Opinion

How Bello Became the Typeface of Protest

Robin Fuller portrait
Robin Fuller

Robin Fuller holds a PhD on the history and semiotics of sans-serif typefaces from Trinity College Dublin. He teaches Textual and Visual Studies at Trinity, and is a graphic designer.

Certain styles of letter and typefaces carry political and cultural connotations. If you want to lure tourists into spending €7 a pint in your Temple Bar pub, choosing the appropriate “authentic” Irish lettering for your fascia is important.

Similarly, if you want to promote a black metal group, you should probably stay away from Comic Sans. While the spikey, spider-web forms of a black metal group’s logo might seem to inherently convey the intended “evil”, more often there is nothing inherent in the shapes of letters that allow them to mean what they do.

Styles of letter come to mean what they mean through association over time. For the last year or so in Ireland, a particular typeface has become associated with protest and politically progressive movements: Bello.

Bello was released by the Dutch and Finnish typedesign firm Underware in 2004. It is designed to emulate the fluid forms of commercial brush lettering.

When drawing letters with a brush, the letterer can make spontaneous decisions and adjust letters to fit and link with one another. In contrast to hand-drawn letters, typefaces usually repeat each letter identically each time.

To get around this, and to emulate a hand-rendered feel, Bello comes with multiple alternatives for many letterforms, as well as ligatures, which are two characters linked.

The designer who uses Bello can alternate these forms to create the spontaneous, improvised feeling of hand-drawn letters. The result is a particularly jolly, blobby and playful typeface, well-suited to advertising ice cream. But, oddly, in Ireland today we find Bello used as the graphic voice of progressive politics.

To understand how Bello became associated with protest in Ireland we have to go back to 2008. In that year, American graffiti writer Stephen “Espo” Powers travelled to Ireland on a Fulbright scholarship to paint a series of murals in Dublin and Belfast.

Espo began as a graffiti writer in the classic New York hip-hop mould. Such graffiti is intentionally exclusive; letterforms are rendered in arcane, labyrinthine styles only legible to the initiate, and what is written is less important than how it is written.

Later, Espo evolved a unique style of graffiti influenced by commercial signwriting, featuring clear and legible letterforms. Unlike typical graffiti writers, Espo does not simply render his nom de guerre, but instead writes poignant, fragmentary messages, alluding to fuller stories.

His murals in Dublin included “Lonely for You Only”, which remained outside the Tivoli theatre for several years, and a series at the Bernard Shaw reading “Baby is Crying; Rent all Spent; Car Got Towed; Lost the Remote”. During his visit to Dublin, he was aided by a younger Dublin graffiti artist, named Maser.

Maser’s career has parallels with that of Espo. Although Maser is today known as Ireland’s most celebrated street artist, famed for clear lettering and large abstract compositions, he was first a graffiti writer, and an original, technically proficient and respected one too.

Following their collaboration in 2008, Espo’s influence on Maser was immediately apparent. In 2009, Maser and Damien Dempsey began a project called They Are Us, to raise awareness and money for the Simon Community.

Dempsey wrote short one-liners or couplets evoking Dublin life in the recession, which Maser translated into large murals throughout the city, in a clear Espo-like style (at the 2010 Offset conference at the Grand Canal Theatre, Espo described the project as “those Damien Dempsey murals that look like [Espo’s work]”).

The murals included “Concrete Jungle Mother Farewell to Your Stairwell Forever”, covering the entire side of a Ballymun tower block, and “Greed is the Knife and the Scars Run Deep” on East Wall Road. The latter mural became an icon of the recession, and was used by several European newspapers in 2010 to illustrate articles on Ireland’s emaciated economy.

Maser used two styles of letter for the project: simple clear sans-serif capitals, and a familiar blobby, jovial italic. One of the curious things about Maser’s lettering was that, although it was rendered by hand, the italic was based directly on the typeface Bello. It is ironic that a typeface that was specifically designed to emulate hand-drawn forms became the model for Maser’s own hand-painted letters.

One of Damo’s lines read “Love Yourself Today”, which Maser rendered in white Bello letters on a red heart. Around the same time, Maser made graffiti stickers with his alias, also in Bello on a red heart. With “They Are Us”, Maser introduced Bello to Irish social politics, but it was not until 2016 that Bello would be at the front lines of protest.

In the lead-up to the marriage referendum in 2015, the blue wall of Temple Bar’s Project Arts Centre was enlivened by a mural of a fist wearing a knuckleduster reading “YES” by graffiti artist Sums. This was a modification of Sums’s signature graffiti stickers in which the knuckleduster features his own alias.

The following year in the same site, Maser did something similar, modifying his signature sticker design to read “Repeal the 8th” in Bello on a red heart. Most likely, the mural would have been enjoyed by some and then forgotten by all after a short period had the Catholic far-right not scored a monumental own goal by protesting its existence.

Anti-reproductive-rights organisations bombarded the centre and Dublin City Council with complaints, forcing the mural to be removed, and in the process, brought the mural to national attention.

Subsequently, The HunReal Issues, the website that had commissioned the mural, released the design online, which reproductive-rights activists downloaded and used to produce stickers and stencils, making Maser’s Bello-based design the de-facto logo of the repeal movement.

At this year’s March for Repeal, on 8 March, protesters could be seen holding handmade signs emulating Bello’s letterforms.

In December 2016, Bello broadened its political portfolio and entered into the movement addressing homelessness and the housing crisis. Home Sweet Home was established at a September 2016 meeting organised by Dean Scurry, attended by political activists and artists including John Connors, Damien Dempsey, Frankie Gaffney, and Ruairí McKiernan.

By early December they had a logo, “Home Sweet Home” in white Bello on a silhouette of a house. Home Sweet Home’s occupation of Apollo House again pushed Bello into the national spotlight, as Bello voiced the demand for the universal right to housing, and activists adorned posters, banners, T-shirts, high-vis jackets, and even taxis in Bello’s bouncing curves.

Scurry subsequently used Bello to advertise his talking tour of Ireland in March, and Bello can every so often be found in left-wing meme images.

Bello’s current association with progressive politics is limited to Ireland. It comes with no inherent politics. It was the official typeface of François Hollande’s successful presidential campaign in 2012; it was also used in the original Airbnb logo. Bello’s dalliance with the Irish left is probably coming to a close.

“Repeal” is now more often seen in white sans-serif caps on black jumpers than in Maser’s optimistic heart design. Unlike the letters that publicans use to convey Irishness, which have centuries-long cultural associations, Bello briefly drifted into Irish political discourse, and will probably drift off again.

However fleeting, Bello’s encouraging, optimistic forms have been a welcome break from the shouting bold sans-serifs and (shudder) eroded grunge fonts – Jobstown Not Guilty, I’m looking at you – that dominate the discourse of protest.

 

Comments

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  2. Jamie
    8 January at 09:38

    Interesting. Remember ages ago looking up “socialist typography” to try and understand why more radical left-leaning events all had the “eroded grunge fonts” you mention above. Seems to point to a real lack of imagination. Suppose we want our political alternatives to look new, or at least different. Eroded grunge fonts (with black-red-white colour scheme) are so uniform internationally that they are worthy of an essay in themselves.

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