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Wordless Words- the Art of Asemic Writing


How do we interpret the difference between what we see and what we read? If you have ever greeted an enigmatic instance of graffiti with curiosity or wondered at the aesthetics of an unfamiliar writing system, you'll know the experience of engaging with a written manifestation based purely on aesthetic grounds.

An encounter with any obscure or unfamiliar writing system can evoke a visuality that is appreciated outside the intended meaning of written content. In other words, a gap in comprehension generates a unique exchange that hinges on the perception of the viewer and the hand of the artist.

Mirtha Dermisache asemic writing
Mirtha Dermisache via Iliazd on Flickr

According to, there are currently 7,151 languages spoken today with roughly 4,065 having a written component, so it's inevitable that many of us will meet unfamiliar writings with impressions based on visual appeal, context and personal experience over precise translation. It is these encounters that form the basis of asemic writing - while the meaning of an asemic writing example may be elusive, value is formed regardless, operating on the basis of experience, context, intuition, taste and possible appreciation for time invested by the writer. A wordless form of written art built on the platform of open semantics, asemic writing is similar in a way to abstract art, as asemic authors create works that operate in an absence of meaning, allowing the reader to draw on their own personal interpretations in response to asemic manifestations.

Asemic writers blend art and written forms, projecting the result into a world of subjective interpretation. The freedom that asemic writing grants both the artist and the viewer cultivates a universal readability, the retention of characteristic lines and symbols compelling an audience into acts akin to reading. The duality of asemic writing means that it is both polysemantic and vacant, the audience's reading effectively contributing to the creation of the work as a whole.

The practice of asemic writing can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty in China. Zhang Xu, a renowned calligrapher, wrote an explorative and almost completely illegible script with gestural, wildly calligraphic strokes [1]. It has also been proposed that the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript, an illustrated codex with an extensive and indecipherable writing system, may be an example of asemic writing [2].

Zhang Xu, 8th Century asemic writing
Zhang Xu, 8th Century

Henri Michaux’s work Narration (1927) manifests in acute horizontal lengths of scribbles rendered in rising agitation, separated by intermittent intervals of blank paper, with a focus on the combined momentum of gesture, space and line. Brazilian Mira Schendel created many asemic works over the course of her life, and Mirtha Dermisache has made asemic writing since the 1960s. In 1971 Alain Satié released his work Écrit en prose ou L'Œuvre hypergraphique which contains asemic writing throughout the graphic novel. In 1974 the release of Max Ernst's work Maximiliana: The Illegal Practice Of Astronomy: hommage à Dorothea Tanning became a major influence for artists.

The name asemic was coined by two visual poets, Jim Leftwich and Tim Gaze, who began to distribute their work to magazines around 1997. Intentionally abstracted, explorative and deliberately illegible, Tim Gaze stated that asemic writing was anything that looks like writing, but in which the person viewing can't read any words [3].

Today, asemic art has become the foundation for many artistic practices. Inspired by ancient languages, healing symbols and manuscripts, contemporary artist Tatiana Roumelioti started making her own asemics in 2012. Her work is made with no intentional meaning, hidden or otherwise, granting a viewer the freedom to divine their own meaning or narrative [4]

Returning to nature as a generator of asemic language, both Rosaire Appel and Angela Rawlings document branches, leaves and sand markings as manifestations of wordless language. Cui Fei takes on a more physical intervention, manually arranging twigs and other organic matter that evokes an association with Chinese calligraphy. Some artists document incidental occurrences of asemic writing photographically, identifying subtle intersections as unrepeatable asemic events, while others have encountered asemics through embroidery or collage.

From beautiful to confronting, confounding to revealing, emotive to mysterious, the interpretive tension inspired by asemic writing is based on the meaningfully meaningless. Shared digitally or in hard copy, distributed in stickers, tags or other graffiti, or identified in natural and urban landscapes, manifestations of asemic writing can serve as a cathartic ritual, expand language or create disruption in our visual habits. Like poetry, the asemic can be a form of expression or a statement - it can be a means for stream-of-conscious creation or a way to engage in mark-making beyond the constraints of rigid translation.




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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.


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