On my first day at the Recurse Center I found a mysterious piece of old-school-looking hardware with a sign that read “Make Cool Plotter Art!”.


I want to make cool plotter art!

This hardware, as I would soon learn, is a 1980s HP7440A pen plotter, which was originally built to create serious, business charts like:

SuccessfulBusinessPresentations This is what the machine prints as its example. Business is going up!

First step: connecting the pen plotter to my MacBook. There was a PL2303 to USB serial adaptor, so in order for my laptop to recognize the device I needed to download a PL2303 Mac OS X Driver. Once I did, the serial port showed up at /dev/tty.usbserial and I was able to connect to the plotter.

This plotter uses HPGL, an HP Graphics Language, so I wrote a simple program in NodeJS that would spit out a string of HPGL instructions for the plotter to receive.

Next, the fun part: Let’s print my tattoo!

I have a tattoo of the Dragon Curve (Heighway Fractal), and someone recently recognized it as a possible L-System (spoiler: it is!).

L-systems work such that you have an alphabet of symbols and a list of rules for how each symbol expands after each new iteration, in order to make new strings, which then use a set of construction rules to translate the string into geometric symbols.

Wikipedia defines: “An L-system consists of an alphabet of symbols that can be used to make strings, a collection of production rules that expand each symbol into some larger string of symbols, an initial “axiom” string from which to begin construction, and a mechanism for translating the generated strings into geometric structures. “

After drawing a bit on top of my tattoo to try to figure out the production rules:


We determined that we have A and B:

A → A+B (where + is a 90° turn)

B→ A - B (where - is a -90° turn)

In following these rules, we begin with “A”

A    →    A + B    →    A + B  +   A - B    →    A + B +  A - B  + A + B - A - B 


1st iteration: A

2nd iteration: A + B

3rd iteration: A + B + A - B

4th iteration: A + B + A - B + A + B - A - B

We created a function that took a number of iterations (n) and returned a string based on our L-System rules.

const createIteration = function(n){
let str = 'A';
for (let i = 0; i < n; i++){
    let newStr = '';
    for (let j = 0; j < str.length; j++) {
        if (str[j] === 'A'){
            newStr += 'A+B';
        } else if (str[j] === 'B') {
            newStr += 'A-B';
        } else {
            newStr += str[j]
    str = newStr;
return str;

We then wrote a function that could take that string and transcribe it into HPGL instructions that our pen plotter could use.

const transcribe = function(str) {
    let map = {
        0: 'PR-300,0;',
        1: 'PR0,300;',
        2: 'PR300,0;',
        3: 'PR0,-300;'
    let currDir = 0;
    let directions = ['PD;'];

    for (let i = 0; i < str.length; i++){
        if (str[i] === 'A' || str[i] === 'B') {
            directions.push(map[currDir % 4])
        } else if (str[i] === '+') {
        } else if (str[i] === '-') {
    return directions;

Finally, we wrote a CreateDrawing function that takes the directions from transcribe, adds an initializing step (‘SP1’ //Select Pen 1), and using a helper function getBounds (that gets the X,Y bounds of each iterative drawing) to place the iterative drawings on the paper.

const createDrawing = function(n) {
    let directions = ['SP1;'];
    let start = 200;
    let margin = 400;
    for (let i = 0; i < n; i++) {
        let commands = createIteration(i);
        [minX, maxX, minY, maxY] = getBounds(commands);
        let drawX = start - minX;
        let drawY = -(((maxY - minY)/2) + minY) + (7650/2);
        start += (maxX - minX) + margin;
    return directions;

So, running createDrawing(7) will give you:


A beautiful, beautiful, Dragon Curve!

Here is a link to my co-conspirator’s amazing plotter art project - Plotty Bird!