If you’re not yet familiar with the name Wissam Shawkat, you have definitely seen his work. The Dubai-based calligrapher is responsible for the Arabic typography and logos of a variety of different brands including Tiffany & Co., Chopard and Dubai Aquarium to name but a few. Completely self-taught due to growing up in war-torn Iraq, he is among the most renowned Arabic penmans in the world for his intricate curlicues and standout designs (he even has a popular fine-tuned calligraphy technique named after him, the Al Wissam). The artist, who is esteemed for adding an abstract and contemporary touch to the traditional practice, showcases his work globally and garnered a high-profile list of clients who commission him to design their brand logos and pen their wedding invitations. Currently preparing for his upcoming solo show Inside/Outside at the XVA gallery in Al Bastakiya, the calligrapher took a break to speak to Vogue Arabia.
When did you discover your passion for Arabic calligraphy?
I was first introduced to calligraphy in 1984 when I was ten-years-old. My teacher wrote four Arabic characters on the blackboard during art class. From that moment on, calligraphy became a full-blown obsession of mine. Growing up in war-torn Iraq, I was constantly in and out of bomb shelters so I would simply practice calligraphy to pass time.
“I ask myself all the time why I fell in love with four simple letters on a blackboard.”
So you’re completely self-taught?
Yes, during that time access to the internet was basically non-existent so I would imitate designs from calligraphy books by old Turkish pen masters that my father bought for me. I still own most of the books. When I got a little older, I honed my skills by working at sign shops during the summer.
What is it about calligraphy that you are drawn to?
I ask myself all the time why I fell in love with four simple letters on a blackboard. But I think it’s because I appreciate the way that the letter forms itself. It’s not about the elaborate, intertwined shapes but rather the unique, graphic qualities of each letter.
How does one make a living out of it?
It wasn’t easy when I was living in Iraq, but when I first moved to Dubai, I had the talent and expertise in Arabic penmanship that was rare to find in this region at the time. High-profile brands would contact me directly to design their logos, so I decided to quit my job and take up calligraphy full-time. It was the best decision I made.
What inspires your personal work?
I like to produce pieces based off of a text. It could be a Quranic verse or a poem.
Do you have other artistic hobbies?
I’m an avid airbrush collector. The ancient retouching tool, which was invented in the 19th century is the equivalent to modern day photoshop and I actually still use it in my art sometimes. I have probably one of the biggest airbrush collections in the world.
How big is your collection?
I have over 600 airbrushes, including the first one ever invented in the 1800’s by a businessman and artist in Chicago named Ebinar Pillar. I started the collection over 15 years ago, while I was still living in Iraq. It’s become a bit of a burden to be honest, you don’t realize how heavy or how much space they take up…
Until you have 600 of them.
Exactly. I think I’m going to put them in an exhibition.