From hip-hop to heavy artillery, and from tattoos to typography, every element of BJ Betts’ eclectic career is visible in his work. Active within the same Philly rap scene that spawned icons such as Cash Money, Jazzy Jeff, Steady B and a certain Fresh Prince, after taking on a military career that included service worldwide, BJ threw himself into illustration full time, developing a hugely distinctive art style informed by his life experiences. With tattooing as his medium, his style utilises elements from gothic imagery and Japanese folklore with an emphasis on perfecting fonts and unique lettering, even writing four guides on the subject that became instant tattoo industry standards.
INKED:How did you end up finding your specialty of lettering? Was it something that you always liked or possibly just something that you found you were very good at doing?
BJ BETTS: I’ve always been attracted to lettering. It’s always been one of those things that the simplicity of it is the beauty of it. When I was younger I would see old handwritten notes in my grandmother’s house. This is back when penmanship was still top of the line for everybody, it was still such an important part of life. And my grandmother, thankfully, saved everything. She had all of these old letters from my great-great-grandmother to various members of my family. You could just see the care in the penmanship. You could tell where the pen was starting to run out of ink, you could see where it’s thicker in some parts, just the overall quality of it all. I remember looking at that stuff when I was younger and just trying to emulate that letter A or that letter G. Those letters that didn’t really look like what I thought the letter looked like. I would just study all of those different fonts and characters. I think it’s the simplicity of it that gets me. The way that the font and the style of the word dictates the feel that you have for the lettering. There is no picture to tell the story, it’s the lettering. The word should dictate the feel of the whole entire piece. If you are writing a word like “rage”, something that is more aggressive, you should probably pick a font that is a little more specific and tells that story.
So you certainly aren’t going to use the same font for “rage” and “flower”, for example. BJ BETTS: Exactly. Or if you are doing a portrait of somebody’s grandmother and you are writing her name underneath. A hard old English or LA gangbanger style might not be the right font to choose for her portrait. Unless grandma was some thugged out lady…
We read that you believe it’s important for people to know about different styles of tattooing. Can you tell us more about this?
BJ BETTS: Because that’s what tattooing is. It’s not just the specialisation that it has started to turn into. I’ve been tattooing for over 20 years and when I first learned how to tattoo you needed to be proficient in every style. You learned everything. Tattooing has a pretty eclectic mix covering lettering, black and grey, traditional, Japanese. Now everyone wants to specialise in specialising and it’s ridiculous. It’s when somebody walked into a shop they didn’t say who’s the best at lettering, who’s the best at this. It was just, I want to get a tattoo… everybody that worked in that shop where I first started tattooing knew how to do everything. Now, I don’t want to stand here on a soapbox and preach like some old school dude, but I think that more attention should be paid to what tattooing is. And it’s not just a wet looking, Johnny Depp portrait. Where did that image come from? What about the eagles? I’ll speak for lettering because that’s what I’ve been known for for quite a while now. But there is a lot more to it than just picking up one of my lettering books and picking a font. Why is a letter that way? Know the structure, know the basics. And until you get back to that and knowing what you are doing, you can’t twist it and make it all funky and go crazy with it. And that applies to all forms of tattooing.
We’ve heard that other tattooers ask you for help with lettering from time to time.
BJ BETTS: There’s this story I always tell about my buddy Bob Tyrrell. I’ve known Bob for almost as long as I’ve been tattooing. I used to see him at conventions and he would come up to me and say, “I’ve got this portrait to do, would you mind coming over and doing this name really quick?” After this had happened 20, 30, 40 fucking times I was thinking, come on Bob. How can you do that beautiful, amazing portrait and you can’t do this lettering? So one year before a convention, I think that it was 2003 or so, I made this sketchbook. I took it to the convention, gave it to Bob and was like, here’s how I do it, stop bugging me already (laughs). I was just doing it as a joke.
It’s pretty great that you created your first sketchbook as a way to get Bob Tyrrell to leave you alone.
BJ BETTS: (Laughs) It was more than just Bob, but he’s the one that I like to use as the example. I have no problem stopping what I’m doing to draw out a quick name; I can do them relatively quickly. As much as I joke around about it, I’m absolutely honoured that these guys not only want this from me, it’s an honour to tattoo other tattooers. I get the important names of the kids or wife.