in Marginalia

When is an S not an S?

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One of the things I love about graffiti is the immediacy and looseness of the wrist that the best artists possess – and which I can’t get exactly right myself – probably cultivated through years of keeping an eye out for the police while honing their craft.

Parallel to actual delinquency, graffiti artists also casually bend the rules (or conventions) of letterforms and calligraphy – yet I did a double take when I saw the above on a Malmö door frame: It clearly read “SMA”, but what’s with the S, all tumbled over backward by the speed and urgency of writing? The direction of the end flourish is pure emphasis.

Of course, the restrictions of the narrow door frame forces a horizontal shape on the initial first and foremost, but in the final result the artist turns that necessity to their advantage. My main point is still the fact that the letterform S is so strong that it remains recognisable, even if it’s skewed 90° counterclockwise.

This skewing of accepted forms is especially interesting to me because, in my day job as a publication designer and layouter, legibility are paramount on letter, word and paragraph levels, whereas in my creative outlets, I consciously stray from formal conventions.

It’s food for thought, then, that street artists, under the imposed restraints of their work conditions, might be pushing the base forms of the alphabet further than – and could be seen as a new generation subverting – the work of the last millennium’s scribes, calligraphers and sign painters. And that’s not even considering the plastic distortions of large scale mural works that warp the rules of typography beyond recognition, familiarity, or even legibility.

End note: Having written this, I checked the image again and wondered about the purpose of the dot in the right-hand loop of the S. If it’s not entirely ornamental, it could be the simplified stem of a D (with an exaggerated entry swash)… and I would have grossly misinterpreted the tag in this post :/

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