Writing It Down

The term preservation usually refers to buildings, not the graffiti that covers them. But that ephemera is exactly what 27-year-old typographer Christian Acker is trying to immortalize with Handselecta, a project to create typefaces based on well-known writers’ techniques. “With the rise of zines in the eighties and Internet use in the nineties, styles from different cities cross-pollinated,” Acker says. “If that history is not preserved, no one will be able to recognize the vernacular styles each city once generated.”

Handselecta (www.handselecta.com), which began as a typographic investigation, has evolved into a more ambitious undertaking that aims to identify the evolution of local script over the past 30 years and document it through traditional means. By designing typefaces instead of taking pictures (the way most graffiti is captured), he hopes to bring “the type design of the street,” which is a record of a specific place and time, to larger audiences and broader contexts. “Graffiti writers in the seventies could tell what neighborhood a writer was from by their tag,” Acker says. “At that time the only thing that would spread a style was a subway train.”

Acker works in close collaboration with each artist to carefully balance the writer’s individualism with the tenets of good design, much the way a literary translator preserves the original voice and spirit of a text. “We realized early on that each person’s tag was much more stylized than their normal hand style,” Acker says. “Compared to typography, the contributor’s tag was more like a logo. So we have all of them write out multiple pangrams to see the letters in different combinations and scales.” Acker then scans and traces the forms, merging multiple versions of every letter into the design of a single character.

“We initially thought the project would last the summer,” Acker remembers. In fact, Handselecta began in 2003, but the first typefaces were released only this year—and Acker is now thinking of the long view. “The moment you make a typeface out of [these styles], it’s historical,” he says. “The fact that we’re canonizing this stuff is what’s interesting to me.”

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