On a tiny screen in the palm of your hand, an ink-stained hand wielding a white paintbrush slips and darts across a bright red page. It leaves its trace like a figure skater on ice; the shapes look abstract – a thin curve here, a thick line there – but the hand moves with deliberate, authoritative grace. After four and a half hypnotic minutes of this dance, there’s the much anticipated reveal: “Take Your Pleasure Seriously” the strokes demand.
This is the ethos of Italian calligrapher and graphic designer Luca Barcellona, the craftsman to whom the hand in this video belongs. Barcellona, 39, is regularly hailed as one of the world’s greatest working calligraphers. Combining his monkish commitment to the craft with an inventive, youthful sensibility, Barcellona’s contemporary interpretation of hand lettering has coincided with a major resurgence of calligraphy in visual culture. Eager for a humanizing touch, the current proponents of the lettering craze are infatuated with process: Videos of artists in action permeate the web, and no design conference is complete without time marked by the slow production of a handmade typographic mural.
Barcellona recognized, and perhaps even helped inspire, this early on in his career, organizing live shows in clubs in Milan in the early 2000s, later going on to do similar events for galleries, museums, and globally renowned brands. In 2009, he faithfully reproduced a large-scale 1569 globe with quill and natural inks for the National Museum of Zurich, and in 2010, he produced his own T-shirt line, a brand he dubbed “Luca Barcellona Gold Series.” His script now adorns everything form Absolut Vodka bottles to Carhartt sweatshirts, and his signature, tightly packed compositions, often dense webs of Fraktur script, spell out phrases by the German poet Bertolt Brecht.
In the beginning, Barcellona began lettering by skipping class to tag subway trains and graffiti under bridges. After graduating from high school, where he’d taken classes in graphic design, Barcellona enrolled in night courses and took a job at a music store. Using his time off to patiently practice calligraphy, he soon started taking on small commissions from the hip-hop scene.
Demand for his work grew, as did his encyclopedic knowledge of classic scripts, until one day he swapped the quill for a spray can, rendering the age-old letters he’d mastered with the tool of his teenage years. This pivotal moment defined what would become his trademark: gothic and classic lettering that elegantly and energetically incorporates the influence of graffiti and street art. He didn’t so much slip into the past as find calligraphy a present form.
Your 2012 monograph has just been released in paperback, and, as with the first edition, it’s got this fiery front cover. You’ve written out the name of the title in a very elegant hand, but then the composition is punctuated by a black ink dot that almost looks like a bullet hole. What’s the significance of this?
To explain, I need to start with the story of why I decided to make the book in the first place. I had all this stuff in my drawers and on my hard drive, stuff that I’d amounted over 10 years of working. I myself had studied calligraphy by looking at books – I love books—so I knew that was the format that all the stuff I’d collected would take. It wasn’t just a marketing thing for me; it was about closing the circle. I realized, though, that I couldn’t choose the work myself. When a designer speaks about their old work, you’ll notice that they will always say, “But that’s an old piece. That’s old. Look at what I’m doing right now.”
You want to be growing, getting to another level, constantly developing, instead of being in stasis and getting comfortable doing the same thing over and over again.
LB Exactly. So I asked my friend, the graphic designer Massimo Pitis, to art direct and design the book for me – he and his team at WIRED Italia have just won Best Magazine of the Year at the 2017 Society of Publication Design awards. So I said, “Massimo, this is all my work. You have a different eye from mine, a different critical eye, so please choose what I should include.”
And the cover?
I created the initial hand lettering for the book jacket and he said, “If you leave it like that, it looks like a calligraphy book from 80 years ago. Add an ink drop.” That drop would represent my past in graffiti. It was about dirty hands and dirty clothes. Massimo said, “It’s the symbol of imperfection that we want.”
What about the slogan “Take Your Pleasure Seriously?” What does that mean to you?
At first I was thinking of calling the book Man of Letters, but it was too much of a pun. I had just read a book on Charles and Ray Eames and I’d seen the sentence there. I admire their work a lot. They were married, so living, playing, and working together, and in every picture they seemed happy, having fun while blurring work and life. To take your pleasure seriously means, okay, you have a passion, but it’s a serious one. Calligraphers have to have passion. But it’s also a job, and there are many elements that you won’t enjoy doing. You have clients. You have deadlines. You’re probably not inspired by the work every time, but you need jobs, work, income, as a craftsman. And you take that seriously.
How much of a blur is there between work and life for you?
I don’t have anything about calligraphy at home. I have comics, books on photography and architecture, a lot of vinyl. But nothing actually about calligraphy. Yet calligraphy is always on my mind. Every time I watch a movie, I see the titles. When I drink a bottle of wine, I see the packaging. I look at the letters.
So there’s a spatial divide between work (your income) and life, but no divide between your craft (you as calligrapher) and life?
Exactly. My studio is not in my house. I have to be able to say, “That’s the job, and this is life.” I don’t want to be a maniac either…You know what I mean.
There are typo maniacs, typo nerds, and that’s not who I want to be.
You just spoke about noticing the letters of everything around you. When did you first start noticing type?
When I was a kid, five or six years old. I used to play a game with my mother. We’d be in the car and she’d ask me to read the signs. I started to notice that every sign was different, and I began to ask, “Who did that?” My mother couldn’t give me the answer. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.”
Then when you got a bit older, you got into graffiti.
When I was 14. I started taking graphic design classes at high school. I started doing tags like so many others in the early 90’s. When you’re a teenager, you’re obsessed by shocking people, so I was creating letters to amaze others. Then I discovered calligraphy in graphic design class, and I said, “This is something serious. I have to go back to the beginning, study the ancient forms, Roman capitals, italic, etc.” I started doing serious calligraphy. Later, once I had the tools and had mastered the classics, I would start to mix it up a bit and combine what I’d learned with graffiti.
You were teaching yourself about calligraphy?
At the beginning, most people are self-taught. But that’s a huge mistake. I studied Italic with one teacher in a workshop and I realized this: Calligraphy is something that gets passed down by masters. It has to be handed down, from a master to a student, until that student becomes a master. It’s about sharing knowledge, not keeping your tricks and secrets to yourself. That’s the beauty of crafts, not just calligraphy. I know musicians and karate masters who say the same.
When you started studying, everything was analog, and by the time you finished, design schools were using computers. How did this affect you?
I knew that I wanted to draw. I wanted to take pencils, markers, and brushes. As a graphic designer, I worked with type and layout settings on the computer. But as a calligrapher, I wanted to get my hands dirty.
You started posting videos of your craft very early on. How did that start?
When I uploaded my first video, there was nothing to compare it with. I had only seen videos of calligraphers from the 60’s and there were very few of those. We now look at videos on our phones all the time, but in 2002, it wasn’t like that. I made a couple of videos that got a lot of views, and other people started doing the same; everyone was copying one another and getting inspired by one another.
Now there are so many calligraphy videos online. They’re hypnotizing to watch; some get thousands and thousands of views. What do you think about it?
There’s a problem when people only get their information from the internet. It’s like television in the 80’s and 90’s: What’s not on the web, for many, doesn’t exist. This means that people completely ignore the fact that there are older generations of calligraphers and a long, ancient history of the craft. They’re all focused on the young people on social networks that put their stuff online, but a lot of the quality is very, very low. The numbers are impressive, and it’s good from the perspective of allowing people who might not know anything about calligraphy to begin to appreciate it.
As a calligrapher, you have to know what you are doing, though. You have to know that you are a speck in the history of the craft. I am nobody in the history of calligraphy. Compare what I do to the work of the 15th century and you’ll see what I mean – that stuff is amazing; it’s incredible. What I can do is mix things up a bit, add to the history by using contemporary tools. I try to make calligraphy that has a bit of current reality. I’ve done it with live projections and used 3-D software.
It’s about using those new tools, but with the ancient gestures. You have to know it to be able to do it. The untrained eye can’t tell what’s authentic and what’s not. If you don’t know the history, then you might believe that the guy who puts up a video on Instagram is the best calligrapher in the world, just because someone in the comment section says so.
Whether the videos are amateur or not, why do you think people love seeing the act of calligraphy rather than just a piece of calligraphy in its finished form?
That’s simple. For the last 15 years, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that writing is just pushing buttons. Pushing keys. Yet handwriting has been one of the major inventions of human history. After 15 years of tech, we are losing it.
So the process of watching the process of calligraphy is an antidote?
Yes. I’m not saying we should write our emails in Gothic, with a nib and pot of ink. When I was trying to take calligraphy classes in the 90’s, design schools were trying to eliminate it. They were saying, Who needs lettering today? Now I’m teaching workshops on calligraphy all the time in Italy.
How does technology feature into your day-to-day practice, though? It’s not all quill and ink, and, as you say, you use old gestures and combine them with new tools.
Software can be great for simulating, like how you can put a drop of watercolor on the page and it’ll bleed in a beautiful way. But digital tools that simulate something analog only make sense if you can do the real thing. If you’ve never used real watercolor, how can you really understand its simulation? It’s like virtual sex. You can experiment with virtual sex, but if you don’t know the real thing, you’re missing out.
We’ve talked about your career path and sense of design, but not the words and messages you illustrate. You’ve quoted George Orwell. You’ve written out messages of support for things like the 2011 earthquake in Japan. What do you look for when you’re thinking about quotes or slogans to write out?
There are two options when you look for a message. The first is you can find nice, pretty sentences that people are going to like. The second is you can write something that you really feel and believe. Maybe a quote from a book, or a song you love. For me, it must be the second option; it must be something that has helped me in my life.
With the Orwell composition, the quote found me. I walked into an international bookstore and the spine of Why I Write, Orwell’s essay about political language, was sticking right out from the shelf. I didn’t search for it. I believe in serendipity.
For the Japan illustration, I saw the heartbreak after the earthquake; I had close friends there. I decided to design a T-shirt to raise money for relief. I wrote the slogan with a Japanese brush, very quickly, to denote emergency. There aren’t any classic decorations; it’s fast and urgent. You must find the right way to illustrate your message.
Because of its urgency, it’s very readable. That’s not your usual tact though, especially for personal work. Often you write out words not only in an archaic script that’s difficult for modern eyes to decipher, but you pack the letters very close together, making the composition even more tricky to unpick and read. For your political messages, this has interesting implications because the viewer has to focus and spends a lot of time with the message. And that time might mean that the message sinks in. What are the other benefits of illegibility?
Legibility can be your enemy because it means you have to add space, and you lose the beauty of a compact design. Density is one of my obsessions. Sometimes I just draw the alphabet or a series of capital letters because I don’t want people to read what’s written. I want them to enjoy the shapes, the gestures. Sometimes people ask me, “What did you write there?” and I answer “Nothing.” I always love that.
Creating a piece of calligraphy, especially these dense ones that take a lot of concentration, and mastering the craft as a whole, is of course exhausting. It takes a lot of patience. It can take three years of continual practice to perfect just one classic script. How do you deal with the everyday physical toll?
I try to. Like right now, my back is aching; there’s a lot of tension built up. It’s a very physical practice, and to do it, you have to know your body. If you want to write something with a small nib copperplate but you’re pissed off, stressed, or you drank too much coffee, you’ll shake and won’t be able to do it. It takes calm. You have to physically prepare.
When I hear this, it conjures the stereotypical image of the master calligrapher, hunched over scrolls with reams of paper and inky fingers, painstakingly illuminating characters. You do this of course, but you’re also a jack-of-all-trades in other ways. You’re an entrepreneur, because you help run a publishing company, Lazy Dog Press, that brought out your monograph. You organize exhibitions. You’ve run your T-shirt label. You’re not always bent over your desk.
Calligraphy is my discipline, but with this discipline I can do many things. I’ve done performances with piano players and karate masters. I’ve done restoration work, and I’ve worked in advertising, doing crazy hand lettering to sell a car. I’ve made clothing designs for Nike. Recently, I’ve been combining my love of record collecting with calligraphy. If you specialize in one field and there is an interest in it, then it’s great. When that interest slows down, it’s more of a problem. Yet I do believe that if you’re passionate about something, then people will be interested. That’s why I write “Take Your Pleasure Seriously.” People can tell whether what you do is true, whether you’re sincere.