ASCII art | Digital art glossary



ASCII art is a graphic design technique that uses computers for presentation and consists of pictures pieced together from the 95 printable (from a total of 128) characters defined by the ASCII Standard from 1963 and ASCII compliant character sets with proprietary extended characters (beyond the 128 characters of standard 7-bit ASCII). The term is also loosely used to refer to text based visual art in general. ASCII art can be created with any text editor, and is often used with free-form languages. Most examples of ASCII art require a fixed-width font (non-proportional fonts, as on a traditional typewriter) such as Courier for presentation.

Among the oldest known examples of ASCII art are the creations by computer-art pioneer Kenneth Knowlton from around 1966, who was working for Bell Labs at the time. “Studies in Perception I” by Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon from 1966 shows some examples of their early ASCII art.

ASCII art was invented, in large part, because early printers often lacked graphics ability and thus characters were used in place of graphic marks. Also, to mark divisions between different print jobs from different users, bulk printers often used ASCII art to print large banner pages, making the division easier to spot so that the results could be more easily separated by a computer operator or clerk. ASCII art was also used in early e-mail when images could not be embedded.


Typewriter art

Since 1867, typewriters have been used for creating visual art.


TTY stands for “TeleTYpe” or “TeleTYpewriter”, and is also known as Teleprinter or Teletype. RTTY stands for Radioteletype; character sets such as Baudot code, which predated ASCII, were used. According to a chapter in the “RTTY Handbook”, text images have been sent via teletypewriter as early as 1923. However, none of the “old” RTTY art has been discovered yet. What is known is that text images appeared frequently on radioteletype in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Line-printer art

In the 1960s, Andries van Dam published a representation of an electronic circuit produced on an IBM 1403 line printer. At the same time, Kenneth Knowlton was producing realistic images, also on line printers, by overprinting several characters on top of one another. Note that it was not ASCII art in a sense that the 1403 was driven by an EBCDIC-coded platform and the character sets and trains available on the 1403 were derived from EBCDIC rather than ASCII, despite some glyphs commonalities.


The widespread usage of ASCII art can be traced to the computer bulletin board systems of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The limitations of computers of that time period necessitated the use of text characters to represent images. Along with ASCII’s use in communication, however, it also began to appear in the underground online art groups of the period. An ASCII comic is a form of webcomic which uses ASCII text to create images. In place of images in a regular comic, ASCII art is used, with the text or dialog usually placed underneath.

During the 1990s, graphical browsing and variable-width fonts became increasingly popular, leading to a decline in ASCII art. Despite this, ASCII art continued to survive through online MUDs, an acronym for “Multi-User Dungeon”, (which are textual multiplayer role-playing video games), Internet Relay Chat, Email, message boards and other forms of online communication which commonly employ the needed fixed-width.


ASCII and more importantly, ANSI were staples of the early technological era; terminal systems relied on coherent presentation using color and control signals standard in the terminal protocols.

Over the years, warez groups began to enter the ASCII art scene. Warez groups usually release .nfo files with their software, cracks or other general software reverse-engineering releases. The ASCII art will usually include the warez group’s name and maybe some ASCII borders on the outsides of the release notes, etc.

BBS systems were based on ASCII and ANSI art, as were most DOS and similar console applications, and the precursor to AOL.


ASCII art is used wherever text can be more readily printed or transmitted than graphics, or in some cases, where the transmission of pictures is not possible. This includes typewriters, teleprinters, non-graphic computer terminals, printer separators, in early computer networking (e.g., BBSes), email, and Usenet news messages. ASCII art is also used within the source code of computer programs for representation of company or product logos, and flow control or other diagrams. In some cases, the entire source code of a program is a piece of ASCII art – for instance, an entry to one of the earlier International Obfuscated C Code Contest is a program that adds numbers, but visually looks like a binary adder drawn in logic ports.

Some electronic schematic archives represent the circuits using ASCII art.

Examples of ASCII-style art predating the modern computer era can be found in the June 1939, July 1948 and October 1948 editions of Popular Mechanics.

Early computer games played on terminals frequently used ASCII art to simulate graphics, most notably the roguelike genre using ASCII art to visually represent dungeons and monsters within them. “0verkill” is a 2D platform multiplayer shooter game designed entirely in color ASCII art. MPlayer and VLC media player can display videos as ASCII art through the AAlib library. ASCII art is used in the making of DOS-based ZZT games.

Many game walkthrough guides come as part of a basic .txt file; this file often contains the name of the game in ASCII art. Such as below, word art is created using backslashes and other ASCII values in order to create the illusion of 3D.

“ASCII_art” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, n.d.

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