One of the world’s greatest working calligraphers is a man named Luca Barcellona, and he’s only 34 years old. His recent book, Take Your Pleasure Seriously, is a monographic look at his contemporary interpretation of hand lettering, a traditional craft that is currently having a major resurgence in visual culture. Now that cell phones have 1080p screens and graphic design has become more crisp and polished than ever, Barcellona has found a new audience that’s eager for a humanizing touch.
In the beginning, Barcellona was just a kid who skipped out of class to tag subway trains. “There were often no books in my backpack, which I filled instead with cans of spray paint,” writes Barcellona in his book. Under his tag name, Bean, Barcellona helmed a critical mass of graffiti artists, who pushed the artform into the forefront of Italy’s visual culture. Barcellona enrolled in graphic design school just in time to witness the transition from analog to digital. “[W]hen I began design school I was fascinated by Pantone, transfer sheets, Rapidographs, and works drawn on Schoeller paper,” writes Barcellona. “When I finished in 1997, all that had been replaced by computers.”
Dismayed, Barcellona graduated and took a job at a music store. He used his vacation days to practice lettering and work on small commissions from the hip-hop scene, which he describes as “an integral part of my roots.” Demand for his work kept growing, and soon Barcelona was able to quit his day job and make a living as a calligrapher. With newfound confidence, he reintroduced technology to his craft through evening courses in computer graphics. Barcellona’s resulting career is that of a graphic encyclopedia of scripts and marks–his handlettering ranges from gothic and classic work to contemporary influences of graffiti and street art.
Take Your Pleasures Seriously offers beautiful examples of Barcellona’s work, and he aptly details the challenges of being an independent calligrapher and graphic artist. Yet what the book fails to do is situate Barcellona in the broader context of hand lettering as a craft, and why this field has seen such renewed interest. It’s clear from the book’s introduction that his peers respect him, but without prior knowledge of calligraphy, the reader might wonder what makes Barcellona’s work so extraordinary. The book also sidesteps the practicality of pursuing such a demanding, traditional craft. Calligraphy isn’t for the meek–it takes mental and physical discipline that sometimes defies logic. Three years of consistent, daily practice is required just to perfect one of the classic scripts, an activity that, at its worst, can result in arthritic damage.
Yet perhaps most important of all, this book explains to graphic designers and visual artists why calligraphy is a beneficial study. “Through the practice of calligraphy the perceptive capabilities that form the basis of the graphic sign can be developed: the perception of contour, space, relationships, light and dark,” writes calligrapher Giovanni de Faccio in one of the book’s essays. “The art is like an endless apprenticeship, instilling manual abilities that mature over time.” In a time with rapid-fire communications, calligraphy slows things down. Barcellona and his peers represent the increasing desire to return to meaningful handcraft in a digital age.