Christian Acker Flips the Script on Graffiti

New York

“We tap keyboards far more frequently than we touch pen to paper,” designer and author Christian Acker says in his introduction to Flip the Script: A Guidebook for Aspiring Vandals and Typographers (Ginko Press, 2013). “Graffiti may well be the last great execution of highly practiced penmanship in popular culture.”

Flip the Script seeks to contextualize the tagging styles of American graffiti writers from different periods and regions in visual history. This is the first book of its kind, and it is vast in its scope. Flip the Script documents over 500 signatures, or “tags,” the calling card of the street writer. Acker systematically analyzes historic hand styles by collecting a remarkable body of work from the most influential US cities, and searching for the common threads that connect cultures.

“The skill most true to the raw beauty of skeletal letterforms is that most persecuted form of graffiti: the tag,” Acker states. “Tagging is, to outsiders, by far the least respected form of graffiti. It’s often a writer’s entry to graffiti, and consequently, there are a lot of bad tags. Ironically, today’s practitioners’ work is buffed from the streets within days or even hours, preventing them from learning from their surroundings as easily as the writers of the 1970s and 1980s.

“Tall and skinny forms hail from Philadelphia,” Acker writes. “Round and wide are the marks of New York. California graffiti predates the rest of American graffiti—always contending with the Cholo or Mexican-American influence of square, angular letters practiced by gangs that trace roots at least back to the ’40s and ’50s. Baltimore writers use letters with a startlingly aggressive leftwards lean. DC, and other cities of graffiti’s second and third generation, have produced exciting hybrids of historical letterforms. As the art form has spread, you can see developments on almost every continent. In each new place the art form travels, historical knowledge precedes it, and yet a distinctive style emerges.”

Flip the Script is presented in a clean, academic format. It is not a loud, colorful book. Rather, the simply laid-out pages of tags and alphabets display an unexpected but welcome degree of reverence to the subject matter. It is an exhaustively researched volume that is to be taken seriously.

“Contemporary graffiti’s origins, like so much of 20th century youth culture,” Acker states, “seems to have emerged in the wake of the economic boom that followed WWII. Changes in income across socioeconomic lines led to more free time for youths, allowing for greater educational opportunities, as well as more time to explore art and music—or to get in trouble.”

He continues, “The earliest iteration of graffiti in the United States preceded this post-war growth, and stood in contrast to it; hobo signs and monikers that occurred a generation earlier as men traveled the country seeking work during the Depression. Just like pre-war folk music and bluegrass gave birth to post-war country and rock ‘n’ roll, these ancestral forms of vandalism morphed and changed and eventually emerged in different forms in different cities.”

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Flip the Script contains a chapter on selecting and using the right tools for your own tag. Acker believes that with enough practice, anyone who can write the alphabet can learn to write in any of the styles in the book. “You are in the unique position to benefit from the talent and passion of generations who have come before you,” he writes. “Once mastered, your own innovations will begin to emerge and become your own. Do not forget whence you came.”

Acker warns that the alphabets and exercises found in Flip the Script are meant for “the practice, education, and edification of your hand and mind. Imitation is a good first step, but imitation of the forms will not immediately result in the desired effect, for flow is equally important. And the flow will only come with time.”

Flip the Script includes art and interviews from key figures including Taki 183, Stay High 149, Haze, Cornbread, Futura, and Espo. It was born from Acker’s compilation of fonts, videos, and interviews at Handselecta.com.

“By 2004, I had created fonts with half a dozen artists, and when YouTube first launched I started filming the artists’ hands writing their names,” Acker says. “That archive of videos now has 4.5 million views. I started collecting a vast archive of people’s writing, and eventually the stories got more detailed. I started seeing more patterns. The videos garnered enough attention to justify a book offer, and the last three years were spent organizing the seven years prior and searching people out from different cities.”

As the collection grew, a narrative emerged, not just about the individuals, but about the unique and stylistic differences of graffiti in America’s major cities. The book is a milestone achievement in its comprehensive documentation of a subject familiar to urban dwellers, particularly from the 1970s and ’80s. Thoughtfully written and fluidly designed, Flip the Script is a scholarly yet enjoyable read.

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See more graffiti from around the world in Written on the City.

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