To The Letter

When it comes to letter art, form is arguably more important than substance. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you write, just how you write it. But the form those letters take can speak volumes, especially when inspired by suppressed or overlooked cultures.

Tusk is a contemporary calligraphy artist from Northern Thailand embracing local written culture combined with styles from across the globe. He paints on long scrolls, walls, and floors; basically anywhere he can. His letters are chunky and sharp, written in compact succession. Straight lines act as a spine for loopy curves and diamond-shaped flourishes. The style resembles a tusk, which is where his name comes from. “Thai people often hung elephant tusks and tiger fangs around their necks for protection,” he explains. “So the name for me means ‘with safety’ or ‘with respect.'”

The Chiang Mai-based artist’s interest in calligraphy was sparked ten years ago by Usugrow and Toshikazu Nozaka, a couple of Japanese artists who mix their country’s tradition with Mexican-American inspirations. The combination of Japanese ink painting and Chicano gangster lettering enthralled Tusk, sending him down the path to becoming a calligraphist himself. Part of his style draws on the same influence as the Japanese artists, namely Los Angeles artist Chaz Bojorquez. Often considered the godfather of graffiti in California, he took Latino gang graffiti, which has roots going back to the 40s, and introduced it to the rest of the world as art.

Being from Northern Thailand, Tusk naturally began exploring his own local typography. He regularly uses ancient Lanna script, which is historically called Tua Tham or Tai Tham. It was the primary written language in the region until repressed by nationalists in the 30s. Lanna can either resemble the harder-edged version of Khmer script used to write Thai—which is Tusk’s preference—or it takes the rounder, more circular approach of Burmese. The script can only be found in active use at temples, so he went there and learned it from the monks.

He uses Thai and Lanna alphabets but blends them with English structures. In addition to Lanna and Latino scripts, he also embraces Old English and is experimenting with Japanese calligraphy, which is called Shodo. When using Thai fonts he writes in both Thai and English, but also Arabic and Chinese. “Thai fonts are the cornerstone of my work,” Tusk says. “But I’m searching for the universal.”