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Concrete Poetry

For the past three weeks, I have seen men fly through the most chaotic, avant-garde typographic environment. Comparable to Dada and Futurist achievements; it is currently my favorite form of concrete poetry.

This ephemeral landscape appears every year in the Tour de France as enthusiastic, often obnoxious, spectators paint messages and symbols on the road. Often the most exuberant graphics appear with the most exuberant fans — usually in the Pyrenees and on L’Alpe d’Huez. As scabrous syringes, penes, vaginae and misdirectional arrows roll by, I find myself classifying these road paintings into historical types.

And as I do this, I wonder; could this be a lost source for the typographic and poetic experiments of the last century? Balloons and the Eiffel Tower have been given credit for their help in the birth of cubism. Supposedly, seeing the landscape at elevation — and the patchwork of individual properties cobbled together — contributed to the perceptual shift of early modernism. Perhaps the riotous street painting of the Tour sparked the germ of an idea in some budding Letterist.

Perhaps… but at least I have pictures, most taken off OLN, for an exercise in typological time wasting. Allez!

Granted, most road painting falls far below any level of aesthetic sophistication.


But every so often, there’s a fortunate peloton…


…or an ironic moment.


This section resembles Kurt Schwitters’ score for “Ursonate”:


…as does this bit by a fan of Kim Kirchen…


…who gets extra points for incorporating the lane divider.

In the 1950’s there was a small group of French artists (some previously active as Letterists) known as the Affichistes who would scour the streets for ripped and layered posters, and present these found pieces in galleries. After 175 or so cyclists, the road paintings begin to resemble something by Jacques Villeglé.


We have hypergraphics…


…and what I would consider calligraphy (a.k.a. beautiful writing).


The Hun (not safe for work) was a constant presence in last year’s Tour. I don’t know if they are as prevalent this time; I think the media pool editors are hard at work. Perhaps someone finally bothered to check the site out.


Here’s another website ad — probably safe for non-Dutch offices.


So at that next presentation of ‘difficult’ typography; instead of refering to John Cage’s mesostics…


…bp Nichol’s concrete poetry…


…or even Picabia…


…maybe you could try the Tour de France. It’s good enough for the average Jean.

On se verra � l’année prochaine!

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.25.2004 BY m. kingsley
Tom Dolan’s comment is:

Great post. Congrats Lance. I'm surprized the street painting is not yet regulated, and square footage sold, but I guess that would be the next logical step at the Rose Bowl parade not on La Tour. Salut!

On Jul.25.2004 at 09:45 AM
Sam’s comment is:

Interviewer: What was your experience in the Tour this year?

Domestique: Ugh, it's terrible. It rains, it's boiling hot, you crash and have to catch up, you miss the feed zone, you wet your pants...

Interviewer: Will you ride nest year?

Domestique: Of course. It's the most beautiful race in the world.

Allez-y, Lance!

On Jul.25.2004 at 11:00 AM
Rob’s comment is:

What suprises me more is that there haven't been any wily corporate types having their logo laid down on the road for a mile or two, seems like if it is unregulated some marketer would have had the balls to take advantage. Anyhow, a great post in any sense.

Mani�re � la lance, grande course. Vous �tes un champion vrai.

On Jul.25.2004 at 01:13 PM
Rob’s comment is:

Oh, special thanks to the good here for there help with my French.

On Jul.25.2004 at 01:14 PM
Jerry’s comment is:

I’m glad companies haven’t peed on the track. Good to know that culture is respected somewhere in the world.

Viva la gente!

On Jul.25.2004 at 04:03 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Damn Mark, you stole the concrete poetry topic right out of my mouth (as it were).... Now what am I going to write about?

and Rob, not sure about that french...heheh... what were you trying to say?

On Jul.25.2004 at 06:31 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

kevin - tel qui rit vendredi dimanche pleurera ;)

On Jul.25.2004 at 07:57 PM
Rob’s comment is:

Well, it was supposed to be something to the effect of "Way to go Lance, great race. You are a true champion.

Now, when you take the French and translate back to English, one gets:

Manner with the lance, great race. You are a true champion.

So much for on-line translation services. But hey, it was still fun.

As for the topic itself, it's interesting, I think, to note that concrete poetry seems to be dominated by the more left-wing elements of society and not so much by corporations or overbearing commercial interests. (excluding The Hun, of course).

What's more interesting is why don't we see so much of this on this side of the Pond at events like the NY or Boston Marathons, or even holiday parades? It seems so much more a European tradition that has very little play here, or am I just uninformed?

On Jul.25.2004 at 08:52 PM
Armin’s comment is:

The week before TypeCon, Underware held a rather interesting workshop in San Francisco.

The basic premise (from their site):

A designer is a person with a vision and a message. It's not only about form, but about content. Use your skills (design skills, typographic skills) to reinforce your message. Go out into the city, and tell your message with the power of type. Pure big type.

1) define your message (what's worth telling on the streets, and how?)

2) define your location (beach, city center, elevator, bus-station...)

3) define your writing tools (toilet paper, piece of wood, spray-can, something unknown...)

4) define your typography (forms, style, technique)

5) practice and practice and fine tune your piece of typography

6) practice even more with your tools

7) go out into the city and tell your message (try not to get in conflict with the police)

Some of the fine results:

Plant a tree

Sit Here

Inhale, Exhale

Life is Better than TV

It surely beats the banality of Obey.

On Jul.26.2004 at 11:38 AM
DutchKid’s comment is:


I think A Practice for Everyday Life deserve a mention for their Grey Blanket project which is another interesting way of taking type to the streets.

On Jul.27.2004 at 06:14 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Wow, thanks DutchKid.

That's an amazing project which relates to this topic. It's always a pleasure to see designers address the phenomenological aspects of our lives: space, time, distance, light, etc. Such the stuff of our existance, yet often overlooked.

On Jul.27.2004 at 10:53 AM
Rob ’s comment is:

I agree, an amazing project that goes the heart of what Ellen was saying in terms of using our knowledge, or as she put it 'typographic mercy' toward social good. This is truly an inspiration, Thanks for sharing DutchKid.

On Jul.27.2004 at 02:40 PM
Sheri’s comment is:

I really enjoyed this essay, I have never been to France and I didn't keep up with the Tour de France so I did not see the writing on the street. I think it is an interesting tradition. On my campus there is a lot of sidewalk chalking, which reminds me of these pictures. Except on campus they are announcing upcoming events, usually, rather than cheering on athletes. I never really considered the vernacular design aspect of the sidewalk writing before. The comparison to the concrete poetry is interesting. I remember doing concrete poems of my own when I was a kid and we made poetry books. I had forgotten about that form, but it is an interesting one, and an interesting comparison. It makes a neat pun when applied to sidewalk and road art, as well.

On Oct.19.2004 at 08:32 PM
Ross Ciaramitaro’s comment is:

I'm not a big fan of cycling or Lance...you would think this type of writing on the streets would be regulated or censored in some way...maybe the french aren't as prudish as us Americans seem to be...

On Oct.27.2004 at 04:40 PM
Michael Surtees’s comment is:

b r a v o

On Jul.24.2005 at 10:12 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Mark—Any idea whether “EPO LANCE” in the seventh image is a continuation of the accusations of drug use or a reference to his being the only person on the Tour to have used EPO legally?

On Jul.25.2005 at 12:19 PM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

> Any idea whether “EPO LANCE” in the seventh image is a continuation of the accusations of drug use or a reference to his being the only person on the Tour to have used EPO legally ?

Gunnar — I am not certain what the intended message was. A book came out last year accusing Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs; and that fueled further accusations from the general public, journalists, and (IIRC) a fellow bike rider or two.

But I do know two things: this year, at the beginning of the Tour, he was "randomly selected" for the full battery of drug tests; and back in April, it was reported that Armstrong made a financial contribution to the UCI in support of anti-doping research. There are some that argue giving money to the organization which does the testing is ethically suspicious. For myself, I think a lot of Armstrong's success is in his head. Considering Michael Rasmussen's disasterous time trial on Saturday (a concentration-shattering crash, four (!) subsequent bike changes, and a head-over-heels tumble on the descent) one can certainly see what a break in mental focus can do.

On Jul.25.2005 at 01:58 PM
Makhlesheanta’s comment is:

OMGGG!!!! I luvv it!!! I luv urs poems n pics!!!!!! LUVINN' IT!!

-Makhlesheanta (nick)

On Dec.06.2007 at 09:52 PM
Makhlesheanta’s comment is:

OMGGG!!!! I luvv it!!! I luv urs poems n pics!!!!!! LUVINN' IT!!

-Makhlesheanta (nick)

On Dec.06.2007 at 09:52 PM
Makhlesheanta’s comment is:

OMGGG!!!! I luvv it!!! I luv urs poems n pics!!!!!! LUVINN' IT!!

-Makhlesheanta (nick)

On Dec.06.2007 at 09:52 PM