Graphic Transcendence

I wrote and designed a monograph about the work of graffiti writer/fine artist Jerry Inscoe, also known as Joker, a number of years ago, though it never saw print. What follows is an essay about his work from 2002 that was meant to kick off the book.

Jerry Inscoe by Ian Lynam

Graphic Transcendence

Jerry Inscoe’s work is rigorous, intelligent, poised, and assured — the evidence of extensive formal exercise. It’s obvious that he has been working away at what he does for a long time, much of it under the graffiti nom de plume Joker. He flattens the ordered rationality of extruded volumetric masses, inverting architectonic norms for his own graphic purposes. Inscoe works in pop color schemes, twinning them with fields of neutral colors, alluding to the emotionlessness and anonymity of the mechanical as contrasted with the bright-hued green-yellows and magentas he often brings into play. His work is a model for cross-media practice, each channel encouraging interchange between the assorted aspects of his work. Inscoe’s explorations are studies of structures in tension, exploiting the relationship between line and mass. A constantly evolving vocabulary of geometric form balances elegance with heroism. This inquiry into the collision of the facade and the void calls into question concrete expressions and functions- complex and simplified contour lines interweave and contain one another in unpredictable variants. The work is imbued with a nonlinear, yet defined sense of place- visual orthography gone haywire and transformed into a there. His darker pieces are akin to witnessing a great transgression or to a purifying, boundary-exploding ascendance.

Inscoe was a Washington D.C. graffiti pioneer. His early work is well documented in Roger Gastman’s Free Agents: A History of Washington DC Graffiti. Skateboarding was what initially sparked his romance with graffiti, a Powell Peralta ad setting the earliest of stylistic models until he came across copies of the classics Subway Art and Spraycan Art shortly thereafter. He incorporated these influences and was soon one of the ten people actively writing graffiti in D.C. in the late 80s. After high school, Inscoe moved almost annually due to school and work, with stops in Fort Lauderdale, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Livermore, California, San Diego, and Berkeley. His travels stopped in 1995 when he settled in Portland, Oregon, his current home.

As Inscoe moved from city to city, his work evolved and matured, shifting from the early New York-influenced models to a more abstract and idealistic take on what graffiti could be. He synthesized aspects of his undergraduate design education and influence from myriad influences into his work. Collaborative drawings with San Francisco’s Raevyn were a big point of departure. Their projects were undertaken under the premise of image-making and abstraction, approaching the work from a vantage point opposite of graffiti done for graffiti’s sake. The pair would blindly scribble on paper, and then trade scrawls, with the intention of making paintable pieces out of the scribbles, or alter electrical engineering plans to construct lettering. These exercises, as well as trading outlines for pieces with New York legend Phase Two (originator of both the graffiti bubble letter and the use of decorative ornamental arrows alongside graffiti lettering) and Transcend co-founder Karl123 infused Inscoe with the desire to create highly original work that did not conform to the aesthetic standards of traditional graffiti.

Deconstructivist architecture was a giant influence, in particular, the drawings and renderings of Iranian-born British architect Zaha Hadid. Inscoe’s work is itself a formal extension of the Deconstructivist outpouring of the last twenty years- a reaction to more typical graffiti artwork in which three-dimensional lettering is rendered. Reacting to the work of writers like Erni, Delta, Zedz, and Daim, Inscoe inverts, decompiles, and reassembles three-dimensional space, reducing and abstracting: lines and arcs massing and converging with gothic insidiousness, defying isometric and axonometric mores, postmodern typographic elements, tribal angularity, and more typical NY-influenced wildstyle lettering with the occasional droopy-eyed character come into play in Inscoe’s work, as well, though they often take the back seat to his spatial constructions.

As Inscoe’s work has evolved, he has simultaneously worked in numerous fields outside of writing. He has created best-selling apparel graphics for companies such as Nike, Tribal, Upper Playground, Osiris, Scion, Fity24SF, and others. Inscoe designed a signature Joker shoe model for Savier shoes and those designs are presented here for the first time. Inscoe collaborated with designer Cody Hudson/Struggle Inc on an expressive line of snowboards for Burton that feel straight out of his sketchbook, meshing ink drawings and watercolor fills.

Inscoe has also collaborated with the type foundry Handselecta to create a family of typefaces derived from his handstyle– inspired by architectural and comic book lettering. Using copious writing samples provided by Inscoe, type designer Christian Acker digitized and regulated Inscoe’s handstyle into light, medium, and bold weight typefaces. These fonts were produced in three formats- a regular weight utilizable for default typesetting and two swash options that include numerous alternate characters.

Along the way, Inscoe has always had a strong group of collaborators. One of his crews, BA (Burning America) was started by his old friend Jase, a writer from Baltimore infamous for his enormous output of graffiti on freight train cars (to date over 40,000 pieces painted). BA is one of the most innovative and formidable crews in the world. The roll call is a who’s who of graffiti veterans: Sope, Felon, Misk, Are2, Rust, Atom, Blis, Cha, Myth, Insight, Take5, Con, Wild, Apex, Neon, Giant, Cycle, and twelve others. It is precisely that because the crew is geographically disparate and stylistically so very diverse that makes them such an interesting group. More than a few of the individuals involved have made the leap from street art to gallery art, as well. Writers like Rust, Misk, Cycle, and Mike Giant exhibit internationally on a regular basis.

Another of his crews, Transcend, is an idealistic attempt to abandon the traditional graffiti crew and return to the model of the artistic collective. Traditionally, crews are organized groups of graffiti writers linked by geography and/or stylistic similarity who work collectively. Painting, sketching, obtaining supplies, and other graffiti-centric activities are often done as a group. Crew activity tends to be aimed at promotion and propagation of writing among peers, but does not extend into other realms of visual expression. Transcend veers from this path in it’s past and present inclusion of non-writers, as well as the group’s collective and individual forays into other media, as well. Members whose focus lies in different fields have included an architect, a poet, and a designer in the past. Currently, Anna, a photographer, is the only non-writer involved. As far as writers go, Inscoe’s longtime collaborator Persue, is a shoe designer for Osiris Footwear, as well as a graphic designer, illustrator, and owner of the BunnyKitty line of products. Kema works as a graphic designer, and SheOne does logo work for Ninja Tune Records, as well as other companies. The collective works together on commercial projects, exhibitions, and book projects.

Inscoe’s collaborative zine with Mike Giant, Snothatch, is a mix of collaborative drawings done by the two writers published via the Skullz Press imprint. Giant and Joker utilize only a Sharpie marker for a whole volume, with no penciling to guide them. The zine is an inquiry into the exploration of the blackbook, not sketches for future murals. The volume is of an exquisite corpse-nature and is done with a sense of humor, play and collaboration. Giant’s lettering is homage to classic NYC graffiti form, with a Los Angeles slickness to it. Giant’s work is rooted in constant references to older forms of lettering– barrio calligraphy, sign painting scripts, and grunge typography are all recontextualized. The bubbly shapes of his lettering suggest old supermarket window lettering and American commercial art. Giant worked for years as a graphic designer for assorted skateboard companies, and his familiarity with type is obvious. He currently works as a tattoo artist and many seek out his lettering work out, as it is formally elegant and balanced. Giant’s work is steeped in Americana, and pointedly so. It makes for an interesting counterpoint to Inscoe’s angular, severe, and more clinical work- as if one of Frank Gehry’s seemingly chaotic and massive exploded spaceship hulls were to make an emergency crash landing in a bordertown.

Where Inscoe is headed is unknown- his work is continually being published as well as exhibited internationally. It is assured that he will keep alive the process of discovery in new works, as well as explorations in other media. His subversion of conventional perception of space will no doubt further and deepen. As for others’ perception of Inscoe, with luck, that will expand, as well.