Long before Microsoft Paint was embraced as the computer art style of choice by the Tumblr generation, there was art made with the humble ASCII. These artworks are created using only the 95 printable characters from the 1963 American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) standard, which defined how text would be coded on computers.
ASCII art emerged out of necessity as a way to represent images on computer bulletin board systems in the 70s and 80s, but quickly took on a life as an art style in its own right. Today there are vibrant online ASCII art communities and even machine-learning programs that can automatically convert line drawings into ASCII equivalents. Yet for the 31-year-old Cypriot tattoo artist Andreas Vrontis, computer-generated ASCII art just doesn’t cut it when he needs to create a template for his hyper-detailed ASCII tattoos.
“I would not want to reveal my creative process as it has taken me many years to develop and perfect it,” Vrontis told me in an email. “There are many computer programs out there; however, the outcome is not as realistic as anyone would think. Sometimes I start with a random program just to get a general idea of how a portrait would look, but I don’t stay there. I try to define the portrait on my own terms.”
Vrontis has been working as a tattoo artist for six years, but he only developed his trademark ASCII style recently. He did his first tattoo on his father, but it was a traditional style and subject matter—two hands praying. In 2015 he did a portrait of John Lennon for his first ASCII tattoo. He told me he was really nervous about the process, but in the end he ended up winning “Best in Show” at the Cyprus International Tattoo Convention for it.
Vrontis said that as far as he knows he is still the only tattoo artist doing ASCII in the world. “I have always been fascinated with how a simple lettering pattern could create so much symmetry and detail in the end result,” Vrontis said. “Letters, numbers, and punctuation marks are nothing but simple forms, but when it all comes together they become so much more than that.”
Text tattoos are notoriously difficult to do compared to other types of imagery because they often involve fine lines and closely spaced letters. If a tattoo artist pushes a needle too deep into the skin, it can cause ink to spread along undesired lines and lead to a blurry effect in the lettering. In ASCII art, the characters are necessarily really small, which means that Vrontis has to use some of the tiniest tattoo needles available. The rest, he said, comes down to a lot of concentration and patience.
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“The lines are very thin and the letters are so close to one another, so in a sense there is no room for errors,” Vrontis told me. “It is a long process and an exhausting one. It can take up to eight hours until the tattoo is done and you need to stay focused until the end.” Vrontis said the extra effort is worth it, though. His unique style has gained him international recognition on the tattoo scene and he often leaves the tattoo shop he owns in Cyprus to showcase his style at tattoo conventions around the world.
“What I find absolutely amazing with this technique is the ability to produce a new understanding or perception of what is real and what is not,” Vrontis said. “A more traditional type of tattoo is perhaps representing things in a way that is accurate and true to life. This type of a design is doing the same thing, but in a more complex and creative way.”
To see more ASCII ink, check out Andreas Vrontis' Instagram page.