or two about livestock brands, seeing as Hemingson stated in his previous book that ‘they evolved into a language of their own, especially on the American Western frontier.’ I would also love to see a few pages of bibliography included at the end of the book – this way a more inquisitive reader could pursue their interests on their own. But these are just minor details!
Is the book worth some of our precious time to read it? Yes, it is. Is it worth some of our attention to hear the author and become more cautious and respectful when it comes to our choices of text tattoos? Yes, it certainly is. Do I hope for another part of The Tattoo Design Directory? Hell, I do!
Vince Hemingson, Alphabets and Scripts. Tattoo Design Directory, Chartwell Books, Inc. 2010