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The Illuminati changed my life. Three years ago, I found my first ambigram in one of my favorite novels, Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I turned the page, and there it was: the word “Illuminati” printed into the exact center of the book. It was styled like a newspaper masthead, exquisite and complex, yet oddly symmetric. Curious, I rotated the book upside-down.
Impossibly, the inverted word was still “Illuminati”. Gazing closer, I realized that the letters, I-L-L-U-M, actually shaped a flipped I-N-A-T-I. Suddenly, I was reading it in both directions. My eyes waltzed along the broad curves and sharp twists of the calligraphy, striking poses in a glamorous font against a sheet of creamy whiteness, sliding between the dense vertical strokes, peering at the edge of the defined serif as it angled away, then bent boldly toward me. Every line was deliberate, every flourish smiling with purpose, and the whole word balanced on the delicate cord that joined two letters into one. It was unforgettable.
Ambigrams are words that can be read from different directions. Actually, “ambigram” is an umbrella term that encompasses dozens of distinct types of visual wordplay. The most popular ones are rotational, mirror image, and – my personal favorites – symbiotic ambigrams, which can spell two different things when viewed normally and upside-down.
Compelled by the striking art, I could not help but try my own hand at designing ambigrams, and slowly I felt the pitiful stick-figure artist inside me shrink away as my inner energetic graphic designer sprang up. Before early volleyball tournaments, I woke myself up by filling up pages and pages of experimental letter combinations, gleefully satisfied at the way that a rounded lowercase “a” was a perfect upside-down lowercase “e”. In my AP Literature class, I drew “She’s a witch!” which revealed, when flipped, “Communist” to reflect Arthur Miller’s contemporary motives for writing The Crucible. On a challenge from a friend, I even drew an ambigram of “Jay-Z” and “Beyoncé” on a bumpy bus ride back from a Leadership retreat.
In the last few months, I have also practiced drawing ambigrams as fast as I can. I dream about the day when I can effortlessly write out a message saying “Hi, how are you today?” normally and “The password is cherry268” upside-down, without pausing or rotating the paper. I imagine a world in which everyone had this ability, and could literally write two things at once. How would that change communication? Encryption? Trust? My legs swing comfortably from this innovative edge, excited to take a stab at the answers.
The best part about the ambigram is that it refuses to define itself as just one thing. It is a linguistic passion, a cryptographic endeavor, an artistic design, and an ironic illusion. I relish the fact that ambigrams force both the artist and the audience to reject first glances and embrace secret identities.
This may just be a nerdy obsession, but ambigrams have taught me more than how to sketch fancy words. Their multidimensional truth implies that my hobbies of both writing Italian sonnets and solving logic riddles are not opposing functions of my left and right brains, but rather, a perfect conglomeration of my passion for creating and solving puzzles. The beauty of the most surprising combinations reminds me to take bold risks in both my life and my designs.
Above all else, ambigrams have taught me that I can create the impossible. I can make true and false the same word depending on something as simple as a 180-degree head turn. Victory can be defeat. Open can be closed. An amateur piano player with an obsession with cryptology can learn to program iPhone apps and get the game-winning kill at the varsity volleyball championship. A girl with divorced parents can make time for both families, and an inspired teenager from California can write her name into world history – both normally and upside-down.
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