The renowned philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote that, “To learn to read and write an alphabetic writing should be regarded as a means to infinite culture,” while the post-structuralist French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that, “Language is oppression,” because it is developed to allow only those people who speak it not to be oppressed. These two contradictory ideas, one based on the premise that through letters, the world opens itself up to us and the other, which considers how letters and language can close the door shut, are the basis for an experimental typographic project called Getting Upper.
The idea for Getting Upper all started after some consideration of the evolutionary relationship between the graffiti community and modernism, post-modernism and finally deconstruction. It sounds complicated and when you start quoting Hegel is can get pretty deep. But basically, it was interesting to see how a generation of restless teenagers growing up in high-rise and low-rise ghettos with limited access to economic empowerment fought back with one of the few things they could control, words. They created their own language by “getting up,” the recognition that comes with the near constant act of tagging your name. It became the driving force in the nascent graffiti scene and as they tagged over and over again they experimented with different hand styles. In turn, these teenagers developed an intuitive understanding of how letters, the building blocks of language could be redesigned and controlled for their specific needs. No wonder these artists referred to themselves as writers and their work as writing.
An interest in language-based experimentation and the ways it can empower people or unlock new avenues of cultural expression encouraged this collaborative design project. If “getting up” describes proliferate tagging, then “getting upper” is what happens when we break free from history, from the global marketing culture, from the need to communicate and from legibility itself. That’s why 26 graphic designers and artists were each asked to reinterpret a letter of the alphabet based on the theory of deconstruction. Now deconstruction is often understood to mean different things. But in this case it aligns closely with philosopher Jacques Derrida’s idea that words have different meanings based on each reader’s past experiences, cultural connections, or social influences. Under these circumstances absolutes disappear and an author’s original intent is open to infinite subjectivity. It is important to note that rather than a negative process of dismantling, deconstruction is more accurately defined as affirmative because it frees concepts from their historic foundations and opens up new possibility.
If that can be the case with words then why not letters themselves? Which brings us back to graffiti and letters, those building blocks so necessary for developing meaning in our lives and allowing us an opportunity for shared expression. In the 26 posters that make up the Getting Upper alphabet, graffiti was the inspiration but the results are the unique personal experience and work of the 26 graphic designs invited to participate. Each approached their letter from their own perspective and the results are as diverse and the ideas and images that continue to shape our culture.