Ken Garland: Free lettering of the street

Letter Exchange talk 15 April 2015


This review first appeared on the Letter Exchange website


In his introduction, Ken Garland described his talk as being about ‘lettering on pavements’. On the face of it, this was true; most of the examples were on the ground. But I came away from the talk thinking about something else: the permanence or transience of lettering and what that means for its content.


The first examples Ken showed us were of Stolpersteine, a quick show of hands revealed only a few of the capacity audience knew of this wonderful project. German artist Gunter Demnig has created cobblestone-sized memorials that are set in the pavement outside homes of victims of the Holocaust. Up to August 2014, Demnig and his collaborators had installed over 48,000 Stolpersteine in 18 European countries. Roughly translated as stumbling blocks, these beautifully simple memorials provide a permanent and personal record of the victims of national socialism. If you’ve not come across these, have a look at the website


From there, we were moved on to hopscotch! There’s an obvious visual link of square blocks on the ground containing text (or numbers) but otherwise this couldn’t be more different. Ken’s personal recollection was of being excluded from the game as a child, his sister and her girlfriends did not let him join in because he was a boy. He did reclaim its macho origins though by explaining this was part of the training for Roman Legionnaires.


However, this is where the idea of permanence slipped in. After several examples of different hopscotch grids, Ken proclaimed he did not approve of a pre-painted version. For him the spirit of the game relies on the grid being chalked by hand making it individual and unique each time.


To contrast that, the next examples were of spontaneous permanence. There is something very inviting about a slab of freshly-laid concrete, who can resist the desire to scrawl our mark in that soft material? An example Ken showed – ‘art rules’ – may have been incised on a whim but it’s still there today!


On a more practical note, we’ve all seen those enigmatic, spray-painted symbols left by our utilities. However, Ken’s photos of pavements from around London elevate these to the level of hieroglyphs. We may not understand what they mean but they are fascinating all the same.


The next example was easier to comprehend. Visitors to Abbey Road Studios write their names and messages on the wall outside leaving a constantly-changing history. What’s important is not the individual contributions but the progression, the overlaying of words, the understanding that these are but a moment in time.


It was this transience that Ken explored in his final two examples. The texts produced by street letterer ‘Hymn’ on paving slabs are done in his wonderfully clear chalk hand writing, they really invite you to read them. They are intricate and extensive and obviously take a long time to do. But they are usually gone in a day, sooner if it rains. Ken had invited Hymn and his colleague Neil along to the talk and introduced them to us. Asked about the short lifespan of his work Hymn replied that it offered a clean slate, an opportunity to start again. We were able to see this work at first hand after the talk as Hymn worked on the paving in Queen Square.


The final examples were even less permanent. Dishu is Chinese practice of writing texts on the ground using just water. These beautiful examples of calligraphy can start to disappear through evaporation even before the whole text is complete. As Ken pointed out, the ephemeral nature of this sort of lettering is in stark contrast to the more lasting works Letter Exchange members produce.


And that’s the thing that has stayed with me and kept me thinking since the talk. The examples Ken showed clearly demonstrate mankind’s innate need to make marks and our desire to interpret and understand the marks of others. Everything we write down will eventually fade and erode. But maybe it’s the fleeting words that disappear with a shower of rain or the heat of the afternoon sun that are the most memorable to those lucky enough to see them.