clean,crisp and sloppy as heck

by Art Chantry:

yeah, i love a good bar-b-que, no doubt, no doubt.

this is (of course) me, modeling the latest in extraordinarily hip bbq togs. i have a deep soft squishy spot for anything with lettering like this on it. old greeting cards, cheerleader signs, beatnik crap, model kits, packaging, murals, whatever. where did this style come from?

the best i can find on the origins of this lettering style (see especially the hat) is from a mention in domenic prior’s grand volume “riot on sunset strip”, where he does his damndest to attempt to document the entirely of the mid-60′s rock scene in los angeles. what a scene that was. if you examine this book (and you should), you’ll start to get an inkling of how important and wonderful LA was in 1965-66. it was the center of the teen culture universe. still is, too.

in his attempts to try to throw a net over the whole shebang, prior even goes so far as to talk about the popular art and lettering styles of the era as well. he goes into the major influences and practitioners (dutch, roth, griffin, the movie folks, jay ward, et al.). in among those people mentioned is a fella named earl newman. that was a new one on me. prior even reproduces a mural example of newman’s lettering. so, i did a little looking around.

earl newman was a perennial fixture in the southern california arts scene. his became known for his loose illustration and colorful vibrant poster style (also extremely influential) back in the 50′s and remained influential until the early 70′s. he did massive amounts of freelance and in particular was adopted by the hipster/surfer/hotrod/rocker scene. he ended up drawing lettering, logos, trademarks, signs, whatever for a number of the coolest hipster jazz clubs in the scene – the gaslight, the insomiac cafe and shelly’s manne-hole. his work was so visible and so fun and loose (even wonky) and easily copy-catable that it became the look of the new and essential LA youth culture. but, when psychedelia came in, his style was washed away in a sea change.

the hat i wear in this photo is a great example of what newman’s lettering looked like (familiar, eh?). it was handwork pure and simple. basically, he was an artist who sat down and drew lettering like he would draw an apple or a face. and this is how it turned out. clean crisp and sloppy as heck. it’s beautiful and still cool today.

the lettering and illustration on the apron (that i’m wearing in the photo) really isn’t very directly earl newman-esque. it’s more of a commercial rip-off style of what he created. but, it does seem to be a ‘several generations hence’ version of what he was doing. it’s sort of a good example of where you can take the style that earl newman pioneered. you can see it everywhere from ed roth to record covers to surfer style to mainstream rock hipster elite and graffiti today. prior points out that the entire cover design of the beach boy’s legendary SMILE is an obvious homage to earl newman (if unconsciously so.) so, at this point, i’m treating earl newman’s work – because of his time-frame and location and immediacy and being at the epicentre of the the grandest youth revolution of the baby boom – as the starting point of this style. it’s as good a staring point as any, really.

i really can’t be sure, but he seems to be the likely source style. this stuff is so hard to trace and document with any real accuracy. most of the real ‘pop’ular styles that have emerged in america (particularly post WW2) have been so diffusely absorbed into the popular visual lexicon that tracing origins is truly impossible. nobody bothered to ever record who did what or when because this was all considered utter crap (and still is by academics). the best you can do is pick up little pieces of refuse (a comment here, a credit there) and attempt to piece it all together over long periods of time. nevermind that in the end, entire schools of style and long historical dialogs of visual thought were created by these lost masters. the common language of graphic design is primarily thrown out in the trash. so has it’s real history.

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