replacing graffiti’s calligraphic howls with helvetican readableness

Es­ti­mated reading time is 5 min­utes.

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)


Spain Trashman1

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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