Eight Inspiring Stories Of ASCII Art

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Labels are fragile: text and pictures have always been closely connected. From the dawn of written language to the era of microcomputers, much of human creation has explored the relationship between the literal and the figurative, the form and the function. Within this is the future site of retro, ASCII art. It’s often used as a catch-all term for “text-based art,” regardless of the actual character set being used.

In this post, we’ll stroll through the past and present of ASCII art, assessing the influence of key pioneers, so that you might feel inspired to go forth and create. I hope you come across both familiar guideposts and unknown territory, and come away enlightened!

Nude women never fail: Ken Knowlton’s mosaics

There’s an old joke that if you want to advance technology, introduce pornography. From smutty BBS GIFs to the erotic HD streams being broadcast in glorious 1080p, the softer side of this issue is that age-old question, “Is it porn or is it art?” I don’t think computer graphics pioneer Ken Knowlton intended to titillate when his colleague, Leon Harmon, called upon centuries of Renaissance masters and coaxed Knowlton into converting a photo of a nude model into this famous forerunner of ASCII art:


Photo from Ken Knowlton

While composed of “small electronic symbols for transistors, resistors and such” and not from the ASCII set (one reason why the term is a misnomer), it’s a clear link to the ASCII pr0n that would eventually circulate in colleges. Nothing grabs attention like the female form, and as Knowlton himself expressed:

We did make similar pictures — of a gargoyle, of seagulls, of people sitting at computers — which have appeared here and there. But it was our Nude who would dolphin again and again into public view in dozens of books and magazines.

No matter how sophisticated we get, we simply can’t escape our primal urges. As indicated, Knowlton wasn’t a one-trick pony; he went on to accomplish many variations on this mosaic theme, from cars to crossword puzzles, including Braille art made into Helen Keller’s visage (if only she had been able to see it!), turning painted keyboards into Bert Herzog’s steely gaze and, in more recent years, turning the typography of playing cards into magician Lennart Green. All this, like much great art, stemmed from a successful experiment that would set the tone for years to come.

On a somewhat less risqué note…

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Chuck Close’s mosaic of Philip Glass

As we’re seeing, the recurring theme of turning many individual elements (with details finer than mere pointillism) into grand canvases carries a heavy weight in early ASCII art history. No jaunt into this craft’s past would be complete without revisiting this iconic square-by-square composition of minimalist master Philip Glass:


Photo by A.M. Kuchling

Look closely and you’ll notice it’s composed of “proto-pixels,” pseudo-squares of varying grayscale values that, when put together and you step back, form a recognizable face. This is also the same base technique used in many ANSI creations (keep reading!). Like Glass’ music, tiny units (or cells) are elongated into elaborate patterns. In this respect, the portrait serves as a fitting parallel to the sound of the man it represents.

Close went on to further trendify this image by redoing it in several iterations, such as a watercolor, and later a t-shirt for The Gap. CHI5 Shenzhou would bring an unofficial glowing version into virtual world Second Life, where its bond with quasi-modern ANSI art is solidified:

For you naughty aestheticologists who just can’t get your mind off of naked women, Close also worked on Kate Moss. But he didn’t pixelate her.

“A Computer Era Masterpiece”: Digital Mona Lisa

One more mosaic, I promise, then we’ll speed up several decades. This one is so significant, it must be mentioned on principle! New art sometimes finds its direction by emulating the old, then putting a twist on it.

So let me ask you: what’s the most famous piece of art in the world? Many would call out da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. In 1964, H. Philip Peterson “utilized a CDC 3200 computer and a ‘flying-spot’ scanner to create a digital transposition/representation”:


Photo from Digital Mona Lisa

How long did it take? A far cry from today’s real-time rendering, this particular reinterpretation took 14 hours and, as you can see if you look closely, is made of numbers. While this arguably didn’t take much imagination, the endurance required would pave the way for more creative developments by showing what this system was capable of. (You may recall a somewhat similar story involving scanners and Lenna.) Information on H. Philip Peterson is scant; unlike Chuck Close and Ken Knowlton, he doesn’t appear to have gone on to a prolific art career.

On a relevant tangent, Mona Lisa is also among the most parodied works of art. Sure, by now you’ve seen flat characters being formed into cohesive pictures, but what about an assembly of 3D objects? Suitably, if computer parts are the order of the day, this Mona “Motherboards” Lisa from ASUS’ HQ takes the prize:


Photo by Sifter

It must’ve taken some pretty obsessed people to make that!

Beam me up: Star Trek ASCII art

Obsessions are a funny thing. And when they’re a healthy thing, I call them gladdictions (glad + addictions). ASCII art is pretty geeky, and so is Star Trek. When you put the two together, you get computer nerdom of astronomical proportions, and as a result, much progress is made.

Just as some of the aforementioned pre-ASCII art debuted in the 1960s, so did the classic Trek series. There are many repositories of Star Trek ASCII art that take the familiar characters on your keyboard and shape them into familiar faces, like William Shatner’s, and various starship classes. Among my favorites is Joshua Bell’s Star Trek ASCII Art Archive (disclosure: Josh is a colleague of mine at Linden Lab), which is a meticulously classified collection and even hilariously warns the uninitiated:

Please stop sending me email complaining that the images are made out of little dashes. It’s an art form, albeit a strange one.

Also worth looking at, if you like a refreshingly clean, long-scrolling page, is the self-proclaimed Largest Compendium of Star Trek ASCII Art. Picard’s head at the end is somewhat misshapen and resembles a Tenctonese more than a human, but I can’t really complain.

[ The Sunny Spot ] ASCII-Art - The Largest Compendium of Star Trek ASCII-Art

The point of all this? Advancing art skills by practicing it on the zealot magnet that is Star Trek will lead to these images being uploaded and propagated via BBSes — including as downloadable files and email signatures — and thus promote awareness of ASCII art.

As a consequence, newer generations are exposed to the art, and the art flourishes beyond the artscene. In time, select pieces will even become cultural phenomena. And as text graduates to pictures, pictures graduate to…

ASCII art on the move: Full-motion videos

Simon Janson’s Star Wars ASCIIMATION has proudly made the rounds. It is, essentially, Star Wars as a text-art movie. And thanks to Jeremy, aka bullfrog117 on YouTube, there’s even an earlier version with sound:

Meticulously assembled frame by frame with dialog subtitles, it’s far from complete but is a laudable effort that has spanned over a decade. Simon started it in July 1997 and, as of this writing, last updated it in April 2008. It even has a nice little surprise at the end, if you’re into Rick Astley. Or is it… Rick ASCII?

This “ASCIIroll” points to the increasing automation of ASCII effects, which usually involve down-sampling still or motion pictures into a set of values that correspond to various characters. Logically, sparser-looking characters like “.” would be lighter values, whereas busy, noisy ones like “@” and “&” would be darker values. Some purists decry this as cheating; others see it as the best way to create effects that can’t otherwise be produced.

Other movies, like Pixar’s The Incredibles, have been ASCIImated via automatic means. (Although leaving the letterbox in doesn’t make much sense.) Tools like VLC’s own “Color ASCII art video” output module (found in Preferences > Video) make it possible to ASCIIize any movie clip with minimal effort. While it may not be art, it is a fun party trick and good for at least a few laughs.

Preferences

These laughs just skim the surface of the most exciting possibilities. So let’s dive deep, really deep now.

ASCII demoscene: Not just for show

In a demoscene, the demo is essentially a showreel, a multimedia portfolio of a tight team’s skills presented with pop! I have high admiration for the demoscene’s ethos of resourcefulness: where else can you find so much creativity packed in such a compact space?

This is even truer when you look further to demos that carry a stompin’ soundtrack while being efficiently economized in text mode. Trauma’s “The Turing Machines Didn’t Care” (more info) is a beautiful recent example, mixing stylized type with delicious flavors of transition effects, fluidly evolving geometric patterns through an ever-shifting gauntlet of color. Accompanied by Crystal Method-worthy beats and snarling synth lines, it’s hard not to rock out to the ragged forms before you.

Another perennial fave is the briefly titled “BB,” which, should be noted, can run entirely in DOS. At first, it’s hard to imagine such dynamism emerging from such a staid OS — the electronic soundtrack does help — but keep an open mind and enjoy:

Entirely in monochrome, the amount of variance is staggering. From a Space Invaders-like blip to zooming fractals to flame simulation to text entry that conjures cyberpunk terminal hacking, it’s a breathtaking show. While watching it in its original non-YouTubed format gives the most authentic experience, it can also be a deterrent to the casual visitor, so I’m thankful that DiimitR shared this with us.

For more awesomeness, see:

Emoticon evolution: The Japanese new wave

Emoticons have come a long way, from simple “:)” smilies to fully featured expressions riding atop articulated characters made out of, well, characters. It’s unfortunate there aren’t more TV shows like Train Man, which highlight the life of a geek in a non-disgraceful manner. In addition to the exposure it gave otaku, Train Man has some pretty wild scenes involving these evolved emoticons. Project Densha has translated scenes that are helpful, and there’s no substitute for watching one of the scenes for yourself:

Nothing like Electric Light Orchestra’s “Twilight” accompanying a young chap gazing at ASCII art while he has an emotional outburst, eh?

The story that inspired Train Man was, like so many other modern yarns, originally unspooled on Japanese uber-BBS 2channel.


Photo by hawkexpress

2channel has emoticons like you wouldn’t believe, in part because their extended character set — actually Shift JIS — contains characters that are apparently well suited to be shaped into cute little cats and radical soy sauce mascot Kikkoman. As Lisa Katayama described in a lucid pictorial on Wired:

The Soy Sauce Warrior started as a simple ASCII image on a 2channel thread. But as more and more posters chipped in, he quickly developed into a fully fleshed-out character with an elaborate backstory. Kikkoman hails from Soybean planet. His friends Sugarman and Saltman help him battle the Sauce Brothers and Ketchup Man, and they employ powerful fighting moves like the Kikko-punch and the Kikko-beam.

The past is present: ANSI scrolls on

While ASCII art is a catch-all term, as I mentioned earlier, ANSI art is a special case, not just because it has extended characters, but precisely because its escape sequences allow for dithered blocks of varying shades. These can approximate graphics much easier, and it’s a close kin of pixel art, which we previously celebrated in Smashing Magazine.


Photo by Joe Smooth

ANSI art found a foothold in many BBSes, because it was easy both to add colorful vibrance and to transmit across dial-up modems in an age before widespread broadband. As a type of digital graffiti, ANSI art often has an organic, grungy appearance, with type simulating fantasy flourishes. Accompanying imagery often includes fierce dragons, surreal landscapes and — you guessed it! — naked women.

ANSI art is impressive not just because it continues to go strong, but specifically because improved display technology, like flat-panel LCD and plasma screens, allow us to enjoy it in ways that weren’t originally envisioned. As nostalgic as an amber CRT hooked up to a genuine IBM PC is, it doesn’t hold a candle to today’s massive monitors. Here’s a great example from Geek Entertainment Television, where ANSI art is decked out on widescreens like the cinematic posters they’ve always dreamed of being:

ASCII art isn’t for everyone and never will be. By virtue of its humble beginnings and subsequent growth, it demands an understanding of the dedicated culture in which it was born and recognition that while it originated with primitive technology, novel innovations are helping to expand it into unforeseen regions.

By viewing these electronic masterworks, I hope you’ll be inspired to create new pieces to populate your own canon.

Do you have fave ASCII art? Share it with us in the comments!

(al)

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Torley Wong amplifies your awesome with the useful and fun. He also has an irrepressible passion for discovering the connections between seemingly unrelated things, and unfolding how they were invented. Enjoy his personality at Torley Lives.

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    Nice Article Torley….. I never knew more about ASCII art then some dynamic/static cliparts which is made by characters!!

    I just got to know some amazing facts after googling like “One of the main reasons ASCII art was born was because early printers often lacked graphics ability and thus characters were used in place of graphic marks. Also, to mark divisions between different print jobs from different users, bulk printers often used ASCII art to print large banners, making the division easier to spot so that the results could be more easily separated by a computer operator or clerk.”

    Still…. Very informative stories about this wonderful art.

    DKumar M.

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    Good collection! ;-)

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    very nice overview.

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    gr8 nice dose for weekend

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    looks cool

    maybe you’ll have to add this one to: http://www.asciimation.co.nz/

    star wars in ASCII :)

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    Good post..!!!

    Some more…

    Steve Jobs

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    I’d love to see an entire post dedicated to ansi art. I grew up during the BBS days and even did some ansi art, myself. ACiD, iCE, and all the other groups at the time, sure brings back a lot of memories.

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    My 1993 ascii-art FAQ: [GoogleGroups]

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    I allway’s loved the ACiD packs
    The BBS times where the day’s

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    Me too. I did some art-piece for ACiD.

    ASCII art is more artful than author wrote here, ANSI is only part of big and dead ASCII art culture.

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    BBS times were the days indeed..
    Remember iCE ? :)

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    Oh wow, you guys know about 2ch.

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    that is very interesting, i must say with ASCII you have archived a different

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    (__/)
    (=’.'=)
    (“)_(“)

    bunny for you ;)

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    a welcome break from your regular content.

    thank you for taking the time and effort, it was well worth it.

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    Do you remember Z80 (spectrum, C64, etc) games? Or really anything from the 80s…

    It was extremely common place to see “ASCII art” in these. The most artistic usage would often be exhibited at the starting/introscreen.

    Some games were entirely text mode. Exploration/adventure/strategy games in particular (birds eye view). If you want an example then you can look up the game Rogue.

    Some “text adventure” games would often show each new area using a text rendered image rather than one in graphics mode.

    I have to say that I am a little disappointed that you failed to point out this aspect of ASCII art’s origins thoroughly. It’s a pretty important area in relation to textual graphics. Many GUIs were or still are rendered in text mode. I remember using a pascal IDE for quite a while which was text rendered. In fact is you type CMD in windows and run edit it’ll give you a GUI rendered in text mode (although a rather simple one). Many PC’s at the BIOS stage still use standard text modes or modes/resolutions that relate to them.

    In fact there was an age where almost everything was rendered in text mode. This stemmed from the hardware limitations of the time. For example it can mitigate the issue of memory usage in a way that can be described as tile based upscaling. Naturally it was from these kinds of hardware accellerated text modes that full sprite modes emerged as a natural progression. An interesting point is how simple text modes were used creatively to do more than just show lines of text. The point of interest is how something was used in a way that it wasn’t strictly intended to be used. I personally find it all very innovative. There are a great many more intricacies to it beyond this. I can only recommend that you research software and graphics of that era if you are interested.

    It was this period that really established the serious and large scale use of text rendering. A vast proportion of software was text rendered. It was not merely a tool for art or laughs. It was a real practical solution used for all kinds of application and produced some marvellous results.

    There’s a wealth of crazy text rendered software from this period which I will not list. Instead of providing some examples from the past I’ll conclude this comment with something from the present that pays homage to the era I speak of:

    http://bay12games.com/dwarves/

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    Nice I like the mona Lisa one.

    You can convert Any picture into an ascii iamge here: img2ascii.php

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    Regarding the “The Turing Machines Didn’t Care”: I much prefer the second placed entry from that competition, Cookiedough. Video of that demo is here. This demo actually uses real ASCII art rather than just passing eveything through a filter like the ones you mention above..

    Also, check out this excellent seminar from Assembly 2004 about the history of ASCII art. FYI, Assembly is the biggest yearly demoparty currently in existence.
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7737408055820780544

    The demoscene has been using ASCII/ANSI art for decades…

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    IMHO the BEST POST on SmashingMagazine in a long while! I hope Torley Wong gets to write moar articles on here. :3

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    Nice article. Unfortunately I am old enough to remember the first ascii-art. This was back in the Seventies, when I was a child, it must have come off a mainframe printer (probably golfball!)
    Thanks

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    Though not related to ascii, check out some of the ASM demos produced by Future Crew and Purple Motion/Scaven for Assembly ’93:

    http://www.videosift.com/video/Future-Crew-Second-Reality-Assembly-93

    I still remember being floored by the screamtracker music (s3m) and tiny size of the EXE to accomplish such a sweet DOS demo.

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    When I was in design school, I did an interesting type-based design. We had to do a typographic poster representing some notion of God. Mine is in line with the stuff in this post, and can be found at http://www.daveberzack.com/godposter.jpg
    Be forewarded: it’s a big file

    -1
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    If you’re interested in ANSI and ASCII art, you may want to check out the gallery at Sixteen Colors.

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      Dude! got quite excited about these archives but your site is down. Please ping when up, I’m still really looking forward that. Cheers!

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    Cool article.

    This may be the grandfather of ascii art…

    http://www.paulsmithfoundation.org/main_gallery.html

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    i thought there would have been more replies in ASCII :-)

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    Check this out if you dig ascii art – Jason Scott’s amazing documentary about the early 80′s to mid-90′s BBS scene. One episode in this multi-episode documentary focuses on the Ascii art scene and most notably the ACID crew.

    http://www.bbsdocumentary.com/

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    Thank you graciously for the awesome comments.

    @Joey: I played too much Rogue/Nethack in my earlier years. It’s true I didn’t cover that (and a number of very big developments), but that leaves room for a sequel article. :) Not to mention you’ve been extremely helpful by sharing your experiences and filling in my gaps. Also, I had a peripheral thought about video games with extremely uniquely visual styles. I’m going to check out your link… and ooh! A Mac version.

    @evilpaul: I’m always in awe of demoscene resourcefulness. As someone who wanted to get deeper with team collaborations (I did a lot of MOD tracking) but found myself yanked out because of other life circumstances, I may re-enter someday. Thanks for pointing those out.

    @Quakeulf >:3: You are extremely supportive. I learn from my fellow excellent authors here so the whole of Smashing Mag can be better! And MOAR shall be coming, indeed.

    @Evans: Definitely related. “Second Reality” now has a sort of mythical status.

    @chrissie: Oh, that definitely happened on Digg. ;)

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    great work!

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    While you covered “Demo Scene” ASCII Art used in ASCII Demos you forgot to mention the ASCII art scene that’s still kind of alive on places like http://www.thuglife.org/

    My blog has an Amiga ASCII theme: http://www.ueberbewertet.de/

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    Uh, sorry for the double post, could the kind moderator please remove this and my first post?

    TiA

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    If looking for deeper history of ASCII code, read this amazing account written by Tom Jennings, hero of Fidonet: http://www.wps.com/projects/codes/

    And here’s some ASCII stuff I used to do in 97 and 8: http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/

    respect

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    hmm.. everyone knows the only font to use for ascii art is the Amiga Topaz font.. not the crappy IBM..

    boondockS!

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    There are 2 versions of that famous Kikkoman Soy Sauce warrior flash – an English and a Japanese one with different endings
    http://japansugoi.com/wordpress/kikkoman-soy-sauce-warrior/

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    I curate an ASCII art topic and I still make my own ASCII art too. I’m just a bit slack about updating my gallery. It’s probably a year since I updated.

    http://www.scoop.it/t/ascii-art

    http://thatgrrl.ca/ldb/

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    great overview article on the topic!
    I guess i have to jump in and share my little ascii-art story…

    I have made very little ascii-art, but one little .gif i created over a decade ago, without planning or evening knowing it had gone ‘viral’ you would have to say (though then it wasnt the term it is today) … I made it as part of my music video for Our Lady Peace’s In Repair – in 2000

    I converted Edward Muybridge pics (i’m sure i have spelling wrong, but he was a wacko, changed the spelling a few times in his life! so i wont try) he made some of the earliest series of rapid photography plates showing animals and people in motion (first on a bet to prove whether horses hoves all came off the ground or something).

    Anyway, the video and album etc. which you can check out. have the ascii character layered into it as it was something i created as a core element for the animated video…

    it was based on themes of Ray Kurzweil’s ‘Age Of Spiritual Machines’ – and AI, human cloning/tech, etc… so it felt like a good source to turn to for the video… I wanted to contrast this ascii art version of a simple man walking and created a loop from his original late 19th century photos….

    you can see the raw file (which you can also see layered in after effects in the video on my youtube) but i had this guy up on my old website for a bit in 2000/01

    (this is just one of quite a few instances i found on quick google search just now)

    years later i got some kind of ‘positive vibe spam’ email of this man walking for peace or something – and there he was, unquestionably my exact man walking ascii art ;) as unsolicited (yet positive) peace-spam!

    I was totally surprised and happy that it must of spread for a while then, and to come back randomly to me like that meant he’d had to have been making some serious rounds! – it was really at least like 4 years later or something…
    so i searched the file name: WalkingMan.gif

    and sure enough – he was all over the place… this article reminded me of the whole thing and i did a new search and he’s still all over it would appear – i’m happy that people seem to have responded to it over time in different ways, and i like that it became sort of an anonymous bit of cultural debris (though i thought this would be a good place to give a little context behind that .gif in case anyone here ever encountered him)

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