Poets and novelists turn words into pictures. But on the Internet, the world-spanning computer network, a group of people is taking this idea a bit further. They are ASCII artists, devoted to taking the characters found on a typewriter keyboard and drawing Winnie the Pooh, the Mona Lisa or Abraham Lincoln out of arrangements of letters and symbols.
ASCII -- which stands for "American Standard Code for Information Interchange" is a set of 127 letters, numbers and symbols that all computers (and most typewriters) in the country have in common. That makes ASCII code the one way to transfer information between many different kinds of computers. It includes the alphabet, numbers and a pretty complete set of punctuation, but no fractions or fancy graphic characters.
Smaller versions of ASCII art such as ":-)" (turn it sideways and you see a happy face) have become common shorthand for showing moods in the millions of e-mail messages sent every day. But off in their secluded studio in cyberspace (the Internet address is 'rec.arts.ascii'), the true ASCII artists sit and churn out fire-breathing dragons and two-foot-high nudes. They send them to each other in e-mail, put them up on computer bulletin boards and post them in ".plan files" so any Internet user getting information about the artist will see a favorite piece of art.
They're a motley bunch in the virtual studio, mostly amateurs with the occasional professional artist or animator popping in. (There's no money in ASCII art.) Animator Mike Jittlov, who has done TV commercials and worked for Disney, has become something of a cult figure in the ASCII art world due to his popular nude portrait of a woman named Meriday. He even has his own fan club.
ASCII artists pride themselves on their ability to make grand pictures out of, say, the letter "O," the number 8 and the apostrophe. "To do more with less, that's the creed of ASCII artists," says Prabal Nandy, an astrophysics major at Johns Hopkins University.
Most ASCII artists admit, though, that the No. 1 reason for the popularity of the art form is its portability.
"Everyone can see your ASCII art," which tips the scale in its favor for quick-and-dirty drawings, Mr. Nandy says. "Other art must be downloaded and then run through a program before it can be viewed." To send a map to some friends, for instance, would entail a four-step, half-hour process with some computers -- or five minutes of drawing with X's, slashes and equal signs.
The practice of turning words into pictures is nothing new. It stems from the days of teletypes, when wire service operators would keep themselves busy by sending huge, detailed pictures through the Associated Press news wire.
When bored 1960s computer operators would be left staring at their screens, they'd make pictures on their line printers. The computer code needed to draw the pictures would be distributed on stacks of punched cards.
"The widely distributed Mona Lisa card deck would weigh as much as a nice-sized fireplace log -- and it would burn well, too," mused ASCII doodler Douglas Jones, who has a day job as a computer science professor at the University of Iowa.
But now that computers are learning how to deal with "real" pictures, some ASCII artisans are wondering if their art will be rendered obsolete by the very advance of technology that made it possible.
"By the end of this decade, computers, and the Net itself, will be so powerful that ASCII art will no longer be necessary. You will be able to send text, sound, graphics, movies, whatever," says Bob Allison, who is the "zookeeper" of the rec.arts.ascii studio. "But this doesn't mean that ASCII art will no longer exist. Making pictures out of letters existed long before computers, and it will exist long after the Net no longer 'needs' it."