An ambigram can be a design that incorporates different words or phrases that are understandable from multiple directions. One word may be read from an upright orientation while a completely different word is perceived from another direction. Artists use optical illusion, design, and symmetry to create this literary art form.
There are several types of ambigrams, categorized based on their orientation and readability. The most common forms are mirror-images (or reflection), rotation, and figure-ground ambigrams. Along with these styles, there are several more intricate, less popular ambigrams like chain, 3-dimensional, and spinograms. Interestingly, there are also natural ambigrams, found in un-stylized writing. Words like pod and suns are natural ambigrams because mirroring these words results in a second version of the same word. Natural ambigrams are sometimes dependent upon fonts and typefaces. When typed in capital letters, OXIDE is a reflection ambigram. This word has a horizontal, internal symmetry, while simultaneously being a mirror-image. Natural ambigrams often rely on letter symmetry in order to work.
A mirror-image ambigram is a design that is reflected over an axis and are also called reflectional ambigrams. These ambigrams have either an internal symmetry, making half of the design a reflection of the other half, or are able to be reflected over a vertical or horizontal axis. Rotational ambigrams are, simply, designs that can still be understood when rotated a certain number of degrees, like 90 or 180. A figure-ground ambigram is a design where there is a second or repeated word within the negative space formed by the letters.
The other types, the non-natural ambigrams, are all dependent upon the skill and imagination of the artist to create a style that allows a word or words to be an ambigram. Ambigrams can be as elaborate or as simple as the artist desires, but it is best to keep the word legible in order to achieve the desired effect. People are usually drawn to ambigram designs because they can illustrate a duality that other literary styles and fonts cannot. With ambigrams, one design, one 'word,' can have two different natures depending upon the viewer's perspective. Popular ambigrams often feature two contrary words, like angel/demon or life/death. Ambigram tattoos are creative and interesting ways to display multiple aspects of a person or person's philosophy about life. These facets do not necessarily need to be contradictory, but that is perhaps the most common use of ambigrams. Opposite words incorporated into one single design element create more complexity and depth than standardly written words placed beside each other.
Method Man, a famous rapper and celebrity, has an ambigram tattoo on his arm that reads “death” from one orientation and “life” from another. This tattoo design has been copied by numerous fans who embrace the rapper's philosophy. Another variation of this popular ambigram tattoo depicts “live” and “die” or “good” and “bad.” People who believe that they can, at different times, be either naughty or nice might gravitate towards these designs. Recently, ambigrams have received renewed exposure because of their involvement in Dan Brown's popular book series. His book “Angels & Demons” has cover art that depicts the title as an ambigram and ambigrams are featured in the plot. On this book, “Angels & Demons” is legible both upside down and right-side up.
However, these common illustrations are not the only tattooed ambigrams. With lots of creativity and artistic experimentation, there are endless variations and limitless ambigram designs.
Some people prefer ambigrams to more simple, straightforward writing because it creates a more aesthetically appealing image than a non-symmetric version. Ambigrams can also be slightly less readable than normal fonts. This means that an ambigram tattoo can have an attractive, decorative design apart from its more literal meaning. Aesthetics are an incredibly important, and inherent, part of tattoos. Ambigrams are often intricate and ornate by necessity. In order to create a letter that becomes a different letter from another direction, the letter must be abstracted and decorated. The human mind searches images for recognizable shapes and features. Deciphering familiar letters and words is one aspect of this. Ambigrams usually include extra lines and curves that look purely decorative but are really functional.