Happily lost in the ’empire of signs’

Inspired by Japan's visual culture, American Ian Lynam researches local design, graffiti


Signs and symbols play an ever-growing role in our increasingly complex society. In this respect, Japan — the “empire of signs,” as French semiologist Roland Barthes called it back in 1970 — strikes and confounds the foreign visitor with a vast array of alphabets, shapes and designs.

This incongruity of signs played no small part in luring Ian Lynam to Japan. “I was actually looking forward to the cacophony,” the American graphic designer said.

“One of my favorite projects in school was an analysis of Roland Barthes’ work in typographic form, and I couldn’t wait to be dropped into that metaphoric land, even if just for a little while!”

That little while has expanded to five years.

In the meantime, Lynam has moved his studio to Tokyo, where he continues his work and research.

Lynam, 37, has always enjoyed “making stuff.” Born in Averill Park, near Albany, N.Y., he was first drawn to DIY subcultures. “I started making zines (small, self-published magazines) when I was 14 years old,” he said. “I read about them in issues of Freestylin’ Magazine that year and had mail-ordered a few. They were the perfect mix of drawings, personal writing and photography that centered on skateboarding and riding BMX — the biggest passions of my life at that time.”

By the time he was a junior in high school, he had discovered the DIY punk and hardcore scene that was associated with zine culture.

In 1993 Lynam moved to Berkley, Calif. “I had no interest in New York and the East Coast seemed square, so I decided to run as far away from home as possible. Also, it was the big boom of DIY culture, and a lot of like-minded people were living out there.”

Lynam made zines throughout his teenage years and 20s, focusing on fiction, social critique, personal writing and travel narratives. “But what I liked to do the best was drawing,” he pointed out. “Picasso had hypergraphia — he couldn’t stop drawing — and neither could I. I especially enjoyed manual processes like using what I realize now is graphic design.”

After a while, Lynam discovered that what he really wanted to do was more curatorial in nature. “At the time, I didn’t know of anyone who was trying to be a publisher within the DIY punk community. Together with a friend named David D’Andrea, I started a small press in the 1990s called Migraine, which released zines, comics, books and records by myself and a host of collaborators who have helped define the genre, most notably Al Burian of Burn Collector zine, British cartoonist Simon Gane, and Carrie McNinch of the comic zine The Assassin and the Whiner.”

In 1995, Lynam moved to Portland, Ore. — the so-called DIY capital of America — but he quickly became disenchanted with the whole scene. “I was tired of doing the same things again and again. I wanted to broaden my horizons and try weird stuff outside the defined boundaries. I even started hip-hop DJ-ing and joined a performative noise band. The problem was, most punks were very conservative and did not accept diversity.”

It was at that time that a friend asked Lynam to design a CD cover. “When I saw how much money I could earn with just a couple of hours of work, I decided to get serious. I started taking some classes at Portland State University and was lucky enough to have some really good teachers who inspired me. I ended up doing a four-year degree in two years by maxing out classes.”

Portland’s economy was in the middle of a recession and finding good jobs was difficult, so Lynam went to grad school for graphic design instead.

“Looking back at all the zine projects I had done before, I realized that I had been doing design all along. I just didn’t know it.”

Lynam’s first visit to Japan was in 2000 with noise band Jalopaz. “At the time, I was inspired by the visual culture of artists such as Eye Yamataka and Shinro Otake. Over several visits to Japan, I got to know more and more people, some of them as friends, and through them I was able to secure some work directing TV commercials.

“At that time, I already had quite a lot of clients as a designer in America, and it became really clear to me that I could actually work anywhere in the world. So I decided to come and work in Japan, where I could explore its art and culture more deeply.”

Now an associate graphic design professor at Temple University Japan, where he teaches courses on typography, print design and image-making, Lynam’s eagerness for explaining things clearly shows as soon as he starts talking about his multifaceted activity: “My practice is threefold — I am a graphic designer, a writer and a graphic design educator. I am a firm believer in ‘critical practice’: not only creating graphic design work for both clients and practitioners — such as designing fonts for others to use — but also writing essays for publications like IDEA Magazine that push the boundaries of perception of graphic design as a practice.

“As a researcher, my body of work explores the continuum of graphic design history, picking up elements that I find intriguing, and deploying them in new ways — using history to inform the present — while also creating new form to bring into play. I’m in a field where people are always asking, ‘What’s next?’ but I’m more interested in history. All that cool hunting, trend-watching, is a little sick. It has a lot of value to corporations and very little to me.”

Japanese culture and its long graphic design history have obviously informed his approach: “I’ve been very heavily influenced by the way color is used in Japan. For instance, pedestrian safety barriers in Roppongi often use a beautiful bright green color. But in the U.S., these types of barriers are typically just industrial gray or white, so they just blend in to the concrete backdrop. In Japan, sampling from even the most mundane aspects of the street offers up a number of exciting potentials.

“Overseas, Japan is well-known for its use of color from chiyo-gami (Japanese paper with traditional patterns) and in works such as the movie posters from the 1960s. I find the use of color by designer Kiyoshi Awazu to be particularly unique and very beautiful.”

Another field that has attracted Lynam’s attention is street art and especially graffiti. “I see graffiti and typography as connected through the art of lettering — not ‘writing,’ which is done using minimal strokes, but ‘lettering,’ which has style, exaggeration and ornament heaped upon it. We view lettering as ‘high art’ but the seemingly lowly street culture is just as informed and decorative.”

Lynam has been consistently awed by tagging, that is to say the monochrome form of graffiti created with markers and spray cans akin to a graffiti writer’s stylized signature. “In Tokyo, one can see informed hand-lettering in almost every neighborhood, and I have accumulated through the years a huge archive. No one looks at graffiti handwriting critically and instead just (focuses) on the transgressive aspects without looking at its formal attributes.”

Having settled into his new surroundings, Lynam has recently returned to self-publishing, although with a different twist. “In 2008 I published a book called ‘Parallel Strokes’ via my small press and type foundry, Wordshape. The book explores the correlation between traditional typography and lettering and graffiti through a series of interviews with graffiti writers, graphic designers, sign painters and type designers. I have put out some zines, too, but now I prefer to call them ‘analytical booklets’ because I try to be more objective in my approach.”

One of them, called Liminal, shows and comments on some of the more exemplary graffiti in Tokyo. “Liminal accompanied a lecture I gave at the Artalking series in Tokyo ( nonaca.net/news-events/artalking4-title/ ). Julia Barnes of Nonaca, the curator of the Artalking series, really liked the idea of including zines in events, so I’ve gone on to edit and design zines to accompany each event.”

The most recent essay that Lynam has published accompanied a lecture event organized by Barnes and himself. “There aren’t enough bilingual graphic design events in Tokyo that aren’t sheer sales pitches, so I organized a new lecture series called Better Letter ( cargocollective.com/betterletter ), which focuses on graphic design education.”

For more information, see www.ianlynam.com or wordshape.com