The New York Graffiti scene was undeniably huge during its prime in the 1960s and 70s. What started as kids tagging self-crafted pseudonyms onto walls, primarily to mark their turf, became an artform that decorated New York City in its entirety - from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Though it shouldn’t be confused as ground-zero for the development of graffiti art, it certainly provided a strong platform for graffiti to become a world-renown artform that colours nearly every city in the world today.
It’s undeniable now that graffiti is most commonly associated with vandalism and anti-social behaviour, but when I came across one artist two years ago my perception was turned, spun on its head, and reworked in the most unexpected and surprising way.
Born from the small town of Farrockaway in Queen’s, there was RAMM•ELL•ZEE. A graffiti-artist, come rapper, come philosopher, RAMM•ELL•ZEE was lauded by his contemporaries and art-critics alike as being someone who lived on the edge of comprehensibility. With RAMM•ELL•ZEE being his legally recognised name also, it’s pretty obvious he’s no ordinary artist.
Ramm painted subway trains like almost every other graffiti artist in New York at the time, and adopted the popular “wildstyle” writing technique, which centred on obscure lettering designed by the individual artist themselves. RAMM•ELL•ZEE’s wildstyle was unique to another level in that his graffiti was also built on a self-manufactured philosophy called “Gothic Futurism.” This acted to revise the entire history of language, and framed graffiti as a means by which language could be used a weapon.
To understand Gothic Futurism, the best place to start would be to read RAMM•ELL•ZEE’s manifesto, published in 1979: “Ionic Treatise Gothic Furturism Assassin Knowledge of the Remanipulated Square Point’s One to 720° to 1440° the RAMM-ELL-ZEE.”
The language only gets more confusing and seemingly less coherent from here, and it’s taken me up to two years to finally grasp any firm understanding of what it’s trying to say. But essentially this manifesto revises and restructures the history of language to frame it as something that has developed through acts of violence and war, and displays to us a modern government that cannot be trusted based on its foundations being basically stolen goods.
Before delving into this, it needs to be said that RAMM•ELL•ZEE’s whole philosophy is built on this idea that everything is understood to be an equation; most importantly language is an equation and art is an equation; RAMM•ELL•ZEE itself is also an equation. As paradoxical as that sounds, I just want to justify that first by showing the way by which I came to understand that idea. At the most basic level, language is just a way in which two individuals are able to communicate. Obviously it’s more complex than that with all the different languages in the world and differing dialects from those languages, but at its most basic level language, it's there to communicate ideas from one individual to another. What are equations? Immediately you go to maths: “1 + 2 = 3” is the most basic equation we can think of, but what does that mean? That’s entirely dependent on its context; if that’s a count of people then the equations shows there are three people, if it’s a sum of the number of pens in the room then it shows there are three pens. What this says is that equations, just like language, are a way in which we can communicate ideas from one individual to another. Equations are used in business to communicate success in profits and customer acquisition. They’re used in physics to understand why objects act the way they do, used in chemistry to understand chemical behaviour. All to say an equation is just another language, but where the English language is built on the use of sounds and letters and the ways in which they’re combined, equations are built on the combination of numbers and symbols. So language is an equation because an equation is language.
Moving forward, RAMM•ELL•ZEE starts by saying “M x A = N has been placed by this unplanned structure colony math to do the concentrating of friction formation. G x O = D has placed two prophetic universal gambles.” Cohesion isn’t his strong suit.
Breaking that down, to me the equations “M x A = N” and “G x O = D” are just demonstrations of language being an equation. To sum up what he said, we (The human race) are here to develop language so we can communicate with each other. The two “prophetic universal gambles” are the “understructuring of a transversal register… letter by equation and answer to equation” and “reformation equations to make the understructure itself the overstructure.”
Dealing with the first, this “gamble” is the fact of written and spoken language being the foundation of all society, letters being equations to form words which we use to communicate with. This second “gamble” begins with the full understanding of the arbitrary nature of the first. Making the understructure the overstructure is to understand language as the foundation and to then play and restructure it, creating a “reformation-equation.” If this isn’t whacky enough for you, RAMM demonstrates the second “gamble” by talking about medieval European monks “who overstructured their idols and did not know that they had remanipulated a disappearing point on a quantum transversal register.”
This is explored in more detail:
“From the fourth century to the nineteenth century a development of style remanipulated by monks known as Gothic type, or Old English type, presently used by the New York Times and Long Island Press.”
What RAMM means then by “Reformation-equations” is the way in which type-face is altered and the symbols of the alphabet are manipulated.
These small additions to the letters, the flicks on the ends of the “N”, the small details added to the “Y” and “T” are all results of the “remanipulation-equations.” If language is communication, then the written symbols attached to language are visible means of communicating that language. These symbols are arbitrary and are easily recognisable. By writing in a different font and manipulating these symbols, these monks are changing the letters to show they have control over the letters. By controlling the letters, they then are in control of language and therefore the communication of knowledge. In a very “knowledge is power” kind of way, this control of the symbols of language meant that monks became the source of power in medieval times. RAMM•ELL•ZEE says “This is the PROTO-product of WILD-STYLING” but I’ll explore this in a short while.
Whilst monks remanipulated the symbols to gain control over language, RAMM•ELL•ZEE also explores a much larger way in which language and symbols have been used to gain control and power. However, instead of the symbols, the sounds attached to these symbols have been remanipulated.
“To my knowledge of letterstructure, separation of sound (verbal recording) and wordformations English, Spanish and Russian, and any other Slanguages using Roman letter-symbols or others are not a language, due to universal symbolic thievery. The original verbal formation (phonetic) for the Roman letter was Latin; (L + A x T = IN).”
Instead of remanipulating the letters, RAMM•ELL•ZEE sees modern romantic languages (and all others that fall under his umbrella term “slanguages”) as stealing the lettersymbols from Latin and ascribing their own sounds to those letters. In a rather prescriptivist way, RAMM•ELL•ZEE understands the sounds of Latin to be the only phonetics that should be signified from the roman alphabet. Naming it “universal symbolic thievery” RAMM•ELL•ZEE seems to think that this action was done entirely consciously, whilst Latin lettersymbols were acquired subconsciously. However he doesn’t let the Roman’s off either.
“The borrowing of subconsciously incomplete symbolic structures (Phoenician), etc. Added to the design of the Roman letter-type, these symbols are complete due to arnament-structure in design of IKONOKLAST PANZERISM”
Another coinage from RAMM•ELL•ZEE, Ikonoklast Panzerism (drawn from “iconoclasm”, the destruction of symbols, and the German “panzer,” meaning tank) is the act of taking symbols and remanipulating them to give meaning. Ikonoklast Panzerism is also performed by the monks mentioned earlier.
With this knowledge, RAMM criticises the power-structures of modern society, whose societies are founded on these “slanguages.”
“How can a government be structured straight using a symbolic code subconsciously remanipulated and its symbols do not belong to the verbal formation.”
But how does any of this relate to the graffiti of late 20th century New York City? The link is found when RAMM explains the monks remanipulation of lettersymbols was PROTO WILD-STYLISM, wildstyle being the popular writing in New York. As mentioned earlier, artists who adopted wildstyle would base their art on their own crafted version of the alphabet, ornamenting letters in their own style to make their artwork stand-out, exactly how the medieval monks did it. Artists that practised wildstyle, therefore, had control of the lettersymbols of language, thereby having their own control of the information and therefore having a power that could emancipate them from larger governmental structures. Now you may think this is pretty self-defeating when graffiti in New York mostly consisted of artists writing their own pseudonyms, but RAMM•ELL•ZEE took this a step further in his style “gothic futurism.” Because this apparently wasn’t complex enough.
To RAMM isn’t wasn’t just enough to ornament the letters. Gothic Futurism was ornamentation for “armamentation,” in which letters were armoured to fight against language, which he believed was a tyranny. Gothic Futurism wasn’t just rendered in graffiti art, however, it also manifested in 3D art models – namely the ‘letter racers.’
Comprising of 26 models, these were race-cars representing each letter of the alphabet, and are perhaps the best way to understand Gothic Futurism, as their war-like design displays how letters can be ornamented to be “armamented” against language. Check them out here.
Gothic Futurism was also going to be manifested in film, however it was ultimately never made, however there is a film on Youtube salvaging various clips for Gothic Futurism, however I’ve only made it to the first ten-minutes before I lose sense of what is happening in the film.
RAMM•ELL•ZEE did make the film “Alpha’s Bet,” using characters he created through his Gothic Futurism philosophy, however I have also failed to really grasp an understanding of the film itself. Though admittedly, understanding the works of RAMM•ELL•ZEE require the dedication of a good chunk of time.
If this is your first time learning about this, you’d probably imagine this didn’t leave much of a legacy, and unfortunately that seems rather true. This whole post is based on an essay I wrote at the end of University for a theory module, and my professor wasn’t so keen on the ideas he had:
“The trouble is that his own accounts are, from an academic perspective, unpersuasive verging on fantasy”
RAMM•ELL•ZEE died in 2010, and apart from one album released last year titled “cosmic flush,” nothing much has come about regarding him.
However, in 2018, Red Bull Arts produced a documentary on RAMM•ELL•ZEE to accompany their exhibition of his artwork. It’s also possible to find him when researching into Afro-Futurism, and there have been a few featurettes on him and his work, mostly regarding his “battle-station” condo in New York, and his self-crafted outfits that he wears around the city. But apart from that, he seems to have mostly been contained within the art and American graffiti sphere.
However, having come across him two years ago now, I find myself amazed at his ideas regarding language and have only been drawn to understand him more. I’m still figuring out many parts of his “ionic treatise” and the part I’ve cited is only the smallest chunk of the whole text, which delves into particle-physics, astro-physics and other ideas that even taking an hour out to understand gives me a headache.
I’m hoping one day to take a deeper dive into the New York Graffiti scene, and explore more about Rammellzee, his art and his contemporaries.
For those who want to read on here are a series of blogs, articles and youtube videos on the subject:
The archived Gothic Futurism Website: http://web.archive.org/web/20130121193431/http://www.gothicfuturism.com/rammellzee/01.html