I began composing the following essay sometime around July 5th of last year. I let the project drop as it was taking up all of my time, and I was having some trouble completing it satisfactorily. It has come to my attention that, yet again, someone has pushed another article on the subject with little information. I figured that I might as well return to the topic now, finish up the article and get it over with once and for all. If you can make it through this whole thing, I hope you enjoy the ride.

Don’t lie. You know what I’m talking about. Unless you don’t, in which case you are not one of us, and are instead probably a member of the Pen club. The fifteenth member, I’d guess.

This generic little 14-line shape was drawn by countless children in the days of my youth, and likely in the days of your youth as well. But for many of us, the question of “why” was superceded by the gained ability of drawing this cool-looking thing (and, for many, the coolness derived from teaching other kids how to do it). Yet, as humans grow older, we tend to look back on our childhoods and wonder why we liked this thing or that thing and why we spent so much time on trivial shit like this. Now, with our lives all tangled up in the Internet, we can connect with other people from around the globe and collectively reminisce about said trivial shit. And then we start to notice patterns. Really, really weird patterns. Like how we all drew this s- or 8-shaped thing without really knowing why.

Are you wondering now? Well, so am I. I dedicated a few days to exhaustively scrolling through several Reddit threads, YouTube comments, a forum, and a few blogs, taking each given lead and searching for answers. I’d like to assure you that everything will be cleared up by the end of this essay, but for all the questions it answers, it’s probably just going to raise more that you hadn’t even thought of. What is this mysterious S Thing?

How To Draw It

Before we begin, for the uninitiated, allow me to explain what this is.

First, you draw six lines, like so:

s1

Next, you have to connect these lines to form a letter ‘S’ (or an ‘8’ or chain or what have you).

s2

It’s that simple. A large part of the appeal undoubtedly arises from the simplicity of its design. We’ll get to that later, though. You’ve drawn it, but… what is it?

What Is It?

It’s an ‘S’, obviously. Only a moron would think otherwise. Except for people who see it as an ‘8’, because the line obviously loops around and connects like an ‘8’ would… Or, you know, like a lemniscate, or, more accurately, a Möbius Strip, because only a moron would see this thing as an ‘S’ or an ‘8’ when it is clearly a 2D representation of a one-sided object.

But perhaps it’s an analemma, or a double helix, or a Celtic knot, or the more generic concept of an endless knot? Or maybe it’s just some kind of tribal art?… You know, at this point, it could just be a sweet racecar track.

Or you could extend it and make it into a chain or a border or a bitchin’ sword.

sborder

Or you can use it as the ‘S’ in an equally mysterious, memetic stylized “smile” with a coconut tree ‘I’ or ‘L’.

aUvxono9

Or, for the hungry and Scandinavian, it’s a klenät.

klenatSteinninn

These are all answers given by people who grew up drawing this thing. One person even said that some kid told him it was supposed to be a pair of welding goggles. Alternatively, it’s a doodle of… the tightest buttcheeks ever. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that one was a joke.

In the end, the most commonly given answer is that it’s an ‘S’, with “chain/border”, ‘8’, and general “infinity symbol” following closely behind. Please note that these are the most commonly given answers – the amount of people who are familiar with this thing is unquantifiably but undoubtedly incredibly greater than the amount of people who responded to Reddit threads and other fora spanning the last five years. Before we move on to the theories of its origin, there is one more identifying feature to tackle – its name.
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Names

Maybe you have a name for this thing. Is it the Super S? The Superman S? The Stussy S? Those seem to be some of the more common names. But despite how sure you may be of what this thing should be called, consider the following list of names by which many other people with equal assuredness have attributed to it:

The Power S, the Super S, the Superman S, the Supergirl, the Supersonic S, the Subprime S, the Stussy, the Sushi, the Scooby-Doo S, the Surfer S, the California S, the Skater S, the Heavy Metal S, the Chopper S, the Stoner Symbol, the Street S, the Diamond S, the Crystal S, the Squad, a Cool S, the Sick S, the Psycho S, the Secret S, the Bling Sign, the Swag S, the Magic S, the Graffiti or Klotter S, the Smile, the Joker’s S, the King’s S, the Swiss S, the Chinese S, the American S, the Link, and, my personal favourite, the S Thing.

Do you recognize any of those? It’s entirely possible that I have missed an unverifiable quantity of monickers for this trendy little thing. It’s also possible that you never even thought that it had a name in the first place. Almost certainly, most of you would never have guessed that it would have this many names. The fact of the matter is, though, that the above list was collected from multiple websites, given by numerous people. I encountered most of those names multiple times. Only a few were whispered but once before receding into the echoes of the net.

For the purposes of this essay, I am simply going to refer to it from here on out as the “S Thing”.

Theory – It’s a Brand Logo

If you start a thread in an English-speaking community online and you ask people what this thing is meant to represent, the most common answer would be “It’s a Stüssy S.” You may also encounter those who claim that it’s the ‘S’ from the logos of Slipknot, Styx, Slayer, Samy Deluxe, Skillet, S Club 7, KISS, Black Sabbath, Stoic Snowboarding, Sweet Protection, Senate Skate, Sketchers, or Twisted Sister. “Suzuki” is another common answer, mostly given by older commenters.

Others were told that it was the ‘S Thing’ from the cartoon Gargoyles or Scooby-Doo.

The problem is that few of these logos come close to featuring the “S Thing”, and those that do still do not match the design. It has 12 points and 14 lines, and in its (vastly) most common appearance it ties together “behind” the middle line. Actually, the closest resemblance I found in a brand’s logo was that of Solve Design, but they don’t appear to have been around that long, and it’s obviously not inspired by them. You’ll understand later on.

Now, let’s come back to the oft-parroted response of “Stüssy”. First of all, what is “Stüssy”? Well, Shawn Stüssy, some surfer dude, started selling apparel under his own brand in 1980. According to some, he gave rise to the popularity of branded clothing. By the 90’s, his S-logo’d clothing was popular across the country, raking in $25 million dollars in 1992.

People who grew up in the 90’s knew the brand as something that skaters or cool kids or posers would wear. They also claim that they saw or owned Stüssy shirts or hats that had the “S Thing” emblazoned across it. The problem here is that, if you do a Google search, you will never find any article of clothing that has the “S Thing” on it. Actually, you may find one shirt. It is a shirt by a completely different brand who designed it just five years ago based on the phenomenon.

When confronted with this evidence, some people backpedal and claim that the “S Thing” came from Stüssy’s “original design”, back when the brand was operating in California alone. However, they still fail to provide any evidence of such a claim. Some may site the following video as “evidence” that the “S Thing” came from Stüssy:

However, this video was just made in 2009, by a marketer named Amanda Krampf. I sincerely doubt that Krampf was involved with Stüssy back in the early 80’s, and the only reference to the “S Thing” is in a hand drawing which is clearly meant to evoke memories of children drawing it.

Allow me to take a moment to diverge from the current line of thought in order to make a point. Trust me, this is relevant. Many people remember that, in the 90’s, it was “cool” to add a little jester hat with bells on the ends of it to the top of the “S Thing”. I distinctly remember something like this as well. They looked something like this (sometimes, the bells were replaced with 8 balls):

After doing some searching, I found something that ties this fad back into Stüssy. Behold, Stüssy shirts with crowns on them:

Given that other Stüssy shirts had 8 balls on them, and others had jokers, it seems reasonable that either some elements were conflated, and/or there was a Stüssy shirt similar to the crown one depicted above, but with a jester’s hat instead. However, again, look at the ‘S’ on that shirt. It is still not the same as the “S Thing”.

Based on what we’ve learned, I’ve compiled a list of points relating to the “brand” angle of the “S Thing’s” origins:

  • Many brands used similar styles of an ‘S’, often resembling a Germanic font, and so they appear similar to the “S Thing”.
  • Commenters from each decade have a tendency to cite a different brand as the source of the “S Thing”. 90’s kids cite Stüssy. 70’s kids cite Suzuki.
  • The range of brand, band, and general logo “origins” for the “S Thing” seems to be unlimited by genre or region.

It is, therefore, my conclusion that the “S Thing’s” association with brands is simply a general matter of children misattributing things to that which is familiar to them. A child who was really into Stüssy would try to connect the “S Thing” to Stüssy. A child who was really into Scooby-Doo would try to connect the “S Thing” to Scooby-Doo. The same goes for Suzuki and Slipknot and so on and so forth. As these children grew older and their memories grew distant, their minds solidified these notions to the point of denial. The mind is a funny thing – we can actually concoct false memories so long as we believe in them. So, for example, I previously stated that I remembered having seen the jester-hat-wearing-S, but I cannot accurately describe if it was indeed a jester hat or if it was a crown, and whether I saw some kid sketching it or if I saw it on a shirt.

Alright, with this matter out of the way, let’s answer some new questions that I’ve surely brought up: where in the world do kids draw this thing, and just how long has it been around?
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How Old Is It?

Many people seem to believe that the “S Thing” originated in the 1990’s, but that’s a typical assumption to make. People who grew up in the 80’s like to get mad at this “self-centered generation” right before they claim that the “S Thing” arose in their own generation. And then they’re proven to be just as wrong.

This guy claims to have drawn it in the 80’s, and this guy goes as far to say that kids often used it to represent the ‘8’ in their graduating years. This person’s mother grew up drawing in the 1970’s… in Germany.

Multiple people who grew up in the late 60’s and early 70’s said that they always assumed it was the Suzuki symbol, giving further credence to my theory that kids of each era, in an attempt to rationalize the meaning of the “S Thing”, simply attribute it to whatever band or brand of their time is a close approximation. Shit, this Hawaiian even says that he/she drew the “S Thing” in the late 60’s and early 70’s… thinking, again that it was the Suzuki logo, and also implying a belief that it originated in Hawaii. If all this is not enough to show you just how readily people will assume that a trend started with them, I don’t know what else to tell you.

Actually, on a second thought, I do. This person claims to have drawn it in fourth grade in 1963, this person’s mom drew it in the 60’s, and this person drew it in the 60’s, and had an older brother who already seemed to be familiar with it before that. This fellow’s comments are particularly interesting because he asserts that his 62-year-old grandfather taught him how to draw the “S Thing” back in 1996. Assuming that the grandfather learned to draw the thing at the average age – around 14 years – that would place his exposure to the “S Thing” way back in the late 40’s/early 50’s. Holy shit.

If this site is to be believed (and I am a little wary), the strange symbol was discussed on 4chan some years back. Members allegedly interrogated their relatives and found that people born as early as the 1950’s knew the symbol from their youth. One member said that his or her grandmother produced some letters she wrote to a beau that were signed with the ‘s’, while another claimed that his or her uncle had encountered schoolchildren doodling it while he was serving in Vietnam. Perhaps most strangely, the age at which most claimed to have encountered it was 14, give or take a few years. This could be handwaved by stating that older children keep passing it down to younger children, thus keeping the fad locked into the same grade range within specific schools, but the situation becomes a little more bizarre when you consider where exactly it has been taking place…

Who Draws It?

Maybe you’re American, so you think that only American kids drew this thing. I am here to tell you that you couldn’t be more wrong. In multiple threads across multiple sites, commenters claimed to have grown up in many different countries, and all were exposed to the “S Thing” in some fashion. Here is the long list of locations that I compiled during my research (a full list of sources will be provided at the end):

Australia, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Brazil, Sweden, Trinidad and Tobago, Sharjah, Guam, Mexico, South Africa, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Norway, France, Holland, Scotland, Ireland, Croatia, Syria, England, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Bermuda, Romania, Belgium, Chile, India, Portugal, Cyprus, Angola, Nigeria, Jamaica, Iceland, Russia, Ukraine, and Spain.

That is 42 countries. There are 196 countries in the world. This means that around 21% of the countries in the world have been exposed to the “S Thing”, and this statistic only includes people who happen to speak English, have Internet access, and who chose to respond to various community threads such as Reddit.

This could easily be rationalized if it had been spread so widely in recent years, with the increased globalization of the world, but that is not necessarily the case. Bear in mind the cases reported in Germany and Vietnam, which took place at least as far back as the 70’s. Assuming that this large quantity of unrelated people are not collaborating in the most pointless lie in existence, there has to be some rational explanation for how something so seemingly innocuous could spread with such memetic fervor across the globe as far back as 60 years ago.

The Scholastic Book Theory

Let’s put this one on the table first and foremost before we move along:

This symbol is actually from a puzzle book that was released by Scholastic books. The original puzzle simply showed two rows of three vertical lines, and the challenge was to turn them into the letter S by adding eight more straight lines. Looking at the finished product it looks easy, but when faced with the two rows of three lines it was quite a challenge. Once it was figured out it became something to doodle as a rule. This became wide spread because EVERYBODY used to get Scholastic books in elementary school at one point or another. I bet if I dug around in the attic, I could probably find the original Scholastic puzzler this was in. – ourcadeink

It’s a very appealing theory, and some are inclined to believe it merely for how well it is presented. In a later Reddit thread, this user expanded on this, stating that it was a matchstick puzzle. Though there has been no evidence of this puzzle book, so far as I’m aware, I do vaguely remember something like this when I was in school. But, once again, sightings of the S Thing date back to at least the 60’s. Scholastic was around back then, but was the puzzle? It’s hard to believe without concrete proof, and even with that, it’s hard to believe that it was the originator. It is certainly one of the more plausible theories, though, merely given that Scholastic has been around long enough to account for the known age of the S Thing, and it has enough of a global presence to have potentially made its mark in many different countries.

It is worth noting that several others have also indicated that the S Thing is often presented as a puzzle to the uninitiated, though this, again, does not offer a conclusive origin story.

The Lemniscate Theory

Another origin story for the S Thing places it as a simple lemniscate or Möbius strip. One man who delved into the topic came to the conclusion that the S Thing’s simple design reflects back on the human race’s appreciation for endless knot designs. Another person went into more detail, producing an example image of traditional Grecian border designs which are incredibly similar to elongated versions of the S Thing.

This is also a decent theory, and it may, in fact, account for the creation of the S Thing – the creator(s) could very well have been inspired by this common motif. The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t explain the methodical nature of the S Thing. Although it is not universal, the step-by-step process to drawing the S Thing – draw six lines, then connect them – is common enough to indicate that it is somehow integral.
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The School Logo Theory

This theory is easily dismissable, but let’s examine it for a moment for the sake of completion here. As I stated before, people are quick to assume that trends started with them or their own close-knit groups of friends. So, of course, a lot of kids who grew up in towns and/or schools with a prominent ‘S’ in their names attribute the S Thing to their hometowns.

These include, but are surely not limited to, Stoman High School in Victoria, Texas, the Syracuse Orange basketball team, Smith Town (seriously, it is just a town), Spryfield neighborhood (seriously, it is just a neighborhood), Spencer Rockets, the Solon Spartans, St. Michaels Catholic School, and another town called Swampscott.

One person even claimed that it came from Ohio State University. This is the logo for Ohio State University. That’s an ‘O’, you dipshit.

The Gang Sign Theory

I don’t know if adults still do this now, but when I and many others were children, adults were terrified that every newfangled thing the young ones were up to was indicative of gang-related activity. Wearing the wrong piece of clothing, wearing the wrong colour of clothing, or, of course, even drawing the wrong doodle could land some kids in trouble depending on where they were at the time. The same thing went for the S Thing.

Some people in Arizona were under the impression that it belonged to the South Side Crips. Others saw the SDK gang in LA County and the Slauson Ave Southside LA gang using it as their own back in the 80’s and 90’s. These instances are certainly tied to the school theory above – somebody with a prominent ‘S’ in their gang name saw the design, liked it, and started using it. It’s probably because it’s so easy to draw.

Some grew up as far back as the 80’s, believing it was just an easy form of graffiti for novices. Others extend the idea to suggest that it actually originated from taggers. One person claims that, in their school, “it was the usual precursor to learning how to tag.” There’s no doubt that taggers and other graffiti artists have used the S Thing time and time again, but the likelihood of it originating from one of them, given its worldwide reach, is slim.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop countless of adults from unfairly reprimanding children just because they drew a funny-looking ‘S’. Just like slap bracelets and Pokémon cards, the S Thing was also banned from schools. It’s probably for the best, though. I mean, it obviously didn’t originate from gangs, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t EVIL with a capital ‘E’ – or, er, ‘S’…

The Satan Theory

Ah yes, Satan. Nothing whips paranoid parents up into a fervour quite like that blasphemous bastard Beelzebub. It makes sense, right? How else would children all across the globe know how to draw this arcane emblem if not for…. SATAN??!?

On a more serious note, one person said they found a similar depiction of the number 8 in a very old Bible. They provided no pictures, so there’s no proof. If that is indeed the case, though, given other respondents’ collective penchant for misidentifying the S Thing, it was probably a curvacious 8 – a common lemniscate that isn’t necessarily the same thing. There’s really no telling for sure at this point.

On the complete opposite side of the equation, this individual found a picture of the Tree of Life from the Bible, slapped an S Thing on top of it, and decided it must be the origin of the symbol. Nicolas Cage would be proud, but I’m still skeptical. Feel free to believe what you will, but when somebody digs up something obscure and unique like this and uses it to try to explain a lingering mystery, methinks it’s time to leave the room. The person even states that every other picture they found had 10 points instead of the 12 required… which is still 2 less than the number of points on the S Thing.

But since we’re already heading down this road, we may as well go for broke…
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The Alien Theory

I’m not saying it was aliens, but… well, you know the rest.

It should come as no surprise that, given the worldwide prevalence of the S Thing, some people turn to conspiracy theories. And, having dwindled our list of possibilities down so far, what other option do we have than aliens? Lots of kids draw this thing without any idea what it even is. They’re just compelled to do it. It’s almost as if, I don’t know… it was burned into our minds by a superior alien presence!.

my husband starting drawing this in the 70’s when he was 10ish and our eight yr old son showed us this same drawing he just ‘came up with’ the other day – we have never shown it to him…! Maybe something to do with the symmetry? – questioneverythng

Or maybe it has something to do with… ALIENS???

“That thing must be ingrained in human DNA. I remember it from my grade school years in the early ’80s. A couple of days ago, I found one lying on the floor of my car that my 8 year old daughter apparently drew.” – Bardo77n

Finding a child’s mysterious, repetitive drawings is how many horror stories begin. Why else would kids keep drawing these things on everything? Clearly, a controlling entity is to blame. It’s just like crop circles all over again.

WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS MEAN? AND WHY WAS/IS EVERYONE OBSESSED WITH IT!!!??? this has been bothering me for decades. it’s like this was programmed into the human genetic code. reminds me of BSG when the final 5 cylons were hearing that song (all along the watchtower) and they didnt know why. – danimal82

If you drew this as a child it means you have an alien implant. Every time a child draws this the invasion becomes more imminent. Please stop! – chuxarino

90’s kids… we were an experiment. I mean, think about it for a second. Kurt Cobain, The Internet, Alternative, Bill Clinton, the WTO. We were an experiment of sociology and economics. The ‘S’ was just something injected into the experiment to test models of how a popular subject spreads through a population; to tweak a few differential equations. Today we have our internet memes. What will happen when we are all activated? – [deleted]

And, last but not least, this disconcerting testimony:

I fuckin did not understand the significance of this symbol in the 90s. But suddenly oneday everyone started to draw it. I just stood there thinking this is some fucked up shit. – timestep

I rest my case.

Conclusion

I’m kidding, of course. I don’t really believe it was aliens. I suppose that anything is possible, but it’s my personal belief that, whatever the actual origin of the S Thing is, it’s probably incredibly mundane, and we’ve all just since forgotten. It’s like a joke. We tell them because we heard them from other people, and those other people tell them because they heard them from other people, and so on. Few stop to think about how the joke came about. And yet, when we do, we tend to have that one friend or acquaintance who claims to have been the one to have made it up. The same is true, as we have found throughout the course of this essay, for the S Thing.

We may never know the true nature of the creation of the S Thing. It shall likely forever remain one of life’s great mysteries, like Stonehenge and the fame of the Kardashians. Unless someone more talented than myself – like whomever managed to trace the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke as far back as the 1800’s – can procure a copy of that fabled Scholastic book or some other ancient artifact to establish a tentative genesis, then all we are left to ponder over is this exhaustive sociological examination.

In the eloquent words of reddit user ICCULUSC:

I still don’t know what the fuck it is.

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