That Nasty Hand
A groundbreaking new book tracks the evolution of writing styles.
Words and Photo by Christian Acker
I was asked why I spent 10 years writing a book about something as ephemeral as the way graffiti writers write their names. 10 years is a lot of time to put into something. And yet the writers who inspired me — the ones I was able to interview — often spent a much longer time developing their art. I’m talking about individuals who were doing it before writing became a viable way of making a living; individuals who did it for the betterment of themselves, their art and their personal style. But I think I understand why I dedicated so much time to creating the book I hope you’ll buy, Flip The Script (Ginko Press).
I grew up in New Jersey in the ‘80s and ‘90s; I was mostly raised on youth soccer, church youth groups, used book stores and flea markets. By the time I hit awkward adolescent rebellion, I managed to just slip into the last generation of offline youth subcultures. By ninth grade, I was one of the half-dozen kids in my high school who knew what straight edge was (it amazes me that kids today can be straight edge without knowing what hardcore is). And this was a time when metal heads — real metal heads with leather jackets and pet snakes — were still a valid clique. My life became about discovering a hidden world revealed in glimpses through photocopied flyers in used record stores, ‘zines and merch tables at the local club, City Gardens, VFW halls or local college radio stations.
When you caught the bug for something underground in those days it was a bit more work to search it out than Google would have you believe today. My exposure to graffiti was limited to the train line to New York, the occasional trip to Philly or peeping the back side of the local strip mall. I didn’t have an older sibling or a mentor. But I was bit by the bug. Early on, I loved lettering and illustration, logos, graphic design and punk flyers. Eventually I moved to New York to go to art school. While studying typography, calligraphy and graphic design at Parsons I started toying around with street level marker tags, and did that for years. But I didn’t have the drive like the guys I would connect with years later. I remember meeting HENCE C&F early on in New York. He gave me some basic prints and principles. It was the first time I realized there could be a method to the madness of style. “Ninety-nine percent perspiration, one percent inspiration”. He pushed me to apply the things I was learning in my typography classes to my hand styles. Consistency and simplicity. Use caps or use lower cases. Don’t mix and match in the middle of your words. Work on a whole alphabet style, not just one word. Find the beauty in the forms done well. Don’t force inventiveness. Ten years later, I would find the same methodology when I met Hush. Turns out they worked out a lot of these ideas together. It was a very self-disciplined approach to writing.
The other primary influence and early collaborator was Mesk MCA. He actually coined the name ‘Handselecta.’ Mesk came from DC; went to art school in Philly and by the time we met in New York he was retired from the game with a wife and kids. He was enough older than me that he could share the experiences of the things I thought I missed out on ten years earlier. He had great stories about doing the same type of DIY research I loved. Traveling from DC to Baltimore to take flicks in the late ‘80s. Traveling all the way from DC to NYC for a Raw Deal (AKA Killing Time) show, only to skip it and get jacked while painting trains at the scrap yard in Brooklyn (shout-outs to JA and Reas). All these stories were fun, but I was most intrigued when we could geek out with a black book.
Mesk was part of that generation that exploded with hip-hop in the mid ‘80s after Style Wars hit PBS. Mesk’s experience from time spent in different cities gave him a unique approach. He had distinct and different styles he picked up in Baltimore, Philly and Brooklyn. He was also in the ‘zine game with Nastie English, trading flicks from writers across the country. He could do hard-edge cholo styles and mix them with back-leaning Baltimore styles. He could pull them out like tools from a toolbox and he could mix them together in new ways.
After my own mediocre rookie season as a vandal, I got pinched and spent a weekend in central booking. I was a college kid from a hard-working middle class family and couldn’t see making visits to the “tombs” a regular occurrence. So I shifted my focus to the educational, the research, the mentors, and I started soaking up as much as I could. Mesk introduced me to other, sometimes more notorious writers, who were all very generous and shared so much. I started collaborating with a bunch of these guys, creating fonts from their scripts, hearing their stories and insights, filming the motion of their tags. I would spend years trading letters and brown paper packages full of handstyles. And as I was collecting these prints I was trying to apply the methodology of the science I was learning from calligraphy and type history to graffiti. This book is the culmination of that exercise, and because it is so anecdotal and selective, it is probably just the start.
A few years after I got fully immersed in this process, I came across a body of work that would influence mine. Father-and-son team John and Alan Lomax were American folklorists — amateur-turned-professional historians and ethnomusicologists. They traveled the States creating an archive of folk songs and interviews from the late 19th Century to the early 2000s when Alan died. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, the Beatles & the Stones — they all benefited from their exposure to these recordings, and further generations benefit still as popular music continues to evolve bit by bit.
The collection of stories and handstyles found in Flip The Script certainly represent the individuals who shared them, but the time and places from which they came help to further contextualize the overall picture. My goal is not to write certain people into or out of this history. My hope is that this book will help advance the art and help the practitioners to better understand where they fit inside of this tale that continues to unfold. I’ve produced this book but the truth is, we are all sharing in this authorship and hopefully so will generations after us who will come to know the pleasure that comes from making your mark.
This story appears in Mass Appeal Issue 52. Read more stories from the issue here.