An increasingly popular tattoo motif in tattoo parlors around the world is the ambigram, a graphic figure that can be turned upside down or mirrored, and in any of these forms maintains its meaning, or it has another meaning. Ambigrams act as a kind of optical illusion, playing with the positive and negative spaces of a design that deceive our visual perception, which produces an effect of astonishment in the viewer.
For tattoo aficionados, there is an extensive dictionary of ambigram designs to choose from, and a wide variety of typefaces, from elegant calligraphy to ancient Gothic lettering reminiscent of the Middle Ages. The design can consist of a single word or a phrase. And depending on the concept of the ambigram, it can be rotated, inverted, or reflected in a mirror, sometimes its meaning can change, and sometimes it is exactly the same. Look at it one way and you can read one word, rotate it and a completely different one appears. Good tattoo artists can always create optical illusions with a mysterious and surprising design that never fails to intrigue.
According to graphic designer John Langdon, ambigrams were invented by himself and Scott Kim independently in the 1970s. Kim used the title “Inversions” in his first collection published in 1981. The first published reference to the use of the term “ambigram” is by Hofstadter, who attributes the origin of the word to conversations among a small group of friends in 1983-84. In the 1999 edition of Hofstadter’s book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” a three-dimensional ambigram appears on the cover.
John Langdon is one of the most talented ambigram creators, and his work appears on the cover of some very popular books. The popularity of ambigrams grew exponentially when they appeared on the cover of Dan Brown’s best-selling book, “Angels and Demons,” the prequel to “The DaVinci Code.” Langdon designed the ambigram that was used for the book cover. In fact the name of the protagonist of the novel Robert Langdon, is a tribute by the author to the designer John Langdon.
Ambigrams are popular in the graphic arts, not only for their unique symmetry but also for their mysterious qualities, which has made them popular on album and book covers. Paul McCartney is one of the many rock musicians who have embraced the trend of sporting an ambigram on their album covers (specifically on the cover of the 2005 LP “Chaos And Creation In The Backyard”).
Many people choose to wear an ambigram tattoo on their forearm, where it can be rotated to be seen from either side, giving viewers the full effect of the design.
Ambigrams can usually be classified into several categories:
1. Mirrored Ambigram Tattoos
The hidden reading of the design appears when it is reflected in a mirror, again the word is usually the same. The ambigrams in this form that show different words when reflected in the mirror are also known as “glass door”, because if they are printed on a glass door they can be read differently from the inside than from the outside.
2. Three-dmensional Ambigram Tattoos
A design in which the objects represented can be read in different ways depending on the different viewing angles.
3. Rotational Ambigram Tattoos
A design that presents several words when rotated around a fixed angle. Usually 180°, but there may be other readings at other angles, for example 90° or 45°. The word spelled from one direction to another is usually the same, but may be another word entirely. For example the letters “dop”, read exactly the same if rotated 180°.