Not everything that shines
Understanding the letterform in the popular urban design of Peru
About the project
"The work designers make is inspired by taste,
and taste is often derived from what we’re exposed to during our upbringing. But design values and history is taught through a canon;
that accepted pantheon of work by predominantly European and American
male designers that set the basis for what
is deemed “good” or “bad.” "
-- Anoushka Khandwala
- AIGA, June 2019
Letterform examples from the streets of Peru.
This project is the culmination of my time at the VCU Graphic Design program. It focuses on researching and understanding the letterform in the popular urban graphic expressions of Peru, my home country, in order to understand an essential part of the construction of our national graphic identity.
During my research, I have come to understand the difference between styles, means of production, and desired graphic outcomes.
I have seen how the combination of all these elements becomes a cultural melting pot that is genuinely representative of Peruvian identity and history. The letterform is the protagonist of this work, and I see it as a cultural signifier. Through workshops with the Peruvian Design group "Carga Máxima", I studied the different letter shapes and styles, but also the history and uses.
This project has provided me with a space for decolonizing design by valuing the graphic expressions of my culture and background. I see myself developing a long-term design practice that highlights and involves this cultural side, which hasn't been fully explored or represented in mainstream design archives or design-related information sources.
Lastly, as I'm completing the VCU Graphic Design program I leave with more questions than answers, which I believe is a good place to start a personal design practice based on research, development, trial, and error. This project is a celebration of culture and authentic Peruvian letterform, and hopefully, a starting point for collaborating with other designers to highlight and value Peruvian design and production, in whatever form that may take.
Every culture is unique and diverse, and has distinct and intangible traits that characterize its spirit and personality. As the Ph.D. Nicki Lisa Cole stated in her article So What is Culture, Exactly? (2019) “According to sociologists, culture consists of the values, beliefs, systems of language, communication, and practices that people share in common and that can be used to define them as a collective.” So, can the letterform embody the spirit of a culture? My research focuses on learning and understanding the letterform in the popular urban graphic design expressions of Peru, beyond the local representative style known as "Chicha".
So, what is "Chicha"?
The term "Chicha" is a name that comes from a family of fermented and non-fermented drinks that have their origins in the Highland and the Jungle of the country and are a cultural signifier for many Andean groups.
The 1980s was a difficult and tumultuous time in Peru, dominated by uncertainty and fear. This period, known as the “Era of Terrorism”, was “Peru's most destructive national tragedy since its 19th-century war against Chile” (Gurmendi Dunkelberg, A.). The nation was undergoing a civil war and, during the armed conflict, it fell victim to two main terrorist groups: “The Shining Path” led by the Maoist Abimael Guzman and the Marxist “Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement” or MRTA by its acronym in Spanish, led by Victor Polay Campos and Nestor Cerpa Cartolini. Of the three regions of Peru, the Highland was the most affected of all. To escape from the violence, a massive migration was generated, and people moved from the rural areas to the capital city. Peru has always been a mix of cultures, and this time was not going to be different. Lima started growing, changing, getting crowded, louder, and very colorful. The migration had not only brought “refugees”, but also their music, customs, colors, and autochthonous identity. Rapidly, posters advertising folkloric music concerts started appearing in several areas of the capital. But the posters were just as exciting (if not more) than the content they were promoting. The "effervescence" of the music, color, and style is what we know and identify as "Chicha". However, the letterform expressions go beyond just this style, and have appeared during the decades indifferent platforms and formats in the streets of Peru.
"Chicha-style" posters (on the left) and Pedro Tolomeo "Monky", one of the pioneers of its creation and production (on the right).
Beyond the "Chicha" style.
Beyond these posters, some of the images I grew up seeing were displayed in markets, restaurants, and public transportation.
In all these cases, the letterform was a protagonist representing the spirit of the culture: a culture of fusion and clashes, improvisation and hard work, a culture of immigrants and entrepreneurial people willing to start over, from scratch, in order to find/create progress,
a graphic culture of the people "traveling on foot", not of the elites.
During the decades, the different stages and processes of migration produced deep transformations in the country. During the first stage, in the 1950s and 1960s, Lima was characterized by economic expansion and political openness that facilitated the integration of the migrants into Lima's society. In contrast, in the migration of the 1980s, which was a desperate attempt of escaping from terrorism,
the migrants were refugees from violence, and their passage from the countryside to the city was not a thoughtful process, much less a gradual one. The Peruvian National Census of 1981 showed that 41% of the population of Lima, the capital city, were immigrants and 54% of them came from the highland region. The 2002 National Census showed that over 80% of the population of Lima was composed of first, second, or third-generation migrants. The letterforms and graphic styles that we see in these signs are part of the history of migration and are important in the process of developing our cultural identity.
Learning the Letterforms
During the month of February, I had the chance to take a virtual workshop with "Carga Máxima", a Peruvian Design Group dedicated to the research, teaching, and production of these letterforms and styles. During this time I had the chance to learn three different styles that are commonly known and seen in the streets of Peru.
First, it might seem obvious, but it is important to highlight the difference between hand-painted signs (left side of the image) and screen-printed posters (right side of the image). By the nature of the process, the brushstrokes of each sign will always be different and unique, while screen-printed posters will be able to preserve the same look on multiple reproductions. So, the need defines the medium. The posters are aimed to attract lots of people to the parties or concerts, and multiple reproductions are necessary to display in different areas of the city. On the other hand, signs work to promote products or services in a specific place, and even though there are masters of the brush that produce these signs and letterforms professionally, they could also be created by amateurs.
"Carga Máxima" Alphabet
The first letterform we learned was the “Carga Maxima” Alphabet. The name "Carga Máxima" makes reference to two concepts related to this letterform. One, in Peru,
this style is commonly used in the transportation industry, especially to indicate the maximum load of cargo trucks, thus the name “Carga Maxima” - Maximum Load. Cargo trucks were not only used to transport goods,
but also people, and are an important element during the time of migrations from the interior areas of the country to the capital. Two, the name makes reference to the amount of paint needed to complete a seamless brush stroke. The brush has to be completely covered or carry the maximum load of paint to complete this task.
Upper right corners: "Caribeño", one of the masters of the brush with over 50 years of experience painting signs, painting the back side of a "mototaxi" in the streets of Peru.
During the learning process, we began with all uppercase letters with vertical and horizontal strokes and then moved to the ones with diagonal and curve strokes. This type of alphabet contains an uppercase, lowercase, and italics version.
The second style we learned was the “Cachito” Style - cachito meaning little horns. In Brazil, this style is known as "fishtail" because of the split end at the top and bottom of the letterforms. In western design, these letterforms would be known as Tuscan style. However, during the decades they have developed their own names, uses, and identities in Latinamerica. It would be limiting to catalog them as just Tuscan letters. The learning process was the same, but we only worked with uppercase letters.
Finally, we learned the “Huesito” or "Bone" style since the shape of the letters looks like bones. This style is popularly found in restaurants and is popularly used on the northern coast of Peru. Just like the "Cachito" Alphabet, this letterform would be considered a variation of the Tuscan style and is only used in the uppercase form. The main construction of the letters is done with a double brush stroke to make the body of the letters look thicker and be able to hold the volutes.
In the pictures above, one of the main representatives and masters of the "Huesito" style, Jose Aguilar Sanchez, better known as “El Paiteño” - Paita being a region of the northern coast of Peru.
Here are some of the resources I found valuable during my research: