Unholy script

Everyone seems to be sporting tattoos, popularised by footballers and celebrities – often ones featuring non-Latin alphabets like Sanskrit, Hebrew and Arabic. Simon Loxley reviews the trend, and wonders if it might betray a longing for a tangible spirituality in our hyper-transient world

WHEN Edward Johnston, creator of the London Underground lettering, told a relative about his interest in calligraphy, he reputedly received the reply,‘But that’s dead, isn’t it?’ He’d probably get a similar response today, but one field where lettering based on handwritten forms always flourishes is tattooing, with its ever-popular Old English and Fraktur, based on script styles that predate the advent of printing. Arabic Tattoos, compiled by Jon Udelson, throws a spotlight on a recent development in Western body art, the move towards a language whose characters also display their handwritten origins: Arabic.

Tattoos are no longer a means of expression confined to the Navy and subcultural groups such as Punks and bikers, or a permanent keepsake of a night of drunken folly. Now commonplace, they occupy a position firmly in the mainstream – the Discovery Channel’s Miami Ink, featuring a real-life tattoo parlour, has run to several series and produced spin-offs. A major catalyst for this change in perception in Britain is David Beckham, with his high profile inked tributes to his children. As long as the England kit favours a scooped collar, the winged cross emblazoned across the back of Beckham’s neck will be visible every time he pulls on the national shirt.

Beckham has recently unveiled a new ‘tatt’ rendered in Mandarin, and his wife Victoria sports body art in Sanskrit and Hebrew. But Udelson draws attention to what could be deemed a significant trend, and asks a deeper question, ‘To whom does a language belong?’ This question, in relation to Arabic, would have held no significance in previous centuries. Although Arabic is considered more of a handwritten than a mechanically produced script, the earliest surviving book printed in Arabic using moveable type was actually produced in Europe, as early as 1514 in Italy. Ten years later the ‘father of Fleet Street’, Wynkyn de Worde, was printing in Arabic, while William Caslon’s 1734 type specimen features an Arabic face as just one of several non-Latin alphabets, displaying a startling multiculturalism that somehow became lost in the intervening centuries.

Today Udelson’s question is given significance amid the hostility and struggle for understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds after 9/11. The use of Arabic in body art brings additional controversy:
‘The original Kufic style of Arabic script was designed in the eighth century for the express purpose of scribing the Holy Qur’an, which forbids body modification of any type.’ So is this another form of insensitive Western cultural appropriation, or are there deeper resonances?

The motives of the tattooed are varied. For some, with Middle Eastern parents, the tattoos represent a new-found pride in a culture previously sidelined in efforts to assimilate with mainstream America:
‘My dad is Algerian and when I was younger I must admit that I wasn’t proud of the fact that I was of mixed race. But as I got older I liked being “different” and I’m now very proud of where my dad’s from.’ An extreme is the intense testimony of an American soldier serving in Iraq, who had ‘infidel’ tattooed on his chest as statement of his personal creed of atheism, a stance he asserts is inflammatory in itself in the military. Some chose Arabic in a search for spirituality, as an expression of understanding in a time of intolerance, or simply because they liked the letterforms or the content of a particular text.

A subliminal influence on the appeal of Arabic characters may also be global three-times blockbuster Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien’s Elvish script, which featured prominently in trailers and supporting graphics, glowing seductively around the ring in letters of fire, is, of course, the author’s fabrication, but seems to draw heavily on Arabic as a stylistic model. Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood and the others who played ‘the Nine’ all sport a small tattoo in Elvish as a mark of their shared experience in the film.

But there appear to be subtler motives at work too – a desire for something which, although on display, hides its meaning from nearly everyone who sees it. In a society where the individual is increasingly monitored and recorded, and in which built-in obsolescence is a marketing policy, that which is understandable only to those you wish to know, and which is there for a lifetime, has an obvious attraction.

Beyond this, the logic of using non-geometric forms on the unstable canvas of the human skin is clear – put your message in Futura, and once that toned stomach heads south and a circular ‘O’ turns oval, things don’t look so impressive. On the evidence of most examples that meet the eye, I’m no fan of body art, but several of the designs featured in the book are striking and beautiful, and fully bear out the arguments for the grace of these fluid letterforms, which can glide so easily around the contours of the body.

But a word of caution. As tattooist Eve Fowler says, ‘About 90 per cent of the people who ask me to tattoo a foreign word or phrase on them can’t read the writing… I always worry that even though I replicate the writing exactly as my customers provide it, they may have got the translation wrong.’

Arabic Tattoos, by Jon Udelson, is published by Thames & Hudson Simon Loxley is the author of Type: The Secret History of Letters, and editor of the St Bride Library journal Ultrabold



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