For a Geography
of Urban Signatures

New York Globalisation

& Metropolitan Particularities




The presence of tags first turned into a banal, visual stereotype in big cities, then into a universal game seen in the urban landscapes of towns all over the world. The act of writing your name in a public space has become a relatively widespread practice, coming from the fact of growing up in an urban context, ever since the experience New York name graffiti invaded the other continents in the early 1980s. Tags stand as an alternative way of dealing with an economy of prestige based on writing: the name and performance of a signature in a public space, and a particular category of writing which is more to be seen than to be read. This particular style of graffiti started in New York in the early to mid 1960s, probably around Spanish Harlem as shown in Herbert Kohl’s study ‹Names, Graffiti and Culture› conducted in 1967 (The Urban Review, 1969, Issue 5, pp. 24 – 38) with a similar emergence in Philadelphia in the late 1960s. But it was in New York in the 1970s and 1980s that really took off this phenomenon, which can be now described as being an ‹all-city individual movement› (because of the way individuals adopt an entire urban area of a metropolis as a playground where they can write up their pseudonyms), and where it was mainly recorded and then broadly spread worldwide. The global proliferation of the tag corresponds quite closely to the influence of the West on the planet, and the spreading of youth counter-cultures thanks to American ‹soft power›, just like music, cinema and their associated lifestyles. It is easy to imagine young people in all the countries of the world looking out for the slightest appearance of graffiti in movies, or the trailers of American cop shows, and then trying to reproduce these inscriptions after freeze-framing them on their televisions. Two illustrated publications and their constant reissues are at the heart of the worldwide spreading of this phenomenon, firstly in Europe: Subway Art, by the photographers Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, is a real bible which had a considerable and lasting influence, just like Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s Spraycan Art, which were published respectively in 1984 and 1987, while a later rediscovery was the magnificent book The Faith of Graffiti by Jon Naar and Mervyn Kurlansky which dates back to 1974. From the early 1990s, the scene of graffiti fanzines, conveyed directly by practitioners, became experienced enough to be able to distribute itself, with a remarkable quality of printing, on a relatively large scale. This self-production movement was to lead to a market of illustrated publications, which were specific to a huge, regular audience, which can now be found in a specialised display in most of the world’s big bookstores. At the time, the magazines Bomber (Amsterdam), Overkill (Berlin), Underground Productions (Stockholm) and Xplicit Grafx (Paris) were the most interesting titles in Europe, with exceptionally long lifespans for independent projects. Apart from compilations of photographs, sociological analysis dominated the approach to graffiti in the world of publishing for some time: a good example being Craig Castleman’s excellent Getting Up (1982), but above all Joe Austin’s Taking the Train (2001), as well as Jean Baudrillard in the chapter entitled ‹Kool Killer or the Insurrection of Signs› of his Symbolic Exchange and Death, which came out in 1976. For a description of the movement in Paris, see Michel Kokoreff’s Le Lisse et l’Incisif (1990). But the common attitude was to focus on the New York experience as being the sole subject of investigation, and virtually nothing was analysed in formal terms. No serious attempt was made to tell the history of the graffiti of names in terms of calligraphy and typography, while any specific examination of the appearance of these forms, their morphogenesis and possible connections, was rare, if not non-existent.

Their possible justification, or social explanation, is often a red herring, a fake excuse to explain the gratuitous, delicious pleasure of covering things with writing. Taggers use artisanal means directly so as to participate in the modern world’s quest for visibility in a typical way, transcending the notion of public or private property. This is not about a negation of society, but rather a parallel, heightened participation in it. It is the question of the way in which the Latin alphabet can be adapted to the scale of a city which is of interest, while the rest is (very) secondary. The illegal written sign has now become a possible locus for the formal expression of the ‹genius loci›, given that the insipid architecture of our suburbs no longer performs the function that was traditionally reserved for it. It is vital for these letterings to be vandal productions, if they are to an expression of new conditions requiring new responses, which the context demands from the form, and as an art of doing, here and now. The rough relationship between the form of the letters, and the fleeting moment when they were written up in the interstices of controlled public spaces, gives rise to a specific urban efficacy for the written sign. Tags are a signature art in a city environment, communicating nothing except the gestural dexterity of their writers, through the repetition of a pseudonym, which is as brief and easily memorisable as possible, on every available surface. The name’s image is the sole message: the content (a pseudonym) is negligible, while the form (the letters spelling the name) is central. The extent to which you are able to arrive at a stylistic regularity in the shaping of the letters, and of renewing the style, says who you are. This sometimes leads to great formal successes, and an exceptional inventiveness, but it has to be admitted that most of these productions remain calligraphically mediocre, and only an elite possesses a real, conscious mastery of the drawing of letters.

However, the main innovation in the graffiti of names since the 1970s certainly resides in how Latin letters are written. It is difficult but necessary to talk about ‹tags›, which are the form of graffiti that is most detested by the general public, but also by a large part of the graffiti community itself, which places complex murals at the summit of its aesthetic ranking, while they in fact generally just recycle the dominant codes of representation. Tags, as minimal signatures, require advanced calligraphic skills, even if they are seen as being primitive or childish scribbles, because the visual codes of this practice are hard to acquire. Accepting, understanding and appreciating at its real worth the urban epigraphic practice, which can be seen in the various types of tags, in other words feeling a plastic emotion coming from the form of a written sign, even if the content is just the image of a name, is a long (and probably impossible) pathway for the great majority of people.

The patent strength of such practices lies in their spontaneity, but very few productions are genuinely aware of what they are actually doing in terms of the urban and architectural space, as well as the history of writing. Meanwhile, their weakness comes from the generalised imitation of the New York style, which can lead to ridiculous situations: for example, young Japanese graffiti artists who don’t use their own local writing system. The New York legend is still so strong and redolent that very few practitioners attempt to transcend it, or find a different path. Since the 2000s, the Internet has favoured even more this trend towards worldwide conformity. The world of graffiti has become extremely structured, and even stands as a separate economy, while remaining a conservative milieu when it comes to forms, marked by dominant stereotypes and regularly leading back to a supposed origin in New York. And yet New York cannot be seen as either the only, or the oldest, way of considering the urban image of Latin letters, though until quite recently it has been the single reference point.



Tags & Throws

The way that the New York style acts as an artisanal urban set of name markers is above built up around two variants: an unbroken linear word, or else a contour-logo. A signature, generally using separate capital letters right at the start in the 1960s, gradually became stabilised, during its evolution in New York, around a form which mixes capital and lower-case letters at the same height, with the idea of linking them together so far as possible on one line, which might occasionally include crowns and stars [fig. 1]. A tag is close to a signature, which has now become a daily part of western life, an unbroken swirling gesture, rising up from a straight line produced as quickly as possible, but which is generally more easily legible. This rapid execution bound up with the fact that it is illegal to write publically in an urban milieu is a primordial factor in its evolution in New York, and it was later to reach its paroxysm in Europe (and especially Paris), in what was to be termed ‹one-line› works, which are seen as the ultimate formal achievement [fig. 2 – 3]. As the available surfaces became increasingly rare, some graffiti writers came up with a vertical version of their names, which gave rise to a large number of original ideas, with vertical ligatures between the letters [fig. 4], constituting an activity quite close to vertical public signs, but with a far greater sense of gesture. But what stands as probably the most original formal invention is the speed at which such artisanal logotypes are composed, generally with two letters (often the first and second or first and last ones in a name, but sometimes with all the signs making up a pseudonym) sketched out only by using their contours. This practice, called ‹throw-ups›, spread from 1975 to 1977, a period of intense competition and the peak period for the invasion of the New York subway, which pushed the rationale of effective swamping in record time to its zenith. These urban monograms made up of bubble-letters, often based on a play between two colours (a light interior, rapidly zigzagged over, and a darker, more clearly contrasting contour), stand up as a practice all of its own, with its own internal rationale, being the roughest expression of lettering in an urban milieu. Each contoured letter has also so far as possible been drawn in a continuous line [fig. 5], sometimes the scribe’s dexterity is such that they are able to trace out an entire name, with just one line connecting several contoured letters [fig. 6]. These two ways of thinking about the image of a letter, and the constant quest for the fastest possible speed of execution, have led to the worldwide spread of tags, while the way of use can be adjusted locally, firstly in Europe, subsequently in South America, then worldwide. The third variant, with ‹pieces›, which are also based on the image of a name and with a lettering more linked to comics or advertising headlines, requires dozens of minutes, or even many hours of execution. They are made up complex inter-weavings of letters and arrows, with coloured interior surfaces, displaced shaded contours, or a three-dimensional effect, as well as a sometimes complex background around the inscription, so as to protect it from its surroundings. Much-copied worldwide, their influence has been considerable, but this disconnection from urban efficacy, marked by a short time period, generally leads to an excessive amount of ornamentation with a limited appeal, tending straight towards a saturation of pointless effects.

The European variations on the New York triptych (tag / throw-up / piece) have turned out to be marginal, despite different, extremely elaborate attempts at formal experiments (especially in Scandinavia or Berlin during the 1990s). There were to be no real questions raised about the workings of the contours / surface / shading of the letters, nor about the relationship with the architectural space, and little consideration of each medium and its structure (which explains the existence of coloured backgrounds, passing over the edges of the inscription), in a perpetuation of the rationale of giant stickers, placed almost identically on any surface, irrespective of its intrinsic qualities. However, the adaptation of the legendary model of the New York subway to other European systems of public transport has produced a genuine technical and qualitative shift, with the centre of gravity of the graffiti of names moving clearly towards the European capitals in the 1990s and 2000s.



Cholo & Pixo, Typographical Graffiti

So far, only two alternative models exist outside the overriding New York aesthetic: the ‹cholo› writing of Latino gangs in Los Angeles, which arose at the end of the 1930s, and the ‹pixação› or ‹pixo› scene in São Paulo in Brazil, which has been active since about 1980. These aesthetic particularities across an entire metropolis derive above all from the fact that the graphic references are very different from those used in New York, and are far more influenced by typographical lettering, and a rigorous spacing, rather than the quest for a continuous written line. These two examples are not just original vernacular phenomena, they also bring into play conscious practices in the mastery of calligraphy and its being handed down through the generations, with a shared knowledge which is quite lasting in the case of Los Angeles. Their very distant arrival, both geographically and temporally, nevertheless leaves open the door to formal proximities linked to an unexpected shared reference point in Gothic lettering, coming from medieval Europe. The extraordinary arrival of a culture, or at least of a typographical influence in Brazilian favelas and Los Angeles suburbs came about via very different historical channels: an underground historical continuity for Los Angeles, and a sudden reactivation via a transitory popular medium (in this case, album sleeves) for São Paulo. It should also be noted that, in both urban contexts, there now simultaneously exist different types of name graffiti, with the cholo or pixos forms of writing rubbing shoulders with ‹classical› New-York-style graffiti type, which arrived far later; the local populations clearly see the difference, especially in Los Angeles.

As the oldest form of name graffiti attached to a specific urban area, cholo writing is an American-cum-Mexican phenomenon, a practice conceived for composing territorial inscriptions, visually marking-off the areas of influence of Latino gangs, which is extremely different and quite clearly transcends the idea of an adolescent invasion of a town, while playing a purely aesthetic game. It is a specific example, because it is a question of the names of gangs, with thus a visual stamping of a symbolic space, accompanied by a genuine physical, territorial control. The historic gangs, such as the White Fence in East LA, have been signalling their existence since 1939 in some of their inscriptions [fig. 7]. The image of the name is, here, mainly collective and based on the name of a neighbourhood, or the separation of a suburban landscape, which is apparently continuous, but in fact deeply divided by frontiers that are invisible to outsiders. This is a graffiti of names about and in a neighbourhood, which never leave its extremely rigid territorial limits, while giving rise to ranged street battles. Inscriptions by gangs are sometimes called ‹newspapers of the street› by the inhabitants of Los Angeles [fig. 8 – 11]. This phenomenon can also be found in Central America, where the main gangs today (above all 18th Street & Mara Salvatrucha) were formed after the enforced return of migrants who had been arrested in the USA. The choice of Gothic lettering as a reference point is the expression of a perfect historical continuity, coming from fonts like Rotunda, which were used by the first printers to come to Mexico City from Spain (Seville), and the still very lively Mexican calligraphic culture, which derives from religious painting, and which is based on a simplified Gothic lettering that can be found on everyday lay surfaces, such as the façades of stores, markets or vehicles. One of its emblematic letters is the ‹Gangster E›, shaped like a backward number 3, although this sign actually derived from an urban adaptation of Gothic calligraphic and blackletter typographic models. The number 3 is also used in online platforms for blogs or forums to show that someone belongs to this cholo culture, which is in fact far broader than just a gang world. This specific script aesthetic has thus had a major influence on the visual expression of the various popular cultures in California, from the 1960s to now, on the lowrider and surf movements, and on different musical trends. The sleeve of the eponymous album of the Rank Strangers in 1977 [fig. 12] is probably the first printed example showing a conscious use of a Chicano graffiti image as a synthetic illustration, thus specifically identifying the city of Los Angeles. This practice has since been used from heavy metal to hip-hop (Suicidal Tendencies, Kid Frost) and in a particularly marked way in the world of skateboarding (such now worldwide brands as DogTown, Powell-Peralta or Bones).

As in New York, the tags of São Paulo have an ‹all-city› function, based on gratuitous invasion, but in an urban area whose extent, density and verticality are such that individuals are virtually forced to unite behind the image of a group name, in the hope of reproducing an inscription enough for it to be visible. The particularity of the phenomenon in New York was to transform the sides of subway trains into a new mass medium. However, it is the architectural object, in all of its versions, which seems to be favoured in São Paulo, from a huge office block to a suburban house [fig. 13 – 16]. As a scene of autarkic development from before the influence of the web, it has developed an original relationship with the city space through an optimised integration of the letter’s structure within an urban context, here used in its entirety as a medium, while keeping up the almost exclusive use of the Portuguese language in the creation of names and pseudonyms. This colonisation of the façades and summits of the various edifices of the biggest city in Brazil reached its apogee in the second half of the 1990s. A revival of activity was then observed after 2010, after the international recognition of the phenomenon in the world graffiti, or thanks to the web. The written invasion of these different targets happened either during a night-time break-in of the building, or by climbing up the façade externally [fig. 14], which is dangerous, and sometimes deadly. Each sign is written up as broadly as possible in terms of bodily motion, whatever the situation, from the easiest, such as standing in the street, to the hardest, such as hanging on the edge of a roof, a window or lamppost. Real human pyramids are sometimes required so as to carry out an inscription on a blind gable: one bearer on the ground has up to three people on his shoulders, leading to the appearance of different human strata in the design, and its proportions [fig. 15]. The conception of the form of the letters here takes place instinctively, according to criteria of structure and proportion above all, like a divided line in a frame, exploiting a specific space as much as possible. This particular rationale, which had almost never been seen before, matches up curiously with the ideal views of some graphic and font designers with an interest in street signs, such as Adrian Frutiger: ‹In environmental graphics, lettering can be regarded as two-dimensional architecture. This realisation makes it possible to appreciate the designing of public signs and notices from a completely new viewpoint, by integrating them into the total concept instead of simply «sticking them on» or «hanging them up». › {Adrian Frutiger, ‹Type in the Environment and in Architecture›, Type Sign Symbol, ABC Verlag, Zurich, 1980, p. 70}. As an impressive writing system that covers the entirety of an architecture, pixos were directly influenced by the popular world of logos, as well as heavy metal and punk album sleeves from the 1980s (such as AC / DC, Iron Maiden, Slayer or The Dead Kennedys, in an aesthetic relayed by such local Brazilian groups as Sepultura or Ratos De Porão), characterised by the recurrent presence of blackletter fonts, but also of older forms of writing, such as runes or Etruscan. The plastic qualities of these letters seem to have been first used by Brazilian taggers, the pixadores, so as to stand out aesthetically from political inscriptions against the dictatorship and poetic messages in the street at the beginning of the 1980s. Pixos can be seen as being an expression of the consequences of the conditions of life in the late-twentieth-century big cities, in terms of how the letters are shaped, with an unexpected evolution in the forms of the Latin alphabet. São Paulo ongoing development is particularly interesting, with the surfaces' saturation that is leading to monumental verticality, i.e. vertical inscriptions almost as large as the façade, a kind of climax in architectural lettering, see for example the video Rapel Urbano. With the rapid diffusion of images and videos on the web, São Paulo became an alternative global source of inspiration, so some European graffiti writers who want to move away or beyond from the New York now kind of dogmatic model have recently been coming up with adaptations suited to their own context, such as Seil (‹rope› in German) [fig. 17], one of the abseiling specialists of the Berlin Kidz group, an European interpretation of vertical monumentality in graffiti inscriptions.

Typography can be defined as being the action of writing with prefabricated letters, that is to say using previously designed bricks separated by precise spaces. This artificially simple definition, taken from the typographer and type designer Gerrit Noordzij, reflects this main contribution to the history of this discipline, in other words the non-separation of typography and the handwritten gesture in the study of the forms of letters, here seen as round trips between their historical, fixed forms and new interpretations in motion. Los Angeles and São Paulo stand as two huge phenomena in graffiti which have been virtually described as being typographical, a handwritten attempt to reproduce a printed letter with tools other than those that gave rise to these forms (a round marker or spray-can of paint thus aping a broad pen or a flat brush). This (mis)appropriation of historical typographic shapes had been positive and gave rise to genuine new solutions. The formal consequence is the appearance of real urban, monolinear blackletters [fig. 9, fig. 15], in other words blackletter capitals reduced to an expression of their skeleton, with no contrast in the thickness of the lines. The friction with the intrinsic conditions of each urban context thus favours the emergence of different internal calligraphic rationales in Los Angeles and São Paulo. But what is remarkable is the appearance of visual identities at the scale of a megalopolis, conveyed by written signs, with a collective uprising of the sign, in a craft aspect, as a reaction to a specific urban tissue, as something that was not at all foreseen by institutional planners.



Bic Cristal & The Megalopolis

In this geography of the urban signature, from the brisk lines in New York, to the calligraphic and typographical lines that can be seen in Los Angeles or São Paulo, there is still a clear common criterion: the predominance of a continuous or monolinear approach. This idea of the uncontrasted line, without thick and thin strokes, derives from the tools used in the public space (such as sprays or rollers) but it is also probably the consequence of the more general impact of the ballpoint pen on how we write or draw, and thus apprehend space, from paper to sign-posts. The example of São Paulo is particularly typical of this apprehension of architectural space: with inscriptions constructed around a very fine line, capable of exploiting all of the potential grids which are out there waiting in the town [fig. 18]. The ballpoint, as a worldwide and universal tool, or genuine Kalashnikov of writing, has quite clearly transformed the various worldwide cultures of writing since its introduction during the 1950s. As Umberto Eco humorously put it in an article published in L’Espresso in 1986, ‹the Bic Cristal biro is the sole example of successful socialism, wiping out all property rights and social distinctions›. The rereading of the Latin alphabet and the possible transformation of its outline has happened using popular, mono-linear writing tools, and the way that signs and notices are a part and parcel of the emergence of the megalopolis as our dominant way of living.





Article originally printed in Palais # 24 Magazine (November 2016, pp. 198 – 209). This web version proposes additional comments, links and illustrations. All photographs and illustrations ©François Chastanet except figures 8 & 9 ©Howard Gribble. Text set in Gest Sans, typeface designed by François Chastanet.

Gest Sans is an informal but steady low contrast sans serif typeface offering a warm texture. The font comes in three weights (light, regular, bold) with various alternates (letters, figures, symbols) through stylistic sets, ligatures and case sensitive forms. Supports Adobe Latin 3 / Adobe CE and Latin Extended-A. View source code to see how glyph variants are used in the different parts of the article.



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