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.

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!


“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.”


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!


Graffiti 5

Graffiti 6

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

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


Graffiti 3

Graffiti 4

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.


Graffiti 1

Graffiti 2

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.


Graffiti header1

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.



1   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.

3   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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