What is the connection between blackletter and violent / extreme culture

Thord's picture

Dear typophiles, I’m currently writing a university essay on the connection between blackletter and violent and extreme subcultures. I know that there have been some discussions about the connection to Nazism, and the “The Bormann Decree” of 1941.
My interest is in its general use as a style associated with danger and violence. I want to understand why it has become popular with other subcultures. I know for instance that it is popular among gang members in Los Angeles. (Someone told me that it is fact banned at LA-schools, is that true?)

On the other hand is the said connection to neo Nazism. Two subcultures that are very different, maybe even oppositions, but still equally violent.

I am considering there to be three ways of understanding this:
1) An historic explanation, with its connections to the third reich and “the dark ages”.
2) An aesthetical explanation, in relation to the sharp edges and so on.
3) And finally a “functional” explanation, if you can call it that. Here I’m thinking of the legibility of these typefaces, which make them suitable for secret societies.

Part of my interest in this theme is to maybe be able to say something more general about what makes up and comunicates the “meaning” of a typeface. And how big a part of it is its historical connotations. A huge field of research of course.

As often with social sciences I suspect the explanation to be a combination of the three, but I would very much like to get your opinion on the matter. Are there any aspects of this that I’m missing? I am still quite early in the process, so any suggestions would be of great value. Maybe any of you know of any similar research that could be of interest?

Ratbaggy's picture

interesting topic.

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Paul Ducco
Graphic Design, Melbourne
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Little Mischief

dezcom's picture

"You seem to imply that I am suggesting graphic designers should not be able to choose whichever tools they wish."

I did not mean to imply that at all. I was just trying to ask that you be sure to include blackletter work that did not fall into the nazi/hate mould. This would tell more of the whole story and allow designers to choose type without being fearful of accusations of pro-nazi beliefs. There is a fine line between honest scholarly reporting of events and historical interpretations and feeding the conclusion more credence than it may deserve. I am only asking that you remain objective. That is all.
Yes, I agree with the knife analogy. I also think that a religious item (statue of Buddha or communion chalice) can be used as a weapon but I don't think we should give otherwise peaceable items the stigma of evil. My intension is to allow the use of blackletter or any other type style without stigma. Let the designer be responsible for the total message they communicate. If they do it badly, it is their fault not the typeface.

ChrisL

PS: I sure could use one of those fine Bavarian beers right now Si!

ebensorkin's picture

Oh yeah, and I think the work of Amy Franceschini of Future Farmers in the middle 90s also took blackletter out of a mexican context & made it SF, CA hip.

Hiroshige's picture

You’ve got that the wrong way round.

Nick, what is uncivilized is your ignorance. Try to understand that there is most often great work being done in civil and un-civil efforts. Recognize and acknowledge those techniques that make the work effective - and learn from them. (In your case, the Nazi techniques of how to communicate.)

Don't bury your head in the sand - as to what makes a work, or a body of work, effective (aka, doing kickarse work), ok?

Learn from it's effectiveness, and use it in your own world - whatever world that maybe (?). And if that world runs up against our civilized values then we will deal with it - one way or another.

Less is not more!

Hiro

hrant's picture

Learning is one thing, doing another.

hhp

Si_Daniels's picture

Hrant, are you quoting Yoda again? ;-)

hrant's picture

Yoda after English grammar lessons, finally after 900 years, the little green FOB.

hhp

William Berkson's picture

I agree with Hrant (and Nick): learn from both the good and the wicked, but direct your actions to promote the good.

Si_Daniels's picture

>learn from both the good and the wicked, but direct your actions to promote the good.

Also know when not to reveal your sources...

Client: The flyer looks great, it will definitely help promote our plans to improve mass-transit in the city. It's a good cause as everyone agrees.

Designer: Thanks! I based it on some old Nazi propaganda flyers showing public works projects built using slave labor. Don't worry I replaced the picture of Hitler with a picture of your boss.

Client: Oh!

Designer: Okay, how about a latte?

dezcom's picture

ChrisL

William Berkson's picture

Thanks, Si and Chris :) The joys of typophile!

Joe Pemberton's picture

When I read the subject of this thread I thought Steven Heller himself was asking the question. LOL.

I grew up in So Cal (Carlsbad and Torrance). I'm not sure about the hispanic/chicano connection with blackletter (how it originated, etc) but it is not a gang thing. When you actually live among Mexican kids you actually start to realize they are not all gang bangers. (Trying my best not to get condescending on you, but I'm having a hard time.)

Now, zoom out, and put it into context... In Mexico blackletter (or a handpainted variety) is used ubiquitously there (notably on the cabs). (And I was never attacked or even threatened by a cab driver there!

I say let the Chicanos own blackletter! ¡Vive blackletter!


Taxi in Puerto Vallarta. And it wasn't even a gang controlled part of the city!


Chicano art exhibit title from the de Young, San Francisco. I survived the whole exhibit without being stabbed!

hrant's picture

When Heller asks such questions it's only so
he can promulgate his premeditated answers.

BTW, this store opened recently in the Glendale Galleria:
http://www.chicanostyle.com/our_stores.asp _
And I bought this shirt from there:
http://misnopales.com/t-shirts-carpul.html

hhp

dezcom's picture

LOL!!! That shirt is a stitch Hrant!

ChrisL

giljimenez's picture

Skimming through, I read someone suggested that Fraktur was associated with facist Germany, but I don't believe this to be the case. In fact, the Nazi's rejected fraktur because of it's "fractured" appearance and what it represented; a break from the true German blackletter.

Taken from wikipedia:

The “Normalschrifterlass”

The Fraktur typefaces reached a particularly strong use during the time of the Nazism. After it had been initially publicised as being the only true “German script”, they were banned in a Schrifterlass (edict on script) as alleged Schwabacher Judenlettern (“Schwabacher Jewish script”).

It is supposed that the reason for this change of mind was that Antiqua would be more legible to those living in the occupied areas, since the Fraktur typefaces were no longer well known outside the countries of German language. This hypothesis is contested by the fact that the Nazis had been printing books, newspapers and miscellaneous texts destined for abroad in Antiqua for a long time. Therefore, they would have been able to print everything for the occupied areas in Antiqua without the need to change the use of typefaces in the German-speaking areas.

It is more likely that Adolf Hitler was the reason for the ban. He appeared to have a dislike for the Fraktur typeface, as demonstrated by a declaration made in the Reichstag in 1934...

dan_reynolds's picture

While I don't associate blackletter with Nazism (or even the NSDAP) at all, it is really silly to assume that others don't. I think that it can also border on the offensive to state that other people's opinions, especially on matters of life, death, interpretation, and even history do not matter or count. Debate people you disagree with, but please do not dismiss their views offhand.

At least in my opinion, I doubt that Judaism as a religion, or modern-day Jews as a group, automatically associate blackletter with violence. Below is an image from the new synagogue in Worms. Worms has a particularly sad history when it comes to Christian–Jewish relations. Jews were slaughtered repeatedly over a millenium there, from the First Crusade (where they were some of the first victims) through to the 1940s. Yet, as you can see on this stone, they clearly don't have a problem with blackletter (or German either…). Maybe they picked this gothic-style lettering because its forms, of all possible Latin variants, match Hebrew the best. This could be a good starting point for Hrant's blackletter history of Yiddish…

Bleisetzer's picture

Last but not least - here is shown what is the reality of the Nazi time in Germany: its gone.
I do not like fastfood too much. But this is reason enough to order some Hamburgers.

Georg

hrant's picture

If it were gone you'd have sent ground troops to South Lebanon.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5342062.stm

The good news is that fading, it is.
Not least thanks to the current behavior of Israel.

hhp

Bleisetzer's picture

In the german Charta of our Republic you can read that the german army is only allowed to protect Germany against enimies from outside Germany.

In the meanwhile Germany protects itself by sending soldiers to:
Afghanistan, Congo, Bosnia, Lebanon. I don't know what they have to do there. My son will not go to this german army for sure.

And Israel does not need Germany to protect them.

Georg

hrant's picture

Georg, maybe that piece of paper is just that? You claim "we" don't understand Germany. I think you understand it even less than we do.

> Israel does not need Germany to protect them.

Then you should point out that Israel's position
that "the UN is there to stop Hzballa" is hogwash.

hhp

Bleisetzer's picture

hrant,
don't talk about politics, mh?
This is a typo forum and you are not the world police, mh?
Or if - Uncle Sam needs you :-)
Join your army.

Georg

Bleisetzer's picture

Was für ein idiotischer und unhöflicher Mensch das ist..
Nun ja..

Georg

miles's picture

I suggest interviewing Gaahl of Gorgoroth, who may be an erudite spokesperson for alternative culture in Norway.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU2Z7Q_FAyA

Scixx kicks's picture

Dear Thord,
what are the results of your essay? I´m working on a quite related topic, i.e. the renaissance of blackletter in popular culture like fashion, design etc. My thesis is that this violant image has originally raised from its image as a Nazi Type, and that it is exactly this generally violant, extreme connotation which caused the notable comeback of black letters in mass culture (H&M T-shirts, MANGO shopping windows, etc.). I will argue that this phenomenon is to be seen in context with the commercialization of subcultural styles and symbols, for example tatoos or piercing ("H&M-Punk" or "The end of Subculture"). So this denazification of black letter (as some German typographs call it) or in the broader sense "deradikalisation", is not the cause but the effect of overstraining the very radikal connotation.

I would like to read your essay, if you allow me to. Could you send it per email?

Kindly regards, Corinna

j_polo9's picture

Have either of you found any really cool blackletter typefaces or even images of nice type to share with us? Maybe we could start a flikr account with cool results of unique and interesting blackletter samples...

William Berkson's picture

Corinna,

Your thesis sounds like it has good insights into the revival of Blackletter, as it has happened so far. It would be nice if you could post a link to your essay when you're done.

hrant's picture

http://www.flickr.com/groups/blackletter_today/

Cool blackletter faces? Display: Sangue. The coolest.
Text: Fraktoer and Gotesk are nice, but still not good enough.

hhp

Thord's picture

Hi Corinna,
Interesting topic for your thesis. I didn’t go very much into the renaissance of blackletter. It seems like the fashion industry in particular has a healthy appetite for any cultural signs with a hint of danger. My impression is that the revival of blackletter has been a quite ephemeral one. Where I come from the blackletter-fashion is already over and fellow graphic designers will deny that they ever jumped on that bandwagon. It’s a bit sad that such an important part of our culture should end up as a “fashion victim”.

My thesis was written in Norwegian, but I could sum up a few of my points, that might be relevant to you. The history of blackletter is described pretty well in Blackletter: type and national identity. It gives you some insight into why blackletter ended up being “nazi type”:

From the outset, the opposition between blackletter and roman has been coloured by more momentous polarities: medievalism vs. modernity, Protestantism vs. Catholicism, Lutheran Pietism vs. Italian Humanism, German Romanticism vs. the French Enlightenment, the authority of the state vs. personal liberty and popular, nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism, mysticism vs. rationality. (Bain & Shaw 1998 : 11)

The formal qualities should also be considered. The sharp angular impression of some types of blackletter has aggressive connotations. I haven’t been able to find scientific research on how this is perceived in typography but there are several examples on research conducted on more simple geometric shapes, for instance in Reading Images:

The triangle is angular, like the square – an element of the mechanical, technological order. But, unlike the square, the triangle especially when tilted is (a fused structure of) a participant and a vector, because it can convey directionality, point at things. (…) Not surprisingly, glosses of the meanings of triangles in visual dictionaries reflect the dynamic quality. Triangles are a symbol of generative power and represent action, conflict, tension. (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996 : 236)

As many have pointed out in this thread there are several examples of use that has no apparent connection to the nazi associations affiliated with blackletter. There is however a more general characteristic with much of its use. Blackletter often seems to be seen as a sign of authority. This may be explained by its heritage from times when written language and print was reserved for people and institutions with power. As someone mentioned here earlier it seems like much of the use of blackletter in modern subcultures comes from an intention to gain or imply some sort of power, importance or “official-ness” of some sort. But it is a washed-out discourse. Black-metal fans and rappers may want to seem dangerous and important, but the real institutions of power and authority in our society – the corporations and governments – have aesthetic preferences that reflects modern ideals of objectivity and rationality, so they choose Helvetica or similar neutral typefaces.

It was hard to get my thesis down to 20 pages, so it’s impossible to break it down to a short post here. But I hope this was to some help to you.

ladydeas's picture

Is it true that Blackletter has been banned from schools in LA?

j_polo9's picture

lol that would seem rediculous if it is true. Although in California i wouldn't doubt anything.

Nick Shinn's picture

What is the connection between the roman letter and violent / extreme culture?

dezcom's picture

Nick, Perhaps guys like Caligula?

ChrisL

Nick Shinn's picture

One notable act of Trajan was the hosting of a three-month gladiatorial festival in the great Colosseum in Rome (the precise date of this festival is unknown). Combining chariot racing, beast fights and close-quarters gladiatorial bloodshed, this gory spectacle reputedly left 11,000 dead (mostly Jewish slaves and criminals, not to mention the thousands of ferocious beasts killed alongside them) and attracted a total of five million spectators over the course of the festival.

William Berkson's picture

IIRC, Trajan was notable for conquering Armenia and for exterminating the thriving Jewish community of Alexandria. The Romans were extremely cruel. One historian told me that nearly a quarter of the Roman empire had been killed getting the 'Pax Romana'.

I do wonder whether there is any connection between the style of the Roman capitals and the imperial cruelty of Rome. I like to think the style was established before their imperial success, and is the product of good and humble scribes. But that might be just wishful thinking. Evidence of its neutrality is that it makes equally good movie titles for good and bad movies!

dezcom's picture

I somehow think the kind of guy who is busy hacking off peoples heads with a sword isn't the same kind of guy who lovingly chisels a Roman S into marble. It could be though that if you were the "chisler" who misspeled the Emperor's name on a big hunk of marble, you might soon become Lion food at the next "Festival". Lends new meaning to the term "Authors Alteration"

ChrisL

hrant's picture

> The Romans were extremely cruel.

Huh, sounds vaguely familiar...

hhp

dezcom's picture

Aside from Pinky and the Brain, I can't think of one group who tried taking over the World who was not cruel.

ChrisL

hrant's picture

Yes, admitting one's fault is the first step.

hhp

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