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and mexican gang culture

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Blackletter

and mexican gang culture

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History of Blackletter The precursor to blackletter was Carolingian minuscule, a script that was used during the reign of Charlemagne that was intended to provide a unified writing system throughout Europe. Carolingian minuscule was used for religious texts. The main purpose of this script was legibility and standardization which brought about the characteristics of clearly distinguishable capital and minuscule letters, as well as clear spaces between words. In 12th century Europe, there was a growing demand for intellectual literature of all types, in addition to religious texts. For economic and time-saving practices, it was necessary for scribes to turn out manuscripts at a faster pace while saving precious paper. This resulted in a condensed version of Carolingian minuscule with thicker strokes, smaller spacing between letterforms and an increase of overall blackness on the page. This was a shift towards what we now refer to as blackletter. In 1455, Gutenberg’s Bible became the first text to be produced with movable type, a more efficient and adaptable form of reproducing texts. This marked the birth of the typeface, with Gutenberg’s Bible being set in a variation of the blackletter form called Textura. Blackletter continued to be used and became common during the 16th century until the end of the 17th century. With the introduction and popularity of roman typefaces, blackletter became a less desired script. It was often deemed ugly, dark, fussy and cramped when

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compared to the simple, clean and rational roman typefaces. While modern roman type came to dominate in most of Europe, Germany continued to use blackletter due of the belief it conveyed a feeling of tradition and history, specifically in the usage of the German blackletter form, Fraktur. The main reason for it’s popularity was due to the fact that the first German translated bible was set in Fraktur and therefore became known as a “protestant” type. In the 1930’s, with the rise of the Nazi’s, Josef Goebbels declared Fraktur as the “lettering of the German people”. This typeface was used for all official Nazi material and the people of Germany were taught to read and write Fraktur in school. But in 1941, the Nazi’s did an about-face and banned the use of blackletter because they found it to have Jewish connections. After the Second World War, blackletter continued to decline in popularity, partly due to its Nazi associations. Never again would blackletter find the popularity it once held throughout Europe. Although blackletter is no longer a dominant typeface, it is still used today, particularly in newspaper headings, pubs, stores and other signage to convey a feeling of tradition, elegance and formality.

Images from left to right: Example of Carolingian minuscule, Gutenberg’s Bible, Nazi Poster, and Nazi Manual.

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Types Of Blackletter Textura This earliest form of blackletter, dating from the late 11th century, is the most calligraphic and cursive of the four major types. The characters are very condensed and narrow, appearing very dark and heavy on a page.

Rotunda This Italian version was created at the start of the 14th century. The letterforms are rounder and more legible than Textura.

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Schwabacher Schwabacher was developed in 1481 in Germany and became a symbol of German nationalism. It was considered a Protestant typeface while texture and rotunda were thought be Catholic. Schwabacher differs from Textura in that it is more open and round.

Fraktur Designed in 1513, this German type, commissioned by Maximilian I, was specifically created for the German language. Fraktur, which translates to broken, refers to the angular letterforms. The letter strokes consist of a variation of fine hairlines and sharp contrasts. It is the most decorative of the main blackletter types.

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Blackletter in Mexico Today, blackletter remains popular in Mexico where it is used throughout signage, tattoos, official documents, advertising, posters and graffiti. Throughout history, Mexico has experienced a long association with blackletter, where some of the earliest forms of writing were introduced in these typefaces. The first printing press in the New World was established in Mexico in 1538. In 1544, the first printed book in the Americas, Doctrina Breve by Fray Juan de Zumarraga, was set in Rotunda blackletter. This established the long history and tradition of blackletter usage in Mexico. The colonial traditions in Mexico are still evident today in forms such as architecture and city planning which help keep the old tradition alive and allow the usage of blackletter to remain relevant. Blackletter, particularly Textura and Rotunda, have had long associations with the Roman Catholic church and Mexico is primarily comprised of Roman Catholics (82.7% according to the 2010 census). Rooted in Roman Catholicism, blackletter gives a feeling of religion, transcendence, authority and a somewhat esoteric quality that appeals to many Mexicans. When using blackletter in everyday activities, it imparts a feeling of eternity and the divine. The flourishes, elegance and exuberance of blackletter in many ways mimic the rich and vibrant culture and traditions of Mexico. Many Mexicans are fond of ornaments and contrast and the letterforms’ characteristics rely on these elements.

Right: Various images from Mexican signage

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Mexican Gangs The use of blackletter for graffiti and tattoos is embedded within the Cholo lifestyle, where the term Cholo is used to describe Mexican-American gang culture. Cholo graffiti has had a long history, dating back to the mid-1930’s in East Los Angeles. This form of graffiti is said to be the first of its kind in the 20th century, long before the popular graffiti seen on the East Coast. Each gang has placas, a name that represents the invisible territory or neighbourhood that they occupy. Graffiti is intended to physically define the invisible boarders of a particular gang’s controlled area. Members of a particular gang generally write exclusively within their own territory. By reading the wall-writings, it is apparent which gang controls a particular area. It becomes easy to determine the successes or downfalls of certain gang by reading the walls and viewing which gang names have been crossed out and replaced by another. These markings are frequently done in a blackletter style. The use of blackletter in Cholo writing has been present for more than fifty years and continues to influence each future generation. Cholo gangs favour the use of uppercase and monolinear versions of blackletter and employ a specific member who specializes in spacing and lettering in order to assure the most consistent and typographically accurate look. By studying individual glyphs in classic Cholo hand-lettering, it can be seen that over 50 percent of letters are based on uppercase Textura and Fraktur. Although there have been many variations and evolutions on the original styles of

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blackletter, the basic form continues to be seen throughout Cholo culture. For example, the most important letterform in defining the identity of the Cholos is the “gangster E” which is an uppercase letter that resembles an upside-down number 3. It is a clear evolution of the “E” present in the classic Textura typeface from the Middle Ages.

Below: Evolution of basic Blackletter letterforms to Cholo Blackletter letterforms

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One the reasons for embracing blackletter is that in Mexican culture in general, blackletter conveys a message of tradition and religion. Because of this, it imparts the message that the gangs themselves are “holier than thou”, expressing religious transcendence and above all, authority. Gang writing, especially on the walls, illustrates the collective identity of the group and grants the gang with a feeling of strength and immortality as their name will continuously live on. The very dominating and aggressive nature of blackletter can send an intimidating message. The strength, control and boldness of well designed blackletter exudes an aura of importance and dignity, demanding to be seen and read. By writing their names and messages in blackletter, through graffiti, tattoos and other gang related mediums, a feeling of officialdom is granted, announcing the gang’s pride and power to everyone. Blackletter is an obvious choice to convey prestige as it is found throughout the most important Mexican and American documents such as birth and death certificates, newspaper headings, religious texts and official diplomas. By adopting blackletter, gangs are announcing to the world their importance. Because of blackletter’s association with religion and tradition, it is a logical choice for gangs to convey their messages of power, strength and cohesiveness to the world.

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Bibliography Charchar, Alex. “Blackletter.” Retinart. N.p., 2009. Web. 2 Dec 2011. http://retinart.net/typography/blackletter. Chastanet, Francois. “Placas in Los Angeles, the first suburban blackletters?.” Baseline. Jul 2008: 6-13. Print. Paoli, Cristina. Mexican Blackletter. New York: Mark Baddy Publisher, 2006. Print. Shaw, Paul, and Bain, Peter. “Blackletter vs. Roman: Type as Ideological Surrogate.” Blackletter: Type and National Identity. . 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. 10-15. Print.

Image Sources Alonzo. L.A. Graffiti http://www.flickr.com/photos/alonzo/ Chastanet, Francois. “Placas in Los Angeles, the first suburban blackletters?.” Baseline. Jul 2008: 6-13. Print. Paoli, Cristina. Mexican Blackletter. New York: Mark Baddy Publisher, 2006. Print. Kid Deuce. Gang Graffiti from the Golden Age http://www.flickr.com/photos/80643375@N00/

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