“Calligraphuck” and the rise of elegantly lettered nihilism

Foil stamped curses.
Foil stamped curses.
Image: Quartz
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“It’s unexpected that I ended up in this filth-mongering business,” says Linus Boman, a London-based graphic designer who’s more likely to be cast as genial professor than the creator of a line of paper goods featuring salty phrases rendered in fancy Edwardian script calligraphy.

Boman’s array of elegant expletives that he calls “Calligraphuck,” is among Chronicle Books’s top selling gift items. The notebook emblazoned with Fucking Brilliant, has sold over 100,000 units, which is “really fucking good” in the world of journals, says Kim Romero, senior editor at Chronicle’s entertainment publishing division.

Buoyed by sales numbers over the last five years, the Calligraphuck collection has since expanded to a Getting Shit Done list ledger, Game On Bitches playing cards, Fucking Brilliant pencils, Bon Appetit, Bitches tea towels. And inevitably, an adult coloring book featuring some of Boman’s best blasphemies.

The unlikely success of Calligraphuck has surprised Boman, who’s on a year-long sabbatical from his job at a UK branding agency. “It’s so bizarre because we’re not that kind of sailor-potty mouth in our day-to-day,” he says, noting that his similarly mild-mannered fiancée helps him brainstorm saucy phrases. ”I think there is something cathartic about it.”

Boman, who dabbles in stand up comedy, says he also picks up ideas from his fellow comedians, who are prodigious at creative word-play profanity. He also credits actor Judi Dench’s subversive embroidery hobby as an inspiration. “I read about Dame Judi Dench and how she would embroider cushions as gifts for her directors with ‘You are a cunt’ on them, and I thought, wow, that’s exactly the kind of thing my friends would love,” Boman says in a 2012 interview.

As trivial as that may sound, it appears that Boman’s project has tapped an unexpected emotional core. Swearing by itself, has been proven to have cathartic benefits. Studies on taboo language posit that swearing dulls physical pain and can help us express our emotions more fully. “We can express our emotions, especially anger and frustration, towards others symbolically (and) not through tooth and nail. Cursing is coping, or venting, and it helps us deal with stress,” explains profanity researcher Timothy Jay to the New York Times.

Art therapist Jean Davis says Calligraphuck’s appeal lies in the unsettling juxtaposition of elegant letterforms and crude words. “Whenever you take two opposites, you throw people off with their expectations. It’s like making a beautiful impressionistic painting of a burger,” she explains. “We are such creatures of habit, people like repetition and things they know. It’s a surprise that brings us to the present moment.”

Boman believes that it’s also about the allure of analog artifacts in an age of fleeting SMS greetings and impersonal social media affirmations. “There’s something about this moment when people are trying to reconnect with handicrafts and traditions of the past with a contemporary take and ownership over it,” he says, noting that he hasn’t had the time to actually master the majuscules and minuscules nor mess with inks and nibs of formal calligraphy. “I wouldn’t dare call myself a calligrapher. I do vector lettering in a calligraphic style,” he clarifies.

What he does agonize over is making sure each fancypants expletive hits just the right tone for a general audience. “There are some sweary phrases that sound patois, and we don’t want be coopting culturally inappropriate,” he says. “We can’t use ‘god damn,’ but ‘bitch’ is okay, although with the changing politics, it’s become more fraught. We never use it in a derogatory way.”

Anti-motivation lettering

Brooklyn-based art director Nim Ben-Reuven is also a purveyor of irreverent lettering but with a different set of goals. Where Boman aspires to spread cheer through cheeky cursing, Ben-Reuven’s sublime “motivational nihilism lettering” is meant “offset the saturation of forced positivity” on Instagram.

“Often people are implicitly pushed through social media to assume that pure happiness and a constant state of ‘winning’ is the default in many people’s lives; for many folks who don’t actually experience that in their own lives, that can lead to feelings of severe alienation and depression,” he says.

In place of the usual twee aphorisms, Ben-Reuven labors over words like “You’ve Ruined Everything,” “Try Less Hard,” or the pointed “Hashtags Won’t Save Us.”

“I also like to letter slightly mean and sarcastic pieces as a bit of social satire, poking fun at both myself and the design industry as a whole. It gives me great pleasure to add a more realist and slightly cynical approach to a mostly rose-tinted heap of lettering noodles,” he says.

Ben-Reuven says he took up calligraphy as a meditative practice to deal with a difficult period in his life. “It felt freeing to express some of those emotions in a somewhat fancy way. I find that acknowledging and even embracing the more nuanced and dark feelings can be very helpful in dealing with mental health issues,” he attests.

In art therapy, Davis says those who train in calligraphy or cursive penmanship regain a sense of order through the act of repetition. Similar to adult coloring book fanatics, repeatedly practicing pen strokes comforts someone who’s obsessive, anxious or feels untethered. “It helps organize what otherwise feels chaotic,” she explains.

Donald Trump angst release valve

The political antics of the Donald Trump administration have also served as creative fuel for some calligraphy aficionados. Like the remarkable resurgence of craftivism in the US, the laborious art of hand-lettering has been a release valve for Washington, DC-based graphic designers like Carly Rounds and Katherine Warminsky.

Rounds, who started lettering in earnest three years ago to learn a new language, has deployed her practiced hand to help process the news. “When I do it, all my anger doesn’t seem so raw,” she says. Rounds thinks that the graphic designer’s penchant for satire and puns has finally found a cause. “You know when irony was huge, it’s turned into irreverence, which to me is better.”

Similarly, Warminsky started an Instagram account called “45Words: Catharsis through letters,” alluding to the 45th US president. She intends to populate the account with lettered versions of Trump tweets, quotes or her reflections on the news cycle. “It’s a reaction to non-sense that comes out,” she explains.

Unlike other calligraphers who publish perfectly turned out scripts, Warminsky says the crudeness of the letterforms on 45Words is intentional. “I was thinking I didn’t want it to look too pretty. I don’t want to give the misguided policies prominence,” she says. “I don’t want the beauty to give it legs.”