“Love and Hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands”

Or should that now be “Love and Cake” on HER hands? Photographer Edward Bishop has documented over 500 sets of knuckle tattoos. We spoke to him about the project

Photo: Edward Bishop
How did you start the project? What initially interested you in knuckle tattoos?

Back in 2009 I wanted to start a new personal project and was out walking round Brighton where I live looking for inspiration. I saw this guy with musical notes tattooed on his knuckles and asked him if I could take a photo. I shot one frame and then looked at the back of the camera and could see the project unfurl in front of my eyes. I’ve been photographing knuckle tattoos since then. I’ve got about 500 sets now I think.

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Photo: Edward Bishop

Knuckles are one of the last places that people get done. Just by their physical form knuckles lend themselves to letters really well. Limited to 8 letters, people more often than not go for combinations of 2 x 4 letter words. There is the occasional 8 letter word, or 5 + 3, but mostly 2 x 4. The thing that initially interested me about knuckle tattoos was the choice of words that people use. More often than not they are saying something quite personal about themselves. SELF MADE, OVERCOME, OPEN MIND, DIE ALONE.

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Photo: Edward Bishop
Where did you find your subjects?

I began by walking round the streets of Brighton and London when I wasn’t working, probably managing to shoot three or four sets on a good day. Then I went to a tattoo convention and shot 30 in three or four hours. I realised that this was going to be the most efficient use of my time. I’ve been shooting at the Brighton and London tattoo conventions since then.

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Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop

Knuckle tattoos have traditionally been seen as quite intimidating, is that changing? Or, now that tattoos have become so commonplace, are they the last place that tattoos can still seem dangerous?

 To a certain generation I think that knuckle tattoos can still seem intimidating. In getting knuckle tattoos you are pinning your flag to the mast, so to speak. There is a reason they are nicknamed ‘jobstoppers’ or career killers’. But to be honest, people that get their knuckles done aren’t looking to work in a bank. They probably already exist in a line work where this kind of thing is acceptable. Personally I’d love my bank  manager to have a set of knuckle tattoos.

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Photo: Edward Bishop

I think with the rise in, and acceptability of, tattoos today they don’t seem quite as uncommon as they would have been a couple of generations ago. Back then they were probably most often seen on men in the navy, who had things like HOLD FAST on their knuckles, in the belief that this would help them hold onto the rigging in a storm.

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Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop

What was the weirdest message or wording that you encountered?

 Having been shooting knuckles for 6 years I tend to photograph a fair amount of the same words. I see SELF MADE quite a lot, LOVE CAKE too funnily enough.. Then it becomes about the differences between them – fonts, colours. I love seeing the different fonts that people might use for the same tattoo.

Not every one goes for displaying a serious message. My favourite tattoos are probably the ones that make me smile – SOMERSET (on a West Country lad), BADA BING (on a NY tattoo artist), BUFF TING and even SANDWICH.

Photo: Edward Bishop
Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop

And what are the most popular things that people get done?

SELF MADE, BOOK WORM, ROCK ROLL and of course the classic LOVE HATE.

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Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop
Did you see any mistakes?

People do say to me things like “oh don’t shoot mine, they’ve faded and I don’t like them”, but I’ve never seen any mistakes. There is one that I love that still makes me laugh whenever I see a photo of it – PLAN AHEA.

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Photo: Edward Bishop
Photo: Edward Bishop
Photo: Edward Bishop
What about the lettering styles – what are the most popular and why? Did you see any using more mainstream typefaces?

There are some classic tattoo fonts. The most popular is the ‘Sailor’. There are loads of iterations of it. One of the first ones I shot was this guy who had LADY MUCK done in Courier. It’s still my favourite photo from the whole project.  I see quite a lot of gothic fonts and more recently people are getting their knuckles done in a more flowing style where the letters cross over from one knuckle to another.

Photo: Edward Bishop
Photo: Edward Bishop
Photo: Edward Bishop
Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop
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Photo: Edward Bishop
Which is your favourite one?

My favourite tattoo is STAY GOLD, from the Robert Frost poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’. It was made popular by the Francis Ford Coppola film The Outsiders. With his dying breath Johnny (Ralph Macchio) whispers to Ponyboy (C Thomas Howell) “Stay gold Ponyboy, stay gold”. It’s a reference to staying true to oneself and holding on to the innocence of youth.

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Photo: Edward Bishop
 
What plans do you have for the project now?
I’d love to see more in foreign languages so will venture to tattoo conventions abroad at some point. The project has its own website (knuckletattoos.co.uk) with a fun knuckle tattoo generator made by my friend. People can go and pick their words, choose their font and make their own knuckle tattoo. It’s been great fun seeing what people come up with. There is also a limited edition book that I self-published to go with a small exhibition that I had in Brighton recently which was just featured on Uncrate. The response from that has been incredible.
Our attempt to create our own knuckle tattoo with the Knuckle Tattoo Generator
Our attempt to create our own knuckle tattoo with the Knuckle Tattoo Generator

As a photographer I’d never done a 365 project before, so this year I started posting a shot from the archive every day on Instagram (@knuckletattooproject). That’s been great fun. I’ve actually started a 365 project in a leap year, so there will be 366 by the time I’m done.

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Photo: Edward Bishop
Edward Bishop is a portrait and documentary photographer. To see more of his work, visit edwardbishop.me.
  • DarleneSteelman

    My husband has ‘job stopper’ knuckle tattoos… they say: Game Over. Fortunately, he has a successful career as a tattoo artist. Great post!

  • MarshmallowMeditations

    This is a really interesting article. I’m fascinated by the whole idea of tattooing as an outward expression of who you are. Love the Celtic style tats.

  • Daniel Vaialua Gavet

    A simple and really cool idea!

  • Alex Beautiful Sparkly Me

    I’d also love to see my bank manager with knuckle tattoos! I live in hope that one day tattoos will not be ‘job stoppers’, after all, I’m a ‘professional’ woman with the only difference being all of my tattoos can be covered. A very interesting read.

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  • Claire Doble

    This is such a great story. Love the pics and the respect and affection Edward Bishop shows for his subjects. Great post.

  • So dope! loved the post

  • dharma in heels

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and seeing all the knuckles on here!!! I will be following on IG as well now! I am a tattooed woman but never had the guts (and never will have the guts) to ever touch my knuckles, but they fascinate me. Always have. It’s awesome knowing there are other people who find this as fascinating. Thank you!!!

  • Kat Sharpe

    Hey this was real cool, enjoyed the tats might think of something for my own knuckles. Good read, great pics