Earning A Living: The Story of Doug Aldrich
Present day New York City streets reveal to the naked eye the revival of hand lettering. This is due (in large part) to the last five years when social media began sending catchy chalk boards of bars and coffee shops viral. Many businesses throughout the city now turn to professional letterman, relying on their skill, knowledge and precision to attract customers. If you have been to New York City during this resurgence and noticed some hand lettering; it is more than likely the work of Doug Aldrich. Doug is one of the premier letterman in New York City. It seems like he is marking a new store front every day and has been commissioned by the likes of Converse, Calexico, Flight Club, The Meatball Shop, and Three Kings Tattoo.
How does one man's letters relate to the art of graffiti?
Doug's relation to graffiti is stronger than that of just leaving a mark for others to see. Infact, Doug's genesis into the art of lettering came by the nature of graffiti. Over a decade ago, Doug was your average graffiti writer--hitting freights and walls with a tight crew in the Upstate, New York, area. Eventually his network and talent led him into the boroughs where he teamed up with writers who would one day be apart of the crew known as 2DX.
Even though I have his permission to reveal what he used to write; I have chosen to keep that part of his story private to give his graffiti persona further longevity.
The purpose of this article is to illuminate how one man’s beginnings in the graff world led to success in the professional world of hand-lettering. It is my opinion that there is a lot we can glean from his talent and story that can help revive the culture and show its value to prospective employers.
Doug on how graffiti influenced his work and current career:
I was a teenager during my graffiti days. I spent countless hours on graff blogs, forums and books in search of its rich history. Much of time during that period was spent studying NYC crews like FX, FBA, and TC5 who really set a bar for wildstyle letters. Something I learned as a writer early on was not just do trendy shit and experiment. It is important as a graff writer to be unique and not do what most others identify as “in”. One of my goals from the beginning was to put in the necessary work to improve so that no one in their right mind could call me a toy or a biter. I painted with some really talented, stylistic writers at the time but I was still trying to have my own identifiable style. What graffiti taught me was requirement of style to be successful and one’s own self. While at that time in my life; I wasn’t able to execute fully the styles I really wanted to master--it taught me something that I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
When I enrolled to Pratt for Illustration, I knew I had to find an alternative to making art aside from graffiti that I could live on. I gravitated towards graphic design and illustration since that seemed like the most accessible field to get a job as an artist and I naturally had a fascination for graphics and logos --but I didn’t know I was going to be pulled back into lettering as a result. For me, it was not like I was doing graff and found a way to make money. Instead, it happened on its own as I would draw designs for my friend’s bands and harcdcore show flyers. More people were asking to draw them designs, they were giving me a little money and my name was getting around as I was eager to draw just to see my work out there. In a way, it had a lot of the appeal graffiti had to me in the instant satisfaction of making something and seeing it out in the world.
I got into lettering early on when I would redraw my favorite punk band and skateboarding logos. I did a lot of band t shirt designs so I looked to keep trying new things. It later evolved beyond just bands into anything someone asked me to draw. I enjoy the challenge of perfecting the simplest letter forms to adding more funk and stylizing. It all has a time and a place.
In my graphic design classes, I took typography courses and was realizing that hand-drawn lettering was not regarded as functional because the computers had every font you could think of and that’s what the world wants--or so I was told. My good fortune began when I had one teacher that saw the future in hand-drawn lettering. That teacher encouraged me to pursue it further when the guidelines permitted for that project. My classmates at the time were focused on choosing fonts and layouts. However, I was more interested in how those letter styles are made; doing things the old-fashioned way.
My graffiti roots initially began to surface through my color choices due to their high contrast. I also had this inherent need to embellish everything--adding drop shadows and highlights to my hand drawn letters. I knew from my background that doing the same thing was elementary and so I continually pushed the boundaries on manipulating my letters while staying true to their original form. I credit that interest in embellishments that turned letters into flashy “pieces” that draw attention to later translated into working with a business owner looking to attract new business with their sign.
Were my graffiti had a great deal of influence of decades of previous writers who used hard lines. My lettering was influenced by books and principles that were over centuries old. This, to me, was another area that was influenced from my writing roots--I had respect for the artists that paved the way and set forth the principles and rules that made the artform what it was. While not all graffiti writers share that respect for the old-school way of doing things; it was certainly a value that influenced a great of my education in the hand-lettering field when I got started.
I have been extremely fortunate to turn my graffiti background into a lettering career that I love. Along the way I began to see some differences that ultimately served to help me see why graffiti as a culture has been something so profitable for companies while many artists struggle to eat and that is kind of why I was down to share some of my story.
The cultures of graffiti and lettering differ in that graffiti styles are typically representative of regions or cities. They are much more territorial over establishing that and protecting their "spots,” you could say. Lettering can be influenced by existing books and alphabets that can be found anywhere so it is a little more universal. With lettering and design, you know the lifespan or use of whatever you're making so there is less room to be offended when it is gone. Businesses close and people look to freshen things up with new work. With that being said, there more drama in graffiti and feelings get hurt more. People literally fight for their place on a wall.
From my perspective; the biggest difference along the way has been that in graffiti it’s pure narcissism--whereas, in hand-lettering, you have to meet the standards of the constructive community and employers. You see, in graff, most of has, unless you have a mentor or a creative crew--we are our own judge. Graffiti has a great deal to do with the ego. You want a kick there--you can add it. If you do not have time to piece, you can catch tags and throws.
Graffiti is much more personal whereas hand lettering is tailored to a client's needs whether thats a sign for business, a logo or the color palette. Huge difference in purpose. Something to keep in mind when you start out lettering is that it’s a trade, and all trades take time, patience, and research. There is a of of time to be invested to gain a practical handle on making a living. It requires practice to master a letter. Graffiti artists can learn form and rules through drawing letter forms. Graffiti really is a loose term and there's no real written code on how a letter can look or be represented. Lettering is based on consistencies and following existing forms. There's room to expand beyond that but letter snobs will really tear you apart if you can't grasp basic principles.
Graffiti has done a lot for me as an artist. I think the one thing I could give back is just sharing my story. Not everyone can appreciate graffiti--and that is unfortunate. But I think if writers saw their value and transferred that into artistic areas on a professional scale, we all could see that graffiti has the potential to pay the bills. If I were to meet a writer that was hoping to transfer their love for letters into a career; I would tell them to grab an old Speedball letter book brushes, and begin replicating alphabets for practice. Repetition gains confidence the same way that bombing and tags can do. In reference to Style Wars, you can make your mark both in and on society.
The example of transferring a love for graffiti into a career can be an avenue for many writers hoping to reach a broader audience. Be sure to check out his instagram @dougaldrichofficial and keep an eye out for his work when you visit the city.