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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What was the weirdest message or wording that you encountered?
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.
And what are the most popular things that people get done?
SELF MADE, BOOK WORM, ROCK ROLL and of course the classic LOVE HATE.
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.
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.
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.
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.