Type Inspiration: US military stencil fonts in practice

In November of 2019, I visited the Tucson area with family. We visited the Pima Air & Space Museum, an absolutely sprawling piece of desert with massive hangers full of incredible historical aircraft, and a much bigger open space filled with some truly weird formerly airborne behemoths.

What grabbed me most, though, was the sign painting. Type that has been designed within the context of a military tradition that stretches back two centuries, with the “utility” needed for huge, and hugely expensive machines of war. I loved discovering the choices these anonymous military typographers made in fitting immediately legible letterforms to a really broad spectrum of contexts: huge letterforms mean huge stencils, if the job has to be quick, or huge but meticulous sign painting. I loved discovering the little moments of style in these choices: the clipped upper joint of a Navy “7;” the odd connection points at the middle of the “6;” and of course the wide variation in the removals within various stencils, such as the two “W’s” in this collection, or the beautiful “M” in “CW2 JAMES”.

Personally, politically, I believe that a military is a necessity of every complex society. Also personally, and politically, I believe that the US’s bloated military-industrial complex has been responsible for crimes against humanity during my lifetime. I don’t fault those who enter the military for this, as doing so is honorable, and worthy. As citizens outside of the military, we can be certain that we know very little of what our military actually does. But we CAN reflect on what our vision for our country. We CAN work towards our vision of JUSTICE.

I’m working on ideas for a combined mural and workshop project, bringing together a “One-to-Three” poem-as-mural and a One-to-Three Poem-Generator workshop putting my Towers & Banners ideas of a year ago into practice. At the moment, I’m considering a mural that boldly commands us to “HAVE MERCY.” These examples of military type are a part of my inspiration for this idea.

Can we appropriate the typography of the patriarchal, colonizing, dominating oppressors of our world? Can we temper these letterforms with our respect, while ringing a 2 ton bell of awakening so close to them that they begin to shatter? 

I intend to find out. 

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