The Mexican Blackletter Typographic Tradition

By Cristina Paoli

Adapted from Mexican Blackletter (Mark Batty Publisher)


Blackletter, known also as Gothic miniscule, originated in Europe near the end of the 12th century. Transported from Europe to the New World, blackletter was subtly reshaped by indigenous influences. No better is this illustrated than in Mexico.

The blackletter that adorns countless small stores, shops and service providers throughout the country has a wholly Mexican twist, catering to the everyday needs of ordinary people, from cobblers to doctors. More than simply a form of signage, Mexican blackletter is a valuable gloss on contemporary Mexican culture.

Arrival in the New World

In 1492 Christopher Columbus arrived in America and by 1521, Hernan Cortés, on behalf of the Spanish crown, conquered Mexico, establishing the Colony of New Spain.

Jakob Kronberger (known as Jacobo Cromberger), the most important printer in Seville at the time, with the help of Juan de Zumârraga (first bishop of Mexico), established the first printing press on the American continent in Mexico in 1538.

Jacobo Comberger supplied all the materials and tools, such as press, movable types, ink and paper and sent one of his closest technicians, the Italian Giovanni Paoli (known as Juan Pablos) to be in charge of setting up and running the New World’s first press.

In 1544, the fist printed book in America was published: Doctrina Breve by Fray Juan de Zumárraga, which was set in Rotunda blackletter, proving that movable types of blackletter were taken to Mexico and used on the printed matter of the time. Later publications, such as the example shown on the left, also used blackletter, although roman type was present too and widely used.


Approaching the Structure of Blackletter

Blackletter is heavy, not weighty. Standing on a strong plane base, the sharp angles with their diamond shaped ends sustain the heaviness of the body of each letter on a perfect balance. The quality of these shapes has the effect of a ballet dancer’s tiptoe on the bottom and the navigator’s compass on the top. Every convergence of two lines in one point –like the diamond shape of the top and bottom of the letterform– tends to project itself as vector, as a force that is oriented. This gives the illusion of motion. The characters seem to simultaneously project towards the heavens and towards the ground. Compared to the kinetic nature of these points, the robust bodies of the letters are a stark contrast, making blackletter a kind of paradox, in which both heaviness and lightness are conveyed in a single typographical structure.

Through the use of blackletter, the viewers are encouraged to assume this new game of “impossible integration.” Heaviness and lightness in blackletter is what allows us to think in ways of integration and to build new perspectives.

Creamery and dried hot peppers ‘Leo Day.’ Grocery store and poultry shop ‘Leo Dany.’ Notice the difference in names; my guess is that the letterer missed the n on the left hand sign but decided to leave it as it is anyway.

Why is Blackletter Popular in Mexico?

From talking to the people that decorate their body with it, or that draw the letterform on a sign, I have discovered that Mexicans feel that blackletter communicates “tradition,” or that “normal letters”—Roman type—just wouldn’t be good enough for the particular message they need to express. More so, many who elect to employ blackletter for tattoos, signs and anything else imaginable believe that it takes the written message to a “religious” level and therefore, implicitly, associates the message with a kind of transcendence. In speaking with people, words such as “tradition,” “religion,” and “historical” continually surfaced.

For graffiti artists, the use of blackletter is a direct link to the “Cholo” (Mexican-American) culture, given that Cholos and Chicanos frequently select this letterform for tattoos, tags and murals. Many tend to describe it as “elegant” and others simply state that they use it because they “like it,” and that’s it, no need for more explanation. More times than not, in light of my questions, many people looked surprised and simply stated, “it’s beautiful,” “it’s different” and for them that is all that matters. Just raising the question of why they choose blackletter made some people uncomfortable under the pressure of having to verbalize an un-rationalized aesthetic whim.

Examples of extremely embellished letterforms where legibility is left aside in favor of the pure enjoyment of the form.


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Adapted with permission from Mexican Blackletter by Cristina Paoli. Copyright © 2006 Mark Batty Publisher.