The Cool S, also known as the Stussy S, Super S, Superman S, Universal S, Pointy S, Middle School S, Graffiti S, and by many other names, is a graffiti sign in popular culture that is typically doodled on children's notebooks or graffitied on walls. The exact origin of the Cool S is unknown, but it may have originated from geometry textbooks and has appeared around the early 1970s as a part of graffiti culture. Contrary to popular belief, the symbol has ties to neither the U.S. clothing brand Stüssy nor to the character Superman, though Stüssy did conduct an interview in 2010 with Jon Naar, a pioneer graffiti photographer with many works including this S, dating back to the 1970s.
This symbol and other nearly-identical S-shaped motifs have appeared for at least hundreds of years. A similar pattern can be seen in 14th-century tilework at the central courtyard of the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, as well as in the background of the 1533 painting "The Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein. It is also visually similar to the ancient Latvian "Zalkša zīme" symbol and the Dacian "Carligul Ciobanului" symbol.
The Cool S consists of 14 line segments, forming a stylized, pointed S-shape. It has also been compared to the infinity symbol. The tails (pointy ends) of the S appear to link underneath so that it loops around on itself in the same way as the infinity symbol does. The Cool S has no reflection symmetry, but has 2-fold rotational symmetry. As illustrated, a common way to draw the shape begins with two sets of three parallel, vertical lines, one above the other.
The origin of the Cool S is unclear. In the 1970s, photographer Howard Gribble took many photos of Los Angeles, many of which feature the number 8 in a similar style to the Cool S. In one of them, a very faded Cool S can be seen graffitied on a pavement. As the photo was taken in 1973, the S itself could date back to the 1960s, making it the earliest photographic evidence of the symbol. Also in 1973, Jon Naar's famous photographs of graffiti in New York featured the symbol many times, here identical to its modern form. Jean-Michel Basquiat's artworks occasionally had the symbol hidden somewhere, and in the one titled Olive Oil from 1982 it is labelled as the "classic S of graff".
The name "Superman S" comes from a belief that it was a symbol for Superman, whose costume features a stylized S in a diamond shape, but that shape is quite different. Although frequently referred to as the Stüssy S, Emmy Coats (who has worked alongside Shawn Stussy since 1985) has stated that it was never a symbol of the Californian surf company. A possible origin for this is that in 2010 the company uploaded a video to Vimeo and later to YouTube in which one of Jon Naar's 1973 photographs of the symbol can be seen. However, accounts of attribution to Stussy precede the video by at least 20 years.
Swedish YouTuber David Wångstedt, better known online as LEMMiNO, studied the topic for five years and attempted to find the origin of the Cool S, and he concluded that the 1890 book Mechanical Graphics, which was written by professor Frederick Newton Willson, could most likely be the origin. Frederick taught geometry at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he could have shown students how to draw the S symmetrically.
- "how to make one graffiti S". DrawingNow. Retrieved May 14, 2018.
- Shepherd, Rebecca (August 14, 2019). "This Guy Spent Five Years Researching The Origins Of The 'Universal S'". LADBible. Retrieved April 30, 2020.[better source needed]
- Wångstedt, David (August 10, 2019). "The Universal S" (video). LEMMiNO – via YouTube. Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine[self-published source]
- Mailer, Norman (2009). The Faith of Graffiti. It Books. ISBN 978-0-06-196170-0.[page needed]
- "Interview_Gribble1". 2019-08-20. Archived from the original on 2019-08-20. Retrieved 2020-07-28.
- "Alamy stock image of Hassan Mosque".
- Lindwasser, Anna. "Here's The Story Behind That Cool 'S' Thing You Used To Draw In Class". Ranker. Retrieved August 11, 2019.
- "Local Investigates: The Mysterious S Symbol". NYU Local. February 12, 2014. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
- Neelon, Caleb (November 23, 2010). "Solve the Mystery of the Pointy S". Print Magazine. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
- Hoffman, Fred (2017). The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York: Enrico Navarra Gallery. p. 211. ISBN 978-2-911596-53-7.
The double 'S' markings on the center piece resemble other marks and gestures found in Basquiat's paintings from this time [...] While it became less and less a part of Basquiat's art production, there are continued references to graffiti style in his paintings and works on paper, such as the 'S' symbol.
- Morgans, Julian (July 23, 2016). "That 'S' Thing Everyone Drew in School, What Is It?". Vice. Retrieved March 21, 2019.
No, this is not an original Stussy Logo [...] 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.
- "Stussy - Jon Naar" (video). Stüssy. 8 March 2010 – via Vimeo.
- "Stussy - Jon Naar". StussyVideo. May 26, 2011 – via YouTube. Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine
- Willson, Frederick Newton (1890). Mechanical graphics. An educational course on the theory and practice of mechanical drawing. Princeton, N.J.: The Princeton Press.