The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Skywriting Day *

* (restored)


‘Skywriting is the process of using a small aircraft, able to expel special smoke during flight, to fly in certain patterns to create writing readable by someone on the ground. The message can be a frivolous or generally meaningless greeting or phrase, an advertisement aimed at everyone in the vicinity, a general public display of celebration or goodwill, or a personal message such as a marriage proposal or birthday wish.

‘The typical smoke generator consists of a pressurized container holding a low viscosity oil such as Chevron/Texaco “Canopus 13” (formerly “Corvus Oil”). The oil is injected into the hot exhaust manifold causing it to vaporize into a huge amount of dense white smoke. Writing occurs usually at altitudes from 7,000-17,000 ft. When paraffin oil is used in the process, it vaporizes at 1500° in the heat of the plane’s exhaust and is environmentally safe.

‘Skywriting is never a permanent process. Wind and dispersal of the smoke cause the writing to blur, usually within a few minutes. However special “skytyping” techniques have been developed to write in the sky in a dot-matrix fashion, and are legible for longer despite the inevitable blurring effect caused by wind.’ — collaged


Skywriting the Voodoo Fest 2016 headliners over City Park


The Lost Art of Skywriting

‘In 1922, one pilot staged a “smoke casting” demonstration over Times Square, writing a giant phone number into the sky. (Operators at the hotel on the other end of the line said they received more than 47,000 calls in under three hours. Two years later, another pilot made the first U.S. attempt at skywriting using pink and orange smoke. “Remember Flag Day” was to be scrawled for nine miles across the skies above Manhattan in June 1924.

‘Skywriting became a sensation. Brands like Pepsi, Ford, Chrysler, and Lucky Strike flocked to the skies. Planes left trails of letters like “LSMFT,” the well-known acronym that stood for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” In 1940 alone, Pepsi scribbled some 2,225 skywritten messages over 48 states, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, and South America, according to the Smithsonian.

‘But as the practice became more common, people began the kind of handwringing that new technology so often prompts. Mainly, they began to wonder if maybe things were better before skywriting appeared.

‘The New York Times called the practice “celestial vandalism,” describing a future in which the skies would be so smoke-choked that apartment dwellers on high floors would have to keep their windows closed. (One might argue that seeing Lucky Strike’s letters in the sky was far less irritating than hearing them shouted repeatedly in television commercials, an approach that came in later decades.)

‘There was talk of cloud slicing machines that would allow for skywriting in any weather. Engineers worked to develop glowing letters for nighttime skywriting. Reporters predicted the skydrawing of elaborate illustrated ads, envisioning enormous shoes and automobiles splashed across the sky. Extraordinary palettes of colored smoke would brighten the sky in vivid reds and electric greens, they said.

‘Pilots dabbled in color but it never worked as well as simple white. And for all the hype, skywriting fell out of favor in a matter of decades. Americans may have been dazzled by what some called “smoke casting,” but it was no match for the broadcast technology that was being developed at the same time: Television. Clear TV reception was no guarantee in those days, but skywriting was completely dependent on fine weather.

‘”We have to have blue skies,” said Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, an Oregon-based pilot who runs one of the last remaining full-time skywriting businesses in the country. “You couldn’t say, ‘I am definitely going to write at noon on Friday over Times Square,’ because it might be cloudy or it might be snowing. And even if you could, you couldn’t really say how many people actually saw it.”

‘The allure of better reaching distinct audiences pushed advertisers to TV rather than to skywriting. Radio and print were already defaults. And there were other limitations to buying ad spots in the sky. In 1961, The New York Times described a skywriter who sloppily put out a message that didn’t make sense, only to fly back up, strike a line through the thing, and begin again.’ — SKYWriter


Sky Billboards (1935) Skywriters

Skywriting with Americas Last First Generation Skywriter

Bruce Nauman Skywriting in Pasadena

Write Sky Project

‘Cloud’, by Ron English


How Does Skywriting Work?

‘Skywriting is done by one plane that can generally write up to six characters, with a skilled pilot at times maneuvering upside down as they decide when smoke is needed for the letters. Five to seven planes are needed for longer messages (up to thirty characters) so that the entire message is visible at once. The smoke is usually created by judiciously spraying paraffin oil directly on the hot engine manifold near the tail section of the plane. The pilot decides when smoke is needed to draw one section of a letter at a time. A spotter on the ground may also assist the pilot during trickier maneuvers. A letter can be as high as one mile and take 60-90 seconds to create. A message can stretch up to fifteen miles.

‘Single plane skywriting has largely been replaced by multi-plane ‘skytyping’, a computer-controlled method involving timed puffs of smoke from a synchronized row of aircraft. Smoke is emitted in a series of bursts, like dots. A computer generates the master plan and electronic signals control the smoke output. The blurring of the smoke makes the desired end effect. The choreography involved in traditional skywriting can be challenging. Modern skytyping, on the other hand, requires a steady formation but no letter writing maneuvers. Puffs of smoke are released according to a master program in a computer. This method allows for simple graphics and more elaborate messages, even if it lacks the derring-do aspect of traditional skywriting.’ — collaged


Skytyping (0:31)Sky Typing #2


How and When Was Skywriting Discovered

‘Most sources attribute the development of skywriting (1922) to John C. Savage, an Englishman. In that year, Captain Cyril Turner wrote “Daily Mail” over England and “Hello USA” over New York. The American Tobacco Co. then picked up the technique for their Lucky Strike cigarettes. The first skywriting for advertising was also in 1922. Skywriting continued to grow in popularity as both an advertising medium and a personal message service. Customers could request anything from “Eat at Joe’s” to “Will You Marry Me?” Messages and slogans would naturally have to remain short, but even a simple phone number could generate a lot of curious potential customers for a small investment. The expansion of the national highway system after WWII spelled the beginning of the end for the skywriting industry. Instead of posting a few words in a fickle sky, advertisers could now fill entire billboards with all sorts of graphics. A captive audience of thousands would pass by these new placards every day, unlike the precious few who would encounter a typical skywriting message. Many aerial advertising companies turned to permanent banners pulled behind low-flying aircraft instead.’ — SH


Vik Muniz ‘Cloud Cloud’

A few years ago, New Yorkers could have looked up into the sky over Manhattan and seen something truly quite odd: a cloud. But it wasn’t just any cloud. It was a drawing of a cloud made by a skywriting plane: a cloud made out of clouds. Brazilian conceptual artist Vik Muniz called it “Cloud Cloud, NY.” Not only was it an ideal opportunity to underscore the fleeting nature of the images we see everyday, Muniz’s cloud was another of example of the way these images can have double meanings.

Photos, information, & more videos of ‘Cloud Cloud’


Sky Tagged Over New York to Defend Arts

‘New Yorkers who looked up from stoop sales, soccer games, and strolls across the Brooklyn Bridge saw graffiti artist and fine artist Saber flying five planes in formation across sunny Sunday skies with messages castigating the presidential candidate for his plans to kill funding for cornerstone arts programs like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Public Radio (NPR), the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

‘As one of a handful of high profile graffiti/street artists in the US who have taken the national stage with their social and political commentary, Saber has “gone big” before, but never on this scale and never over New York City in an hour and a half display that he estimated could be seen over a 20 mile radius. “NYC is the art center of the world,” Saber says, “It is quite a good feeling to be able to spread this public message.”’ — Brooklyn Street Art


How to Hire a Skywriter

‘Find a skywriting service in the Yellow Pages or on the Internet. Some skywriters will fly in from out of state for a bit more money if there’s no skywriting service in your area. Figure out your budget. Messages run approximately $800 for up to 30 letters in your local area. Out-of-town rates are normally $1,000 for up to 30 letters plus expenses. Most skywriters can write up to 35 normal-size letters per flight. Hiring a skywriter can be done year-round, even in cold climates. If possible, plan for September and October, which tend to be the best weather months in most areas of the United States.’ — SH


The dying art of Skywriting and the story of one company still doing it.


Lecture on the History of Skywriting: Anne Carson


Prudence Peiffer ‘Sky Writing’


25th. Septr 1821 about from 2 to 3 afternoon, looking to the north—Strong Wind at west, bright light coming through the Clouds which were lying one on another.

‘These jotted notes are on the back of a cloud study in oil on paper by John Constable dominated by dark, smoky clouds blotting out most of the sky and piling up like pillows. Red paint is employed as primer, and the clouds are teased up from that dark surface, smudged with the flat side of a brush in bold strokes of chiaroscuro. The overlapping colors give the sky an infinite depth and emphasize the reality that even as Constable was painting the scene its clouds and colors were shifting. As Constable wrote at the time, “We have had noble clouds & effects of light & dark & color—as is always the case in such seasons as the present.”

‘When John Constable went “skying” in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century, paintbox resting on his knees, paper pinned to its lid, oils at his side, it was not merely to produce small sketches of clouds as exercises for the background of his larger “finished” paintings. These squares of sky, with careful notes about location, time and conditions scribbled on their backs, read today as surprisingly modern works that hover between minute documentation and textured abstraction. They are executed quickly, the paint applied in thick swaths and deliberate strokes as Constable followed the clouds across his own scumbled surface; in stormy skies, the studies take on a violent realism that led Constable’s friend Leslie to remark that “Fuseli wished for an umbrella when standing before one of Constable’s showers.”

‘These cloud studies are objective yet Romantic mappings of the sky fraught with anxieties felt by the artist in placing so much faith in a piece of air. The clouds can also be read, as Constable seemed to encourage in his many metaphorical attachments to the sky, as symbolic of thoughts themselves passing across the mind. William Wordsworth, Constable’s contemporary, took such philosophy to the extreme when he wandered “lonely as a cloud” through his poem “Daffodils.”

‘In celebrating the nature of clouds through a combination of scientific rigor and sentient experience, Constable created a fixed system for recording the epitome of transience in nature. These paintings emerged in part out of Constable’s working through of the world’s mutability, where “no two days are alike not even two hours, and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.” (the entirety)


The precarious future of “Skytyping”

‘Skytyping is the fancier version of skywriting, and it requires five planes flying in formation, rather than just the one plane used for skywriting. The method was patented by Andy Stinis in 1964 and has been protected so fiercely by the Stinis family — Andy’s son, Greg, and grandson, Stephen, run the business Skytypers Inc. now — that it might die along with Stinis’s heirs.

‘“It sounds selfish I guess, but when you have a unique business you like to keep it that way,” Greg Stinis told Chase Purdy at Quartz. And “once he’s gone,” Purdy reports, the business “will fall almost entirely to his son, who has no children of his own.”

‘But even before that, the Skytypers successor is shifting his attention away from “the subtleties of old-fashioned skywriting” and toward “brainstorming ways to produce custom logos in the sky, or glow-in-the-dark smoke.”

‘Everything is a metaphor.’ — Taylor Sperry







p.s. Hey. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Thank you kindly. And about my forehead, which is sans bandage now, and no one has screamed upon looking at me (so far). There are a handful of classic, yearly home haunts in SoCal that we’ll definitely take the design guy to, but there are always new ones, and new ones tend to be the most amateurish and homemade, so we’ll find and hit a bunch of those. And, since it’ll be Halloween time, there’ll be a lot of pop-up Halloween prop and decoration stores running, which will be really helpful to accrue stuff. Here’s to 20 years of family member invisibility! Oh, you’re so right, it would be an even better world if ‘Forever Young’ never existed. My ears are comatose just thinking about it. Ha ha, I’ve only seen, I think, three episodes of the first season of ‘American Horror Story’, and it seemed kind of okay, but I do hear it’s been all downhill since then. Love causing every casting agent in Hollywood to agree to a general rule that they will never take Lady Gaga’s agent’s phone calls, G. ** Billy, Thanks, Billy. Oh, man, that heatwave terminology critique was a scary and logical truthism right there. So sorry about your current temperature-based suffering. I’ll be in your boat starting tomorrow. Thus, triumph is an iffy goal, but I’ll give it such a shot. You too, man. ** David Ehrenstein, I don’t know ‘Horrors Of The Black Museum’ and I think I simply must know it, so thank you. ** Gus Cali Girls, Howdy, Gus! Oh, nice, about the film festival. I’ll seek out ‘History of Ha’ as soon as later today, internet resources allowing. And I’ll tell my collaborator Gisele who will lose her mind at the prospect. Wow, I really, really want to see Charlie Shackleton’s ‘Afterlight’, and it sounds like I so, so never will unless I really keep my eyes peeled. All films do seem to end up in Paris at some point. Sounds amazing. I saw ‘Evolution’ when it came out. Honestly, I really like Lucile (I know her), and I think she’s really talented, but her films always seem to me to end up being kind of empty exercises in gloomy atmospherics, so, by the ends of them, I always feel let down. But I’ll try ‘Evolution’ again. I could easily just be missing some crucial boat in her work. Yes, ‘Autonomy’! Exactly, total ear worm of mine of late. I love his voice. Wow, have big fun, and if you feel like it, let me know if you see anything else that you think I should beeline towards. Thanks a lot! Big up! ** _Black_Acrylic, ‘Color Me Blood Red’ is one of his best, I think, thanks to whole art thing, or mostly thanks anyway. I haven’t heard of that TV series. I saw a documentary film about Woodstock ’99 that was pretty interesting. I don’t have Netflix, but it’ll probably pop up on soap2day. ** Bill, Thanks, B. I didn’t know you were a fan of ‘The Wolf House’, but it’s true that I am not surprised. Enjoy your interesting houseguest. What have you guys gotten up to? ** Russ Healy, Thanks. It’s fun to search that stuff out. Addictive, I guess I would say. Yes, I will about the paper, and thank you again. The film stuff is heating up and sidelining everything else, but I’ll find the time. Have a fine, fine day. ** Okay. I liked this old, dead post enough that I used my godlike powers to resurrect it, and that’s that, I guess. It’s good though, right? I’m not delusional, right? See you tomorrow.


  1. Steve Erickson

    A few weeks ago, I was walking around the East Village and saw a skywriter gradually create the shapes of letters. I got home before he’d written more than three, so I’m not sure what he was trying to write.

    I had a very rough night, culminating in a panic attack. It’s 7 AM in NYC, and I’m still awake.

    I downloaded EARWIG and plan to watch it in the next few days. No one seems that enthusiastic about it, but I’ve enjoyed her work.

  2. David Ehrenstein

    Ol’ Buttermilk Sky

  3. Jeff J

    Hey Dennis,
    Enjoyed the skywriting post. Beautiful angles for many of those images. Love the idea of the 8-mile message, too.

    Got Covid last week, severe case and slowly recovering from that. It continues the parade of indignities I’m trying to pretend isn’t happening, including last month’s car accident and house break-in.

    Julian Calendar show went well. The set of new songs really connected with people, which was the main concern. Everyone was very enthusiastic. We played with a cool band from Atlanta who invited us down there to do a gig with them this fall, which I think is going to happen.

    I saw NYRB just reissued Claude Simon’s The Flanders Road, which has been OOP for ages. Maybe worth a post? I think it’s the first nouveau roman they’ve done. It doesn’t seem to be getting much attention.

    I watched new doc on “Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground Scene” which was fascinating. Have you seen it? Great clips of “Christmas on Earth” and explains the various ways she designed it to be projected. Had no idea she later became Hassidic.

  4. Misanthrope

    Dennis, Well, you know me, always scared to jinx myself. But…yes, per our CDC, I’m no longer contagious. I was able to get to the grocery store really quickly yesterday. Other than that the low-grade fever and some headache/body aches the first couple days, I’ve been getting on pretty well. And really, acetaminophen took care of those things. So…fingers crossed that I haven’t jinxed myself and will have a horrible rebound or something.

    So, everyone in the family got it, even Kayla, who got vaxxed and boosted. She had to cancel her cruise that was set to begin on Friday. Weirdly, she didn’t really want to go and was looking for an excuse to back out…she just didn’t want it to be covid, of course.

    Otherwise, I’m just taking it really easy. Been reading a lot, a little internet, a little TV, naps, etc. For some reason, I still feel like I’m not out of the woods yet. That’s probably me being a little paranoid, but whatevs.

    Oh, and my birthday’s Wednesday. So that’s gonna suck, hahaha. No biggie.

  5. _Black_Acrylic

    There’s an Italo for this one: Neon – Skydiver

    Actually spoke to the solicitors this evening and it seems the purchase of my new flat may finally be happening this week! Been like getting blood out of a stone, I must say. Meanwhile here at East Leeds Recovery Hub I’ve settled into a new morning routine of cornflakes for breakfast and old episodes of Frasier with the sound off, just enjoying the physical comedy.

  6. Dominik


    You always talk about Halloween so enthusiastically that I find myself wanting to go to the US to celebrate it each time. I’ve never been to a home haunt in my life, and most events around here are so… basic.

    The first season of “American Horror Story” was good, I think – in that it had this typical horror story mood, and at least a few of the main characters were great. The second season was also good up until its very end. And all the others… they’ve just been getting progressively worse each year. Whoever casts the characters has an eye for beautiful boys, though. I have to give them that, haha.

    What, oh, what will become of Lady Gaga like that?! Love sitting in his little plane, starting to write “I LOVE YOU” in the sky, but he gets a seizure and writes “NR893T3LCKJEK” instead, Od.

  7. Robert

    This is fantastic! Had no idea skywriting was on the verge of becoming such a huge thing back in the day. I grew up next to an airport and I’ve been obsessed with planes ever since I was a little kid. (I think “airpwane” was my first word.) I still get this little thrill whenever I drive by an airport close enough to see the small propeller planes up close. There’s something really satisfying about how chunky and thick and tangible they look.

    How have you been?

  8. Bill

    I always feel very calm and contemplative when looking at sky writing.

    Mondays are not great for showing a visitor around. But my houseguest and I ate some good okonomiyaki pancakes, and watched a few episodes of her favorite anime series:

    Yesterday’s horror show was quite a treasure trove. I really like Tomoo Gokita’s paintings. The Bodysuits are such a simple idea, but so creepy. I’ve seen The Lure, highly entertaining. Miwa Yanagi’s Fairy Tales also look familiar, maybe you’ve had some of her work here earlier? And I have to chase down more of Monica Cook’s Milk Tooth, wow.

    Have you seen this marvelous short, from the Wolf House team?

    Not sure if it’s still on MUBI though.


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