Justin Agosto: How Graffiti Shaped My Calligraphy
“I feel like I just went from going to battlefield to an intimate wedding ceremony.”
These are the words of New York City-based artist Justin Agosto summing up his journey to becoming an established calligrapher. He’s one of the many talented people I know competing amongst millions of other crazy creative individuals on this tiny urban island we call Manhattan. It was during late spring earlier this year when Agosto and I met at a local coffee shop on the Upper West Side.
Agosto carried himself with a cheerful demeanor when we first met, but I encountered my real impression of him when I noticed him intently producing some graphic lettering at his table.
Watching Agosto work is poetic. You can’t help but admire the evenness of his strokes as his arm guides the weight of his pen and creates effortless brush strokes on the notepad.
His writing is open and graceful, but also gives hints of restlessness and edge. I couldn’t make out where that “edginess” in his penmanship came from until a couple months ago when we reconnected over a cup of coffee.
“The thing is, I didn’t start out learning how to do calligraphy,” Agosto said to me during our conversation.
“So what did you start out with?” I asked.
He gave a raw smile. “Street art. I was actually a graffiti artist.”
Agosto grew up in the Bronx to Spanish-Puerto Rican parents, who split when he was around seven. When life became unstable with family drama, he sought refuge with his friends, where he was eventually introduced to the urban art that lived on bricks, walls, tunnels, and more.
He then interrupts his own storytelling to clarify something to me.
“People get street art and graffiti mixed up all the time, so let me get this straight for you. Street art (with permission) isn’t the same as graffiti. There isn’t that fucking rush, and it’s meant for the public to enjoy and associate with. Graffiti on the other hand, is like a cry for help, saying ‘I need help,’ or ‘I’m fucking pissed off, so fuck you because in my world, there are no rules’ type of language.”
Agosto was so heavily invested in graffiti making that he even got arrested for it.
“Getting arrested really changed me. That’s when I began to reconsider my life and find some refinement, control, and stability. I needed some sophistication and direction, so I put my graffiti days behind and turned to calligraphy.”
So the spray cans were thrown out, and the Copic and Prisma markers made their way into Agosto’s life. But the road to mastering calligraphy was not easy, even for an experienced ex-graffiti connoisseur. Agosto described the first few years of calligraphy-writing as “petrifying” and “frustrating,” because he had just come from a place where structure and order was practically nonexistent.
Now, five years into doing strictly script writing, Agosto says he’s found some peace in himself.
“I’ve always found graffiti a bit ‘standoff-ish’ or a bit ‘machismo,’” he said. “Graffiti is a certain mindset and triggers mixed reactions. It’s just not as friendly. But script is more universal. I’m now finding peace with my identity as a calligrapher with a graffiti background, and I now try to create art that speaks to everyone in the world.”
“And what’s your favorite thing about calligraphy?” I asked him.
“Well, back 600, 700 years ago, calligraphers were the masters of art and written language. They were such highly regarded people — remember when everything had to be written down? I just find that so powerful, everything about it is so magical. I mean, my pen is my wand.”
Calligraphy has changed everything for Agosto in ways that go beyond the brush pen. It has helped him slow down in life and appreciate the present moment as his mind concentrates on the thick and thins of his brush strokes. It’s also brought clarity and appreciate the fine details in life that he used to miss. Today, Agosto not only focuses on calligraphy, but also practices letterpress, gold leafing, and watercolor. He further expanded his skills by getting into branding to help local businesses tell their stories in a visually convincing manner.
For Agosto, calligraphy has brought a vibrant array of colors into a world once covered in darkness… and it’s only getting brighter from there.
You can follow Justin’s work on Instagram at @brushmantis.