FAQ: Creating a calligraphic tattoo design

I receive emails on a daily basis from people all over the world who would like a calligraphy-based tattoo. Most people have been pondering the decision to get a tattoo for quite some time and have put a lot of thought into what it is that they want. I am honored to help them to achieve the vision they have for a meaningful work of art that will be inked into their skin.

Here are some common questions that I am asked:

Q: What language or script should I use for my tattoo?
A: I am familiar with the calligraphic traditions of a great many of the world’s languages and writing systems. I can confidently state that there are wonderful aesthetic qualities to each of them. I would suggest that you ask for a design in the script that appeals to you most, or, in the original language of the text that you want to use. For example, if you want a poem by Rumi (to pick just one example) it is wonderful to do it in the original Farsi language, which is written in a variant of the Arabic script.

Q: Can you provide translations of words or phrases into various languages?
A: Yes, I provide quality text that produces the intended meaning in the target language. I do not provide word-for-word translation that may be nonsense in the target language; or rely on Google translate or other machine translation services. I work with native speakers and linguists who have specific language expertise to make sure that all translation work is 100% correct.

Q: If I find a quote in English from a non-English source, can you provide a translation?
A: Insofar as it is possible, I will research the original source material and find the text that matches the English translation that you have found. I would not endeavor to back translate from English into the original language. If you have found a quote in English from the Bhagavad Gita, for example, it would be foolish to translate it into Sanskrit. Rather, I will find the quote in the original Sanskrit text. Otherwise it would be like translating Shakespeare from Japanese back into English: the result is sure to be interesting, but it would not be Shakespeare!

Q: Are there special considerations when designing for a tattoo?
A: It is very important to let me know what size you envision for the finished tattoo. That way I can create the design so as to avoid lines which are too fine and spaces which are too small and that will fill in over time. After you show your design to your ink artist I can also make adjustments if need be.

Q: How do you know so many languages?
A: I am a calligrapher, not a linguist. I have studied the written forms and calligraphic traditions of the many scripts and languages that are in my repertoire, including different stylistic variants, historical forms and contemporary styles. Here follows a list of the languages in which I can produce tattoo and other calligraphy work:

Arabic, Persian, Dari, Urdu: I am bilingual since childhood in English and Persian (Farsi). My first calligraphy instruction was in Persian (Farsi), which is written in a variant of the Arabic script. The script is also used for Arabic, of course, as well as Urdu, Dari and a variety of other languages.

Greek: Oddly enough my first paid calligraphy commission was for a menu for a Taverna, in Greek, in Athens, Greece.

Roman/Latin script used for English is also used for hundreds of the world’s languages, including French, Spanish, German, Vietnamese, etc. I honed my skills while in college in the Italic, Roman, Roundhand, Copperplate, Black Letter, Gothic and other Roman scripts as one of two campus calligraphers. I’ve also taught letterforms and graphic design at the college and university level.

South Asian alphabets (in addition to Urdu and English) are all related to one another: While living in India I learned Devanagari (Sanskrit, Hindi, Pali), Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Gurmukhi, Sinhala and Gujarati scripts. I can also do Tibetan script and a wide variety of historical scripts — just ask if you have something in mind.

Amharic, from Ethiopia, I learned while co-owner of Nyala Ethiopian Restaurant in Philadelphia in the 1980s.

Chinese: I studied Chinese language at the University of Pennsylvania and have studied Chinese calligraphy ever since from a succession of four different teachers. I also teach Chinese calligraphy at the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture and at my studio in Gainesville, Florida.

Hebrew: I learned Hebrew calligraphy while in college, and followed along as my kids studied for their B. Mitzvahs.

More: Korean (Hangul), Armenian, Aramaic (Syriac), Avestan, Mongolian, Phags-Pa, Horyig, Runes, whatever else you think of . . . I’ll let you know.

And, last but not least: I’ve developed a number of new alphabets for creative ventures, fantasy novels, and games.

Q: What are your biggest surprises in designing tattoos?
A: The happiest surprise is that I can use my skills to create artwork that is being worn by people all over the world. That is just incredible! The other surprise I have is that when people send me photos of the completed tattoos they are often inked on a larger expanse of skin than I would have expected. This isn’t a judgment, just a mismatch between what I imagine and what people often do.

Q: What’s on your wish list?
A: (a) Let your friends know; the best customers are those that are referred by you, my customers! (b) I’d love to work with more tattoo inkers, the artists with the needles. Let your tattoo artist know where you got your design. If you are a tattoo artist, let me know. I’m constantly being asked to refer tattoo artists in different cities around the world.