Tom Dennis explores the growing number of designers and brands taking their cues from tattoo culture
When UK sports brand Umbro unveiled its latest campaign a few weeks ago, it marked a clear tipping point for tattoo-influenced art and design. Umbro's new direction was as far removed from the classic football brand's sweat and grit look as could be. Instead of footballers hoofing a ball around a muddy field, the creative featured England striker Darren Bent and Peruvian skipper Juan Vargas in a tattoo parlour being inked. In doing so, Umbro joined the likes of Converse, Relentless, MTV, Sailor Jerry and other brands in tapping into tattoo culture for a mainstream advertising campaign.
"Anything that starts to bubble under pop culture is always co-opted by advertising," commented executive creative director of Wieden + Kennedy London, Tony Davidson, in a recent D&AD lecture. "In a bid to communicate their messages to younger demographics, marketers are doing more than just showcasing tattoo-covered models. They're also applying tattoo culture's aesthetic to graphic images and typefaces," he went on.
This co-opting that Davidson identifies is nothing new, but unlike overnight visual design trends, such as geometric patterns and transparency effects, tattoo culture's influence has been a slow burner. As far back as the early 1980s brands have embraced the tattoo community's implementation of their logos, such as Harley Davidson, which produced an advertising campaign showing heavily inked men and women astride its motorcycles. The visual metaphor was one of all-consuming passion for a company, to the extent of which a person's body was, quite literally, branded with a product motif.
Umbro's new campaign for its 1350 leisurewear range isn't quite as unsubtle as the Harley Davidson example. Produced by Manchester-based studio Love Creative, it's based on the number of minutes left in the day after the 90 on the football field, and taps into off-pitch cultures and activities - offering a glimpse into the lives of sportspeople that doesn't revolve around million-pound sports cars or on-field activities.
"Body modification, including tattooing, has become increasingly recognised in recent years, not only as a means of self expression, but also as a credible art form," says Sarah Corlett, head of business development at Love Creative. "Programmes such as Miami Ink have helped reach new audiences who might have previously perceived it to be something of an underground dark art, and there's also been an influx of more media-savvy tattooists who, either through PR or working with celebrities, have made their craft more desirable as a fashion and style statement.
"There were countless off-pitch cultures to explore, but we decided to start with one that players and fans alike invest considerable time and effort into - expressing their passions in a creative, colourful and committed way. Once you scratch the surface of tattoo culture you realise there's a lot of symbolism, craft and heritage to be discovered, which ties in nicely with the tailoring and craft values of the Umbro brand."
The new campaign's logo looks nothing like traditional sports branding, and certainly takes little from the official England kit manufacturer's lineage. It was created, by hand, by Manchester-based tattooist and illustrator Gre Hale, who had previously worked at Love Creative as a graphic designer before pursuing his passion for tattoo art.
"The brief to Gre was to bring 1350 to life in his own style, which is naturally quite classic," explains Corlett. "Similar to working with a photographer or illustrator, each tattooist has their own unique style and way of interpreting a brief, which not only adds an additional layer of creativity to a campaign, but also helps brands to express themselves in a different way," she adds.
What the campaign shows is that mainstream illustration design and advertising is going through a phase of embracing tattoo culture like never before, proliferating its sub-culture roots and outsider status, and dragging them into the mainstream.
Of course, the street runs both ways and many recent graphic design trends and techniques have found their way into tattoo culture. Ale Paul is one of the founders of the Sudtipos project, the first Argentinean type foundry collective. Late last year he released Piel Script, which he specifically developed for use by tattoo artists.
"I had worked in corporate branding before I became a type designer, and suddenly I was being asked to get involved in personal branding - literally as 'personal' and as 'branding' as the expression gets," Paul recalls.
Gothic and Latin scripts in particular smack of tattoo culture, and lend an air of sub-cultural cool to a campaign. The drinks brand Relentless developed its entire brand ethos around alternative tattoo culture and defined itself against the existing market leader, Red Bull, by the difference in its branding.
Relentless was the idea of creative branding consultant Erasmus Partners, which partnered with Coca-Cola to create and market the drink. But it's the brand and the branding itself that defined the product, with its tattoo-inspired logo that taps into alternative music and sports culture.
"Relentless is all about 'no half measures'," says Matt Follows, creative director of Erasmus Partners, "so we really had to push the packaging and branding design." He continues: "Each can's name reflects those attributes - like Origin and Immortus - there's a whole back-story based on alternative sports and music culture. The design can't be simple and restrained - it's hugely detailed."
Relentless has also expanded into more varied activities that support its brand identity, including music festivals, surf and skate contests and snowboarding events, all of which sit on the fringes of tattoo culture. Its magazine, This is the Order, covers alternative music, film, art and fashion, while the design exhibits Gothic and Latin script typefaces and dark, brooding photoshoots. This is the Order's debut issue featured tattoo-clad band Gallows, as well as a Maori-inspired portrait of Eric Cantona.
Yet it's not just tattoo culture's aesthetic that has been co-opted. After all, tattoo artists are as individual and varied in their style as illustrators and graphic designers are. No, tattoo culture's heritage has also been plundered by savvy design creatives.
An obvious example is Sailor Jerry rum. While Norman 'Sailor Jerry' Collins was a real tattoo artist whose distinguished style graces everything from limited-edition Converse to ashtrays, the rum brand is a work of pure creative fiction. Sailor Jerry rum is principally the invention of creative advertising and branding agency Quaker City Mercantile. Ten years ago, Quaker City Mercantile acquired the Sailor Jerry estate and started Sailor Jerry Ltd, utilising Collin's designs as the visual hub of the brand. The legend has now come full circle, with a 2010 documentary, Horti Smoku Sailor Jerry, telling the story of Norman Collins the tattooist and the brand that he posthumously spurned.
Tattooing was once seen as the outlaw art form - a dangerous, murky subculture of personal expression. Now it has seeped from the skin of heavy metal fans and bikers into the fabric of design, advertising and marketing.
When Converse released adverts last year showing a man with a heavily tattooed face - the kind of guy your mother would cross the street to avoid - it marked a point at which tattoo culture had been pillaged to give mass-appeal products an image of attitude, edginess, and make them stand out from the ever-expanding crowd.