Solve the Mystery of the Pointy S

Remember in middle school how there was that pointy S that a few kids would draw? Two sets of three parallel vertical lines, and four parallel lines each at 45-degree angles? Ever wonder why there’s a few kids in every class that draw it?

I’ve never been able to figure it out, and so I’m writing to ask if anyone has ideas. Kids still draw it, in case you haven’t spent much time around middle schoolers lately. There’s always a few in every class, it seems—usually boys, but not always. It’s always an S, on its own, never another letter. Only an S. When I lead middle school lettering workshops, I find that kids are frequently able to style an entire word in a relatively consistent font of their invention, but this pointy S is a killer: They can hardly ever extrapolate how to morph the style of that S into the rest of the alphabet. Sometimes in classes, I end up outlawing it.

The pointy S also seems to be of uncertain origin. It isn’t a corporate logo, or if it is, it’s not well known. Nor is it a band logo that I can think of, though I’m sure somewhere along the line it was. Nor is it ‘graffiti’—in fact I can say with some certainty that this pointy S never figured in graffiti’s early years, and you’d get laughed at if ever you used it. But how the heck did it get to be so ubiquitous? How did it leave the rest of the alphabet behind? Any ideas?

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51 COMMENTS

  1. Pingback: Symbols: Where did the pointy "S" symbol come from? - Quora

  2. I was born in 90 and I can remember when I was really little like 5 or 6 drawing it because I learned it from my older cousins who where in middle school at the time and by the time I hit middle school everyone drew it I SEE A GOVERNEMT CONSPIRARCY OR SOMETHING IS IT THE MATRIX?

  3. I’m not sure if it was used before 1999 (i was only born in 93). But this used to be the band SlipKnots logo (they changed it after a while to a tribal one).

  4. In Northern Virginia this is gang sign. When you see it, it means that the student is a gangster, a wannabe or a totally clueless imitater. We keep a close on this to head off gang activity in the school and intervene right away.

  5. I used to draw this in the 80′s in California….my 3rd grader drew it at school recently and I got a call from the principal that he was doodling a known “gang symbol”. Not sure what the deal is with that!

  6. This is just really weird. I use to draw this when I was in Junior High in Tennessee. And last month my 7th grader came home and asked me if I’d ever seen this symbol that he likes to draw. 

  7. As an exercise in impromptu speaking in elementary school where we had to “demonstrate something that has a series of steps”, one student taught the class how to draw the pointy “S” for our class. She said her mother taught her how to draw it. That was in 1966, in the midwest.

  8. I have tried to find the origins of this same “S” shape for at least the past 3 years and have come up with nothing. I started reasearching this when my son who was a pre-teen at the time started drawing it out of no where. He like many other teens had it all over his notebooks. I remembered drawing it as a child as well. Now my nephew, whom is also a pre-teen has started drawing the same “S” as well as many of his friends and more importantly my youngest daughter who is also pre-teen started drawing it. 
    I have an ex boyfriend who grew up in Arizona and he said they did the same thing. I find it fasinating from reading the posts on here, that as far back as some can remember and as recent as my daughter and nephew, children are still drawing this “S”. It also seems that they start drawing this regardless of interest in art or not. I have reasearched ancient symbols and still nothing. I know it seems a little funny and odd to do so, but when something pops up like this that cross’ language barriers, continents, etc….there has to be something to this “S”, or as I call it some sort of symbol.

  9. Im in 9th grade and just here recently started drawing it. I rarely seen or heard about it when  I was in middle school or grade school, and alot of people have been saying that its a stupid thing to draw. But I make my own  designs out of the “Pointy S”. I have been told that my designs are really good. I can pretty much make every letter of the alphabet out of “Pointy S’s” and initials. If you would like to see some of my designs just message me at clarissasimms12887@gmail.com

  10. To set the record straight: it is definitely NOT originated from Stussy. Stussy started in 1980 in California, and I was drawing this with all my other schoolmates in 4th grade in 1977 in New York (an suspecting that it was making the rounds among school kids before that).

  11. Middle school memes are fascinating! This particular “S” thing is a really seductive item for middle schoolers who love to draw. The power of it comes more from the transformative process of making the two sets of three parallel lines and then connecting them to create something iconic than the actual image of the S. I remember showing peers and originally being shown how to draw the S and it was like a secret or a magic trick, some piece of kid cred. I also remember trying and failing to bring the appeal of its construction to the rest of the alphabet.

  12. Yeh, we had this in rural WI (USA) too.
    So ubiquitous!
    I don’t know it’s origins, but i do have two theories as to why it has spread so much:
    1) because the drawing of the lines creates the form in the negative space at the end – a novel concept for kids who naturally learn to draw things by tracing the perceived outline from start to end.
    & 2) it has the same shape properties as the most ancient shapes: like the ‘corded-ware’ stuff, and the old hindu swastikas (which may have developed from the starting shape used for basket-weaving). Shapes which hint at a twisting, have a sense of infinite recurrence to them, etc. I.e. primal, primal sh*t, that for some reason we humans always have a fancy for doodling.
    Long live Pointy-S! (which in rural WI we called gangsta ‘S’)

  13. If you were a girl (at least at my middle school!) it wasn’t a pointy “S”, it had curlicues on the top and bottom to make it fancy. And I think it sprung up the same time we learned how to draw 3D things (like cubes and houses) in art class. Same principles.

  14. Pingback: Tweets that mention Imprint-The Online Community for Graphic Designers | Solve the Mystery of the Pointy S -- Topsy.com

  15. cool! I’m from holland and I also did drew it. Me and my friend called it the skater S. We saw it as graffiti on a wall at our skatepark and we were curious about the ‘how to draw’. After we’ve learned it, we kept written it down on actually everything, never tried to make the alphabet out of it though. It was fun for as long as it lasted.

  16. As an angsty grade school student in San Diego — when I wasn’t drawing the Pennywise (band, not clown), No Fear or SAY-OW logos (http://bit.ly/dVtdK7) — I was penning the “Stüssy S.” As a bonus, I always added a 3-prong jester hat to the top of my S. It wasn’t until just this year that a friend informed me there was no association with Stüssy; I was shocked.

  17. I’ve seen it used as a corporate logo for a company called Synquest out of Atlanta that my dad used to work for, he had it embroidered on a shirt. I couldn’t find it online, but I’ll stop by their house later and snap a photo of it. I seriously doubt there’s a connection there, other than that the person who designed it probably doodled that S in her/his youth.
    It’s also very close to the Suzuki “S” logo, but I don’t know when that was created. The Suzuki is much more complex, of course, but the shape is very similar.

  18. What came to my mind first was that this was from the logo for the band STYX of course. After Goggling it, I found that although I was close, they had space in the middle of their pointy S. I wonder where it came from and where KILLROY went, he used to be “here” all over the place…

  19. haha love it! Yes, omni-present in the UK too… I even remember drawing it, and in the very same moment, wondering what it was?! Was just satisfying knowing how it worked and (sadly) even more satisfying knowing that some others couldn’t grasp it.

  20. Here’s another thought. Try drawing a picture out of the number 5! I used to draw one out of 5 when I was a kid. Someone showed it to me and I thought it was neat. Anybody know? Hint… it’s an animal. ;)

  21. I Have always wondered about the mysterious “S” but I always assumed it was some sort of Graffiti. One thing I used to do was create a chain of the S, where there would be like 5-10 sets of 3 vertical line that connected, try it out!

  22. Definitely the ‘Stussy s’. Stussy was the surf culture clothing brand of the 80s early 90s when Shawn Stussy still owned it. Growing up in southern california this was on every kid’s binder. Shawn Stussy just opened his new design studio this last year.. Good stuff, check it out, s-double: http://s-double.com/

  23. Was recently doodling with my artistically inclined 7-yr old niece. I reverted to playing with a crude font I “created” way back in Jr High. She looks at my sketch book and starts rendering the pointy S in machine gun fashion. Flashbacks ensue as I recall the margins of my college ruled notebook (riddled with the pointy S and everything else) from high school history class (25 years removed), taught by my father…and her grandfather, who was sitting at the same table. Upon seeing what she was doing without my prompting, he made the immediate connection while shaking his head in disbelief. She even added some wingdings for flair that were totally cool. I immediately introduced her to my Wacom and PS. That shape, or the “trick” in it’s construction must speak to our mind in some way. Thanks for the post.

  24. Huh. Maybe I didn’t live thru the ’80s after all, and no contact with contemporary middle kids, no recognition for me. Interesting conversation equating drawing/typography with smartness/rebellion though.

  25. Funny, I always drew my “pointy s’s” from the nc state universities initials (nSu) other than that I would always up vert the inside of the “s” on both top and bottom instread of drawing it straight across.

  26. I remember seeing it created by another classmate when I was in 3rd grade. I was amazed at the process of creating it by vertical lines then angled lines, instead of simply going top to bottom. At the time, I always thought the ‘S’ referred to Superman. Though they are not really similar, it might have just been the fact it was the letter s.

  27. I remember drawing this in the mid 80s, in the UK, and i’m pretty sure it was linked to Stussy and in my mind there’s a link to when Beastie Boys made it into the charts over here with Fight for your rights- it all seemed to be connected somehow…

  28. I never made the connection between the company ‘Stussy’ and this symbol (that graced the pages of most of my elementary school pages), but I always heard it called a ‘Stussy,’ (which I actually thought was ‘Stuchie’). We would make Stussy Chains, connecting the lines to form braids [just like Elizabeth mentioned above]. I think the repetitive drawing, making something that is so simple but looks so complex, was really satisfying to my creative 3rd-grade mind.

  29. I went to middle school in Bulgaria and I remember that we used to do something very similar, which is strange due to the fact that Bulgarians use the Cyrillic alphabet. There is no S in the Cyrillic alphabet, or at least there isn’t a letter form that looks like an S.
    What the kids did was a little different though. They drew the vertical lines, then the 2 diagonals connecting them but they never added the 45-degree lines on the top and bottom. Instead, they added a broken diagonal line crossing the other 2 and then created a pattern by repeating the shape over and over. I’m sure this sounds confusing so here’s a picture:

     
    And no, the S doesn’t make me think of the SS at all. I think it has something to do with exploring and learning simple forms and patterns at a young age.

  30. I remember asking a fellow student to teach me how to draw that “S” when I was in second grade. I remember my class mate taking pride in the knowledge of the simple system that only a few students knew. The shape seemed to be very complex at the time and to have the ability to draw it so simply seemed liberating to me.
    It also to feel good to be in on that small group of people who can actually draw it.

  31. I used to draw this in school as well, but can’t remember why or where I learned it. I remember calling it the Superman S although it’s not exactly the same shape. I think it was used more as a trick rather than typography centered.

  32. I remember it being a brain teaser.  Instead of an S, my friends and I just turned it into a pattern, looking more like a braid by the time we were done.  The idea of easily creating an illusion, something that might have depth to it even thought 2D, is fun.  Teach the kids other 2D illusions and see what happens.  Show off some Escher. Encourage them to push the basic idea that they already are familiar with. Use the S form they have (along with Escher drawings)  to spark conversations of physics, gravity, illusions… what would it look like in 3D?   
    At least that’s what I remember from my days as a little person :)
     
     

  33. Interesting post! I’m Danish, not getting an SS vibe either, that logo was italic, rune-based lightning bolt stuff, far from this.
    I remember this, I was one of the boys drawing it, had forgotten about it. I remember that part of the coolness was that you made three vertical lines next to each other, then the same underneath – these then magically became an S. 
    This is a visual trick of sorts, when it’s been revealed and you’ve picked it up, you show the trick to others and within a few days it’s out of the system (or it was in early eighties Denmark) – I never considered expanding it into an alphabet even though I was into fonts back then – I have no idea why not.

  34. Yeah, we always called it the “Stussy S”…nevermind that I never actually saw Stussy use that as their logo. But as Beth said, it was the “special” way of drawing it that made it appealing.

  35. I’m from a small coastal town in North Carolina and we always called it the “Surfer’s S”, but, you’re right, we never really expanded on the alphabet past that! It was the prerequisite to being cool in second and third grade.

  36. I used to draw this letter when i was a child and spent a lot of time trying to make up other ltters that were the same! I dont know why i drew it but it was only when i was 7/8. I think it was because there was a special way to draw it which in some silly way made me feel intelligent!

  37. Worryingly, I think most Europeans would immediately direct you to the Waffen SS of the Second World War and their double “pointy S” symbol, which still sends a chill down the spine to this day