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The write stuff: Calligraphy in the digital age

In a world where writing is almost synonymous with typing, putting pen to paper seems like a lost art. Channel NewsAsia spoke with a few who have fallen in love with the art form, some of whom have gone on to make it a career. 

SINGAPORE: In a world where writing is almost synonymous with typing, putting pen to paper seems like a lost art. But calligraphy - the art of beautiful writing - is making a comeback, in part thanks to social media. 

University student Dorcas Hei said her interest in calligraphy was first piqued when she saw photos of various pieces on Instagram. “It looked very nice - you could write something that looks printed, but it’s not printed,” she said. 

She has since gone on to start an e-store on Carousell, accepting commissioned work through the e-commerce site as well. Besides making a name for herself online, Ms Hei said it has been rewarding to make friends with those who are also invested in this artform. Some of them have even come together to form a chat group on WhatsApp to discuss all things calligraphy. 

Dorcas Hei, who mainly practices brush calligraphy, has some advice for those looking to get started. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

Likewise, product manager Jesmine Tay said documenting her work on Instagram has helped her connect with like-minded hobbyists.

Said the 27-year-old, who started dabbling in the art form in 2012: "Even though I savour the solitude that comes with calligraphy, it can get lonely doing drills alone. It is extra precious to be able to see each other’s calligraphy journey through images and grow together as a community."


Still, some say the return to old school tools is a reaction to a gadget-filled era.

“In a time where technology is getting more advanced, I think working with your hands is quite attractive. People would maybe find pleasure in working with their hands again after a long day of sitting in front of the computer or using their handphone,” said professional calligrapher Clarence Wee. 

Student Ryan Tan, who picked up calligraphy two years ago, said the appeal of calligraphy comes from creating something "human and down-to-earth" with the absence of a computer. 

"At first it was just a way for me to escape from my exams, but after a while I just got very interested in it," said the 18-year-old. "You’re working on the essence of words. You’re actually trying to find out how letters are shaped."

He added that when it comes to his work, the biggest reward comes from seeing slight imperfections, even if that may be unacceptable to others within the community. 

"There’s this Japanese mentality called 'wabi-sabi', which is finding appeal in something that’s imperfect," he said, adding that he is more interested in brush calligraphy for this reason - to get others to see that there is beauty in imperfection.

Mr Clarence Wee in the Craft Varies studio. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

Mr Wee, better known on Instagram as Craft Varies, the name of his business, started dabbling in calligraphy seven years ago as a graphic design student. 

“I was really interested in understanding letterforms, so what better way to understand letterforms than to start picking up calligraphy? That’s fundamentally how we write,” he told Channel NewsAsia from his light-filled studio in the east of Singapore.

One of Mr Wee's practice pieces. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

Similarly, Ms Joanne Lim started off with an interest in graphic design before moving on to calligraphy. After an inspiring talk in New York on the subject, she returned home to find that “the keyboard felt very cold” in comparison to writing by hand. 

Six months later, she set up a pop-up store to sell her initial works and her business, The Letter J Supply was born. Ms Lim continued doing graphic design work on the side until she felt like it was taking time away from being able to focus fully on calligraphy. 

“Doing it full-time felt a little uncertain at first, it was like a roller coaster ride, but I gave myself one year to try it out and there was nothing else I would rather do at that point,” she said. "I'm just doing what I can to grow the perception and value of calligraphy." 

Pursuing a career in calligraphy has brought about unexpected rewards, too. "It's meeting customers and business associates who have become friends that has been the most enriching thing," said Ms Lim. 


While some may baulk at the thought of paying S$25 for a print and up to S$100 for an A4-sized original, Ms Lim said it is more than impressive penmanship that you pay for. "I see it as more than buying a piece of paper, it's buying words: Something that is intangible and so powerful. Because words can create and destroy," she said. 

One commissioned piece that stood out the most for her was a poem for one couple to help them ease the pain of losing their unborn baby, Ms Lim recalled. "It felt really meaningful to know that the words would comfort them and help them through the difficult period of grieving."

Among the many projects Mr Wee takes on, including corporate orders, working on a couple's wedding vows was one of his more memorable projects. "The fact that they let me read their vows, the fact that they trust me with it - I think it’s more than enough," he said.

Ms Tay concurred on the power of the artfully written word. "While the mode of communications can change over time, the reason behind human connections don’t. There’s an unspeakable innate joy from receiving handwritten notes that cannot be derived from emails or text messages," she said.   

Sunday monochrome / flourishing for a first #jesminetayas #calligraphy #illustration #watercolor

A photo posted by ☁️ xuan (@jesminetayas) on

And even though Instagram has become awash with copies of inspirational quotes written in calligraphy, those Channel NewsAsia spoke with said the platform has helped elevate and evolve the artform.

"We also witness how rising hand-lettering talents have demonstrated that calligraphy does not have to be conventional and that it can be modern, fresh and adaptable," Ms Tay said.

Advice for aspiring calligraphers: The basics are the most important, says Craft Varies' Clarence Wee. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

As for the secret to perfecting the craft, Mr Wee had this word to the wise: “Practise, practise, practise. 

“Understand the basics, and then go crazy.”