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the last punch cutter at work

The Dying Art of Punches

In the small town of Torino, Italy, there is an aged man by the name of Giuseppe Branchino. In many ways, he represents the Old World aesthetic: smoking a cigarette and drinking hand-crafted espresso, he goes about his profession: letter punching. The art, a dying breed, is as old as the printing press, but as the world moves from the printed page to the computer screen, people like Mr. Branchino are finding their work automated and digitized.

Mr. Branchino, you see, is one of the world’s last punch cutters, the very old art of carving letterforms into small steel billets for use in printing presses. He is the man that makes fonts a physical reality, meticulously carving tiny letters into steel bases to be used in printing presses. The work itself is gruelling and requires the patience of all the saints in the Vatican. Essentially, it involves making tiny, miniscule letters in steel billets. Each letter only takes a few minutes, if done correctly and without any problems, but the pages have to be then set for the printing presses.

Once the head of the prestigious engraving department at type foundry and printing press manufacturer Nebiolo, Mr. Branchino continues his work in his own workshop. He is one of a dwindling few around the world who still carve the tiny letters for printing presses, and his craft will likely be a fun hobby for even fewer within a decade. Nevertheless, he continues his work and creates small, unappreciated beauty with the written word.

While Mr. Branchino’s profession may be going the way of the dodo, his actual work has been documented in a new film directed by Giorgio Affanni and Gabriele Chiappari called “The Last Punchcutter.” The film, which talks to Mr. Branchino about his work, the craft, and the history of letter punching and typesetting, is part of a larger project called “Griffo, the Great Gala of Letters.” The multidisciplinary project is about Francesco Griffo, a 15th-century Venetian punch cutter and type designer who is perhaps most famous for creating the world’s first italics type. Griffo, having lived over 500 years ago, is still an influential figure in modern font creation and typesetting, but his biography remains muddled and inconclusive. But by looking at the history of letter punching, the Griffo project helps to make many of the details more concrete.

Meanwhile, Giuseppe Branchino continues to soldier on, creating the tiny letters that form the basis of our written communication. And while his job is becoming less necessary in the modern age of computer screens, his work is still extremely important. For without the letter punchers, our world would not have the widespread information it has, nor the history that those letters help create through our many written languages.

sten & lex painting a mural

Artist Bio: Sten & Lex

Stencilling is one of graffiti’s most popular methods, raising to new heights thanks to Banksy, but Banksy was hardly the first person to use stencils in their street art. The technique has been popular in street art for decades for a couple of reasons. First, it cuts down the actual amount of time painting the graffiti, which is pretty advantageous when you don’t want to be arrested for making art. The second is the high level of detail that stencilling provides, which can help with the generally imprecise tools of spray paint that graffiti artists generally use. And while Banksy may currently be the most famous stenciller in the world, he owes a great debt to two Italian artists who go by the name of Sten & Lex.

Sten & Lex were both born in Italy and grew up in Rome and Taranto. Their work has been showcased around the world and currently is on the streets of New York, Madrid, and their hometown of Rome. As one of stencil graffiti’s most prominent artists, they have become famous for their detailed work that has, up until recently, almost exclusively dealt in stencilling.

fantastic stencil mural from sten & lex

Stencilling is a form of art that uses cut outs of a design, the stencil, to paint without the need to do the lines by hand. An artist creates the stencil, which is an inverse of the design they wish to make, and puts it over the surface they want to paint. They then spray over the stencil and remove it once they’re finished, leaving the intended design on the surface with little to no spillover.

Sten & Lex were one of the first Italian street artists to use stencilling in their work, but they also pioneered the “halftone stencil” technique, which is when “the greater part of their stencil portraits is composed of thousands of lines,” leading to more complex stencils that can contain a greater amount of detail.

sten & lex stencil artwork

Sten & Lex’s art has traditionally focused on portraiture, choosing anonymous individuals or people they’ve found in their own family photo albums as subjects. Thanks to their methodology, the portraits have a level of detail that many artists envy. Their works have varied from near-photorealism to abstract, but they have also recently turned their attention to other subjects beyond that of portraits. In 2013, they started creating very abstract works, again using stencils, that ranged from plants that also look like fireworks to optical illusions on the sides of buildings. While the artwork remains detailed and still uses stencils, Sten & Lex have also moved it past their usual styles.

sten & lex stencil of man on building with tie

Sten & Lex are an important moment in graffiti art, not just in their home country of Italy, but around the world. Their pioneering work in halftone stencils brought a new level of detail and sophistication to the art style, and their continued exploration of different subjects continues to push the envelope. Banksy may be the world’s most famous stenciller, but Sten & Lex laid an extremely important foundation and continue to develop the techniques that others have drawn from.