Meet the artist: NAGFA

Aug 8th, 2009 | By | Category: Artists, Feature NAGFA, thank you for speaking with Let’s start off with a simple question. How did you become interested in ambigrams?

NAGFA: We started off doing laterally symmetrical typography, commonly known now as ‘reflections’ – those usually found as logos for metal bands. Like many, we were first acquainted with ambigrams via Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons. It was an almost-natural progression from lateral symmetry to a rotational one.

Laterally symmetrical "New York" ambigram.  Used with permission from NAGFA.

Laterally symmetrical "New York" ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA. What was the very first ambigram you created? Would you be able to provide an example of it?

NAGFA: It was in 2004. We were in the lecture theatre during our early courting days. We challenged each other to come out with an ambigram (the first NAC [Nagfa Ambigram Challenge]?) reading ‘Naguib’ one way and ‘Fadilah’ another. The outputs were combined and scribbled out and the final piece was left in its full amateurish glory. Looking at this again brings back sweet memories.


Naguib/Fadilah Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA. Both of you work as Malay-language teachers. Has your linguistic/teaching background influenced your ambigram work in any way?

NAGFA: This is an interesting point to ponder.  An ambigram is a combination of typography and calligraphy, the art of writing. It is unsurprising, therefore, that ambigrams relate very closely to language.  As Malay-language teachers we are still learning every day.  We do come across new, refreshing concepts, words, and their etymology which ‘instigates’ a need for us to share in the form of ambigrams.

The Malay language – in its linguistic and geographical history – has borrowed words from many other languages, including Arabic, Sanskrit, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Tamil, and of course English. Designing an ambigram which hints of this shared language (or at least in its etymology) is a subtle reminder of how we all share a common thread, where compartmentalization of races and/or languages does not exist. It gently puts us back in our places and roles in this world.

On another hand, sometimes we use ambigrams as a topic starter / lesson induction. For example, a Racial Harmony ambigram was used to begin a class discussion on the importance of racial harmony, and a Maria Hertogh ambigram was used to introduce the race riots in 1964.

racial harmony

Racial Harmony Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA.


Maria Hertogh Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA.

Beyond the classroom walls, ambigram designing is a good mental exercise to keep the mind alert, especially in between long lectures. Our experiences being invited to other countries, to special events, being featured in the local paper, being involved in an ambigram-based charity project, for example, were good anecdotes and real-life proof to our students how a simple hobby, added with passion and a willingness to learn and improve, could be fulfilling. Speaking of languages, artists such as Scott Kim & David Moser designed ‘dual-language’ ambigrams. A good example would be the Tokyo 90 degree ambigram designed by David Moser: originally written in a vertical orientation using Japanese characters, it would read “Tokyo” when rotated clockwise. Have you ever attempted to design a Malay language ambigram?


Used with permission from David Moser (

NAGFA: Yes, we have. Some are titles of texts we were to read and analyze during our University days.  The titles themselves are renditions of Hindu folklore. ‘Hikayat Seri Rama’ is the Malay version of Ramayana, the Prince of India while ‘Durga/Umayi’ are two manifestations of a Goddess in the Hindu religion.

hikayat seri rama

Hikayat Seri Rama Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA.

durga umayi

Durga/Umayi Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA.

Some other Malay language ambigrams are merely a duality, much like their English counterparts: Hitam & Putih (Black & White) and Malaikat & Shaitan (Angel & Demon).


Hitam & Putih Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA.malaikat&shaitan

Malaikat & Shaitan Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA.

A Malay-English ambigram example would be ‘George W. Bush. – Orang Minyak’. ‘Orang Minyak’ could be taken literally to mean ‘Oil Man’, alluding to the war. ‘Orang Minyak’ also refers to a supernatural being in the Malay folklore who sneaks into villages and rapes the womenfolk, similar to the Western incubus.


George W. Bush/Orang Minyak  Ambigram. Used with permission from NAGFA. Why do you think that ambigrams are so much easier to create in English, rather than any other language? We don’t really see too many foreign language ambigrams out there!

NAGFA: This may come as a surprise, but through our NAC (the NAGFA Ambigram Challenge), we do know of many talented artists who design ambigrams in other languages, mostly in Spanish, Malay, and the Indian languages. One common factor between these ambigrams is the fact that they are all written using the Roman alphabet. We figure that the Roman alphabets provide the easiest form of recognition (or re-cognition) to the viewers’ perception, perhaps due to familiarity.

What is rare is an ambigram in another written language altogether; Cyrillic, Arabic, Tamil, Japanese, Chinese… even cuneiform! Even some Scandinavian words prove challenging due to the diacritic signs. Ambigram interest has exploded since the movie Angels & Demons was released in theatres. With so many more people  aware of ambigrams, ambigrams blogs, websites & online groups (Flickr as one example) have been springing up left and right. Where do you see the ambigram culture heading?

NAGFA: We are just excited to be part of this culture. Due to the dual nature of ambigram, many would see an ambigram as an appropriate personalized design for tattoos, wedding gifts, humour products, band logos, etc. On a similar note, a product logo / logotype which is an ambigram doesn’t require any correct orientation to advertise its name.

For more serious ambigram artists, we see them using its potential in a 3D world. We have seen superb installation pieces by Frenchman Patrice Hamel, some of them practical and relevant even in the real world. Then there are the ‘ambigram automatons’ by Tom Banwell, who incorporates mechanical movement into ambigrams. Of course, John Langdon and Robert Petrick had done more than a few reflective pieces / sculptures.

Our prediction for ambigrams in the near future is its marriage to other popular typography / calligraphic art.  Ambigram graffiti – or graffiti ambigrams – would be interesting.  An Arabic Khat which has rotational or lateral symmetry would be mind-boggling. A Sanskrit-based ambigram would be awesome. Currently, how would you rate overall quality of ambigram design out there?  Are there any artists that come to mind that are an inspiration to you and the rest of the ambigram community?

NAGFA: Personally, we see three waves of ambigram artists: the first comprises of the ‘pioneers’ like Douglas Hofstadter, John Langdon, Robert Petrick, Scott Kim and Kevin Pease.  The second wave comprises artists who started after reading Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and the third are those who came in later.  Hence, it is difficult – and inaccurate – to rate the overall quality of all ambigram designs.

Of course, we are inspired by the works of the pioneers; they came from a time when their only tools were some pencils, scraps of papers and the most perceptive of minds.

Having said that, there are many brilliant artists from the second and third waves which we find inspiration from. Like the Malay idiom, ‘A bird’s strength is in its wings; a crab’s strength is in its claws’, we each have our own individual styles and strengths, and we all learn from one another. We still do. Do you have your own unique process for developing ambigrams? What’s the typical approach for you, from start to finish?

NAGFA: Typically, our ambigrams are the result of either a need to make an ambigram out of a particular word or phrase, or a realization that a word or phrase could be made into an ambigram.

We don’t think we have a unique process. We started by writing the word down and manipulating the letters stroke by stroke. Then once satisfied with the overall look, we scanned the hand-drawn design and add in colors and effects.

Quite recently, we have been doing ambigrams using a ‘template’ we made using PowerPoint. That eliminates the scanning process and does save some time. And being teachers, and parents, we need all the time-saving strategies we can get our hands on! For quite some time, you’ve been running the Nagfa Ambigram Challenge (NAC) but have put a hold on it recently. Are there any plans to resume the NAC in the future?

NAGFA: Ambigrams – being an art-form – were always about transcending boundaries, and in our case, the bridge to create bonds and friendship. That part of our journey would always be the peak of our ambigram experience; NAC allowed us to be part of a big family which we had fun interacting with, learning from, sharing ideas and concepts and solutions, regardless of our respective background.

The knowledge that there are dedicated individuals from all corners of the world doing something similar to what we are doing, sharing a passion was surreal. Imagine once a while, when the NAC entries were posted on our blog that you have people from New Zealand to South America to the States to Europe to India mingling in the most Spartan of blogs, discussing the entries submitted. We do miss the interaction.

There are indeed plans to resume NAC, given the right circumstances, and we are sure would be one of the first to know. We’ll be looking forward to it. Before we wrap things up, we have one more question for you, perhaps the most difficult one. There are a lot of new emerging ambigram artists, ranging from casual ambigrammists to ones that want make a career out of it. What advice would you give a brand new ambigrammist?

NAGFA: We believe the most important thing is to enjoy one’s self. Once you find enjoyment and a sense of fun in discovering the ‘workings’ of an ambigram, you would be more than willing to learn more.

It is also good to find your own individual style first. This foundation could prove useful in the creating a unique ambigram experience. Having seen many – but never enough! – ambigrams, we could tell who the artists are simply by the solutions, style and presentation of the ambigram pieces. Alberto Portacio, Tomas, NastyBasty, Diego Colombo and Serpiente are some artists whose designs are synonymous with the designers.

Another thing is to be bold; to explore new solutions, new concepts, longer phrases. Who knows, you might discover a new category of ambigram!

And of course: to share. It is more fulfilling to share your creations with family and friends, and to learn from their feedback. A general rule is if they cannot decipher / read the ambigram, then most probably others won’t be able to, either.

We wish all ambigram enthusiasts – experienced or otherwise – the best in all endeavors, and may we get to interact again in another domain in the near future.

Salam (peace),
Nagfa Nagfa, thank you for the insightful interview. We look forward to seeing more great work from you.
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  1. I really enjoy reading these interview articles. Keep them coming!

    As I was reading the paragraph where NagFa reply with “new concepts, longer phrases…” I couldn’t help but go through my list of Ambigram Greeting Card titles to find the longest phrases I have drawn. Some of them (each is rotational) are listed here:

    I Am Nuts Over You! – 5 words, 14 letters (and 1 exclamation point)
    You Are My Shining Star – 5 words, 19 letters
    You Are Cute As A Bug – 6 words, 16 letters
    Thank You For Being My Friend! – 6 words, 24 letters (and 1 exclamation point)
    A Touch Of Sunshine For You!!! – 6 words, 22 letters (and 3 exclamation points)
    Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad – 5 words, 25 letters

    “Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad” inverts to “Mom and Dad, Happy Anniversary.” It was the first Ambigram Greeting Card I ever made, and it has more letters than any other card in my entire collection! … to date, that is…

    I am constantly sketching possible phrases, so we’ll see what other “ambigram greetings” come along.

(page contents are not an accurate historical record. Many pages were modified in 2012)
If you liked this page, you may also be interested in creating your own ambigrams or ambigram tattoos.