Ouchenir compares his profession to that of a dancer. While anyone can dance at weddings or in clubs, he notes, few can do what we see on stage at the ballet. Like dancers, and athletes, too, calligraphers must train. They also tend to obsess over their art. Ouchenir says that it can take up to eight hours for him to create a new letter. And while the traditions of calligraphy are ancient, the beauty of it might be more palpable now than ever before. In the digital age, where we primarily write by tapping on screens and punching keys, the act of crafting words by hand with painstaking care is rare, and somewhat mystifying.
Calligraphy is more than just beautiful handwriting (even though the word “calligraphy” is believed to come from the Greek kallos—beauty—and graphein—to write). “People think it’s really hard to write correctly, to make calligraphy, but it’s not hard,” Ouchenir reflects. “To express feelings in the movement of the letters, to make an impression—that’s hard.”
Today, the practice is most commonly used for invitations and place cards for weddings and other special occasions. This writing might be composed of traditional calligraphy alphabets, which are governed by rules that dictate the angle and direction of pen strokes. But as Ouchenir illustrates, being an in-demand professional calligrapher today is about mastering those rules, while also breaking them—being able to craft countless new, original, and innovative scripts that can evoke particular moods, personalities, styles, or eras. When Ouchenir works with a client, he learns about their inspirations and what they hope to say through the lettering; then, he distills this into a new unique alphabet, which he may use for that client again and again, over many years.