Bird's Eye

In today's Letterform, Nic Sanchez of Grilli Type focuses on the raw grace of graffiti lettering found in Southern California in the early 1970s...

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“F” — Bird1, South Los Angeles Trece, 1971

Spend time in any urban setting and you’ll eventually come across some graffiti, but the flavor of this lettering is distinctly Angeleno. The first time I saw this character, from an image taken by Howard Gribble in 1971, I was immediately drawn to the raw and graceful movement of the linework. There is a forceful, visceral beauty present. While the text is nearly indecipherable, it physically demands your attention; powerful in a way that any present-day designer can only hope to be.

Rooted in traditions of black letter and calligraphy, Chicano, or Cholo Writing, became an integral part of street culture in the cities of Southern California. This placa, or wall writing, was written by an individual whose true identity has been lost to time, Bird1. Evident through his numerous works throughout the LA, his personal style is distinct, yet this piece of lettering is very clearly within the definition of this genre. Ornate and fluid details intertwine with each other almost to the point of illegibility. Of all the characters visible, the “F” is the most graceful, sweeping low in a fluid motion.

In 2007 Gribble gave an interview during which he detailed how he came to capture this defining cultural movement. The interview showcases many additional photos of his, taken in the Southland throughout the 1960s and 70s. These images provide a clear picture of how this Chicano vernacular existed before it was disseminated into popular culture through surf, skate, punk, and hip-hop.

Many of the images taken by Gribble were later published in a book by Francois Chastanet, Cholo Writing: Latino Gang Graffiti in Los Angeles. In an interview with Steven Heller, Chastanet delves further into some of the historical context that gave rise to this type of graffiti. This context provides more insight into how this image speaks to a landscape of Los Angeles that is both distant and immediate.

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SO #13 # LOS