By Anupa Mistry
Rajiv Surendra spent his entire undergrad waiting to nab the lead role in what would go on to be a blockbuster film, Life of Pi. But a month after graduating from the University of Toronto, where he studied art history and classics, Surendra—best known to film fans as Mean Girls’ rapping mathlete Kevin G—learned that he was no longer in the running. “The devastation of holding out for a part for, at that point, about six years…it just made me want to get away,” says Surendra over the phone from New York City, where he splits his time with Toronto.
First, he moved to Munich. Whilst living and working as an artist and teaching pottery classes he rediscovered and refined his lifelong love of calligraphy. As a kid, Surendra had volunteered at Black Creek Pioneer Village, a Toronto heritage site, and one day he was given a pile of old letters from the 1800s. “The handwriting from these letters was very inspiring to me because from a young age I was fascinated with old things,” explains Surendra, who in addition to acting, also dabbles in handicrafts like woodworking, knitting and soap-making. “I loved poking around the antique section at the flea market when I was a little kid.” At school, Surendra practised cursive using letter forms from these documents, like perfecting a beautiful ‘A.’ “As I would find out later in a calligraphy course, I had practised the correct way of learning copperplate script by using a pencil first. You shouldn’t start with a dipped pen and bottle of ink because a pencil emulates the thick and thin lines of copperplate. So, in a way, I’m self-taught.”
Throughout high school and university Surendra honed his hobby. “I was lucky to have grown up just before the cusp of this tech-boom where everyone has laptops at school,” he says. “What better way to practise than taking notes all day?” He also sent a lot of mail—once he handwrote pitches to Martha Stewart, and she wrote back—and when he sent a thank-you note or package to a casting director he’d always make sure it was beautifully addressed. Early on, Surendra recognized the power of a unique script. “I had something that enabled me to communicate with people and show them that I really cared about what I was saying,” he says, “because not only did my words express my emotions but the beauty of my script did that as well.”
Still, it didn’t turn into his business, Letters In Ink, until he returned to Toronto. It started with the idea that chalkboard art could land him pen-and-ink gigs. In the summer of 2011, he wrote on a sidewalk chalkboard at Café Pamenar in Kensington Market, one of the city’s older and eclectic neighbourhoods. “And then I was like, ‘I’m going to do every chalkboard that I see,’ so I rode my bike around and tried to convince people to let me write on them for free. A lot of people turned their noses up at me and said no, but a lot said yes and within weeks I was getting calls asking me to come back because the rain had washed away the chalk!”
Surendra says he heard feedback from businesses like fish taco restaurant The One That Got Away that his signs improved foot traffic-business. But he also notes, “it turned into an expectation, that if you had a chalkboard in a well-regarded restaurant, café or shop in Toronto, it was going to look beautiful.”
The evolution of consumer tastes toward the artisanal and handmade has coincided nicely with Surendra’s available skill-set. So it goes that a boutique butchery, like Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Toronto, would be able to align its branding with the artist’s work. “The aesthetic was like a 1930s butcher shop,” he explains, adding that he has files of reference material that he periodically consults. “So when I did Sanagan’s chalkboards I used a lot of fonts and borders of the same vintage. And when they wanted to incorporate text that looked like chalk, I did a bunch of stuff by hand that the designer replicated digitally.”
Surendra pretty much refuses to digitize his hand lettering: he sends hand-drawn work and a hi-res scan to the client, but never anything digitally altered. A computer can’t achieve the precise imperfections in his work, he says. “The irregularity of the very fine edges of the letters—the words have this sort of powdered halo because of the chalk—is picked up when it’s photographed in
hi-res but when you draw on a tablet it’s a clean line. The flaws are consistent.” For Surendra, hand lettering is an extension of his artistry. “When you’re writing with hand you’re communicating with a bit of your soul,” he says. “Whether it’s chicken scratches or the finest script, the computer just doesn’t have that.” •
Check out some of Surendra’s work at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Toronto:
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Designedge Canada magazine.