Illegal Typography

“The words of the prophets were written on the subway walls and the tenement halls…”

Graffiti has a been a large part of my life for over 16 years and one of the very few constants in my ever changing life. It has always been there as just an art form, or a release from reality and a way of life yet I’ve never really stopped to investigate or delve deeper into the subject on a more intellectual level.

I haven’t quite narrowed down my research yet. But, to start I’d like to explore it not as an art form but as the bastard son of type design; a renegade form of typography. From kerning to legibility and everywhere in between graffiti abandons the principles and thrives on shattering the rules of type design.

I would also like research graffiti as a type of global vernacular. Its a language that some how crosses borders with very minimal change; whether you’re at 5 Pointz in Brooklyn or the tunnels of London or a HOF wall in Tokyo. I find it amazing that an entire culture can change – the food, the spoken language, etc.. – but somehow graff doesn’t.

I’d also like to take a secondary look at it as a typographic art form. We’ve all seen the thousands of horrible  graffiti fonts that flood the web. I’d like to know if there is a reason behind this. Is it that there are just horrible type designers creating them? Or is it that you just can’t mold graffiti into a standard form such as a font?

I’ve started my research by creating some quick hand “pieces” of various letters in different graff styles and then comparing them from a designers standpoint by looking for x-heights, ligatures, descenders, etc… I’m going to continue with this experimentation and broaden it to other peoples work instead of just my own.

From a suggestion in the peer group meeting I’ve begun documenting graffiti through photography building a database of pieces to investigate. I’ve started with works from around London and now in NYC while I’m home for the week. I have also spoken with the people who run 5 Pointz, the “mecca” of graffiti for the US, to schedule an interview and guided tour of the grounds and to pick their minds on the relationships of graffiti and typography and my other research avenues. I have also created a blog on WordPress as a digital home-base for me to track my progress along the way.

For secondary research I’ve begun reading various dissertations and essays online about graffiti, its history, its relationships with type, politics, etc… along with ordering/procuring a few books on the subjects including “Parallel Strokes”. I’m hoping through the combination of research and experimentation I’ll be able to secure a more definitive area to move forward with because at the moment I’m pretty much all over the place.


Posted on April 16, 2011, in Unit 2. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hi Jay,
    Sounds like an interesting topic and of course close to your heart – a good idea to take on a project you feel passionate about.
    At the moment, just concentrate on building a body of research on the connections between type and graffiti, and sort your material into different thematic areas: the use of type in graffiti / the influence on graffiti on type design / the physical relationship between the written form and the human body (all writing systems are based on the movement of the hand/arm etc, and the use of different materials and tools which lead to different visual forms and styles) / type and scale etc.
    Then try to come up with some potential proposal routes – such as how to employ more “typographic” methods in creating graffiti, how to use graffiti in the visual environment for more useful purposes etc?

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