Monday, 6 November 2017

Gothic Futurism

RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ or, Rammellzee is a hip hop legend legend. Born 1960, passed 2010. Graffiti writer, rapper, sculptor, art theorist,  junk-bot modeller and the originator of the philosophy and practice of the Ikonoklast Panzerism within a broader philosophy he developed in the late 1970s called Gothic Futurism.

Rammellzee | Ikonoklast
The essence of  Rammellzee's manifesto is that language is an act of violence, and by deconstructing its symbols and refactoring them into wildstyle science-fiction graffiti space-ship designs and junkbot racecars, they can be liberated from the tyranny of language. Once liberated, they can then be weaponised against further manipulation through the style he defines as Ikonoklast Panzerism.  Thus simultaneously dismantling and elucidating the physical language as embodying a culture and history of violence. It is a similar linguistic battleground occupied by William S. Burroughs and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, but informed by the history of typography.  You can read Ionic Treatsie Gothic Futurism from  Rammellzee's archived website at

Blackletter calligraphy
Blackletter typeface
COPE2 | Wildstyle

Typeface Categories | via

Rammellzee makes reference to the letterforms of monastical calligraphy as the secret origin of Wildstyle graphiti writing, and proclaims the return to the hand-made, ornamental letter pushing at the boundaries of legibility as a reclaiming of the linguistic shapes against the mechanical tyranny of Gutenburgs press and its digital descendants. If we look at the typeface categories above (notably missing the egyptian / slab-serif) it's clear that Blackletter is a substantially different shape.   Rammellzee sees the additional strokes, the sharp curves, hooks and pointed finials as a form of weaponisation, not only visually spiky but rendering them illegible. Taking this a step further, Ikonoklast Panzerizm transforms letters into designs for speed-racer warships, the ultimate weaponized graphemes of the ideological rap-battles and oppression of the masses by the tyranny of language is at once a simultaneous return to the sacred practices of the monastic orders,  as well as a leaping forward into an anarchic vision of the future.

Ikonoklast Panzerism | Gothic Futurism

“ the 14th Century the monks ornamented and illustrated the manuscripts of letters. In the 21st and 22nd century the letters of the alphabet through competition are now armamented for letter racing and galactic battles. This was made possible by a secret equation known as THE RAMM:ELL:ZEE."

Starbased Extendor (Militarily the Unreadable)

The New York graffiti artist and B-boy theoretician Rammellzee constitutes yet another incarnation of Afrofuturism. Greg Tate holds that Rammellzee’s “formulations on the juncture between black and Western sign systems make the extrapolations of [Houston] Baker and [Henry Louis] Gates seem elementary by comparison.” As evidence, he submits the artist’s “Ikonoklast Panzerism,” a heavily armored descendant of late ’70s “wild style” graffiti (those bulbous letters that look as if they were twisted out of balloons). A 1979 drawing depicts a Panzerized letter “S”: it is a jumble of sharp angles that suggests the Nude Descending a Staircase bestriding a Jet Ski. 

“The Romans stole the alphabeta system from the Greeks through war,” explains Rammellzee. “Then, in medieval times, monks ornamented letters to hide their meaning from the people. Now, the letter is armored against further manipulation.”


Whilst the majority of Rammellzee's graffiti is inspired by linguistics, semiotics and the history of language and the history of typography, Rammellzees work also embraced character design, through costuming and toy-cutting, as well as model-making out of junk and found objects based on his graffiti designs, building an entire pop-culture science-fiction inflected universe.

RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ | robot costume | album cover

RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ costume

RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ + Letter Racers

Rammellzee | custom action figures
Rammellzee | Letter Racer | via

Rammellzee’s Afrofuturist appropriation of the castoff oddments of technoculture is semiotic guerrilla warfare, just as his “slanguage”—a heavily encrypted hip-hop argot—is the linguistic equivalent of graffiti “tags” all over the mother tongue. In an essay on English as the imperial language of the Internet, the cultural critic McKenzie Wark argues for the willful, viral corruption of the lingua franca of global corporate monoculture as a political act.

- Mark Dery “Black to the Future” Flame Wars (November 1994) (via

Some critics situate the work within the context of Afro-futurism, the cultural nexus of science fiction of African decent, but to my mind Rammellzee transcends ethnogenre, the combination of oriental exoticism - Japanese samurai and mecha imagery, African mask making traditions, medieval European monastical calligraphy and the development of western typography, ancient Greek language, bespokes an eclectic, universalist, globalised awareness that isn't specifically focused on African or Afro-American cultural experiences. 

Denying Rammellzee his blackness would be stupid, his engagement and the origin of his work in  'urban street culture' of New York, his ethnic roots as a man of African decent are strong influences in his work. So perhaps are the transformative semiotics of Sun Ra's deconstruction of the spoken work, as Rammellzee uncovers the abstract 'military function' of the symbolism of the alphabet. Where Ra is  an angel from Saturn sent to take Black people into space, Rammellzee is a 10th Century assasin-monk liberating language from humanity. Definitions of Afro-futurism often set their horizons too specifically to fully embrace Rammellzee, have a smaller landscape which would encircle Rammellzee's culturally transgressive theories and practices, the near universal applicability of his art-theory and an essentially multicultural / fusion-futurism that is readily understood in his work due to his appropriation of wide sources.

Rammellzee remains something of an outsider figure, his theories considered 'out-there', embedded as it is in the somewhat obscure grounds of typographical history, semantic theory and science fiction. While posthumously his paintings (knotted minds) have recently fetched over $40,000 at auction, and have been the subject of major exhibitions, there is still no published monograph, instead we have to rely on fragmentary documentation to piece together an understanding of his body of work, and perhaps this complexity is appropriate.


The ideology of Gothic Futurism and the techniques of Ikonic Panzerism lend themselves as a critical lens through which to perceive other works - it is something to think with. This is somewhat fraught, Ramillezzes body of work and theoretical expression stand alone as a testament to the mans genius,  and as this 1999 interview on 88 Hip Hop indicates he clearly lived within the conceptual framework, but as the Cult of Rammillezz admirably demonstrate, the legacy of his work and theory lives on, expanding boundaries and .  Frequent readers of this blog won't be surprised at all to find a suitable target for this critical assault in the universe of Warhammer 40,000.

There are a number of vectors, one is that Rammelzee was actively involved in the design of science-fiction or fantastical characters and vehicles, so the there are parallels in the subject matter. There are material parallels in technique (at least in early Rogue Trader) in the construction of model vehicles specifically out of junk. And finally, there are concepts we can associate under a broader philosophy of Gothic Futurism, the theme of militarisation of historical forms in a science fiction context, all of which make WH40K seem appropriate.


Games Workshop | Battlefleet Gothic  | Emperor Class Battleship
John Blanche 1999

On a purely formal level the similarities between the design for the Emperor Class Battleship spacecraft from Games Workshops Battlefleet Gothic (1999 - based on designs originally in Space Fleet 1991) and Rammellzee's Gothic Futurist Sigma are clear. The scooped prow, the over-all length and proportion, the raised turret at the back. But where Rammellzee has distorted, transformed and weaponized the greek letter Σ (still evident but barely recognisable) to evoke speed, movement and warfare. Games Workshop  has mutated Gothic, cathedral architecture in more or less the same conceptual, if not stylistic direction.

Lewis Orr (1876-1966) \ Notre Dame \

Games Workshop /  Ramilles Class Star Fort / BFG 

Re imagining the visual graphology of monastical orders - in the equation-space of 
Ikonoklast Panzerism  the visual spectacle of scribal calligraphy as weaponised, mobile, galactic craft, typography as weapon. 

Ramileeze | via

In the equation-space of Battlefleet Gothic, the architecture of the Medieval Cathedral becomes a weaponised, mobile, galactic craft, architecture as weapon. 

No longer the spatial, built environment in which violence physically occurs, "The Building" becomes a symbolic representation of an ideological concept - "The Empire" and its vector of aggression "The Battleship". In Terry Gilliams The Crimson Permanent Assurance the architectural forms of a London office block are set loose from their moorings and transformed into a battleship, filing cabinets as cannons, scaffold sheeting as sails, immobile architecture made dynamic and aggressive. 

In the Imperial fleet of Battlefleet Gothic flying buttress or arched window no longer required for stones to overcome gravity and hold a structure in place, but required only to communicate an idea of baroque and archaic religiosity, liberated from their engineering function into the realm of the purely expressive, a sign for monasticism. The rest of the game-world follows suit, be it Imperial Kultus, Eldar Craftworld, Ork Waaagh or beast-craft of the Tyranid Hive Mind, each faction is visually defined by a formalised stylistic langue, and by a process of Iconoclast Panzerism each is, in turn freed from its original function (be it biological, craft, religious)  and transformed into an object of symbolic weaponisation.

Battlefleet Gothic, in its deep-space reference in turn raises questions about non-fictional historical architecture and spacecraft design not as a necessary response to the demands of space, materials, human interaction, engineering and craft, but as a primarily linguistic and communicative act of cultural identity formation - the langue of a faction - as physical manifestations of ideological propaganda.

The engineers of The Space Race - NASA and the USSR working on little more than Cold War propaganda machines, throwing hugely expensive phallic symbols into the sky as declarations of their earthly dominance, solidifying national identity and cultural commitment to nebulously practical modernist, rational, scientific progress - what have the moon landings ever done for us? their value, like most 'big science' tends to be primarily a grandiose public relations stunt, a technically fetishistic fireworks display for a culture drunk on spectacle.

In terms of historical architecture and especially the medieval, there are numerous examples of imposition of ecclesiastical buildings on old pagan sites occurring throughout Europe (and the Holy Land). It does not take a huge leap of imagination to think of these buildings, chapels and Cathedrals in full stone clad gothic regalia as material and symbolic breach points, enclaves of control of a war of faith waged upon the native pagans and newly converted christians, much as the Imperial Kultus in Battlefleet Gothic attempts to dominate space within the game.  This dividing and controlling of space, as a commander in a wargame, a player in chess or the captain of a football team controls the field of battle by placing their pieces strategically to cover the significant ground.

La Hougue Bie | Medieval church built on Neolithic grave

In folklore the ominous sound of the bells of church towers not only call the faithful to prayer but also drive away the native trolls from the area -  such tales rely heavily on the symbolic nature of architecture and is part and parcel of why Black Metal bands burned churches in the 1990s, and speaks to the placement of Roman Triumphal arches and other examples of understanding architecture primarily as expressions of imperialist intent.

Subway | Rammellzee

Architecture thus can be seen as having a long history as tool of oppression and control by the conquering peoples, the ruling elites. Much as Ikonoklast Panzerism characterises typographys constraint to the conventional letterform as submission to a history of oppression, and the aesthetic weaponisation of letterforms as taking them beyond their linguistic function, architectures dominance of the human environment is too disrupted by graffiti. The uniformity of the built environment challenged by the individual, its oppressive continuum as an organising principle reconfigured.

Addendum: it is not only architecture that is transformed in this way, New York graffiti scene, and RAMMELZEE specifically, sprang up writing on trains - that is the transport infrastructure of the city, historically the Roman road as the arteries of imperialism, and reconnecting with the Cold War space race as vehicular expressions of power.

To walk through the urban environment with the eye and mind of a graffiti writer is dismantle the intended organisation of space, the town planners drawings are sliced up and reconfigured into an entirely new landscape. The ignored undersides of bridges become focal points, boundaries become access points, the landscape becomes a map of vantage-points where grafitti may be seen and concealments where a writer may be undisturbed. Opportunities for expression open up within ignored, abandoned and liminal spaces. The tags, throwups and pieces left behind by other writers become markers, not only a patina that indicates safe-spaces for illicit writing, but a dynamic system of rivalry and community that weaves its way through the otherwise static canyons of urban space that in the dominant culture exist only as dead-space between land-banks, glass and concrete investment portfolios, the wreckage of broken machines for living in and zones of social control.

Central to this battleground of architecture vs. letterform is the idea of abandonment and reclamation. The substrate - the surface - upon which Ikonoklast Panzerism takes place - be it the A-train or a tenement block is an alien artefact, designed and created entirely outside the social sphere of those who inherit and occupy the space. Graffiti, and weaponised intergalactic graffiti at that, reclaims the impersonal, tyrannical object - the building - destroys it's authoritarian purpose and transforms it into an entirely new narrative.

These creative strategies, formulated by the equation RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ and expressed through the ideology of Gothic Futurism and the strategy of Ikonoklast Panzerism and the tactical deployment through graffiti letterforms, modelling, story telling and character design, leave a vibrant and unique body of work. The parallels between Rammellzees work with other creative practices allied to the idea of Gothic Futurism, such as the Warhammer 40,000  universe as expressed through the wargame Battlefleet Gothic, and the  to architecture through the design strategies we can see that Ikonoklast Panzerism provides not only the creative impetus for Rammellzee's own graphiti art but provides a broader critical and transformative creative lens.


  1. I am reminded of Nemesis the Warlock, in particular Nemesis' spaceship Blitzspear. Of course, 40K borrows more than a little from Nemesis, so I should not be surprised that there would be connections between them and Rammellzee.

    1. Yeah, I can see The Blizspear as a letter-racer, it's in the angles and arrowheads. Although figurative, we could also see it, and Nemesis himself as a form of Panzerism of a devil from monastical marginalia or illuminated manuscript, the process freeing him from his role as agent of evil, and transforming him into the hero against a corrupt humanity. A Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill comic book adaptation of Rammellzee's world would be a wonder to behold.

      Ever thought that Torquemada's helmet looks like a schematic of Nemesis face?

    2. Oh yes, it's points and triangles all the way. I'm sure the visual similarity between Nemesis and his, um, nemesis was quite deliberate.

  2. I need to read this again sober - but damn - this is everything I love about the RPG online community.

    1. Ha. Thank you Gus. I think. Not sure being sober will help, but give it a go by all means! Putting this on in the background while reading might help.

  3. Thanks so much for another eye-opening post. I enjoyed it from soup to nuts.

    I'm glad you mentioned Sun-Ra, because I think there is a powerful spiritual/aesthetic affinity between him and Rammellzee.

    Another interesting cross-over came into my mind when I read your sentence "The substrate - the surface - upon which Ikonoklast Panzerism takes place - be it the A-train or a tenement block is an alien artefact, designed and created outside the social sphere of those who inherit the space." That cross over is Brother from Another Planet, the 1984 film by John Sayles. This is another work of art that envisages Afro-American liberation as an intergalactic subversion fought out on the streets of NYC.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it!

      Yeah in terms of aesthetics, especially in the noise department and ways of thinking Sun Ra and Rammellzee share a lot. But for me Sun Ra, whilst critical, encapsulates the optimism of the 1960s, Rammellzee presents a bleaker, more pessimistic place. Did they ever meet? Imagine eavesdropping on that conversation...

      Never seen Brother From Another Planet, sounds like a cross between The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Warriors will have to hunt it down.

    2. I hope you can catch Brother from Another Planet sometime. It is an oddly beautiful film. But -- like Sun Ra -- it seems to offer more optimism than Rammellzee.

      One more post-script. You mentioned Genesis P-Orridge... I once spent an interminable ride with Genesis in a Sabbath elevator in an old apartment building in NYC. It was less exciting than it sounds.

  4. It's not a word I like to trot out much, but I would characterize your blog as brilliant. I first found you when nostalgia sent me searching for confirmation that the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure "The Hanging Gardens of Bab-Elonn" had ever existed at all.

    My search kicked up your blog on Google; how fortunate and happy I was to discover not just a thoughtful reminescence of a seemingly racially problematic adventure, but a brilliant—there's that word once again—approach to the adventure, one that tied it to Sun Ra, afrofuturism more generally, and the wider cosmos of cultural influences on a little games company from Bolingbroke Road.

    Since then, your blog has exploded my memories and my understanding of a great deal of the history of my dorky youth, and I could not be more grateful. This sort of memetic archaeology not only liberates my recollections of a vital and volatile time in my youth, but recontextualizes that time in a way that is provocative and useful.

    Thank you. The work that you do is meaningful, and it matters (to one middle-aged geek at least), and you should know that.

    1. Rather humbled by the high praise, but I'm glad you found meaning and utility in the writing. Thank you for taking the time to respond, it's good to know that something connects.

      "Mimetic archeology" is a nice phrase and an interesting concept. I'd not really thought about framing these kind of critical writings before, but that does go some way towards describing part of it.


  5. I can't believe I'm unfamiliar with Rammellzee before reading this post. As both a graphic designer and a long-time fan of underground hip hop, I figured I would have been familiar with him. Creator of the wyldestyle look eh? That's ... wild.

    My biggest takeaway in gaming terms is how Slaanesh this all is. In recent conversations with my gaming buddies I've been talking about how I feel like Slaanesh can be so much more than just sexual depravities and transgenderism (though that should still definitely be a part) but about artists infused with chaos and using visual and aural extremes in warfare. I know Slaanesh has noise marines, but the modern ones don't do anything for me compared to the oldhammer heavy metal glam rock ones. But from a musical standpoint I've long been a fan of hip hop and electronic music rather than the heavy metal influences of the old Games Workshop crew.

    Rammellzee though is sending my brain buzzing with all kinds of idea seedlings for modeling projects.

    1. Hi Casey. Glad to have brought Rammellzee to your attention.

      There's a lot of fertile ground to be explored by mixing contexts, everything from Rammellzees Garbage Gods as warp entities to sci-fantasy warfare being an extension of Iconoclast Panzerism, to a general junk-tech kit-bashed aesthetic. Slannesh is somewhat reminiscent of Vain the Insane, much of 40k imagery has gone beyond camp in its pseudo-religous iconography over the years, it would certainly be refreshing to see a more urban, hip-hop approach.

      There's a massive retrospective of . Rammellzees work coming up at the Red Bull Arts New York If you're in the area, might be well worth dropping by and having a look. Unfortunately jumping on a plane is out of the question, but I'm hoping they'll put out an exhibition catalogue or something, a coherent monograph is long overdue.

  6. I'm going to have to come back and read this one again at some point. Possibly after doing a bunch more background research if I can manage it. I had heard of Rammellzee and Son-Ra before, but never really knew much of anything beyond their names. Definitely going to have to dig more into both of them.

    Another connection to 40K: the power of Chaos glyphs, sigils, and symbols. Writing that can literally change the universe, that can be weaponized, that can harm or kill the writer if they're not careful with it. Merely to look upon some of those symbols can leave someone more open to possession or other influences of Chaos. Skillfully marked on the surfaces of some place of Imperial worship, they could subvert the literal psychic power generated by that worship from Imperial to Chaotic purposes. Specifically, relating to the section about the graffiti artist's view of the urban environment, and the addition of graffiti being used to reclaim structures that are meant to impose external authority. I'm sure there's more there, but that's just off the top of my head, more or less.

    1. It's an absolute killer that there has been no published monograph on Ramms work, and while I do appreciate his work and his universe being obscure makes the effort of getting into it more rewarding, there is more than enough solid material. I think his old website at is probably the best (only?) functioning warp gate to the theory side. Lots of videos on Youtube for the performances, and interviews. SUN RA - Space is the Place is probably the best intro to Sun Ras Afrofuturism, Sun Ra Speaks lectures at Berkeley U. his musical output is both enormous and varied.

      Without going too far into the realms of high-weirdness, there is an occult movement that arose in the 1970/80s known as Chaos Magic coming out of the work of Austin Osman Spare and Aliester Crowley, which influenced a lot of artists like Genesis P.Orridge, Fields of the Nephilim, comic book writer Grant Morrison. Pretty much all of the 40k magick thought-forms giving shape to warp-entities and sigil magic echoes it's formulea.

    2. I was actually thinking more research into typography and semiotics and such. My background is in math, so I only have a vague grasp of a lot of the terminology and concepts here.

      I am somewhat familiar with the Chaos Magic tradition. Partly via Grant Morrison (and Warren Ellis talking about Grant Morrison), but also through a couple of folks I used to know back on LiveJournal who were pretty into it.

      Thanks for the links! Definitely gonna dig into some of those when I get some time here.

    3. Yeah. I should probably work a little harder on dropping the jargon. Erik Spiekermann's Stop Stealing Sheep is a great first primer on Typography (sample here). Although for Ramm, a history of writing would do.

      I wish I could point to a good primer on semiotics, but I don't know of one although Daniel Chandlers Semiotics: The Basics looks promising. Certainly Barthes Image-Music-Text and Camera Obscura, as collections of semiotics based essays are good, the main theorists (saussure, foucault, derrida) can be a bit dense. John Bergers Ways of Seeing series and book is also a good grounding on visual culture.

    4. I think I could work through the jargon if I had a better grounding in the concepts. Jargon develops around dense subject matter like this because precision in terminology becomes more and more important, and general terms no longer suffice, not to obscure things for the outsider. Thanks for giving me some sources to look into!