Jessica Helfand | Essays

Our Bodies, Our Fonts

Family Tree ©2000 Zhang Huan

Body markings — piercings, tattoos and so forth — have recently evolved into a kind of marginalized form of graphic expression, yet one that sheds an unusual light on some of the more mainstream ways in which design often reveals itself. It used to be that T-shirts and bumper stickers were the primary vehicles of choice for public displays of private opinion. Yet while the market for these printed artifacts still remains economically solvent (and commercially viable) the idea of writing on the body seems so much — so much what, exactly? More honest? More immediate? Less impersonal? Less mass-marketed?

More universal?

Or just weirder?

Cosmetic intervention is generally considered a kind of deeply personal conceit. And yet, in spite of the surge in elective surgeries, the mass appeal of certain Reality TV shows and a wealth of other visual oddity reinforcing our corporeal fascination, when did it first become a surface for typographic experimentation? Today, the body has become a new kind of exposed canvas for displaying messages, feelings, histories, timelines, advertisements, and more. Why the body? Why just make a poster, after all, when you can scratch type onto your torso and then make a poster? Why, for that matter, make a poster at all? Why not just make art?

I realize I may be into dangerous territory here, but bear with me. It often seems that art involving typography edges its way, pica by pica, into the realm of graphic design. And yet, when something involving hand-drawn language is involved, we rarely, if ever evaluate such work by the same criteria that we reserve for, say, a book or a poster or CD cover. Would any of us ever dream of critiquing the letterspacing on this Lou Reed album, for instance? And while it is unlikely that the contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan looked at Stefan Sagmeister in general — or at Lou Reed in particular — there's an unmistakable similarity in method between these two pieces of work. What's different is the motive.

What's different is that one is graphic design. And the other is art.

Writing On The Body

Writing on the body is a topic of enormous interest among certain scholars, particularly feminist theorists who have ascribed deeper meanings to the impulse of self-marking, raising questions of gender and identity and social equality. And yet ironically, it seems that most of the graphic experimentation is done at the hands (and on the bodies) of men — not women. Consider, for example, Zhang Huan, who was born in China during the peak of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and became active in performance art (new to China at the time) in the early 90s as one of the founders of the Beijing East Village movement. Today he is one of China's leading contemporary artists, often using his body in potent, memorable performances that physically explore China's complex history whtin the context of a universally poetic lyricism. (His piece "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond" adorned NYC subways, buses, and the cover of the catalog during the ground-breaking exhibition "Inside Out," jointly organized by the Asia Society and SFMOMA in 1998.) In Family Tree, 2000, recently acquired by the Yale Art Gallery, he created a serial self-portrait during a performance in which he had 3 calligraphers inscribe his family and cultural history on his face until it turned black.

Zhang Huan's facial calligraphy looks at chronological history as a form of written expression, a comment on cultural saturation and yes — an implied gesture of physical extremism. (It is worth noting that Stefan Sagmeister's well-known poster for AIGA Detroit was an effort to try and visualize the pain that goes into making design, so perhaps there is more in common here than one might think.) Presented as a grid of self-portraits, Family Tree is both potent and poetic, at once a work of performance and a testament to — let's face it — unimaginable patience.

But I wonder: would Zhang's personal geneology have been even the least bit memorable had it been typeset on paper, etched into stone, even emblazoned on a wall? And what if Lou Reed's face were to have been covered in Bembo? How is it that these images work their way into our popular consciousness, or more importantly, into the human psyche? What's with all the handwriting on the body, and on the face, — and where, incidentally, is it leading us?

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Typography

Comments [26]

My first independent film experience (having grown up mostly without TV and in rural areas where movie listings were months behind and always mainstream) was the Pillow Book, a tragic romance about a woman rather obsessed with being written on - it's vivid imagery will always remain with me. There is something visceral and exciting about using the body as a canvas (to me), despite the many negative associations many forms of it have ranging from societal casting to just plain passé.

the use of the tattoo as a personal statement is the whole point of a tattoo. i know it sounds obvious, but it amazes me that so many people think that tattoos are done for the casual viewer's observation and for stangers to comment. frankly, anybody who has a tattoo to influence the thinking of others in any way ought to not get a tattoo.

i have a large abstract garland that travels from my right hand , snakes up my arm, crosses my shoulders like a yoke dips over onto my chest and continues over the entire area of my back. it was a huge, long painful and peculiar experience having that tattoo applied. it was not something that i think most people should do without very very thorough consideration. the whole process took a period of five years and i had to stop before it was complete (it was supposed to travel down my leg as well). expense, pain, long miserable itching healing time and the constant commentary of those who don't know what it means to you are all things that i wouldn't want to repeat.

i don't show it to anyone but a very close chosen few. yet, strangers still want to touch my arm when my sleeves are rolled up (for some reason waitpersons especially), and many people feel the need to express their most personal (and unwelcome, unsolicited) feelings about it. it turns off a huge number of people and some have actually freaked (burst into tears or abruptly left the room). it became a surprising litmus test for friends and clients. the predjudices and assumptions of the insensitive and ignorant is always a shock.

so, i have some regrets - particlularly how it changed the others around me. but this personal experience on my skin reflects a strange and somehow magic period in my life history. to this day i love the thing. but, i don't think i'd do it again. other people are just too judgemental and damning. they can ruin a good thing.

art chantry

A friend posted this picture the same day I read this entry.

A very curious tattoo.



hmmm... As far as I'm concerned, teh way in which writing on the body is received is all a question of context. Marking one's own body is undoubtedly reflexive to some extent, It deals with our own identity and feelings about ourselves (This applies to the horrific problem of self-harm as well as tattoing and body art, even though this is not strictly graphic.) Writing on the bodies of others though, seems to imply an implication of control, or even ownership; (branding in the literal sense of the word). 'The Pillow Book' is an example of this. However, writing on the body used within graphic design also has a much more basic purpose. To quote Jessica's point that:
'Would any of us ever dream of critiquing the letterspacing on this Lou Reed album, for instance?'
Writing on the body removes it's subject from the 'official' system of print and places it resolutely in the 'vernacular' graphic language of body art and hand rendered lettering; it's all a question of semiotics.
Tim C

all graphic design is "vernacular". i don't understand which graphic design is "above" or "superior" or "mo betta".

art chantry

I have several type only tattoos and I am planning more in the future. Some how they seem more expressive and personal than traditional image tattoos.

"the use of the tattoo as a personal statement is the whole point of a tattoo."

"Marking one's own body is undoubtedly reflexive to some extent, It deals with our own identity and feelings about ourselves ... Writing on the bodies of others though, seems to imply an implication of control, or even ownership"

Then what does it say when, according to the results of a Millward Brown branding study, "18.9 percent of respondents declared a willingness to be tattooed with their favorite brand's logo"?

In order: Harley-Davidson, Disney, Coca-Cola, Google.
Steven K.

it means that you pay waaaaaay too much attention to branding studies.

by the way, i've got a bridge i wanna sell you.
art chantry

The study's credibility isn't necessarily the point. In response to Tim C's quote, is a tattoo of a company logo really an expression of the individual, or does it represent a kind of control the company has over the individual? If the former, does a Harley tattoo, for example, express a similar idea/feeling for everyone who has one?

Does the body part where the tattoo exists, whether an individual design or a corporate logo, add meaning to the expression?
Steven K.

look at thwe logos you listed. they are all CULTURAL lynchpins. people BECOME those products - way beyond the point of control. they control the identity of those products, not the other way around. the harley logo saved the company from extinction.

so, the faux study simply reinstates the personal aspect of tattooing. think about it.

when examining writings in the promotion and adverttising arenas (particularly politics) you should always read byond the statement and think around what is said. otherwise you buy face value and get stiffed. you study reinforces the obvious.
art chantry

Zang's personal genealogy is memorable to HIM regardless of its medium and structure, because it is his story and his history. What makes his story memorable to others depends on how the individual decides to perceive it.

Have we grown so overwhelmed by the abundance of information we encounter, that someone sharing their personal story with us is not enough to be considered memorable? Should something need to be visually unusual even though the story might be phenomenal and beautiful and rich?

Regardless of what gets labeled as "memorable," and what type of formal/informal elements are used to present this, Zang's choice to display his history on the outside of his head can be seen as a statement about bringing what is normally internal and invisible into the realm of the external and highly visable.

Zang carries his own history around in his head, just as we all do, where it is protected and unjudged by the outside world. His work reverses that norm, leaving him vulnerable to criticism in the same way that people with tattoos are vulnerable to criticism for wearing their beliefs/passions on their skin.
Ann Benoit

Art: the distinction i'm trying to draw between 'vernacular' and 'official' sources is an entirely relative one; graffitti means certain things to people, whilst black helvetica on a white ground means others. This isn't a particularly sophisiticated example, but i must stress that i wasn't trying to convey the superiority of any particular graphic style over another, simply that different modes of presentation are percieved to have a different level of authority or can appear to originate from a certain stance or viewpoint.


I have to agree with Art on your point about company logos as tattoos; people get the nike tick tattood on themselves for the same reason they might get a football club or regimental tattoo if they were a football fan or soldier. Self perception is intrinsically tied up with the figures and concepts we identify with socially, and it is a sad fact of life that many people identify most with large business brands, and the 'culture' with which they sell their products. (Insert apologies for not entirely insincere anti-capitalist sentiment here if necessary).
This is a system of control, but the impetus to tattoo oneself is still one of personal identity or identification with a certain set of values.
Tim C

while i admired a great deal about tibor, i have to say that i found his introduction of the word 'vernacular' into the graphic jargon a rather crude attempt to establish an artificial hierarchy. it's as if there has been established an 'official' and 'unofficial' (or should i say 'high' and 'low' - think 'class') graphic design culture. i've always found that offensive in the extreme. it comes off as a sort of slumming when the word 'vernacular' is used to descibe any design source that is even vaguely deemed "low". it's awful.

that is what i was reacting to in your remarks. and if a "tattoo" isn't a something that the official design culture would classify as vernacular, i don't what would be. it's pretty predicatible and you can do much better.
art chantry

I entirely agree that to seperate different graphic styles into high and low as some kind of value judgement is quite pointless, however, i think it is important to recognise that, in general, graphic design has certain conventions of things which are 'done a certain way', in its most basic sense, the vast majority of written language in western culture (and probably the whole world) is typeset, whether on screen or some print medium. to me a vernacular source is simply something which disregards these conventions, and handwritten text cut into human flesh becomes a 'vernacular' (using the above definition) source when it is then photographed and placed within the context of Graphic Design, with its conventions of print on paper. I wouldn't class this as being any kind of judgement of its effectiveness or validity, or any attempt to categorise it in social terms, and, if anything, this sort of use of wide ranging graphic references, influences and techniques is far favorable in terms of developing a rich visual culture and effective work than sitting in front of a hot mac all day, simply becuase that's what 'everyone normally does' - a scarily common attitude among many of my contemporaries.
Tim C

"design culture" works within an extremely limited view of what graphic design actually is. your viewpoint is narrow. convention is wrong. it usually is.

the limitation of graphic design to what is conventionally ruled graphic design misses the vast body (tattoo pun intended) of the history of graphic design. your viewpoint is like saying "it ain't graphic design until graphic designers say it's graphic design" or something. what kind of perspective is that? limited, i'd say.

i seem to work on a much broader spectrum of graphic design. just look at my work. am i wrong? it ain't design? huh?
art chantry

Art, as far as I can tell, I'm agreeing with you. Are you sure you're not getting bogged down in a linguistic misunderstanding, or just being confrontational for the sake of it?
At no point in this thread have I said that convention is a good thing, or in any way preferable to alternative (i won't use the v-word again)forms of graphic expression. All I'm saying is that these 'alternative' or even 'unconventional' forms of expression gain their power from being unconventional, ie. if the conventions weren't there, there'd be no point in subverting them. I'm not saying that any of this 'isn't graphic design' but that graphic design / visual communication is a broad field, and the contrasts between these different means of expression are prescisely the reason that 'unconventional' treatments and techniques are often more memorable.

I am familiar with your work, and find your attitudude puzzling, if not a little hypocritical.
Your 'Night Gallery' poster from 1991, for instance, seems to gain its effect from placing cultural references out of context in this way. (Once again, I'm not making a value judgement! I'm not saying that it's not graphic design!). This is just a technique to be used, like any other, but one that gains its power from subverting pre-existing conventions and preconceptions. Therefore, referencing is a valuable graphic technique, but one that would lose its power if there weren't established conventions and preconceptions in the first place.

Rick Poynor has said the following about your work:

'In the work of Art Chantry [...] the American vernacular found one of its most enthusiastic and attentive archaeologists' - No More Rules (Laurence King, 2003)

Is this maybe just a word you're sick of hearing?
Tim C

what i see is not agreement, but opposite poles of thought. the snobbery of the design culture is at odds with reality. that is what i'm talking about (in simple terms.) it's a myopia that has sent design culture wandering into a forest of irrelevance.

also, i often rather strongly disagree with rick poyner's ideas and opinions (he knows that) and he disagrees with mine. so, your quoting him as gospel when talking about my work is pretty amusing to me. thanks for that.

gosh, if rick sez that about me, then it must be true!
art chantry

At what point above have i ever implied any kind of snobbery about different forms of graphic design/culture/imagery over others? I do get the impression that you are taking a rather myopic approach to this debate, refusing to accept any kind of agreement out of hand.

Oh, and I never suggested that Mr Poynor's word was gospel, rather that you had been described as using quote-unquote 'vernacular' sources in your work, which appears to be at odds with the argument you so resoundingly advocate here. to reiterate myself earlier in this thread:

At no point in this thread have I said that convention is a good thing, or in any way preferable to alternative (i won't use the v-word again)forms of graphic expression.

where exactly in this argument do you see any kind of 'snobbery of the design culture'? that, (and i will reiterate, again) is the last thing i intended, and, having explained my position multiple times, in the face of cheap sarcastic jibes and polemical rambling, you have yet to show any signs of any kind of willingness to engage with the argument at hand, but rather a wish to rather pedantically stir up some kind of flame war on this thread.
Tim C

art chantry

upon further consideration, i still have to say,"huh?" i don't think it would be possible to state my opinion more clearly than in my last entry. if you don't like my opinion, that's perfectly ok. there's plenty of room for everybody.

sorry if you don't like my 'voice'. but, it's the way i 'talk'. you really should not read so much into it. that part is entirely in your head. honest. these are simply calmly stated opinions. that's all.
art chantry

Well, i don't think this is going anywhere, but it's a shame, as I still get the imression we're talking at cross purposes. Nevermind.
Tim C

I would contend that body markings have not evolved INTO a marginalized form of graphic expression but rather FROM it. What may once have been a fringe art form became another commercial venue in the 1990s. Whether it's the famous work of Sagmeister, Peter Greenaways movies, franchise tatoo parlors, or the recent waves of ebay users selling body ad space, the form has long served as an instrument of commerce.
Bjorn Akselsen

I want to go back to Tim C.'s initial comment: "As far as I'm concerned, the way in which writing on the body is received is all a question of context." The discussion of "vernacular" that followed is less interesting to me than the loaded issue of the connection/interaction between body markings and commercial graphic design. I agree that the way in which body markings are received is a question of context. But more specifically, I think that it is a question of how these body markings are represented to the public. I think it is misrepresentational and too confusing to clump all markings on the body into the same category. We have to start breaking all of the categories of body markings apart and how each has been historically represented to even approach the subject of how they connect to and/or are used by commercial design. First of all, there is a significant difference between tattooing the body, cutting the body, piercing the body, painting the body and writing on the body. And, for example, the representation of body painting versus tattooing in American culture is completely different. The connection between Zhang Huan's piece and Sagmeister's Lou Reed cover is interesting because the calligraphy in Zhang Huan's piece is actually done on his body while the Lou Reed cover is "faked." And, even if there are similarities between Sagmeister's poster and Zhang Huan's piece, they are actually more interesting in terms of how they differ. i think it is more interesting how one uses calligraphy and the other uses cutting or self-mutilation to express its content. Also, Zhang Huan's text is his own personal history while Sagmeister's is the details of an AIGA event. Zhang Huan is working within a specific cultural language, while Sagmeister is appropriating the language of self-mutilation or facial markings out of a personal or cultural specificity and using it as a metaphor for design and personal connection to content. As a side note how different would the Sagmeister poster have been if it pictured a woman with those marks? The body that the markings appear on makes a huge difference as well. I think the body is a specific and loaded vehicle to say the least and when searching for a way of making sense of how designers use it, we have to get specific. The body is not just another instrument of commerce. It carries powerful messages about gender, power, sexuality and culture. i think designers and artists use that power. AND i think that that can be really scary, especially when we aren't specific about what it is that is being represented.
Jessica W

interesting post, jessica. food for thought.
art chantry

This thread seems dead now everyone' moved on to Barbera Kruger, but I read this in Emigre 67 (Mr Keedy's essay) and thought it was quite amusing....
From 'Ornament and Crime' by Adolf Loos, via Mr Keedy:

The modern man who tatoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate [...] If a tatooed person dies at liberty, it is only that he died a few years before committing a murder'

How's that for 'vernacular'? (Removes tongue from cheek at this point)
Tim C

Thank you for the reference, Tim. Perhaps my next post should be about ornament and crime. Or degenerates.
Jessica Helfand

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