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ASCII Porn Predates the Internet But It’s Still Everywhere

( . )( . ) B===D~

by Samantha Cole
Jan 14 2019, 5:12pm

Image from Roy<SAC>'s collection of ASCII art. 

“If something exists, there is porn of it:” Welcome to Rule 34, a weekly column in which Motherboard’s Samantha Cole lovingly explores the highly specific fetishes that can be found on the web. If you’ve thought of it, someone’s jerked off to it.

The links and videos in this article may be considered NSFW.

“xxx” by xyz on ascii-art.de

For as long as humans have used characters to represent language, we’ve made art with them. And where there are people making anything, there will be people making hornier, more erotic versions of that thing—like drawing a pair of breasts and a giant dick using only the characters available on a keyboard.

Pronounced “ass-kee,” ASCII is an acronym for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, a system for representing 128 English characters as numbers in order to digitally represent text. Beginning in the 70s and 80s, with the invention of technologies like the dot matrix printer and forums such as Usenet, people started stringing ASCII characters together to look like images, some lustier than others.

ASCII porn is credited as being the first form of pornography sent across the internet. Unlike sending image files that were agonizingly slow to download using the day’s dial-up connections, ASCII art loaded as quickly as any other text. And even before image files were transmitted over the internet, ASCII art was a relatively simple way to make and share all kinds of kinky shit.

I have to admit, when I first began this dive into the world of ASCII porn (sometimes styles as pr0n, for the console cowboys in cyberspace), I seriously underappreciated the depth and breadth of the art form. As I would imagine most people with a cursory sense of internet culture might, my knowledge of ASCII porn started with ( . )( . ) and 8==D, and ended around a few scant examples like this booty-slap gif:

It hadn’t occurred to me that that there exists a whole, horny, incredibly nerdy history that revolves around ASCII porn. But, of course, there does.

The Spread of the Earliest Pr0ns

Precursors to ASCII porn have been around much longer than the internet. It’s very possible that people were making text-based porn as early as medieval times, since scribes sometimes used delicate script to create illustrations and visual poems alongside biblical texts. In typewriter art, after the advent and popularization of teletype printers in the early 20th century, we had a whole new way to get creative with creating and sharing text-based art across distances.

An ASCII artist who goes by the screen name “goto80” told me in an email that, according to his research, the first modern text-based porn was probably sent via teletext. Teletext was a late 70s pre-internet technology for sending text and graphics to a television set, that never quite took off in the way people thought it would at the time.

“Basically, radio amateurs started sending text instead of sound like 100 years ago, and they got into converting playboy girls into textmode [like ASCII, PETSCII and teletext],” goto80 said. “There are many examples from the 1960's, but I guess it happened earlier than that too.”

But porn looked damn good on it. 8-bit musician Dragan Espenschied’s German Teletext Babez project is one example of text-based erotica using teletext, as is a new project by an ASCII artist who goes by “Jellica.”

Most ASCII artists and enthusiasts I spoke with for this piece had a nostalgic recollection of how they got into it. Maybe people remember it with a certain clarity because times were tough for porn consumers back then, as anyone who’s ever waited for data packets to slowly make their way through a dial-up modem to stack themselves across your screen knows.

“My own first memory of making ASCII art was typing on an Atari 800XL, years before I learned that that it had a name, and that there were others out there who did the same thing,” one enthusiast told me.

Jellica has one of those nostalgic stories. He told me in a Twitter message that his first exposure to text porn was before the internet as we know it existed. “The first piece I saw as a kid in the 80s [was] when my grandfather brought home a full-size ASCII nude woman from work, printed across multiple sheets of old dot matrix printer paper,” he said.

yBE4XauBf0oYVJw-rtI5fFByYeM0lY4JKHGB3E7wW2LgGV7CyO4Zh8C8PEKLF4CzM_ETBJu4G7dp-9D18OqrsE2t7xtH0kPZ55VyQi2kxFAG6VatIVEHiwZ-9gcixQ9kVHiqE_zJ

Image via MisterKissKissBangBang on Imgur

ASCII porn, back then, moved through early forums called bulletin board systems (BBSes), Telenet, Usenet, and the sneakernet—the term for transferring files around on physical hard drives, CDs and floppy disks.

“There was always some kid at school who had a floppy disk that they'd nicked off their dad that had stuff on [it], and in France we'd get floppy disks on the front of computer game magazines that had erotic stuff too,” Jellica said. "There were a lot of of different computer systems at the time and a lot of different text formats like PETSCII on the Commodore 64, or teletext.”

Goto80 told me that he finds teletext to be a particularly interesting medium for text porn. “To Americans teletext seems absolutely ridiculous, but this lo-fi technology is still really, really popular in Europe, and especially in the northern parts,” he told me. “It's text only, and it's also a lot of advertising. Including porn. And quite a lot of it.”

ASCII Pr0n Culture

While diving into the world of ASCII art—adult or otherwise—everyone I talked to suggested more people that I should contact or whose work I should check out.

In the ASCII art and porn community, some artists seem to attain a certain notoriety, and have kept them for decades. ASCII artists each have their own distinct styles, and often go by three-letter call signs, signatures that they know each other by.. Some of these include Blazej Kozlowski (whose signature is "bug"), Faux_Pseudo ("F_P") and Joan Stark ("jgs").

“I wanted to make things using old computers that were a bit more arty and outsider, and move it away from that Big Bang Theory style nerd culture where things have to be done a certain way"

Stark is one artist who came up in every conversation I had about ASCII art. “Everything she does is clean and elegant,” one ASCII artist, who has been involved in the community for 18 years and who requested anonymity to avoid their employer connecting them to their art, told me in an email. “Her rendering of Mary Poppins is the first image that comes to mind when I think of good ASCII art. It's simple, instantly recognizable, and if I may, practically perfect in every way.”

ASCII artist Laura Brown (“ldb”) started making ASCII art in 1998 while participating in newsgroups dedicated to the subject. She told me in a Twitter message that the form probably started simple: “I think the simple things like (_|_) butts and boobs (o)(o) were the earliest sex/ adult ASCII porn.”

But it didn’t remain simple boobs and butts for long. Some of it was beautiful and refined, like animator Mike Jittlov’s 1993 creation “Meriday in the Morning.” Other examples of the genre are much more complex, including a game where you masturbate in PETSCII.

Some ASCII art has been recognized by the larger art and cultural world as being worthy of putting in a museum. One of the most well-known names in ASCII art is Vuk Ćosić: a Slovenian contemporary artist and pioneer of net art, whose 1998 ASCII History of Moving Images project has been credited as influencing The Matrix the following year (“I don't think so,” he told me in an email). Deep ASCII, his text-based interpretation of the wildly influential 1972 classic porno Deep Throat , saw museum exhibition acclaim. It’s a full 55 minute conversion of the original film, without sound.

-Ug1WIGuRqSz2fcVurKkFZflsJWNGbv0lVhsHorroEamnuw8x2pDRkHgDQsn--UgJjeY-3mQKhesraF9o1L3cyU8doUlO7sPzXSVdNARse20VJr8mOhsEeIWeLiwxRUmi0DHS-am

Deep ASCII by Vuk Ćosić, 1998. Programming by Luka Frelih, produced by Ljubljana Digital Medialab

“I chose [ Deep Throat] because it was iconic and supposedly recognizable,” Ćosić told me, of Deep ASCII. “Also because Deep Throat was made at the same time as the game Pong (June 1972), and I liked how the cardinal milestones in two such important branches of entertainment came up nearly in the same moment.”

ASCII Pr0n Today

ASCII art may be old as hell, but it’s still everywhere.

It’s maybe most popular on Twitter, in the form of sheriff memes, “in this house” gags, and bunnies that hold signs or ask “you want this?” Chat servers, Facebook groups and forums are also still active and filled with ASCII enthusiasts keeping the art alive.

But because of the copypasta nature of a lot of ASCII art—being able to easily highlight it, and copy/paste to make it look like your own, without attribution to the original—ASCII artists, like a lot of artists who put their work on the internet, face the challenge of getting credit for their creations.

“I have tried selling ASCII art greeting cards on Zazzle but instead of getting sales I kept finding copies of my art posted for sale without credit, [or] my initials,” Brown told me. “People seem to assume any ASCII art is up for grabs, for free. But it is art, like any other image photographed, painted, etc.”

After all these years, there’s still something pure and good about ASCII porn, and generally about artists pushing the boundaries of technology.

“If you're an artist, it is only logical to look at expanding the toolbox, especially if you can find/project new meaning,” Ćosić told me. “My personal reason for doing (the one) ASCII porn was that it is a visually simple genre (anatomy closeups) without visual clutter to complicate the unintelligible ASCII renderings.”

For Jellica, too, getting into ASCII porn was about doing something different with the tools available to them.

“I wanted to make things using old computers that were a bit more arty and outsider, and move it away from that Big Bang Theory style nerd culture where things have to be done a certain way,” Jellica told me. “I don't find this kind of thing erotic or arousing, it’s just fun to make the odd sexy thing.”


Bonus: ASCII Porn Collections of Note

This has been a nowhere near exhaustive history of ASCII porn, but if you have a few hours to burn on scrolling through pictures of naked people made using keyboards, here are some helpful places to start: