What the Hell Was That 'S' Thing Everyone Drew in School?
Children have been drawing the pointy "S" since the dawn of time. I used journalism to find out where it came from, sort of.
I was about eight when someone showed me how to draw this. Itstarted with two sets of three parallel lines that were joined diagonally left to right, then capped off at the top and bottom with pointy bits. It was a fierce, beautiful "S," and drawing it was addictive.
Soon all my schoolbooks were covered in the "S." I never questioned what it meant or where it came from. I just knew I loved it. But it turns out I wasn't the only one.
I recently googled the "S" and discovered that although everyone loves it, no one knows its origins. Various Reddits and notice boards are full of really nostalgic people without a clue.
It seems the "S" has appeared throughout all of North America, South America, Europe, Russia, Asia, and Australia. Some people think it's a 90s thing; others report seeing it as early as the 1960s. There were theories that it was the symbol of some 80s hair-metal band. Other people thought it was the original emblem for the clothing brand Stussy. Others thought it was an incarnation of the Superman logo. No one was sure.
I thought I'd ask the office.
"That's the Superman 'S,'" mused Ben, our in-house graphics guy. I asked him if that meant it was actually from Superman, but he said it wasn't. "No, I think it's just what kids think when they're drawing it. They really just draw it because it's cool."
I got on the phone to DC Comics to find out if they knew anything. According to Benjamin LeClear, who manages the comics library at their studio in Burbank, California, the "S" has nothing to do with Superman.
"It doesn't look like any of the emblems from the old Superman Shield logos," he said after rummaging through their collection. "His 'S' has a lot of open space and almost never connects to itself."
LeClear told me he'd become intrigued and, like me, launched his own mini investigation on the web only to turn up nothing. "I didn't realize what a crazy urban myth and mystery this pointy 'S' thing is," he said. "I would love for this to be Superman-related, but I don't think it is. Though Superman has the most famous 'S' symbol of all time."
"It's the Stussy 'S,'" exclaimed Ramona, one of our producers. Like Ben's guess, she didn't think it was actually an emblem associated with Stussy, but refused to believe it had any other name. "It's definitely called the Stussy 'S,'" she said, then drew her own version that wasn't as good as mine.
Pretty much every forum on the web mentions Stussy—the Californian surf/street-wear company founded in the 80s. A lot of people seem convinced the symbol was originally a Stussy logo, so I called Stussy.
"No, this is not an original Stussy Logo," stated Emmy Coates, who has worked alongside Shawn Stussy since 1985. "I personally get asked this a lot, but people have been drawing this 'S' long before Stussy was established. People have just assumed it was Stussy, and it's sort of spread from there. It's actually quite amusing."
I finally asked Coates what she thought the symbol looked like. "It looks like Suzuki logo," she replied.
I was tempted to call Suzuki but didn't. I needed to zoom out and take in the bigger picture, so I got in touch with an expert in symbols and semiotics: Paul Cobley.
Cobley is a professor in language and media at Middlesex University in London. According to him, the theory that it was a hair-metal symbol was also ridiculous—"It's certainly not the Saxon logo," he said. "Theirs was far more sharp and had a staff." Then he offered the most likely yet bland explanation of all. That is, it's fun to draw.
"The reason kids go through this is probably because it's a Moebius strip," he said, referring to the sort of looped one-surface shapes M. C. Escher was fond of drawing. "It can't be drawn continuously, but it does have a perpetual flow."
I think he was onto something. Most nine-year-olds can't draw, so when someone hands them a magical recipe to create something fairly cool on demand, that'll go viral. Especially when the shape has the sophisticated, mathematical lineage of a Moebius strip. Yes I'd learned the term ten minutes earlier, but whatever. Moebius strip.
The "S" isn't a Stussy logo or a Superman emblem or a gift from aliens. I think it's just the most fun ever.
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