Graffiti vs. typography: What's the difference?

Type expert John D. Berry weighs in on Seattle graffiti: Art or type?
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1st Avenue's VAIN wall

Type expert John D. Berry weighs in on Seattle graffiti: Art or type?

Editor’s Note: Lettering and lettering styles litter the examples of Seattle graffiti in artist and graffiti fan Lily Cutler's story. But is graffiti a form of typography? We put that question to Seattle's renowned type expert John D. Berry. Here’s what he had to say:

People write graffiti on walls. That’s the essence of what graffiti is, and it’s been so since at least the days of ancient Rome, when someone anonymously scratched rude words and political slogans on the walls of Pompeii. A lot of what we know, in fact, about the informal writing styles in ancient Rome is based on the excavations of graffiti-strewn walls in the ruins of Pompeii.

Today’s graffiti, though, is highly stylized, often done with a can of spray paint (a tool unknown to the alley-runners of Pompeii) and usually doesn’t bear much resemblance to the styles of letter that we’re used to reading. Often enough, what we call graffiti goes far beyond lettering of any kind; some of the “graffiti” shown in Lily Cutler's piece are really murals, pieces of wall art that may or may not include any lettering at all.

Does graffiti have anything to do with typography?

Graffiti isn't really typography; it's more of a cross between handwriting and sign-painting. But unlike either of those, graffiti is above all about self-expression. Typography, on the other hand, is about communication, no matter how self-expressive it may get. A closer parallel might be between graffiti and calligraphy (“beautiful writing”); there’s certainly a connection between the expressiveness of graffiti and the expressive forms of calligraphy. Both take letters and turn them into visual forms that have more to do with art than with communication.

Graffiti, calligraphy and sign-painting are all processes done by hand. Typography is not; it’s the arrangement of pre-existing letters into words and sentences. Today we’re so used to working with digital fonts that we sometimes look at a piece of hand-lettering and ask, “What font is that?” What we mean is, what style is it? What’s it based on? What does it refer to? How can we describe it? But it isn’t a font, even if it’s drawn to look like an existing typeface.

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