replacing graffiti’s calligraphic howls with helvetican readableness

I CHOOSE SPONTANEITY! Spontaneity over the prepared. Usually. I like the playful kineticism and calligraphic howls of free-hand, spray-canned, torpedoes-be-damned graffiti at least holds attempts to achieve. I would choose that over predictably tame, looks lame machine-generated typography. But sloppy is not spontaneous, and most graffiti is not art, it’s just ugly—often an eyesore replacing an eyesore.

“Tag Clouds principle is to replace the all-over of graffiti calligraphy by readable translations like the clouds of keywords which can be found on the Internet.”

The article “Guy Paints Over Shit Graffiti And Makes It Legible” from the Design You Trust website introduces us to Matthieu Tremblin, an anti-graffiti graffiti artist. Matthieu wanders around France, finding ghastly graffiti everywhere.

And if we recall Sturgeon’s Principle (it ain’t no law!) that “90% of everything is crud,” then I think most of us would agree that 90% is exceedingly generous when applied to most graffiti!

with rather boring bits of plain serif and san serif type, the kind of type that permeates Europe’s landscape on street signs, business marquees, and advertising. 1

The type of type that can be found everywhere but never ever on walls of spray-painted graffiti!

His anti-graffiti is usually a reasonable translation of the original scrawl.

The article is a picture piece with sixteen photos, from which I selected six for this article. That means there is good reason to go to the original article and read and see the rest!


Graffiatto, grafitto, and graffiti

Both the plural graffiti and the singular graffito are from the Italian word graffiato, meaning scratched. In formal art history, the term graffiti generally refers to works of art produced by scratching a design into a surface. A related term is sgraffito, which involves scratching through one layer of pigment to reveal another beneath it. 2

You pass a wall a thousand times and never see it’s thereness—then one day, it’s transformed!

In the past few decades, graffiti has taken on a new meaning in the braggadocio of tags and statements and artwork illegally affixed to walls in the American and European cities. And a shaken can of spray paint has become the most commonly used material.

Graffiti may express social and political messages and a whole genre of artistic expression is based upon spray paint graffiti styles.

Controversies that surround graffiti continue to create disagreement among city officials, law enforcement, and writers who wish to display and appreciate work in public locations. 3


Calligraphic howls, begone!

It’s happened to all of us: you pass a wall a thousand times and never see it’s thereness. Then one day, overnight, a miracle: it has been transformed by swirls and lines and splotches of black and red and blue and white and it’s ugly as all hell, but—it has caught your attention!

You are now noticing the hereness of the world in which you make you way, day by day.

You are being here now.

But still, it’s ugly!

Here are three sites that caught Matthieu’s attention: a door, a column or support (probably in a garage), and a wall. There’s not an original or attractive tag on any of them, typical of the contemporary generation of street artists.

And the forlorn wall the post-apocalypse door are so ugly that if they were babies their poor mothers might not be up to loving them.




Post tremblinization

According to Matthieu, “Tag Clouds principle is to replace the all-over of graffiti calligraphy by readable translations like the clouds of keywords which can be found on the Internet. It shows the analogy between a physical tag and virtual tag, both in the form (tagged walls compositions look the same as tag clouds), and in substance (like keywords which are markers of net surfing, graffiti are markers of urban drifting).” 4

In the context of the environment—the ‘urban landscape’—Tremblin’s pedestrian typography is almost surreal: words and bits of words pulled from magazines floating on city walls with an undecipherable message.

Helvetican readableness?

Helvetica (meaning Swiss in Latin) is a widely used sans-serif typeface developed in 1957 as part of a resurgence of interest in turn-of-the-century grotesque typefaces among European graphic designers. It is easy to read in smaller sizes and at distance.

Its use became a hallmark of the International Typographic Style that emerged from the work of Swiss designers in the 1950s and ’60s, becoming one of the most popular typefaces of the 20th century. 3

This article is set in Georgia, the most common serif typeface on the Internet. This section (“Helvetic readableness”) is set in Helvetica.

Regardless of what you may believe your interest or lack of interest may be in typography, there is a fascinating (FAS-sin-nay-ting!) documentary on this typeface and its ubiquitousness and influence on our lives. You can watch it in its entirety (and suffer through sub-titles) on YouTube: Helvetica.



FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was cropped from this photo of a wall prior to a Matthieu Tremble transformation. I cropped the image and then played with various color tools in GIMP.

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 The term anti-graffiti graffiti artist is one of my own making; Mr Tremble is not referred to as such in the article or on his own website page.

2   This technique was primarily used by potters who would glaze their wares and then scratch a design into it. In ancient times graffiti were carved on walls with a sharp object, although sometimes chalk or coal was used. The word originates from Greek γράφειν, or graphein, meaning to write.

 The definitions of graffiti and Helvetica above were adapted rather librully from Wikipedia.

4   “A tag cloud (or a word cloud or a weighted list in visual design) is a visual representation of text data, typically used to depict keyword metadata (or tags) on websites, or to visualize free form text. Tags are usually single words, and the importance of each tag is shown with font size or color. This format is useful for quickly perceiving the most prominent terms and for locating a term alphabetically to determine its relative prominence.” (Wikipedia)


Next thing you know, the cracks in the sidewalks will speak and offer advice and instruction to the Postman or even the Trashman as the Ragman draws circles up and down the block. (I’d ask him what the matter was, but I know that he don’t talk . . .)

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