By Alec Banks, Illustrated by Kenton Parker
Graffiti holds a unique attraction for individuals who feel the need to leave their mark. Each person’s interpretation of this art form differs, whether they choose to express their real names, monikers, streets, or other personal elements. While most of these creations remain personal, there are instances where particular visual languages in graffiti have been mimicked worldwide. One such example is the famous “KILROY WAS HERE,” which originated during World War II and can still be found on train lines across the globe. Another notable case is the enigmatic “S” symbol, which has permeated the lives of many, regardless of their background.
The Mystical “S”
Legendary skateboarder Stacy Peralta recalls that the stylized “S” was one of the earliest letters he and his friends drew in school. Its distinctive design consists of two sets of three vertical lines, diagonally connected with four parallel lines at a 45-degree angle. Four more lines are added on top and bottom, creating a pointy flourish that solidifies it as a letterform. This symbol often appeared on the notebooks of school-age kids and was scrawled on denim in a similar manner to an anarchy symbol.
Despite the prevalence and popularity of the “S” symbol throughout the 20th century, its origin stories remain shrouded in mystery. Some speculate it is derived from Los Angeles gang culture, while others believe various bands incorporated it into their logos. Some even suggest it may be a reworked version of the infinity symbol. Although many have attempted to take credit for its creation, the true culprit behind the “S” symbol remains unknown, adding to its mythological allure.
Sacred Reich, a metal band formed in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1985, bears a logo with a striking resemblance to the enigmatic “S.” However, the band’s original member Phil Rind denies any connection, stating that the logo may have been inspired by their guitarist’s motocross experiences and the Suzuki brand.
Japanese auto and motorcycle manufacturer Suzuki is another possible origin for the “S” symbol. Suzuki’s logo, featuring a stand-alone red “S,” dates back to 1958 and aligns with the timeline of the symbol’s appearance in graffiti during the 1960s. However, the design differences between the two make it difficult to definitively attribute the symbol to Suzuki.
Many individuals who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s associate the “S” symbol with the logo of California streetwear brand Stüssy. The brand’s founder, Shawn Stussy, drew inspiration from the handstyles of his artist uncle, Jan Stussy. While some similarities exist, co-worker Emmy Coates firmly believes the symbol has ties to Suzuki.
Fans of American rock band Styx claim that the “S” symbol originated from the band’s logo, especially during the period when several bands experimented with unique font designs. Coincidentally, Styx’s album “Kilroy Was Here” can be linked to the enigmatic nature of the “S” symbol.
Another intriguing theory connects the “S” symbol to the Universal Product Code (UPC) used in book identification and sales. The “S” symbol, albeit not stylized, appears on schoolbooks worldwide within a triangle, indicating the book is “strippable” for refunds. This theory suggests that kids may have combined the geometric shape of the triangle with the letter “S” while doodling.
Internet lore suggests that the “S” symbol originated from a clever puzzle in a Scholastic Book. The puzzle challenged individuals to create an “S” using a formation of lines or matchsticks. This theory aligns with the timeline of Scholastic Books’ establishment, making it a likely source for the symbol’s widespread adoption as a doodle.
Although the “S” symbol predates MTV’s Headbangers Ball, the show’s stylized logo may have influenced a newer generation to mimic the symbol in their graffiti.
Infinity Symbol or Möbius Strip
While there is no definitive proof, some believe the “S” symbol may be an artistic representation of an infinity symbol or Möbius strip, evident in its half-twist element.
Sureños Gang Graffiti
Los Angeles graffiti can be traced back to the Zoot Suit Riots in the 1940s. West Coast pioneer Chaz Bojórquez incorporated elements from this cultural clash into his own works, including stylized versions of the letter “S” influenced by Sureños street gang artwork. However, Stacy Peralta, a Venice native, suggests that he saw the “S” symbol on Hells Angels’ helmets and bikes before gang graffiti emerged in the late ’60s.
Despite countless attempts to uncover the true origins of the enigmatic “S” symbol, its elusive beginnings persist. The symbol’s appeal, spread across generations and regions, suggests that there may be multiple sources for its creation, depending on the era in which a child grew up. Some argue that its popularity can be attributed to its coolness and simplicity, much like the iconic Dead Kennedys logo. Regardless of its origin, the “S” symbol remains an enduring enigma in the world of graffiti.