Graffiti vs. typography: What's the difference?

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

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.

Crosscut archive image.The other side of this is that there are typefaces designed to look like graffiti. But if you use one of those digital fonts, you’ll quickly notice that every time you type the letter “a,” for instance, it looks exactly like every other “a” you’ve used. That’s the essential difference between type and lettering: with type, each letter has the same form every time it appears. (There are technologies that make it possible to include a variety of alternate forms within a digital font, and to substitute them for the default forms either randomly or according to a pattern, in order to make the result look more like handwriting or hand-lettering; but at heart it’s still about repeating forms.)

You’ve probably seen “handwriting” fonts, and you’ve probably seen offers to take your own handwriting and turn it into a font. At its most basic level, that’s easy to do; but it’s very hard to do well. When we write by hand, we don’t form each letter the same way over and over again, even when we’re trying to. Each letter differs depending on what we wrote before it and what we’re about to write after it; we run things together and break them apart depending on the context (and the steadiness of our hand). That variety and variability is absent in typography; instead, typography is about repeating patterns.

The heart of typography is continuous text, no matter how dramatic the forms may get in headlines and other kinds of “display” type. Even at its wildest, typography is about reading. This is why it takes a lot of time and a lot of skill to create a text typeface, one that will be readable for paragraph after paragraph and page after page of text. Like the one you’re reading now.

Signature vs. message

Since its early days, when “Taki 183” was tagging the walls of New York City, modern graffiti has been about personal expression and making a mark. The flamboyant style of that “Taki” tag may have been quite readable to its originator and his cohorts, but its point was not to be read but to be recognized. Just like a high-end logo, it was a recognizable mark: a signature, a brand.

Crosscut archive image.

Although that purpose still characterizes the casual tags we find around our neighborhoods, the art of graffiti long ago moved on. In many cases, it’s impossible to find a dividing line between ambitious graffiti and mural art; both decorate the walls of our cities, sometimes together, sometimes in conflict. The essence of this process is the decoration — indeed, annotation — of public space.

Readable? Maybe

Crosscut archive image.The letters of graffiti, like the letters of handwriting or of type, are formed by an interplay between shape and space. At its most basic, this means black and white ("figure and ground," in art terms); but in graffiti (and increasingly in type) it also means color.

Most of the murals showcased in Lily Cutler's story are intensely colorful, even if black outlines sometimes define the shapes. They’ve often got perspective and 3D effects, although they’re painted on flat surfaces. They pop, visually, and they’re meant to. As graffiti, they communicate to those who know how to read graffiti; but they go beyond that and function simply as art.

Photo of Few & Far and 45th and NE 8th Avenue murals by Allyce Andrews.


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