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Lines Ranging from gangland territory markers to vivid murals, graffiti evokes different images for each viewer. Graffiti is widely acknowledged as one of Afrika Bambaataa's four founding disciplines of Hip-Hop, along with break dancing, DJing and MCing.1 Some find graffiti in any form distasteful, regardless of artistic merit, while others defend graffiti as a First Amendment issue. Street art's detractors claim that the entire concept is destructive to both public and private property, and is a cumulative detriment to society. Many private businesses that focus on graffiti removal find a healthy market in some municipalities, including Seattle, where property owners can be fined up to one hundred dollars a day for refusing to remove graffiti promptly.2 On the other side are the bohemian types, art critics, counterculture participants, the artists (or “writers”) themselves, or any person with a favorable eye and an open mind. The crux of the argument is the oft-repeated question, “is graffiti art or vandalism?” Before we come to this, we must get a background on graffiti and its subsets. The English word, graffiti, is simply defined as “the usually unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface.”3 But that word has its origins in the Ancient Greek word graphein, which meant “to write.” The Ancient Romans were the first to assign graffiti (singular: graffito) the meaning of “a drawing or scribbling on a flat surface.” Graffiti marks have been found in Roman ruins in Rome, Hadrian's Villa, Pompeii and in some Mayan ruins.4 While some might make the automatic leap and say that if graffiti was truly art and not vandalism, then the word commonly used to describe it ought to connote art and not vandalism, I believe there are two distinct subsets of the word graffiti: tagging and street art. One is widely considered vandalism, while the other is seen as artistic. Both are considered illegal if painted without the property owner's permission. Within tagging, there are two more subsets: gang graffiti and tagger graffiti.5 Tagging is quick
1 2 3 4 5 BBC Seattle Public Utilities Merriam-Webster Phillips Berg 3
Andrew Knox HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture October 18, 2010 and dirty; one kid with one can of spray paint putting his message on a surface and then beat a hasty exit. Since the method of tagging is all about getting in and out, its visual style also conveys its minimalism, with bare bones tags being simple outlines or even completely unadorned text. Opponents of graffiti and other street art cite tagging in their argument that the majority of illicit graffiti is nothing close to tasteful art. Peter Vallone Jr., an active graffiti removal advocate and New York City Councilman, has been quoted as saying “eighty-five percent of graffiti is just tags. Another ten percent is gang communication.”6 This ten percent may seem mathematically unimportant, but with the generation gap and prerequisite inside knowledge, tagging and gang graffiti are often lumped together. The ten percent gang graffiti figure seems to translate nationally; reports quoting the Seattle Police Department's Graffiti Rangers program state that “less than ten percent of the graffiti that [the Graffiti Rangers see] is gang related.”7 Gang graffiti is the least artistic form of street graffiti, since the intent is to threaten rival gangsters, instead of inspire neighborhood visitors. Sprayed in various easily seen spots around a given neighborhood, gang graffiti brands the area as gang territory. Gang graffiti messages are usually painted in the gang's chosen color, and typically “consist[s] of cryptic codes and initials rigidly styled with specialized calligraphies.”8 When a gang places special emphasis on its brand, the gang's “graffiti may merge with other art forms, like tattoo and clothing styles, to create a bounded system the concerns of which may incorporate illegitimate economic and social practices that branch far beyond the reaches of the actual graffiti.”9 Tagger graffiti is stylistically similar to gang graffiti, but it vends messages without criminal association. Other forms of graffiti, such as “bathroom wall marking (latrinalia), signatures, proclamations of love, witty comments in response to advertisements, and any number of individual, political, or social commentary (folk epigraphy)” fall into the broader category of individual graffiti.10 A Time Magazine article from 1964, “The Spoilers,” eloquently (if negatively) described the rising trend of street graffiti made with spray paint:
The aerosol paint can is science's contribution to the ancient art of public defacement,
6 7 8 9 10 Adler Berg 3 Phillips Phillips Phillips
Andrew Knox HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture October 18, 2010
and the vacant-minded or vicious are taking to it in ever-increasing numbers -- gleefully spraying their names, initials, class numerals and favorite biological functions over national monuments and natural wonders. The taxpayers' bill for cleaning up after them is getting higher all the time.11
But, certainly, not all graffiti is ugly. There is a lot of graffiti that even the most stalwart street art enemy would have to grudgingly admit is artistic. I call this genre street art, and there are two further subsets beneath it: burners and commercial spray paint art. The difference between the subsets is the canvas material. Burners usually occupy similar habitats to tags: the walls, sidewalks, crevices and subway trains of any modern, decaying metropolis, while commercial spray paint art uses conventional art surfaces, like poster board, cardboard, paper, wood, metal, glass, ceramic or plastic.12 Commercial spray paint art is distinct (some might say separate) from other forms of graffiti for three reasons. The first is that it is not inherently illegal to practice, since it is usually commissioned by a patron and produced with materials the artist owns. The second is that the artist gets paid for his art, displacing the standard graffiti motive of earning respect and recognition on the streets. The third is that the artist does not need to hide their identity. While most street graffiti artists may crouch behind their chosen alias, a commercial spray paint artist typically reveals their full name. These differences are so vastly different from other forms of graffiti that, in the strict, technical sense, spray paint art is not really graffiti, but actually a genre of legitimate art that emulates the style of ornate street graffiti that happens to utilize spray paint as its primary medium.13 While some commercial spray paint artists could be fairly labeled as “sell-outs,” spray paint art's commercial viability has given credence to graffiti's general acceptability, or, as one Brooklyn art gallery director said, “[graffiti art shows] sent a wave around the world that [street art is] legitimate, relevant and people need to pay attention to it.”14 And lastly, my favorite subset of graffiti: burners. @149st, a website dedicated to revitalizing the Old School of graffiti (where burners were treasured over tags), defines a burner as “a technically and stylistically well-executed wild style [a complicated construction of interlocking letters] piece.
11 12 13 14 Time Magazine Anonymous Phillips Adler
Andrew Knox HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture October 18, 2010 Generally done in bright colors.”15 Burners were extensively featured in the 1983 films Wild Style16 and Style Wars17. The burners shown in these films were usually painted on the sides of New York subway trains, but also sometimes as murals on the sides of businesses that hired the artists. The primary motivation for writers in the Old School era18 was obtaining fame, which they defined as their pieces gaining a wide audience across New York City via piggybacking on the sides of subway cars. My favorite burners in Style Wars were the plethora of signature train burners by Seen.19 Another difference between burners and other forms of graffiti is the tendency for writers to operate in crews, collectives of artists who often work on the same piece simultaneously.20 Crews give writers a sense of safety in numbers that diminishes anxieties associated with being caught by authorities, resulting in a more relaxed environment where artists can take their time and carefully craft exquisite pieces. Since burners are group-oriented whereas tags are individualized, burner writers have developed a stronger culture and code of ethics than taggers have. Especially around the concept of style...
"Style is a very concrete idea among writers. It is form, the shapes of the letters, and how they connect. There are various categories of style, ranging from the old, simple bubble letters ... to highly evolved and complex wild style, an energetic interlocking construction of letters with arrows and other forms that signify movement and direction." Just as one can say "thanks," and mean it honestly, sarcastically, scornfully, or any of a thousand different ways, it is how the word is delivered that determines how it is understood. Graffiti without style, much like a monotonous voice, becomes ambiguous, and is either interpreted with hatred or indifference. Simply put, style speaks a thousand more words than a writer's tag ever will.21
While tags may now dominate over burners as the primary form of street graffiti, quality graffiti will never die out. There will always be a place in the urban jungle for graffiti pieces that took more
15 16 17 18 19 20 21 @149st Ahearn Chalfant @149st: “Old School: The writing culture prior to 1984. This date can vary greatly depending upon who you ask.” Chalfant @149st: “Crew: Organized group of writers” Meem
Andrew Knox HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture October 18, 2010 than a minute to create. All forms of graffiti are forms of defying authority while at the same time forcing authority, and society at large, into acknowledging the artist's existence. The average graffiti writer is a male teenager, but the art form is far from exclusive; graffiti artists come in all colors, genders, ages and socio-economic classes.22 Graffiti's simplicity, low initial investment, room for advancement and accessibility has made New York-style spray paint graffiti popular all over the world, from Seattle Central, to Singapore, to Saudi Arabia.23 So, once again posed with the thesis question, “is graffiti art or vandalism?”, my answer is... “it depends.” I feel that tags are ugly, unoriginal and destructive, while burners and commercial spray paint art pieces are beautiful and enriching society. One quote I came across in my research seemed to be some excellent advice for apprentice graffiti writers, also known as Toys24: “remember, time isn't of the essence. The trains, buildings, and highways aren't going anywhere, so take the time necessary to evolve your style before going out and making a public display.”25
22 23 24 25
Krishnan Ambah 5 @149st: “Toy: Inexperienced or incompetent writer.” Meem
Andrew Knox HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture October 18, 2010 Works Cited: 1. @149st. "Graffiti Dictionary" The Cyber Bench: Documenting New York City Graffiti, 7 Sep 2007. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.at149st.com/glossary.html>. 2. Adler, Margot. "Brooklyn Store Celebrates The Art Of Graffiti." National Public Radio, 14 Jul 2008. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php? storyId=92521444>. 3. Ahearn, Charlie, Dir. Wild Style. Perf. Quinones, George. First Run Features: 1983, Film. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084904/fullcredits>. 4. Ambah, Faiza Saleh. "Graffiti Give Voice to Saudi Youth." Washington Post, 27 Sep 2007. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <http://docs.google.com/viewer? a=v&pid=sites&srcid=c2VhdHRsZWNlbnRyYWwuZWR1fGRyLWQtYWJlfGd4OjM2Njh jNWY2ZWI4MDQ3NDc>. 5. Anonymous. "Spray Paint Art." Wikipedia. Wikimedia, 2010. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spray_paint_art>. 6. BBC. "The Four Elements of Hip Hop." British Broadcasting Corporation, 2 Jan 2003. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <http://abovegroundmagazine.com/blogs/words-i-manifest/09/30/hiphop-a-culture-of-four-elements/>. 7. Berg, Ericka. "Wiping Out Graffiti." Seattle Times, 11 Oct 2007. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://docs.google.com/viewer? a=v&pid=sites&srcid=c2VhdHRsZWNlbnRyYWwuZWR1fGRyLWQtYWJlfGd4OjM2Njh jNWY2ZWI4MDQ3NDc>. 8. Chalfant, Henry, Dir. Style Wars. Dir. Tony Silver." Perf. Cap, Seen. Public Broadcasting System: 1983, Film. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0177262/fullcredits>. 9. Krishnan, Sonia. "Graffiti vandals cost public millions." Seattle Times 26 Apr 2010: n. pag. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/PrintStory.pl? document_id=2011702691&zsection_id=2003925728&slug=graffiti26m&date=20100425>. 10. Meem. "Graffiti Introduction." Art Crimes, 11 Jul 1999. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.graffiti.org/faq/graffiti_intro.html>. 11. Merriam-Webster. "Graffiti Definition." Merriam-Webster, 17 Mar 2009. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/graffiti>. 12. Phillips, Susan. "Graffiti Definition: The Dictionary of Art ." Art Crimes, 9 Nov 2003. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.graffiti.org/faq/graf.def.html>. 6
Andrew Knox HUM 125 – Hip-Hop Theory and Culture October 18, 2010 13. Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance. Seattle: City Council, 1994. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.seattle.gov/util/Services/Garbage/KeepSeattleClean/Graffiti_Prevention_&_Re moval/GraffitiNuisanceOrdinance/index.htm>. 14. Smith, Forrest. "Graffiti Playing Tag with Your Tuition Dollars." City Collegian, 11 Oct 2007. Web. 19 Oct 2010. <SAME URL AS AMBAH>. 15. Time Magazine. "Graffiti Archive Collection." Time Magazine, 5 Mar 2007: n. pag. Web. 18 Oct 2010. <http://www.time.com/time/archive/collections/0,21428,c_graffiti,00.shtml>.
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