Good Thinking

Art in the age of ones and zeros: ASCII art

Art in the age of ones and zer...
Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman is an early example of ASCII art from 1960 produced using a dot-matrix computer
Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman is an early example of ASCII art from 1960 produced using a dot-matrix computer
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A web app was developed that turns Google Street View into ASCII in real time
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A web app was developed that turns Google Street View into ASCII in real time
This is the highest resolution that the algorithm generates resulting in very clear ASCII images
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This is the highest resolution that the algorithm generates resulting in very clear ASCII images
As the resolution increases the picture becomes clearer.
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As the resolution increases the picture becomes clearer.
Ian Parberry, Professor of computer science at University of Texas, developed an algorithm that can translate images into ASCII form. This is the lower resolution iteration.
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Ian Parberry, Professor of computer science at University of Texas, developed an algorithm that can translate images into ASCII form. This is the lower resolution iteration.
Often referred to as a form of "new school" ASCII art, this style resembles big graffiti tags in the way words are spelled out using ASCII characters.
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Often referred to as a form of "new school" ASCII art, this style resembles big graffiti tags in the way words are spelled out using ASCII characters.
An early example of typeface being used to create graphical elements – this is a real page from an 1875 newspaper
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An early example of typeface being used to create graphical elements – this is a real page from an 1875 newspaper
19th century artist Flora Stacey used typeface patterning to create artistic borders in this 1898 piece
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19th century artist Flora Stacey used typeface patterning to create artistic borders in this 1898 piece
A scene from Star Wars ASCII-mation, an ASCII animated recreation of the original Star Wars film
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A scene from Star Wars ASCII-mation, an ASCII animated recreation of the original Star Wars film
A scene from Star Wars ASCII-mation, an ASCII animated recreation of the original Star Wars film
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A scene from Star Wars ASCII-mation, an ASCII animated recreation of the original Star Wars film
ASCII Che Guevara
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ASCII Che Guevara
Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman is an early example of ASCII art from 1960 produced using a dot-matrix computer
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Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman is an early example of ASCII art from 1960 produced using a dot-matrix computer
From 1919 this is an early example of typewriter art featuring Charlie Chaplin
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From 1919 this is an early example of typewriter art featuring Charlie Chaplin
An interesting modern interpretation of ASCII art that blends the technique with a handmade quality
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An interesting modern interpretation of ASCII art that blends the technique with a handmade quality
From artist Charis Tsevis (Flickr), this is a modern interpretation on the ASCII art method using computer imaging techniques
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From artist Charis Tsevis (Flickr), this is a modern interpretation on the ASCII art method using computer imaging techniques
In 1982 a book appeared entitled 'Bob Neill's Book of Typewriter Art' which contained directions to replicate each piece of art
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In 1982 a book appeared entitled 'Bob Neill's Book of Typewriter Art' which contained directions to replicate each piece of art
Kiera Rathbone is a modern day typewriter artist. She has collected dozens of old-school typewriters and creates her work meticulously in an old-fashioned way
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Kiera Rathbone is a modern day typewriter artist. She has collected dozens of old-school typewriters and creates her work meticulously in an old-fashioned way
Camber Sands – a modern-day piece of typewriter art by Kiera Rathbone
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Camber Sands – a modern-day piece of typewriter art by Kiera Rathbone
Leslie Nichols is another modern day typewriter artist. This piece is a portrait of a student named Kaitlin created on a manual typewriter with text from the Equal Rights Amendment drafted by Alice Paul in 1923.
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Leslie Nichols is another modern day typewriter artist. This piece is a portrait of a student named Kaitlin created on a manual typewriter with text from the Equal Rights Amendment drafted by Alice Paul in 1923.
An image of Marilyn Monroe generated by one of the many modern ASCII image generating apps
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An image of Marilyn Monroe generated by one of the many modern ASCII image generating apps
A fan made ASCII version of the movie Matrix has become the oldest torrent on the internet, having been constantly seeded and shared since 2003
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A fan made ASCII version of the movie Matrix has become the oldest torrent on the internet, having been constantly seeded and shared since 2003
ASCII Dali
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ASCII Dali
ASCII Banksy
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ASCII Banksy
ASCII Pacino. Hoo-Ahh!
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ASCII Pacino. Hoo-Ahh!
View gallery - 23 images

Art has always been fundamentally intertwined with technology. New techniques and materials have constantly allowed artists to innovate and create new types of works. Our new series, which kicked off with a look at "datamoshing," examines the impact of digital technologies on art and looks at how artists are creating entirely new forms of art using these modern electronic tools. In this installment we examine the rise and fall of ASCII art.

Developed in the early 1960s ASCII, or the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, comprises 128 specified characters used to represent text in computers and telecommunications equipment. Almost as soon as the ASCII standard was developed there were pioneers generating visual art from it.

ASCII Che Guevara
ASCII Che Guevara

The idea behind text-based artwork can be traced back to the 19th century, when creative thinkers utilized typewriters to create pictures from artistically deployed combinations of letters and numbers.

19th century artist Flora Stacey used typeface patterning to create artistic borders in this 1898 piece
19th century artist Flora Stacey used typeface patterning to create artistic borders in this 1898 piece

Across the early 20th century, typewriter art appeared in many niche art circles, and in 1948 the magazine Popular Mechanics notably published a "keyboard art" instruction manual describing the technique as "doodling with a typewriter." In the 1960s, an alternative movement arose dubbed "concrete poetry," which saw poets generating forms of visual art out of letters and words.

From 1919 this is an early example of typewriter art featuring Charlie Chaplin
From 1919 this is an early example of typewriter art featuring Charlie Chaplin

But it wasn't until the 1980s with the advent of internet bulletin boards that ASCII art as we know it truly took off. In these early digital days, artists used creative combinations of ASCII characters to add stylish signatures to posts akin to digital graffiti. Referred to by one writer as "the golden age of ASCII art" these underground artistic pioneers experimented with novel forms of text-based communications.

ASCII Pacino. Hoo-Ahh!
ASCII Pacino. Hoo-Ahh!

Often referred to as a form of "new school" ASCII art, this style resembles big graffiti tags in the way words are spelled out using ASCII characters.
Often referred to as a form of "new school" ASCII art, this style resembles big graffiti tags in the way words are spelled out using ASCII characters.

As graphic-based internet navigation evolved across the 1990s, ASCII art moved to the outskirts of the digital world. The technique still thrived in alternative circles, from online MUDs and newsgroups to IRC, but it remained a decidedly "niche" exercise.

ASCII Banksy
ASCII Banksy

A dedicated community kept the dream alive and in recent years the technique has gained a certain degree of retro nostalgic street cred, with the creation of apps and websites that could artificially translate any image into ASCII at the click of a button.

An image of Marilyn Monroe generated by one of the many modern ASCII image generating apps
An image of Marilyn Monroe generated by one of the many modern ASCII image generating apps

Becoming essentially a computer-generated aesthetic, we can now find numerous websites devoted to variations on ASCII art, from recreating the original Star Wars in ASCII, to a coder that created an entire ASCII interface for Google Street View.

A web app was developed that turns Google Street View into ASCII in real time
A web app was developed that turns Google Street View into ASCII in real time

Take a closer look through our gallery for a trip through the varied history of ASCII art.

View gallery - 23 images
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