Graffiti to Graphic Design:
The Pathway From Illicit to Commercial
Graphic designer by way of graffiti seems to be a natural progression today within the world of Graphic Design, and in particular to the world of Design in Los Angeles. While some elements of graffiti seem counter-intuitive to the world of design, others remain in a form of unison that may not be obvious to the outside observer. With the third wave of graffiti (the 1990’s) coming of age today, the design community is scattered with many graffiti writers and ex-graffiti writers. Why is that?
The owner of ADS Studio, David Kaul describes his path towards professional design by way of graffiti as such:
“Growing up as a graffiti writer when I did, meant growing up in a special time. A time of graffiti’s innocence and problem-solving phase. A time when a whole generation explored the development of groundbreaking subcultures. The 90’s. A time when graffiti artists were limited and fearless. Many went on to become visual artists of one form or another. Pioneering the idea of turning a once frowned upon use of time into a way of making a living through creative principles.
For me being a graphic designer means you’re dealing with a visual problem and creating the visual fix. Although not directly related; every visual fix for me in my professional practice was pioneered by hand styles and fundamentals I learned by painting graffiti”.
In this article, I will explore how graffiti and graphic design have become intertwined. I will discuss how graffiti, in the new century, is the second creative path for many current and former graffiti writers.
What is graffiti, what is graphic design, and how are these two things related?
Graffiti, by which I mean –real– graffiti, distinguished from street art, or legal avenues, by nature is somewhat of an antisocial behavior. The writer or artist takes the initiative to prioritize their work (graffiti) against societal norms (the social contract). This is antithetical to the role of a designer, who uses one’s craft to create collateral for a client, collateral which will be utilized by the community through capitalism.
The act of designing has equal parts empathy and commerce at its helm. Whereas most graffiti is harmful to capitalism as a whole and disregards community outside of its own particular niche.
This is evident in the prevalence of graffiti in areas underserved by commerce and government. For example, in Los Angeles, graffiti thrives in areas like Boyle Heights, and not-yet-gentrified parts of Downtown Los Angeles. These underserved areas become hotbeds for creative output and typographically inspired work outside of the constraints of academe or fine art. These avenues of expression can eventually lead to careers and lives dedicated to visual communication.
Letterforms are letterforms, and authorship is sacred.
Typography and craft are the most obvious similarities between graffiti and graphic design, however, the similarities between the two further coalesce, when taking authorship into consideration. A successful graffiti writer is one who is able to remain anonymous.
The writer must produce work without being identified by those outside of graffiti culture, and even then, only through an alias. The more work produced, the more prolific, the more ‘successful’ the writer is. In Los Angeles this is further amplified by the diverse community that lives here.
The diversity of Los Angeles is keystone to the development of its creative class. Historically, graffiti in Los Angeles predates modern “graffiti” by decades. Cholo writing existed within the underbelly of our city dating back to at least the Zoot Suit riots of 1940’s — three decades before New York City and Philadelphia had hip hop inspired subway graffiti¹. The authorship of the underclass is evident in the production and location of work. In Los Angeles, this is aided by our diverse population, both ethnically, and socioeconomically.
Outside of the idea of Designer as Author², a philosophy made famous by Michael Rock, most designer efforts are invisible to those outside of the creative community. Consumers appreciate good design but are unaware of the creator of the ephemera outside of a brand name, or perhaps a studio name. For instance, the average consumer may appreciate the services and style of the UPS logo, but typically will be unaware of Paul Rand and his role in developing that brand and the process behind it.
With the goal of graffiti being to produce as much as possible, a similar process can become paramount to the outcome of the work. This is not dissimilar to the creative process of designers. The creators learn through either formal education; a typical path for graphic designers, or a loose form of street mentorship; typical in the path of the graffiti writer. Both creators hone their individual process through years of practice to maximize the quality and prolific nature of their work.
As Long Beach-based graphic designer and longtime graffiti writer, Andy Yasgar writes:
“Graffiti, or let’s say the philosophy behind graffiti, is the root of everything I do in the present day. To take an idea or a project and push the elements of design to the limits, while still respecting and staying in line with everything I have been previously taught. Every time you draw a graffiti piece, you are subconsciously going through the design process and execution of that piece”.
Los Angeles, Graphic Design, and Graffiti.
Los Angeles serves as a cultural hub in all things 21st century American. The multicultural, and diverse spectrum of socioeconomic strata within Southern California have created the perfect balance of street culture and commerce. With street culture –in this case, graffiti– lending itself as a ready pathway towards a more mainstream career in graphic design.
: Chastanet François, et al. Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles. Dokument, 2009.
: Rock, Michael. “Designer as Author.” 2x4, 7 Jan. 2019
Examples from: Professor Anthony Acock(@amp.rok), David Kaul, owner of ADS Studio (@Dxkaul) Andy Yasgar, (@sket_one), Dr. Susan Philips (@professorshoeshine), and Southern California Graffiti Report (@socalgraffitireport).
Anthony is a Chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Communication Design at Cal Poly Pomona; he is a Visual Communication designer focused on the non-profit sector and advocacy-based design; and he is exceptionally snobby about coffee.