Rockin’ forms!

Anssi Arte is a graffiti writer as well as a serious letter aficionado since childhood. His master thesis in Graphic design from the Alvar Aalto university in Helsinki, Finland was later re-edited and published as the book Forms of Rockin’. In the book, Anssi follows the trail of visual popular culture and design from the 1960s until the 1990s. By comparing industrial design an popular culture such as, logos, photography, fashion, and posters, with typography and graffiti writing in New York and Europe he draws some never before spotted conclusions. Forms of Rockin’ shows how graffiti, typography and visual culture are intertwined and affect each other.
For the opening of the ”Graffiti” show at Helsinki Art Museum, HAM, Anssi has designed a t-shirt which we are proud to present. Here’s the story behind the design.

What is this motif?
The design is based on my research for Forms of Rockin’ and shows the core essence of the most popular graffiti letter styles. From the early 1970s founding styles in New York, via the 80s hard styles and the first European standard styles to the anti-aesthetics of Scandinavian 1990s.

From Anssi Arte’s master thesis studies

How did this development take place?
The first form is Broadway Elegant. It was initiated by a writer named Top Cat 126 who moved from Philadelphia to Manhattan in the early 1970s. This is supposed to be one of the first local masterpiece styles. It became popular among writers such as T-Rex 131, Shade 2, Jace 2, Star-III and Piper 1 to name a few. The second form is the Platform style – also from Top Cat. It was popularized by writers like Jive 3, Riff 170 and Death TC5. It’s said to be the first style together with Phase 2’s Soft letters to achieve an all-city popularity. The third form, Soft style, with it’s various permutations such as Bubble letters, Ball letters, Foot and Hump letters, became standard repertoire for a generation of early to mid 1970s New York. Here we find artists like Ale 1, Comet, Blade, Tracy 168, Silver Tips, Staff 161 and Cliff 159. The fourth, Marshmallow style, is said to have been invented by the today mysterious Super Kool 223. The Marshmallow letters were used by amongst others In, Jive 3, Te Kool, Doc Cool 1, Riff 170 as well as Blade. Towards the end of the 1970s mainstream styles shifted from Soft to Hard wildstyles. The fifth form, Hard style, became more and more complex. A lot of experimentation took place. A classic example is in the movie Style Wars when Kase 2 demonstrates his Computer Rock style which makes his letters unreadable.
Phase 2, Min 1, Dondi, Seen, Mitch 77, Skeme, Dez, Zephyr, Revolt, Duro, Sach, Shy 147, Daze are just a tiny part of this huge movement. Hard style became the dominant form of graffiti writing in the 1980s New York.

A study in E

Why did the Hard style develop?
As the Soft styles had become widely used it became necessary to break out from the mainstream. Phase 2 has told how he started to cut and chop the soft letterforms into harder shapes. With time writers got more experienced and improved can control, better materials and the capability to render more consistent letterforms also plays a part.

A study of letter ornaments

What happened when graffiti reached Europe?
The sixth form, Futuristic, was primarily invented by Bando, Shoe and other writers from the important Chrome Angels (TCA) and Crime Time Kings (CTK) crews. The style became an all-European standard for the 1980s when European writers at the same time left the New York Hard style around 1986. Paris and Amsterdam where the breeding grounds for Futuristic, and letterstyles from writers such as Shoe, Mode 2, Delta, Jaz, Angel, Cat 22 and Alien could be pinpointed as the most influential examples from that era. In north-western Europe and Scandinavia Futuristic developed into High-Tech, a more complex and constructive configuration, which gained huge popularity towards the end of the 1980s. Scandinavian writers Bates, Dudez, Raide, Cazter, Slice, Circle and Cazbee are but a few but quintessential to this style.
As it often is, aestethic ideals tend to fluctuate. In the early 1990s, some Scandinavian writers left the High-Tech style more or less at the same time. Buster, Aman, Ribe, Iano, Sabe, Hiv and Egs were some forerunners in Ugly, a sloppy style that emerged around 1993.

Why did Ugly had such an impact?
The anti-aesthetic must have felt super insipiring and liberating as graffiti at that point had become a bit predictable and stiff. High-Tech was followed quite strict among most writers in Scandinavia. There were a few individual tweaks only. A new generation of writers found themselves in a changed society. New, stricter views on graffiti from authority bred a more aggressive attitude and a focus on painting trains. A kind of post-modern idea spread, that there is no absolute “right” or “wrong”. This made graffiti writing accessible for anyone, regardless of their level of knowledge or skill. There is actually quite many parallels between the anti-styles and the spirit of grunge or techno, two contemporary subcultures in the 1990s.

Are these different letter style determined just by chance?
My conclusion, based on my research, is that the main letter styles tend to reflect the visual trends in popular culture of a certain era. Shape, proportion and form language are highly influenced. Once I realized this, graffiti styles seem to be a part of something bigger, which makes them meaningful and appealing to a certain group of people. Platform letters are a perfect example of this. They repeat the silhouette of the staples of the hippie, gang and disco fashion of the era – bellbottom jeans and platform shoes. Another example would be the European Futuristic that is clearly in tune with the electronic new wave and synth-pop trends of that time with big shoulder pads, triangles, diagonals and slanted high-top fades.

What current trends can you spot?
These eight styles showcase the foundation of the most popular basic letter styles that have become a sort of established grammar for any writer’s repertoire. They have become sort of universal evergreen standards. Now we see a lot of classic styles becoming fashionable once again through social media platforms. Post-1995 up-to-date is a tough topic to draw conclusions from as the styles got so fragmented and remarkably eclectic for a long period of time. However, it’s also easy to see the influence of popular graphic softwares such as Photoshop or Illustrator to graffiti letterforms around the late 00s, with their characteristic “layered” look, drop shadows, bevel and emboss effects. The recent retro computer “glitch” trend with RGB color palettes, loads of gradients and basic geometric shapes that evoke the spirit of the VHS cassette packaging graphics of the late ’80s to early ’90s seems to be quite a big thing. When done with consideration, nostalgy seems to be quite a powerful asset.

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