S - Where Did It Come From?
Written by Alec Banks
Illustrations by Kenton Parker
We’ve come to understand that the allure of graffiti is different for everyone who has ever picked up a marker or spray can and decided to leave a remnant of themselves behind — real name, moniker, street, significant other, etc. — for others to then interpret as if signals from an unknown perpetrator, as stealthy as an extraterrestrial.
Most of these etchings are personal. Thus, when a would-be artist decides to stop writing, his individual moniker quickly fades away.
There are notable instances, however, where visual language in graffiti form has been mimicked around the world. Most notably, KILROY WAS HERE remains one of the best examples of how graffiti can be crowdsourced and duplicated, even if a person were unaware of its World War II origins and cult history, for those who have ridden train lines across the world.
For others, a mystical “S” is the quintessential example of how graffiti has permeated most everyone’s life regardless of their upbringing.
“As far back as my memory goes, that is the first stylized letter I can recall drawing as a kid, and my friends and I drew it all the time and on everything,” recalls legendary skateboarder Stacy Peralta. “We used to draw that in grammar school all over our notebooks, as early as the fourth grade, which would have been 1964 or ’65.”
Aesthetically, this “S” begins with two sets of three vertical lines, one above the other, which are then joined diagonally left to right with four parallel lines at 45-degree angles, and four more lines on top and bottom for a final pointy flourish that cements it in letterform. More often than not, this symbol was peppered on the notebooks of school-age kids or scrawled on denim in a similar manner as an anarchy symbol.
Despite its prevalence across the globe and throughout the 20th century, the origin stories for the “S” remain shrouded in mystery.
Some believe it is derived from Los Angeles gang culture. Others point to various bands that may have used it in their logos. Finally, it may just be a reworked infinity symbol.
When the stories are collectively compiled, it seems everything from car brands to scholarly books may have been the impetus for one of the most accidental success stories in modern branding. By now, you’d have thought someone would have come forward to take credit, even if it were untrue. Yet the mythology grows like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, with no known culprit.
Some possibilities follow.
Sacred Reich is a metal band that formed in 1985 in Phoenix, Arizona, with six albums to its credit in its three decades of existence. Although many people insist that the “S” logo in question pre-dates the group’s formation, there’s no denying that the “S” in the band’s name bears a striking resemblance.
Phil Rind, an original member of the band who performed vocals and played bass, has dispelled the rumor, telling VICE, “Our guitar player Jason used to ride motocross and I’ll bet he rode a Suzuki. That’s where we got it. Anyway, it’s nice of those people to think we invented it. But they’re wrong.”
Japanese auto and motorcycle manufacturer Suzuki certainly has the established, worldwide pedigree that could suggest that its logo could be mass-produced throughout the world.
Additionally, the brand began using a stand-alone “S” logo — emblazoned in red — in 1958, which would fit a timeline for those who have suggested the usage in a graffiti context started in the 1960s. However, there’s no explanation as to why the Suzuki logo — where there is clearly space between the individual strokes — would then be transformed so that there are no gaps in the design. Make no mistake, it’s hard to rule out Suzuki unequivocally, but the design itself is much different.
For most people who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, the mystery of the “S” logo hasn’t been something weighing heavily on their creative conscience because they’ve just assumed it was the logo for pioneering California streetwear brand Stüssy, whose counterculture relevancy would lend itself to kids doodling its logo on textbooks and trapper keepers.
The logo was conceived by Shawn Stussy, who drew inspiration from the handstyles of his uncle, Jan Stussy, a renowned artist who often utilized distorted boxes, circles and other geometric shapes in his works and who would become the first art faculty member to be appointed a full professor at UCLA. During his career, he compiled a portfolio of 5,000 paintings, sculptures and prints.
When Juxtapoz created a video to accompany an August 2009 profile on Stüssy, the Super-8 film featured a re-creation of the 14-line “S” in question.
However, Emmy Coates, who has called Shawn Stussy a co-worker since 1985, dispels this rumor completely. Though she does admit that this is a question she fields quite often — fueled by early hats that you’d have to admit bear a striking resemblance and the company’s usage of its “Joker” logo.
As for her own personal beliefs, Coates is one of many who are firmly in the Suzuki camp.
Much like the case of the Sacred Reich logo, other music fans have held onto the idea that the “S” in question refers to the first letter in the stylized logo design for American rock band Styx, who formed in the early ’70s.
While the “S” in their name has remained relatively static over time, there was a five-year period (1978-1983) where several other bands — like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest — all released projects with equally unique font usage. This might suggest that for those drawing the “S” in the 1980s, they were simply mimicking the band they preferred.
Coincidentally enough, Styx’s 11th studio album, Kilroy Was Here, is a reference to the aforementioned visual phenomenon, which falls into a similar category.
According to the Book Industry Study Group, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a variety of different approaches were tried for machine-readable identification of book products, with emphasis on data capture at point of sale. The system of numbering and barcoding ultimately became the standard, known as the Universal Product Code, or UPC.
When trying to unlock this mystery, we have to take into account that reports of seeing this mark span generations and locales. Thus, we must examine what all these kids had in common — school. And more specifically, books.
Thanks to the UPC codes, we understand that an “S” symbol — although not stylized — appears on almost every schoolbook throughout the world. Arranged inside of a triangle, it is meant to denote that a book is “strippable” — meaning that if it wasn’t sold, it could be sent back to the publisher for a refund, with the book jacket as proof.
Here we have a case where an “S” is present throughout the entire world, on the desks of children, and probably during a time when the mind is wandering and doodling follows soon after. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to insinuate that kids may have used the geometric shape of the triangle and the letter and tried to blend the two.
According to Internet lore, many believe that the “S” started out as a clever puzzle from a Scholastic Book, posed in one of two ways. The first presented two rows of three vertical lines and tasked a person with creating an “S” with just eight more lines. The second was quite similar, presenting the same formation but showing matchsticks rather than just straight lines.
As with the aforementioned barcoding scenario, the timeline of the founding of Scholastic Books and its eventual worldwide adoption suggests that this is plausible.
Simply put, once you cracked the so-called code, it would certainly be a likely doodle for kids of all ages and regional upbringings.
MTV’s original Headbangers Ball ran from 1987 to 1995. Although we understand that the “S” phenomenon pre-dates the show by almost 30 years, there’s no denying that a newer generation may have been encouraged to mimic the stylized “S” in the show’s logo (designed by HAZE).
INFINITY SYMBOL OR MÖBIUS STRIP
There’s no definitive proof or explanation that the “S” is an infinity symbol turned on its side or a Möbius strip. But aesthetically there are similarities, which include the half-twist element.
SUREÑOS GANG GRAFFITI
Los Angeles graffiti was birthed from the “Zoot Suit Riots” of the 1940s — which saw a clash between Mexican-American teenagers (Pachucos) and American soldiers — where cultural lines were drawn, using Chicano artwork to delineate rival territory.
By the late 1960s, West Coast pioneer Chaz Bojórquez had built upon and perfected these traditions using a blend of what he had seen come before him and new textual elements littering places like Boyle Heights, MacArthur Park and Venice that referenced the Sureños street gang — an illegal organization that fell under the Mexican Mafia umbrella.
At first glance, the “S” in this investigation could have potentially been a means of replicating the Old English stylings favored by Sureños gang members in Southern California in the late 1960s/early 1970s.
However, Stacy Peralta, who was born and raised in Venice, dispels the myth, stating, “I kind of recall seeing that ‘S’ on the helmets and bikes of Hells Angels back in the early to mid-’60s, all of which would have preceded gang graffiti, which if my memory serves me didn’t start appearing in L.A. until the late ’60s.”
Despite countless attempts to prove the origins, there’s no definitive answer as to why kids of all backgrounds, religions and locales recall drawing the mysterious “S.” Perhaps there are many answers — which all point to the above, depending on what era a kid grew up in.
Or perhaps Shepard Fairey has a much simpler answer: “I think it went viral because it looks cool and is easy to draw in much the same way the Dead Kennedys’ logo is.”