Hip Hop Forever First-Class

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for Hip Hop Forever First-Class

On July 1, the United States Postal Service will issue four stamps celebrating Hip Hop culture, born in Black and Latino communities in the Bronx during the early 70s, through break dancing, MCing, DJing and graffiti art (remember when New York City mayors Koch and Giuliani went crazy ridding the city of graffiti and its makers?). The stamps are designed by USPS art director Antonio Alcalá using photos by Cade Martin. Here, veteran postage stamp designer Alcalá, of Studio A, talks about representing four key elements of Hip Hop for First-Class mail.

I was thinking the other day about how radical and controversial Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. were during the early hip hop days— four decades ago?—when music, graphics and politics mingled with anti-establishment protest and rebellion. Hip Hop has come a long way culturally, politically and commercially as an American urban creation. How were you able to navigate the history of Hip Hop into a stamp series that was consistent with its evolution?

Your question touches on one of the key challenges when making a stamp: how to condense a vast story into a minuscule image that satisfies a broad spectrum of the public. In short, it’s impossible. There will always be someone who takes issue with the way you’ve rendered the subject. I remind myself complaints about the artwork are reminders that people still care about stamps and what they represent. That’s a good thing.

More specifically, it took a fair amount of time and effort to get to a set of hip hop stamp designs that USPS was enthusiastic about issuing.

Hip Hop has a long and rich history, and from the start, I knew I wouldn’t be able to represent its totality in one set of stamps. But because it is such an important part of our nation’s art, and one of our most significant cultural contributions to the world, I knew we needed to at least begin representing it somehow. Hip Hop has four widely recognized key elements, or “pillars: Rap, DJs, Graffiti, and B-boying (known more broadly as break-dancing). Using contemporary images that quickly and accurately depict the genres eased the burden of having to represent the many histories within the subject.

I know youve been working on this for a while. How many iterations did you go through and for how long?

The stamps took almost a decade to be realized for a variety of reasons. I first worked with an historically important graffiti artist, and then a young illustrator and graffiti artist, to try to develop the set. Their approaches never quite fully communicated the vibrancy, energy and excitement of the subject. When I began developing approaches using photographic images, the designs started to feel more contemporary and appropriate. That said, my first submissions were also rejected. But I’m a firm believer there is no single solution to any design “problem,” so I just went back to sketching and developed an approach that got approval. Then, I had to organize a photoshoot, edit the images, create and adjust the final selections, etc. Overall, it probably took close to a hundred steps or iterations from the beginning to get to the final designs.

Hip Hop is more than a style—it is a cultural force, a movement and an identity. How do you balance these (and more) elements in creating a design theme?

Because stamps are a sort of branding mechanism for the United States, it’s important as a designer to keep one’s attention centered on the cultural contributions more than the commercial aspects.

Additionally, because this is the first time the USPS has commemorated this topic, I wanted to make sure the emphasis is on Hip Hop and not on particular performers or creators.

… As these are the first Hip Hop stamps, my approach is narrow in terms of what isn’t shown, but broad in that they can represent just about everything. I’m hoping the door is now open to many other stamps covering specific artists and “brands” that are part of our collective Hip Hop experience. It would be nice in another 10 or 20 years to see Hip Hop as well represented in the stamp program as popular music or jazz or baseball.

It is obvious that postage stamps are designed to appeal to certain advocate, fan or collector audiences. Just as I have bought stamps celebrating artists from the pop music and other series, Im going to buy these too, not just to collect but to use (I always buy at least two panes, one to keep). Do you have an audience in mind?

In this case, I have two audiences in mind: The first are the many fans of Hip Hop in all its forms. I want to make sure these stamps don’t look fake, overly sanitized or the product of a large corporation that co-opts something popular for commercial purposes. We’re all familiar with that experience. The other audience I have in mind are the many Americans that maybe have only minimal experience with hip hop. To them, the stamps need to be bright and engaging, with enough appeal to get them to look at least a little closer at this important American art form.