Calligraphy in sign language

The term calligraphy usually evokes an image of beautiful writing and lettering. With the emergence of sign-language writing, calligraphy has a new potential domain in calligraphy, the beauty of writing.


Just before the emergence of community-based ASL writing (though there has been some forms of sign-language writing systems, and linguistic notations before that), the series in my photocalligraphy body of works called Photospeaking and/or Photowriting inspects the notion of calligraphy and deconstructs this notion.

photo calligraphy in asl
"a splendid flash of concrete poetry" from Photospeaking and/or Photowriting by Jolanta Lapiak at

The photocalligraphy series depicts a trace of text in Ameslan or ASL (American Sign Language). I translated a selected English text into Ameslan or ASL and captured the movement of ASL into a digital image. This process refers to Derridean arche-writing (all forms of writing or tracing) and grammatology (the art/science of writing).

Poetry Performance in sign language writing photo calligraphy
Poetry Performance, Photospeaking and/or Photowriting by Jolanta Lapiak,

I explored the calligraphic element in ASL (which I called it "verbal calligraphy." I related it to Japanese/Chinese calligraphy, for sign language and Japanese calligraphy share visual-spatial modality. I compared calligraphy and choreography in vocal singing (beautiful writing on the air), manual singing (beautiful writing in the air), and dance-writing (beautiful writing on the surface), which people sometimes see Japanese calligraphy as dance-writing.

Japanese-inspired calligraphy in sign language writing

Japanese-inspired calligraphy is one of some literary artistic domains Deaf artists explore in their signed languages from ASL (American Sign Language) to LSF (French Sign Language).

Image above: "Spring Dawn (2012-2013)" by Jolanta Lapiak.

During my MFA graduate studies in 2005, I explored both philosophy of language (arche-writing, Derrida, and such) and a writing method for ASL. Japanese calligraphy greatly influenced and inspired my works.

Dandelion seed in ASL writing
Image above: "Dandelion Seed" (2014?) by Adrean Clark.

Above: Adrean Clark described her calligraphy in ASLwrite as "top is left hand in '5' handshape, bottom is index finger with thumb stroke making the shape of the dandelion seed tip." It is a beautiful, delicate image that fits the spirit of dandelion seeds.

ASL writing for ENSO
Image above: A Japanese word, "enso" (2015) by Jolanta Lapiak. Experimental ASL writing.

ASL writing ASL writing
Image above: "(untitled)" (2015) by Jolanta Lapiak.

Left image: "Travel, writing, photography, art, storytelling." These are the translation of the digits above.

Right image: "ASL Writing Art".

Wireart in ASL writing
"Jolanta" in ASL writing via steel+copper wire by Jolanta Lapiak, 2017

Other writing systems

smyle calligraphy
Artist: unknown. Source: smyle website

The two images above are written in SMYLE used in French Sign Language. Their graphemes can be expressed that is very close in appearance to the Asian and Arabic calligrpahy.

Arabic- and Western-inspired Calligraphy in Sign Language

Arabic-inspired and Western-inspired calligraphy are two of the artistic inspirations for exploring calligraphy in sign language.

smyle calligraphy
Artist: unknown. Source: smyle website, accessed in circa 2014

The image above was written in SMYLE used in French Sign Language. Their graphemes can be expressed that is very close in appearance to the Asian and Arabic calligrpahy.

ASL calligraphy
"ASL" (2018) by artist: Jolanta Lapiak. Digital image.

Initially, Jolanta was highly inspired by Japanese calligraphy. She first expored ASL calligraphy using Japanese calligaphy materials in 2007. Fast forward to April 2018, she tried a flat hard nib in both digital and organic forms.

Rather than writing digit by digit, she overlapped the digits.

ASL calligraphy
"Animated ASL with a heart" (2018) by artist: Jolanta Lapiak. Digital animated image.

Immediately after the image above, she played around with different apps. In one of the apps, she found an interesting idea to explore this type of writing that is unique to sign language writing: time-based, animated in 3-dimensional space. This way, it can show the movement of ASL language in writing. This merges the traditional and digital concepts of writing.

Posted by Jolanta Lapiak, 2014-2015, 2018.

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