When it comes to projects of the epistolary variety, calligrapher Ashantai Yungai, founder of Distinctive Inscriptions, isn’t one to back down from a challenge. So, when a bride asked him to pen 1,000 envelopes for her Hawaiian wedding, he not only agreed, he blogged about the two-week-long endeavor. With a good nib, a little Joni Mitchell and a bag of flour, he proved victorious. Perhaps it’s Yungai’s science background (he’s a chemist by trade), but it seems as though he has found the formula for the perfect flourish.
Of course, we would never ask him to share his ‘secret sauce,’ be he does share with us missives pertaining to pens, sisters and the future of the handwritten word.
When did your interest in calligraphy begin?
June 2008. I am a chemist by trade. A friend saw my handwriting in my lab notebook and asked, “Did you write that? Wow man, that’s pretty cool! You should do calligraphy. People do wedding invitations and envelopes using calligraphy.” I thought little of it at the time. I bought a calligraphy pen on a whim one day while shopping for art supplies for my son. I began writing with it. From there I was off to the races.
What inspired you to make it your career?
I always tell people the pen made it a career for me. From the moment I grabbed a pen and started writing it seemed to say to me, “Come with me. I will take you places.” I kept practicing and writing. I didn’t exactly know when I would start as an official business. I wasn’t sure I was ready until my calligraphy mentor, Michele Papineau, told me this in an email:
“Your work is amazing. I see the HUGE difference between last year and this year. Your letterforms are much more precise and your spacing, although it was really good last year, improved substantially. The thing I notice the most is the fluidity and loosening of your hand, which lends itself to those lovely flourishes you are coming up with. (Those are not easy. You are a natural at those.) That is especially noticeable on your portfolio cover which is lovely.”
Why do you enjoy writing letters?
In writing I can express my deepest and sincerest thoughts, my wildest imaginations and fantasies. With letters and correspondence I can convey many thoughts and feeling in a dynamic fluidity that is sometimes not conveyed or misconstrued in a conversation. Overall, correspondence via letters is simply a classic way to keep in touch with family and friends. The letters can be kept and reread to evoke and invoke the emotions and feelings of that moment. In a sense it’s like time traveling.
What is your favorite step in the process of written correspondence?
I have two favorite steps. The first is the actual writing of the letter. That just feels like magic to me. Expressing my thoughts in my own words with my own handwriting is the ultimate ‘alchemist elixir’ to me! The second is the addressing, sealing and mailing of the letter. That final series of actions makes me feel like I am sending some a treasure. In essence, I am conveying this sentiment stated by Katherine Mansfield: “This is not a letter but me putting my arms around you for a brief moment.”
If you could be pen pals with anyone in history, to whom would you write and what would you say?
I’d have to pick two: Joni Mitchell and Leonardo da Vinci. The lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s songs are so brilliant and astounding, yet colorful and vibrant. I’d ask her how she sees the world and create those wonderful and colorful lyrics. Like da Vinci, I am both an artist and a scientist (I love the interplay between the left and right brain). I would love to ask him what his thought process was to accomplish all that he did and how he thought about and approached the intertwining of art and science.
To whom do you most often write?
The person I write to most often is myself oddly enough, through journaling. The advent of the Internet and email has unfortunately sidetracked the art and act of writing for some people. Thus, I receive few letters. However, I sometimes just go through my addresses and pick a friend or family member to write to then just send them a letter.
Describe the most memorable letter you have ever received.
The most memorable card I have received is a birthday card on my 15th birthday from my sister. We argued about everything! If she said the sky was blue I immediately and inherently retorted it was orange. One day my mother sat us down and said one of these days you will grow up and move out, maybe to different cities. You won’t see each other as much and “God forbid one of you should die and you didn’t say you loved each other!” From that moment on we stopped arguing. My next birthday was my 15th. She gave me a handwritten card. That is my favorite card of all time.
What makes a particular letter stand out from a stack of cards?
The handwriting. The style, whatever it may be, is what draws me in. Reading the letter, it has to be the meaning and feeling of the words. I am a sucker for alliterations and word play.
Do you have a favorite stamp or stamp series?
I don’t really have a favorite. The Black Heritage stamps are the ones I collect and save the most. Lately, I have had an affinity for the Latin Music Legends series — Tito Puente and Celia Cruz are on those and I love to dance salsa so that was an instant favorite — and also Disney. I love Finding Nemo.
What makes your correspondence distinct?
I believe my handwriting makes my correspondence distinct. It instantly gets people’s attention. Many people, women in particular, think that my writing is a ‘font.’ When I tell them it’s my own handwriting they are astounded. It then takes a minute or two to realize that the meaning of the words is just as good.
What is your favorite product created by Crane & Co?
Can I say everything? I have not used a Crane and Co. product that I didn’t like. If I had to pick one it would be anything letter-pressed Lettra paper. I had my business card done by Crane & Co. on Lettra. Everybody, especially me, absolutely loves it!
What do you think classic correspondence will look like in a decade or two?
“Things of quality have no fear or time.” ~anonymous~
Classic correspondence will not only look the same but the feeling of it will be more fulfilling. We like our technology. It will likely continue to advance. However, we are still human. We will continue to desire that personal touch and desire to receive things created with our hands and our heart. Thus, I think an increase in classic correspondence will occur.
As Pamela Eyring of the Protocol School of Washington so eloquently states on the back cover the Crane & Co. Blue Book of Stationery, “…in the age of electronic communication, a handwritten note or invitation stands out and identifies an individual who understands the true value of personal communication.”
Have a question for Ashantai? Email us at email@example.com.