Letters with Style

Our third themed book, Dark Mountain: Issue 12 (SANCTUM), is now available. As with every issue of Dark Mountain, it contains a multitude of voices, words and images, gathered in this case around the theme of ‘the sacred’. On Monday, the editors of this issue introduced the theme – today, it is the turn of art editor and lead artist Thomas Keyes to explain the unique collaboration which has brought letters and images to life in this issue.
is an Irish artist who learnt letter art through the graffiti subculture in Belfast. He is now an insular manuscript illuminator and parchment maker based on the Black Isle. He has worked with museums and universities throughout Britain and Ireland and was art editor and lead artist for Dark Mountain Issue 12 - SANCTUM.

The artwork for this book mostly started as roe deer running around the Scottish Highlands until they met with traffic or a gun. These creatures were then processed into parchment which has gradually accumulated over the last few years, the speed at which one person can make parchment being greater than the speed at which he can make use of it.

Along with a large pile of parchment came an eclectic collection of chemicals, minerals, plants and lichens, in an ever-expanding attempt to find ways to use the parchment well. At some point, this became a conscious attempt to create insular illuminations using the techniques and materials developed by Celtic monks over a thousand years ago. My experiments ticked along for a couple of years, the illuminations getting more and more complex, the details finer, the lines tighter – but still missing a crucial element. No sacred book.

Thomas Keyes stretches deerskin for the parchment on which the artwork for Issue 12 will be created.
Thomas Keyes stretches deerskin for the parchment used in the making of Issue 12.
 An art form like this needs its environment to thrive: there has to be something to aim at. Although there would be something great about actually copying an insular manuscript, this would be further away from the experience of the original Celtic scribes than taking on contemporary literature. The books they made work because those scribes were excited by the texts on which they were working and those texts do not have the same effect on me.

When Dark Mountain decided to take a look at the sacred I was interested. When the title was decided I got excited. Before I started working with parchment and insular illuminations, I was a graffiti writer, and there are certain letters which just work, so even before you get to the meaning, SANCTUM is a great word. There are letters here which have been at the forefront of graffiti culture, in the greatest tags: from style kings like SEEN, SKEME and KASE2 at the peak of 1980s New York graffiti, to today’s ASTEK, CAN TWO and TOTEM. The insular scribes also worked with some of these letters in great depth: QUONIAM, IN PRINCIPIO and INITIUM are among the most highly developed combinations in their culture.

You might think that this would make the job of designing the title easy: simply pluck these pre-existing letters from their contexts and rearrange them into the word SANCTUM. Except that neither tradition allows for such borrowing. To start with, it’s against the rules: in graffiti, it’s called ‘biting style’, and the rapid development of insular art tells us that a similar taboo was operating back then. Besides, it doesn’t work. Both graffiti and insular illumination rely on flow: the relationship between the letters, and of the word to the space it sits within. To write a word is to guide letters down a path in sequence. For the word to have meaning, all that is necessary is that you put one letter in front of the other, like drunken footsteps; as long as they go generally in the right direction, the meaning can be deciphered. To get flow is to work at a different level entirely: like water trickling down a gentle but complex incline, each line must come from its letter source, pick the optimal route and stop where it is no longer encouraged forward, coalescing in fine balance. No one starts out good at graffiti and not many become great. The secret, if there is one, is to write the same word thousands of times until it flows.

The insular artists understood flow and sought it out, both subconsciously, like a graffiti writer, through relentless practice of their writing styles, and more scientifically through geometry, deliberately constructing their art on strict mathematical principles in order to maximise flow and obtain balance.

The artistic plan for this book is all about flow and balance. The call-out for artists was pretty specific to this end – and the response was much more varied than I had anticipated. I learned about new levels of flow and balance as the plan emerged, like a jigsaw with no picture on the box, fitting together each new piece as it arrived. The artists who completed the task have a wide range of skills and styles: some create highly technically detailed work; others explore dark emotional undercurrents or focus on the materials themselves. All the work had to be created actual size, with no technological manipulation, so what you see in the book is exactly what the artists made.

"This book required the best part of twenty skins and took me into situations that can’t have troubled many since the monastic age."
“This book took me into situations that can’t have troubled many since the monastic age.”

One common thread is the respect we share for the parchment itself. It has a presence – and you can tell when people get it. Even on the cleanest sheet there are the traces of a living creature, the lightest imprint of veins or the grain of the skin. It has a depth which no other material can match. Built up in layers of translucent collagen, its opacity sits below the surface, like a shallow pool. The art seems to lift off it. This book required the best part of twenty skins and took me into situations that can’t have troubled many since the monastic age. Setting out all those skins is an operation in itself, just in terms of the surface area involved. You start by marking out the good bits; then, as they dwindle, there are judgements to make around stains and holes. Sooner or later, you are cannibalising other work to make up the quantity, getting to that tipping point which gives intensity to the best manuscripts, where the scrappy bits and unfinished details just go to show that everyone involved pushed themselves to the limits of their time and resources.

• • •

A folio from the Book of Kells.
A folio from the Book of Kells.

There’s a temptation to find a more obscure reference, a less daunting benchmark – but the Book of Kells won’t let me off like that. Created around AD 800, the work of its scribes is so close to perfection and so far ahead of anything else that it has an aura of magic, forcing anyone who treads near it to pay homage. Of course, there are mistakes – it’s not even finished – yet the accumulation of tiny errors is so small that, by the time you’ve found them, it’s too late; the spell has worked.

The Book has been playing this trick for centuries; that’s how it survived in the limelight for so long. Not hidden or buried, it’s been in the thick of it, surviving on style alone, as it passed through wars, famines, revolutions and Reformation. Even Cromwell’s general, Henry Jones, went out of his way to protect it, presenting this Catholic relic to Trinity College, Dublin where it remains today.

Its most telling encounter of recent centuries was the visit by Queen Victoria in 1849. She signed the flyleaf. In an era when history is roped off and kept behind glass, this seems incredible; yet once you think in terms of tags, you see how, even a thousand years after their deaths, those scribes were able to manipulate the head of the largest empire on Earth into behaving exactly as they wanted. It’s the kind of respect that style at this level should receive – and, of course, the signature leaf was later removed, setting the Book firmly above royalty.

• • •


Because graffiti is a living culture, we can see the effect of stylistic letters on the culture that fosters them. With what survives from the world of insular manuscripts, the task is more difficult. Ivan Illich saw the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels as the last stand of a mind not yet fully enclosed by literacy; certainly, they are decorated to a degree which suggests that words alone could not be trusted to deliver the message.

As I write, this book is still emerging. I’ve still not seen it all – and I won’t be able to tell how it has worked until I read this in print myself. But the intent is clear and so is its place on the bookshelf. This is a book which stands at the other end of the arc of literature, embracing and at the same time questioning the primacy of the word. In a pleasingly geometric mirror image, we dip our toes from the land of words into the unknown beyond – just as the early Irish converts stepped from pagan orality into Christian book culture, bringing their style and geometry along to guide the way.

At each stage in the evolution of the use of letters, these seemingly simple symbols have thrown up a revolution that caught people off guard. With the journey from oral cultures into the historical era, book-based religions, vernacular literacy and education, letters have formed the culture that is destroying life as we know it. But if letters have been a way into this, perhaps they can also be a way through; for most of us, there is no other choice.




  1. What a glorious project. I’m going to get several copies of your book.

    I live in LA and a few years ago found that 3 walls of the new West Hollywood Library had murals on them. My favourite by far was one by an artist called Retna. It is an entire wall covered in blue graffiti hieroglyphics. You can google him if you’re interested and see a brief video of him painting it and talking about his influences.

    Needless to say, Sactum is a totally different application. It was very moving to read of the process of getting and using the deerskins.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. A true labour of love.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *