Letters With Style: A Call-out for Artists to Collaborate on Issue 12

If you’ve held a Dark Mountain book in your hands, you’ll know that we give as much thought to the artwork that runs through its pages as we do to the writing. A few weeks ago, we made a call-out for writers to contribute to this autumn’s special issue on the theme of ‘the sacred’. Today we follow that up with a call for artists to take part in a special collaboration initiated by long-term Dark Mountain contributor Thomas Keyes. Drawing on his experience as a graffiti artist in Belfast and his exploration of the collaborative techniques that produced the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, Thomas is putting together a team of artists to illuminate this issue of Dark Mountain. Read on for details of how you can get involved - and please share this call-out with artists you think might want to take part.



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.
No-one really knows how many artists or scribes contributed to the Book of Kells. Estimates range from one to a more authoritative six or seven, but there’s a problem with the way these estimates are made. They don’t take account of how things work in a culture of letters with style. With an ordinary handwritten document, you can count the number of different ways the letter ‘g’ or ‘s’ is written and use this to determine the number of authors. But when style is the aim of the game, each writer will have several versions of each letter, designed to deal with all the possible scenarios that could occur. Frustrating analysis even further, writers may go back over each other’s work to bring harmony to the final piece. Even dating a piece along conventional lines becomes difficult: references may be made to much earlier work as a mark of respect, individuals practising divergent styles might be brought into the group because of deeper shared values, or an innovation might occur through circumstance and not reappear in future work.

There’s no Picasso in such a culture. It’s primarily conservative; you are carrying a style with respect to where it came from, following its rules and designing within its boundaries. Innovators better be very careful: some rules aren’t for breaking. Some work does stand out, but not that far, and rather than create a postmodern free-for-all, superficial elements are absorbed into the culture while the underlying values remain the same.

The first letters with style that I saw were written by Raid and Den on the Bangor to Belfast train line as it cut through East Belfast towards the city centre. I was probably about eight or nine, in the car going from Holywood to Rathcoole to visit my granny as we did every Saturday. I knew every bit of graffiti on the route and craned my neck around in the car to get the longest possible view. I didn’t know what it was or how to do it or even why it was there, but it was clearly the best idea ever, and I made numerous failed attempts at it before finally getting some guidance at the age of thirteen.

First it’s fun, then it’s cool, then it’s a serious all-consuming enterprise. I’ve spent years perfecting the elements: tags and throw-ups for getting up; dubs, like throw-ups but with more style – maybe a drop shadow and highlights. Then pieces, the most complex form, with multicolour fill-ins, 3D, shading, and connections between letters so complex they become wildstyles, unreadable to most people. The aim of a piece is to create a burner. A burner is a piece or series of pieces where all the elements run together in harmony: the outline must be complex and balanced, yet still reveal the letters, even if it takes a bit of work. The fill-in has to be smooth, colour balanced and varied. Execution must be perfect, no drips, outline tight. It must sit within the culture; you can’t take the word out of graffiti and slap it on a Rembrandt.

The choice of letters is very important: some letters are better than others, and some only work well in certain combinations. SANCTUM has good letters. Even in this font they look good. As simple letters, they fill the space they occupy. There are gaps around the top of the A and under the T, but those are letters which are easily added to, so you can fill the space without corrupting the letter.

Here’s a more problematic word: LIBER. How do you fill the space between the L and the I without corrupting one of the letters into meaningless nonsense, or twisting it to the point that style itself is compromised? I can’t think of a single tag that starts with LI – not in Ireland, not worldwide. I Googled it. Since a graffiti writer can choose their letters, this combination has been avoided. In Lindesfarne around 700 AD, Eadfrith was not so lucky. The scribe of the Lindesfarne Gospels, he encountered a major stylistic challenge that he had no choice but to resolve. The first of the four most important pages, the incipit to the Gospel of St Matthew begins with LIBER. In insular art of this period, the incipit, particularly the first row of letters, are the pieces – wildstyle pieces. They have to be burners. A generation earlier, in the Book of Durrow, letters were getting more prominent but were still very much subordinate features of the text rather than objects of study in their own right. Eadfrith can’t just hide those letters in a corner with a load of spirals and a few peacocks; the hit that the viewer is looking for has to come from an LI combination, and the B has to behave itself as well. Beyond that, he has to follow the rules of his letter culture, the borders, the geometry, and proper proportions and curves based on the insular writing styles.

His solution was radical and ingenious. He didn’t just put the I through the L to fill the gap as had been done somewhat uncomfortably in earlier manuscripts. Instead, he made this move the main feature of the page. The I breaks the convention of diminuendo by being larger than the L, so large it also breaks the border and completely dominates the page in a way that hasn’t been seen before. But he hasn’t broken any rules; far from it. To the eye of one attuned to this tradition, he has made the I, that revolutionary leap, the most geometrically conservative form in the piece.

To deconstruct a piece of insular art, you need to find the underlying geometry. It’s always there. By ruling diagonals from the corners, find the centre, then use a compass placed there to draw a circle that touches both edges. The first possible construction line to be created from this arrangement is any two points where the diagonals intersect the circle. There are four options. Eadfrith only uses one, for the alignment of the I. Its left hand-side sits exactly on this line, and its height is determined by the diameter of the circle. All other geometric derivations within the piece are subordinate to this arrangement. The piece is original, the proportions are perfect and the rules of style are upheld. He’s pulled off a burner.

Basically, that’s the benchmark, the spirit of this enterprise. When you get into the territory of sacred books, insular scribes are the style kings, and graffiti terminology is the best way I know to describe their work. Style in the sense of a letter culture isn’t decorating the sacred, it is the sacred. Culture forms around it. By writing a set of letters thousands of times, style is discovered, but so are friendships, a sense of place; stories are created, the history of the art form is understood and added to, and even in the most literal sense a sanctum is established, a secret place for creating complex wildstyles from the black book.

Personally, the project to illuminate Issue 12 is going to be the biggest thing I’ve done with Dark Mountain, but like the other pieces, it’s not really an extra burden. I’ve contributed in the past when what was happening in life and what Dark Mountain was doing seemed to align. I was always making that art or thinking parallel thoughts when I’ve got involved. In this instance, the alignment has been particularly strong. I’ve been making insular illuminations of my own without any books to put them in for the last year, and I’m coming down with piles of parchment. The invitation to do the art for this book couldn’t have come at a better time. Working within Dark Mountain, much like in a graffiti crew, is a great creative atmosphere because there’s an awful lot that doesn’t need to be said. The intent is understood by everyone on a deep level, so the serious business of refining a concept can start at the beginning. I use Dark Mountain more as an adjective than a noun, much as I use graffiti terminology to describe something very specific but complex and hard to pin down outside its context. This book is going to be a very Dark Mountain take on the sacred. Can it also be a burner?

The nature of this call-out is quite specific: it’s to the already aligned. It’s for people already seriously into their craft, a craft that fits with this project. If we’re planning to hit the territory of the sacred by the end of July, we really need people who started looking for it a few years back and think they are getting close. Why this is being done is a question for the writers, but it’s fairly clear how this is supposed to be done from an artistic point of view. We need to tap into style in the same way as the insular manuscript illuminators managed to. My way in has been graffiti, but there must be many more routes, from other cultures and traditions.

So, what are we asking for?

  • This is not a call for new work just yet. Instead, if you want to be part of the team, send us a few examples of your previous work and a statement.
  • The artists in the team will be paired with particular writers and texts that will form the core of Issue 12, and the challenge will be to create a page which stands at the front of a piece, like the incipit in a medieval manuscript, with the possibility of creating further images to accompany the text.
  • While the tradition of the insular scribes is coupled to a particular local flavour of one of the major religions, there are echoes of such illumination and illustration within other cultures and belief systems, and we are keen to find collaborators who can bring other traditions and inspirations to the team.
  • All artwork will be made by hand and rendered at the actual size at which it will appear in the book. No technological enhancement should be used.
  • The ‘incipit’ pages will be on parchment, which we can supply. Beyond this, materials are up for discussion, but some deeper reasoning behind alternative choices will go a long way.

This is an experiment, and a big departure from the way that Dark Mountain usually works – a leap in the darkness for all of us. If you’ve read this far and you think you’d be up for being on the team we’re putting together, or you just want to know more about what this would involve, then write to me at [email protected].


  1. The next time I see a coal train trundleing past Niwot, I will have a better appreciation of the graffiti decking the cars. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Warren Buffet, (Berkshire Hathaway), commissioned a two mile long graffiti codex, to create a modern recitation of these ancient Celtic scribal workshops?


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