We try to cover a wide variety of ambigram-related topics on this website, especially ones that do not get much attention elsewhere. Bilingual ambigrams are very much part of that regime, and we would like to bring them out of obscurity.
In this interview we will be talking to William James Tychonievich, an ambigram artist who made several very interesting bilingual ambigrams. Most notable is his series of Chinese-English ambigrams. William’s work is hosted on an old blog called wmjasambigrams.
1) Can you tell a bit about yourself? Do you have a background in art?
Sure. I grew up in various parts of the United States but have spent most of my adult life in Taiwan, where I own a school and teach English as a foreign language. My degree is in linguistics, and my formal training in art is limited to a single class I took in my freshman year. However, the artist Kat Valentine is my sister, so perhaps art is in my blood to some extent.
My parents were never much into the visual arts when I was growing up, but they did have a big book of prints by M. C. Escher, which I enjoyed perusing and attempting to imitate. I would say that Escher’s style is very much in harmony with the spirit of ambigrams.
2) How did you get into making ambigrams?
From a very early age, I got into the habit of using the abbreviation Wm for my name, William, and of course WM is a natural ambigram. I was an inveterate doodler as a child, and I used to experiment with various rotationally symmetrical ways of writing “WM.” Then I took on the challenge of incorporating the other letters of my name while still maintaining the symmetry. These symmetrical monograms were my first ambigrams, and then years later I began experimenting with other words.
3) English is the leading ambigram language. It is rare to see ambigrams in other languages and even more rare to see bilingual ambigrams. Why do you think this is?
Well, the whole ambigram concept was both pioneered and popularized in the United States, so it’s firmly rooted in the English-speaking world. It was Douglas Hofstadter who coined the word ambigram back in the 1980s, and the concept was taken up by various, mostly American, artists – most notably the insanely talented John Langdon. Langdon’s friend Dan Brown later included ambigrams as a major plot point in one of his bestselling thrillers, which was later made into a successful movie starring Tom Hanks as the Langdon character. It was probably Brown more than anyone else that brought ambigrams into the purview of the general reading and movie going public.
While Hofstadter himself is multilingual and enjoys making bilingual puns, as far as I can recall he has never created any bilingual ambigrams – and of course most Americans speak only English.
Aside from the historical accident of ambigrams having arisen in the English-speaking world, I think the Roman alphabet is especially well-suited to ambigramming because it has relatively few distinct letters, and letterforms can be modified quite extensively while still remaining recognizable. Another useful feature of the Roman alphabet is that many letters naturally look like other letters turned upside-down – d and p, u and n, and so on. This is not a feature shared by many other scripts; ambigramming in a language like Arabic, Hebrew, or Chinese is extremely difficult.
Another ambigram artist I know who has done non-English and bilingual ambigrams is “Nagfa” – actually not a single artist but a husband-and-wife team (Mohamed Naguib bin Ngadnan and Fadilah bte Abdul Rahim), based in Singapore. I remember they did an ambigram of the English word beauty and its Malay equivalent cantik, and there were several others as well. You might want to check out their ambigram blog – which, like my own, unfortunately hasn’t been updated since 2012.
4) You have ambigrams in Chinese, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian and Latin. Do you speak all these languages? Does being multilingual make it easier to find ambigram pairs?
I speak only English and Chinese. Because English is my native language, it’s very natural for me to notice if a Chinese character happens to resemble one or more Roman letters. For example, the Chinese character for “print” is 印, which looks quite a bit like EP – so I used to remember it by thinking of the printer company Epson. (Actually, come to think of it, I wonder if that was intentional on Epson’s part. It’s a Japanese company, and Japanese uses the same Chinese character for “print.”) Many of my Chinese-English ambigrams began as mnemonics for remembering Chinese characters. I noticed that 死 (“dead, death, die”) resembles DE, for example, and then later incorporated that into a rotational ambigram of the word “dead.”
5) You post Chinese/English ambigrams very early on in your blog. Did you immediately start with bilingual ambigrams or did you do English ones first? What was your inspiration?
I began attempting bilingual ambigrams almost immediately. It just seemed like a natural direction to go with the idea. Due to the influence of Langdon (via Brown), people tend to think of an ambigram as something that reads the same when you turn it upside down, but the original idea was something that was ambiguous, that could be read in two different ways. (An earlier, rejected, term was iffy-glyph.) One of the greatest ambigrams of all time (in concept, if not in graphic design) is one by Hofstadter himself, which can be read as “Light is a particle” or “Light is a wave,” with no rotation necessary – the allusion, of course, being to the wave-particle duality concept in quantum physics.
Though I’ve done quite a few Langdon-style rotational ambigrams, I’ve always been most interested in ones that can be read in two ways without needing to be rotated or reflected. (sic: oscillation ambigrams or perceptual shift ambigrams.) Using two languages seemed like a natural way of doing that.
6) You have not posted ambigrams on your blog in a while. Did you stop completely or are you simply not posting them?
I’m kind of mercurial like that! I guess I felt that I had pretty much explored the possibilities of the format and that any further work would just be doing the same thing again and again, with different words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if course, but these days my creative energies are engaged elsewhere.
7) Do you have any advice for aspiring artists just starting with ambigrams?
Just jump right in! It’s no fun if someone tells you all the tricks of the trade in advance; each artist has to discover his own. I will say that a lot of ambigram work has to do with noticing rather than creating. Like the proverbial “Texas sharpshooter,” who fired some shots into the side of a barn and then painted a target around the cluster of bullet holes, the ambigram artist can take advantage of words that are naturally ambigram-friendly – and you notice those by looking at things upside down and seeing what they look like. (Perhaps my work as a teacher has helped me here, as I often have to stand opposite a student writing at his desk and check his work upside-down. I’ve learned to write upside-down pretty quickly and fluently, which is probably a useful ambigramming skill.) Once you’ve had some practice with the low-hanging fruit, you can take on the challenge of ambigramming any word on demand.
Thank you very much William!
All images are either creative commons or owned by William and used with permission.