The View From LA: exploring the cultural impact of Boyz n the Hood, and its iconic title graphics

Our LA correspondent explores the 1991 film’s influential visual world, and chats to graphic designer Brent Rollins about the inspirations behind its jazz-inspired logo.

The View From... is a column on It’s Nice That written by a team of international correspondents in major creative cities around the world. Every two weeks we’ll report on the design scene in these cities, exploring the topics that are making an impact on the local creative community there. This week, Meg Farmer reports from Los Angeles.

South of Olympic Boulevard

The corner of Cimmaron and 59th in South Central Los Angeles unveils a poignant story, a revolution in cinema and a remarkable visual legacy of Black culture and graphic design. John Singleton’s debut Boyz n the Hood (1991) follows three young Black men coming of age as they navigate the tense realities of their environment – violence, gangs, police brutality, poverty, and drugs. Ultimately, the film asks: What path are you going to take?

Now, you can look closer: The Academy Museum is spotlighting Boyz, and its groundbreaking portrait of Black life in South Central. Sharing production ephemera and set photographs by photojournalist D. Stevens, the exhibition honours the film’s lasting legacy.


Boyz n the Hood exhibition photographs courtesy of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures


Boyz n the Hood exhibition photographs courtesy of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

The archives sprawl against a backdrop of bold environmental graphics that nod to the neighbourhood along with a pastel mural highlighting the film’s location – a palette inspired by the film’s painted homes and the Seoul to Seoul Realty billboard. Strikingly, the exhibition’s title panel is a blown-up version of the film’s indelible logo artwork, designed by Brent Rollins, who linked up with Singleton through mutual friends while the script was being developed. They were students cultivating completely new fruit.

In Boyz, Singleton crafts an immediacy and vividness that sidesteps much of traditional Hollywood. “The film industry really hadn’t filmed south of Olympic Boulevard at this time in 1991,” says Esme Douglas, the former curatorial assistant of the Academy Museum. To show South Central on film was novel alone.

Thom Anderson’s 2003 video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, unravels how Los Angeles has historically been depicted on screen, calling out a fatal flaw: the inability to represent the city in its true form. He articulates, “For me it’s [Hollywood’s] betrayal of the native city.”


The Exiles, Kent Mackenzie (1961)

L.A. Rebellion

Key film movements precede Boyz, which Singleton likely studied at USC. 1961’s The Exiles, by pioneer filmmaker Kent Mackenzie, shows a real slice of Los Angeles and its people, following young Native Americans who move from the reservation to the Bunker Hill area.

15 years later, neorealist filmmakers enter the scene. They were Black and became the LA Rebellion film movement, representing a new generation of young African and African-American filmmakers who studied at the UCLA Film School in the late-1960s to late-1980s.

Haile Gerima, who was born in Ethiopia, created Bush Mama in 1975, showing for the first time police brutality from the perspective of Black people in South Los Angeles. Charles Burnett, from Mississippi, wrote, filmed, edited and produced Killer of Sheep in 1978, which depicts the culture of urban African-Americans in LA’s Watts district. And Texan-born Billy Woodbury’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983) takes a drive past the Goodyear Factory on South Central Avenue – which until its closing in 1980, provided jobs for the Black working class of LA.

The LA Rebellion marks the first time Black filmmakers began to break from the industry’s depiction of Black life. Anderson explains: “Black filmmakers responded by emphasising families and children.” The realism in Boyz does the same. In a 2016 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Singleton notes, “In film School they always say, write what you know. And what do I know? I know South Central Los Angeles.”


Bless Their Little Hearts, Billy Woodbury (1983)


Bush Mama, Haile Gerima (1975)

A tenuous film connection

It was a tenuous connection to film that brought a young Singleton and a young Rollins together. Rollins’ Father worked in the industry as a screenwriter. Rollins also recently appeared in the 1989 artwork for Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. (That’s him standing in orange socks and Jordan IV’s in the top right corner.) This led to Rollins apprenticing under Art Sims, sketching the concept for what became the title design for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. It was his only professional project before hand-lettering Boyz.

Rollins and Singleton also shared a deeper tie: they were both Black creators. Rollins explains, “Being a child of the 70s, you’re raised with an awareness of what came before you. I was aware of how Black anything was presented to the public.” The two clicked. Being young creatives in L.A., listening to the same music, and witnessing the same cultural moments, they strengthened one another’s talents.

This was around the time Spike Lee’s film She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and School Days (1988) came out. “There was an excitement around the idea of Black film because there had been this dearth, post-Blacksploitation from 77-87,” notes Rollins. “There weren't a lot of opportunities for Black filmmakers prior to that. John Singleton, being a storyteller, was inspired by Spike Lee by virtue of his visibility but also his independence and Spike’s own cinematic militantness. John wanted to do the same thing for Los Angeles.”


Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee (1989)

Representing South Central

The screenplay, which Singleton wrote in the fall of 1989 at USC as his thesis, would become a watershed first film, capturing a chapter of design history that is overlooked academically, but is no doubt a milestone in our visual history. Rollins’ hand-lettered artwork, paired with the characters’ fashion style, and the car culture, defines the visual culture of early 90s South Central, which rocketed into influence and persists today.

Writer Brendan Gallagher charts the streetwear fashion legacy of Boyz in his 2017 piece for Grailed, mapping out Singleton’s choices: N.W.A.-inspired snapbacks, bold colours and graphic patterns, denim on denim, and any item representing Compton, Crenshaw, and South Central at large.

Singleton’s art direction is anchored in the realism portrayed in the film. The look is an authentic statement of frustration, rebellion, and showing out for Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles-born streetwear brand Cross Colours, co-founded by Carl Jones and TJ Walker in 1989, celebrated the 30-year anniversary of Boyz n the Hood, issuing a 30-piece collection in collaboration with Sony Pictures. The drop honoured the effect the film’s fashion had on Black filmmakers, creatives, and on American culture. Their motto, “Clothing Without Prejudice,” codified its lasting popularity.


Janette Beckman: NWA outside their recording studio Torrance, CA in 1990. Featured in Rap Portraits & Lyrics of a Generation of Black Rockers by Bill Adler.


Clothing from the official Cross Colours collaboration with Sony Pictures Consumer Products in honour of the 30th anniversary of Columbia Pictures’ film Boyz N The Hood, written and directed by John Singleton. Available at Champs and Nordstrom stores. (Cross Colours)

Boyz n the Hood doesn’t require beautiful typography

The morning Singleton found out Columbia Pictures bought the film, he called Rollins, exclaiming, “They’re Gonna make my film!”

Rollins supported graphics in the production office of Boyz between going to college classes. In the film’s opening, children’s drawings appear to show the reality of their neighbourhood. That’s Rollins’ rendering of an LAPD helicopter and a kid getting shot down by the cops. Then, came the logo artwork, which began as a merch touchpoint.

Rollins recalls: “One of Spike Lee’s geniuses was in promotion and Spike would make these elaborate crew jackets as gifts. John, inspired by that, wanted to make a cool crew jacket and asked me to create a logo for the crew jacket.”

Rollins created several sketches, along with a design for a patch of a peace sign with a fist. Singleton selected what would eventually become the iconic logo artwork for the film’s title design.


Left to Right: friends Doran Reed, Jon Singleton, and Brent Rollins. 1990s. Courtesy of Brent Rollins

While Rollins can’t exact the inspiration for the Boyz artwork, he accounts hip hop as a major one, calling it the “creative apex of the time”. Public Enemy, De La Soul, and N.W.A. were in heavy rotation.

Since he’d been a student of graphic design, Rollins was exposed to foundational designers like Saul Bass and Milton Glaser. More significantly, he grew up around the prolific creative and commercial projects of his father, Bernie Rollins, who was a gifted illustrator, comic book creator, screenwriter, layout designer, and artist.

Of note, Rollins’ father was the art director of the Los Angeles-based magazine, Soul Illustrated, which was born out of the Watts rebellion of 1965, established in 1966 by Regina Jones, who was the only Black female owner of a magazine at the time. The magazine defined what a Black music and art magazine could be well before Rolling Stone (1967) and Right On (1971).

While these visual influences were a north star for Rollins, he realised these commercial approaches were not appropriate for the film, acknowledging, “Boyz n the Hood doesn’t require beautiful typography.”


Brent Rollins: Logo for Boyz n the Hood (Courtesy of Brent Rollins)

On the contrary, his letterforms are like the film: poetic, conscious, raw, and in-your-face. They are megalithic and monumental. Rollins' subtle choices of stacking the words “N” and “The” while also grounding a selection of letters in the words “Boyz” and “Hood” on a low plinth makes the logo feel like Stonehenge – grounded, mesmerising. Every letter’s edge has a unique behaviour, unapologetically towing the line between the precision of commercial hand-lettering and the illegibility of graffiti.

“It’s a mish-mash of new jazz movements that were coming out of New York and London, which were inspired by the funky 60s Jazz typography,” says Rollins. “You see it in Ian Swifts’ Straight No Chaser Magazine (1988-2007). Those graphics also influenced club flyers that I was aware of.”

There is a more sobering tone found in the irregular edges of the letterforms, that echo the hasty tracing of chalk outlines around dead bodies. Rollins explains, “I wanted it to look raw and rough but also considered.” As long as the outline is clear, he’s content.

When Columbia reached out to Rollins to purchase the logo rights, Rollins could understand why. He recalls their dilemma. “How do you market a film about inner city strife? And a part of the city that had not been shown in film or acknowledged by the same industry that it shares its backyard with? It struck me that this logo was the most authentic expression that they see of it.”

The undisputed visual legacy of Boyz

Singleton and Rollins had a wellspring to draw from – hip hop, new jazz, the LA Rebellion, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Bernie Rollins, and of course, Los Angeles. Though young, both had the sophistication to finesse that inspiration, edit it, and visually stick to what resonated with the film’s story.

Rollins admits, “The significance of the film and the distinctiveness of the logo has a longevity that I had no idea would happen, but hoped would happen. You can’t engineer it.”

Nothing about Boyz is engineered. The undisputed originality of every creative decision in the film and its artwork documents Black creative output of the time. No text book or academic journal has done that.

Rollins continues to produce influential work he has a connection to, yet remains humble. He may be the most unknown recognisable designer – from his title design work for the films Poetic Justice and Dead Presidents to his designs for hip hop artists like Blackalicious, Black Star, Gang Starr, Dilated Peoples, and Lyrics Born. He has done creative direction for Complex Media, and worked with cultural giants including Nike, Undefeated, Stones Throw Records, and the 2013 World Cup.

As for the longevity of the Boyz logo? “It’s interesting to see how it’s travelled,” notes Rollins, who keeps a personal photo library of knock-offs. Once shy about receiving credit or shout-outs for the logo, Rollins now owns it. He says, half-jokingly, “It’s the Black Star Wars logo.”

Meg shares her top LA tips: some places to visit if you’re there, and other ways to bring a slice of the city to wherever you are.

  • Follow: Brent Rollins @brentronic and D. Stevens @dstevens2001

  • Visit: Crenshaw Dairy Mart, “home to an artist collective and art gallery dedicated to shifting the trauma-induced conditions of poverty and economic injustice, bridging cultural work and advocacy, and investigating ancestries through the lens of Inglewood and its community”.

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About the Author

Meg Farmer

Meg Farmer is a culture vulture who writes honest criticism framed by the pulse of the day, thorough research and design history. Based in Los Angeles, she is a graduate of the Design Criticism MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, where she received the first Steven Heller Design Research Award for her investigation into the universal symbol for poison and how it once failed. Her fervour for design and the way everyday people use it inspires her to bring design literacy to all. She is It’s Nice That’s LA correspondent.

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