When Prince died last week at the age of 57, obituaries noted his battle with Warner Brothers over a draconian record contract. Warner wanted Prince to slow down his creative process to meet the traditional schedule for releasing and marketing albums. In response, Prince wrote the name “slave” on his face and refused to allow Warner to make money from his name. That’s why Prince changed his name to a glyph in 1993.
The story of how the symbol came to be is a fascinating mix of business, love and creative inspiration. In 1992, Mitch Monson was working at Prince’s Paisley Park studio on a series of graphics for Prince’s upcoming album. One day Prince’s emissaries came to Monson and said the singer needed a symbol that fused the ideas of male and female. Prince’s goal was to draw on the astrological myths of Mars as male and Venus as female.
Monson was working with Lizzy Frey, a recent graduate of the Minneapolis School of Art and Design. Frey had already drawn a “7” at Prince’s instruction to pair with the single of the same name. Frey drew the 7 by hand, and then Prince added a circle with a cross in it. Monson scanned the image and made a few changes and Prince gave his input. When asked about whether the symbol had a pronunciation, Prince told Frey “the pronunciation exists on a different level of existence.”
The icon, which is sometimes known as the Love Symbol, merges the astrological symbols for male and female. Prince wanted to emphasize the fluidity of gender and sexuality. He was working with two dancers at the time, Mayte, who he later married, and Tara Leigh Patrick, who Prince later renamed Carmen Electra.
When the logo is examined, it becomes clear that the symbol is just a little bit tilted. The slight asymmetry is intentional. Prince did not want a perfectly symmetrical symbol, because the human body is not in perfect balance. The scroll is not quite circular, and the cross bar is also a bit misshapen. The symbol also resembles a cross, and this too is no accident. Prince was deeply spiritual and often sought to reconcile ideas that seemed contradictory, like sex and religion.
Although Monson designed the symbol thinking it was simply to be part of the album art, Prince’s plans were much grander. He had guitars designed with the symbol and incorporated it into set designs and album covers. Magazines complied by installing his typeface and symbol, often referring to the singer as “the Artist formerly known as Prince,” followed by his Love Symbol. When Prince’s contract with Warner Brothers expired in 2000, Prince was once again known by his given name. However, the symbol remained an integral part of his persona.
Now that Prince is gone, Monson expects the symbol to take on new meaning. “He was about approaching things differently and not discriminating. He was making this unified statement that everybody should be accepted,” Monson says. “I think the symbol is going to start taking on more of that than it did before.”