Research 20/021
Detailing the Global Presence of the “Cool S” Graphic

If someone asked you to list the most common symbols in the world, what would you say? Well, you'll think of the cross, a star, the peace sign ECC… and you might even think of some brand logos, like Nike's swoosh, Apple's logo and the golden arches of Mc Donald's, but what about another symbol, that is so popular and common that you probably have seen it thousands of times, at school, in books, photos, graffiti and, if you are a fan, also in ancient history cultures, the iconic and mysterious “Cool S".

This infamous symbol has confused hundreds of people around the world who have tried to get to the origin; the question is so complicated also because everyone has the moment when they saw it for the first time, or the moment when someone taught them how to draw it, for me personally it was learning the latest one, an older boy explained to me how to quickly draw some letters, including this S.

But where does this symbol come from? And why is it so irresistible?

Already going back to the first example of this S is exceptionally complicated; in fact, examples of S similar to the “Cool S” seem to be present in different cultures around the world since ancient times, only to reappear in the Middle Ages in paintings and decorations of books and in 1890 a similar S could be seen in the book "Mechanical Graphics" written by Frederick Newton Willson, a professor at Princeton University (many fans of the search for the origin of the S have this professor as the actual creator of the S, giving as the reason for its diffusion the fact that Frederick Newton Willson taught it to his students, and that they then, in turn, disseminated the design, this explanation is not too convincing for us, especially since the S of the book is not exactly what we know today as Cool S).

Of course, all these can explain how this symbol was born, but they do not even come close to explaining why this S is so widespread. To understand how it became so present in our collective consciousness, we must start when this S reappears in the last century.

Many remember having seen or learned to draw this symbol as early as 1940. Still, if we want to see the first accurate drawings of the S, we have to go to the 60s / 70s, specifically to the photos of Howard Gribble, who took several pictures of Los Angeles in the 70s. You can see the famous S in one of them, a little faded, so it is even thought that it was drawn in the 60s.

From here on, there is the actual explosion of the Cool S, the iconic photographs of the New York graffiti scene by Jon Naar in 1973 present this S in many works, in the exact design of the modern Cool S, while in the same years Jean-Michel Basquiat used this symbol very often in his works, as can be seen from his 1982 work "Olive Oil" which not only features the Cool S but is also described as the "Classic S of Graff,” testifying to his legacy and success in the world of graffiti.

Suppose in this way the S has reached mainstream notoriety in the world of art; subsequent contaminations have strengthened even more the notoriety in the collective consciousness of this symbol. It is the case of Stussy, who, having the S as one of his symbols, has the design became even more popular, so much so that for the generations that grew up in the 90s, this symbol is called “Stussy S.”

But what is so primordial about this symbol, which makes it so catchy not only to the eye but also to want to write it everywhere, from walls to scattered papers to scribbles on the school desks? For Paul Cobley, professor in language and media at London's Middlesex University, the symbol is a Moebius strip. Even if it can't be drawn continuously, it is still a perpetual flow.

But what is a Moebius Strip? It is a continuous, looping shape; think of the work of M.C. Escher or John Ernest, that looks complex, but at the same time, it’s very primitive and easy and fun to draw.

When was the first time you saw this symbol?