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TIBETAN CALLIGRAPHY FOR TATTOO DESIGNS
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TIBETAN SCRIPTS
GUIDELINES FOR TATTOO DESIGN:

There are two main areas concerning Tibetan scripts for tattoo designs:


1.

Respectful placement of sacred words and mantras on the body. This is addressed in the Sacred Integrity page.


2.

Translation and how Tibetan calligraphy adapts to the body. As the Tibetan language is different culturally and generally based in Buddhism, not all sentiments translate well in Tibetan, visa-versa, European languages are often challenged to accommodate some Buddhist philosophical terms and meaning. This is especially the case when translating the more sentimental notions, much valued in the West, such as ‘love’ and ‘passion’ that may have a different less relevant meaning to a Tibetan, who would otherwise be more concerned with ‘impartial love’ and ‘none-attachment’.  Other notable words that have a Biblical connotation, such as ‘soul’, which in Tibetan translates as ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ translates as ‘ghost’.  Translating larger amounts of English, such as proverbs and poems can be difficult for the reasons above, which can amount to a mass of Tibetan text that may have a problem fitting to most places on the body. What is helpful to bear in mind is to keep words to be translated to a minimum, simple yet meaningful. Even if you cannot read Tibetan, it is what the design represents that is important to you personally, so there is less need to elaborate on a point when it can be said in few words in a beautiful script.

FAQ's
Q.  

Can Tibetan writing be arranged vertically on the body?

A.  

The Tibetan language is traditionally written from left to right horizontally. To write Tibetan vertically as a single line of text is awkward because words and a sentence construction are made up of combined letter units; that if separated to write vertically will corrupt the spelling and meaning of the words.  Words in a sentence can only be separated as individual horizontal units to ‘stack’ vertically, one below each other. The result will be irregular vertical line of calligraphy.  Another way is to simply turn a normally horizontal line of text on its side to ‘align’ vertically. This will result in a more regular line of calligraphy.  There are particular places on the body that are more suited to vertical placement, such as the on the torso, especially the spine.  Tibetan script styles that are more suited for vertical arrangements and examples of vertically ‘stacked’ and ‘aligned’ calligraphy are shown on the Bespoke Design page.

Q.  

Can names be translated in Tibetan?

A.  

Names can be translated in either two ways:

1.

Some names will translate phonetically: how the name sounds in Tibetan. As there are limitations with the pronunciation of names that carry ‘f’, ‘ph’ and ‘v’ sounds in the European languages, as such sounds do not exist in the Tibetan alphabet. If other similar sounds are used to substitute unpronounceable sounds in Tibetan, the result is that the name will not read properly and make no sense.

2.

Other names may have a meaning that can be translated. For example the name ‘Francesca’ not possible to translate phonetically in Tibetan because of the ‘F’ sound, however the meaning ‘Francesca’ is ‘liberation/freedom’ from its French origins. This meaning can be literally translated in Tibetan, which is pronounced drol wa.

Q.  

I am concerned that the Tibetan calligraphy may be too big to fit the space on my body.

A.  

Although Tibetan calligraphy is presented within an A4 size format, the placement and size of the tattoo should be discussed and arranged between you and your tattooist. The size of the image can be altered to your exact instruction, at the point in the tattoo process, when a transfer copy is made from the original artwork to apply to the skin.

Reducing a calligraphy design too small may result in loss of definition, and detail not possible to tattoo on such a small scale.

Q.  

How is a date written in Tibetan?

A.  

Traditionally a date is spelt out in Tibetan words rather than using numerical abbreviation that we tend to use in the west, such as 14-08-1972 which numerically in Tibetan would write as this


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However a combination of words and numbers can be used to create a more attractive tattoo, demonstrated here in English and Tibetan: 14th day, 8th month, year 1972.

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Q.  

Can you translate a Buddhist quote from English?

A.  

We have all heard the term ‘lost in translation’ which would be likely if a translation was attempted from English to Tibetan; that was originally in Sanskrit or Tibetan. Such a translation would be third-hand and likely to have lost something of its original meaning. It could not then be called an original Buddhist quote, especially if it was originally the words from, say, the Dalai Lama in Tibetan, which translated to English, and then back to Tibetan, would not be the same words the Dalai Lama spoke.


Listed below are examples of fourteen script styles that are available for tattoo script designs. The first ten Tibetan script styles are written with the same sentence that translates as “Elegantly commanded Tibetan calligraphy”. These clearly demonstrate their different characteristics and explain the traditional usage.

Uchen script

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The name Uchen translates and describes this script style as ‘with head’, as each letter hangs down from its own straight head that are arranged horizontally. This gives the Uchen script its distinct angular appearance, which to an untrained eye can be mistaken for Devanagari Sanskrit. Uchen could be called the classical Tibetan script style. The Western equivalent would be classical Roman script, in the same as it is constructed from precise proportions. Uchen’s characteristic angular shape also lends well to wood block carving for printing, of which the vast Buddhist cannons were reproduced as printed manuscripts.

High Uchen script

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High Uchen is an honorific script style originating in the 15th-16th century in central Tibet. This script form was mostly used for illuminated title pages of manuscripts. It has a particular refined elegance that sets it apart from the regular classical Uchen style of calligraphy.

Tsugring script

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Tsugring translates as ‘long limb’ this describes the long slender height of this script style. As most Tibetan script styles, except for Uchen, Tsugring belongs to the ‘headless’ class of styles called Umeh.

Tsugtung

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Tsugtung is similar to Tsugring in style; the main difference is that the letter height is shorted.

Tsugmakhyug

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This is sub script style that sits between Tsugtung and Khyug. It has a less formal appearance, with a more rounded letterform and shorter vowel signs.

Khyug

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Khyug is known as the quick writing style, used for swiftness needed for normal handwriting. Its cursive form with vowel signs that stand up freely yet joined up to the main body of text, means that a separation of a different colour is not easily possible.

Petsug

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Petsug is another style used for handwriting, and often for books. It was commonly used in the Kham Province of East Tibet, which lends it another name Khamyig, meaning ‘writing of Kham’. Petsug has a distinctive short angular style with short vowel signs. This means that lines of text can be placed closer together than other Tibetan script styles.

Drutsa

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Drusta is the most cursive of the Tibetan script styles, because of this it is used generally for artistic calligraphy. Perhaps more feminine in appearances, the rounded forms of the letters can be exaggerated and flourished to fit all shapes and orientations.

Ornate Drutsa

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The ornate Drutsa is a more ornamented style that can allow longer limbs to the letters and additional curls and swirls to the vowel signs heading and endings.

High Drutsa

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High Drutsa is generally a more masculine form of Drusta, which is created to a formal structure. The characteristics of this style are slightly more angular with the limbs of the letters long and straight.

Drutsa Roundel

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The cursive Drutsa script is the only Tibetan script that can be arranged artfully within roundel shape. This is a contemporary use of Tibetan calligraphy, especially created for tattoo design by Tashi.

A Drutsa Roundel is most effective with few words to the design; otherwise the effect may become too complex. The example shows three roundels that are arranged with the words ‘Drutsa roundel’.

Horyig

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Horyig is explained in the name, hor means Mongolian and yig means writing. This is a specialized script style devised for the used of seals across both Mongolia and Tibet during the 13th century.

This neo-Mongolian/Tibetan script is always arranged in vertical columns. There are two widths of seal script, wide and narrow. From left to right the example shows the name ‘Horyig’ in columns of wide, narrow and as one single column in the wide formation.

Lantsha

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Lantsha is an ancient letterform of Sanskrit also known as Rañjana. It was preserved in Tibet used mainly in Temple decoration above doors and on beams as mantras. Like Uchen the letters are constructed down from a straight head.

Wartu

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Wartu is another ancient Sanskrit letterform that was preserved in Tibet. The characteristic of this script style is that there is a more cursive style head to the letters, though the bottom part of the letters is similar to that of Lantsha Sanskrit.

Heading character

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A heading character is a symbol that prefixes to a word or sentence. It has no meaning as a word in its self, but declares the importance of the word or sentence it is affixed to. Each script style has its own style of heading character.

Here shows examples of the Uchen heading character as single, double and treble.

Along with the heading character is the finishing marks, arranged at the end of a word or sentence, essentially a full stop, though as a long down stroke, singularly or double as shown here.