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Portland, Maine

207 200 3470

Neil Patel is the designer behind Tetradtype, an independent digital type foundry that crafts custom and retail fonts for creatives. Before founding Tetradtype in 2009, Neil spent a decade working as a semiconductor process engineer specializing in sub-micron printing—an experience that compels him to balance the aesthetic with the technical. 

Tattoo Design: Undertoad


An assortment of Greyletter's Work


Tattoo Design: Undertoad

Neil Patel

Garp…realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.
— John Irving, The World According to Garp

Walt’s misunderstanding of the undertow he was supposed to be mindful of at the beach in John Irving’s, The World According to Garp becomes a metaphor for feelings of fear and anxiety regarding the unknown. The World According to Garp is great story and I was excited to be approached to design a tattoo of the word, UNDERTOAD. My client wanted the tattoo to be reminder of her own feelings of foreboding in life. The tattoo was not to serve as a way to revel in the anxiety, but as a way to give these emotions a tangible form that helps her remember that such feelings are surmountable.


We discussed the mood the lettering should convey in visual terms. The dominant imagery was the heavy grey sea—taking more inspiration from "undertow" than "Under Toad." In addition, the client was looking for the lettering to also be reminiscent of the artwork from old editions of Hans Christian Andersen books. These stories were also something she identified with strongly and the whimsical aesthetic serves as an excellent way to temper the depressing nature of “The terrible Under Toad.” The joining of these two moods was the key in transforming the tattoo from a dark reminder to a hopeful one.

Working from these emotional inputs, I decided that the type should take its core structure from lettering that would have been seen on the side of an old Dutch ship from the 1600′s. To bring in this complex sense of foreboding whimsy I made all of the vertical strokes about 20% wider at the base and widened the horizontal strokes close to the stems. Structurally this gives the illusion that the letters are collapsing under their own weight. Since the widening of the strokes primarily happens in the interior side of the stems, there is an alternating pattern of vertical and off-kilter edges, making it appear as if the letters are rotated in a quirky way. I also placed certain letters slightly above or below the baseline, which is a common feature of the typesetting seen in the Hans Christian Andersen books.  All of these elements work together to create the mixture of emotions that the client was looking for.

The design was tattooed by the steady-hand of Cyndi at Squid & Whale Tattoo, right here in Portland.