A quick note to the reader: this essay contains content that will be new to both the graffiti expert and novice, while I have in places briefly summarized a few bits of graffiti culture that will be common knowledge to the experts.
It seems a bit hard to believe, but graffiti has had a presence on the World Wide Web for a decade now and counting (1994 - 2004). The ten-year anniversary seemed like a good time to step back and take stock of what this has meant for the culture. To get a better sense of these effects, I created a short set of interview questions, asked some friends in several cities and countries to fill them out, and also made the question set available on The Writers' Forum, a popular graffiti message board. The result was a pile of 42 complete interviews from writers of every skill level, hailing from all across America, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. This study summarizes the resonant themes that emerged through these interviews, largely by means of quotes from the interviews themselves. It especially concerns the ways in which graffiti writers have taken up the Internet as a vehicle for peer education, a gathering point for their culture, a means with which to document their collective work and history, and addresses the ways in which the Internet (or writers' use thereof) has in turn affected graffiti culture.
Graffiti was born of a desire to put one's name in the space that would reach the most people, and in that respect, the presence of graffiti on the Internet seems to be natural fit. Subway graffiti began in the very late 1960s in Philadelphia and New York City. In the summer of 1971, the New York Times ran a story about the phenomenon, focusing on a single young man from Washington Heights in Manhattan who went by the name of Taki 183. Seeing this, every kid who felt the inclination grabbed markers and spray paint and began to go for theirs, just like Taki did (Chalfant and Cooper, 1984). Nearly 35 years later, you can find New York-inspired graffiti in almost every major city on Earth.
Graffiti existed as an independent cultural entity until the early 1980s, when it became a part of the packaged "four elements" culture that was hip-hop. Globbed onto breakdancing, DJing, and rapping by means of 1983 Hollywood movies like Beat Street and Wild Style, graffiti gained a worldwide appeal, spreading across continents. A year later, the more authentic documentary film Style Wars was released, and has since provided the most enduring and multiplicitous document of the culture. Although the "four elements of hip-hop" concept is entrenched after 20 years, graffiti did predate the other elements of hip-hop by a good ten years, and was arguably the most refined of them all when the movies were made. These movies proved to be a unifying, mobile and widespread summary of the incipient culture, however, along with Chalfant and Cooper's book Subway Art. The New York subways ran on a limited track, but the movies and books made it to far-flung corners of the earth and inspired kids to make graffiti their passion as well. A few years later, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, graffiti writers began to make their own documentation in the form of homespun magazines and videos, a practice that continues to this day.
In early 1994, a small group of graffiti writers, some in high school, some in college, and some simply technologically inclined, began to converse and network with one another in the newsgroup alt.graffiti, which had previously been a place to post political sayings and latrinalia. Graffiti writers soon dominated the discussion, and it wasn't long before some of them began to post photographs of graffiti online. At the same time, and unaware of the chatter on alt.graffiti, Georgia Tech graduate student Susan Farrell, herself not a graffiti writer, got the idea to put together a website with some graffiti photos that she had shot in Atlanta, Georgia and Prague, Czech Republic. She put the word out and quickly landed the help of another graffiti observer, Brett Webb, who was a young technophile in Los Angeles. In September of 1994, they launched their site, called "Art Crimes" (now http://www.graffiti.org). The following month, Newsweek magazine ran a spotlight feature on Art Crimes, as the site quickly garnered the attention of both the popular press and the graffiti writing public (Neelon, 1997).
Susan Farrell explains that in September 1994 there were only two other graffiti resources on the Internet. "There was the alt.graffiti newsgroup in 1994, where the writers who were also technologists, scientists, and university students hung out. You can see it all still, at Google Groups. Mare 139 and Kel 1st ran Voice of the Ghetto (voiceoftheghetto.com), which they had been building since 1993. Their site wasn't a graffiti site as we think of them now, instead it was a multimedia showcase for their design work and it demonstrated how street style translates well into digital realms. I Can Fly was the first crew to make a website, in late 1994. (It was hilarious because those guys are just too funny.) http://www.graffiti.org/icf . Taiteiden Rajamailla (Finland) was created by Ismo in late 1994, also. He wrote the first online article about graffiti history (in Finnish) and showed many fine examples of local pieces."
Graffiti had experienced something of a dry spell in the mainstream press since 1989, when New York City's authorities declared their final victory over subway graffiti. Art Crimes, however, showed that graffiti was far from dead, and the website became the focus for a level of attention from the popular press that graffiti had not received in years. More important, it also garnered the attention of graffiti writers worldwide, and to this day remains the center of graffiti on the Internet.
Graffiti began on the New York City subways as a way to paint one's name so that it would travel throughout the city and reach people that one might never meet, in neighborhoods that one might never visit. Writers used to gather at the 149th St. Grand Concourse station in the Bronx at what they called "the writers' bench," a place on the platform which afforded a good view of several train lines. The Internet suddenly became the new bench: a logical extension of the art form that was born to travel. While the digital realm traded the authenticity of the actual name rolling by for a photo of the same, the playing field suddenly grew worldwide. Nearly every one of the more than 40 graffiti writers interviewed for this article, regardless of age, listed Art Crimes as their first Internet graffiti experience, which speaks to the importance of having a kind of "central station" for graffiti on the Web.
Chicago writer Empower's experience was typical of those writers who saw Art Crimes in its infancy: "I was in high school in 1994 when the first wave of mass Internet popularity hit, and I vaguely remember going into the computer lab with a wadded-up piece of paper with a super long URL for Art Crimes and being blown away that there was this worldwide network (however limited it seems now) of people who wrote on walls and trains." The Internet instantly became a resource not only for veteran writers, but also to those totally new to the culture. For some young people, Art Crimes was not only their introduction to online graffiti, but their introduction to graffiti itself, as in the case of Midwest writer Peas: "Coming from an Indiana town of 700 people, my first exposure to artistic graffiti was in 1994 on Art Crimes, probably soon after it was started."
Like Empower, many graffiti writers interviewed for this study recalled a sense of awe at finding such a network of like-minded people online. Graffiti's appeal to young people at a stage of life in which the definition of identity is at such a premium (MacDonald, 2001; Jordan, 2002; Erikson, 1959) is tremendous. Teenage years are generally in stark contrast to those prior ages of 8-12 years old, in which children value highly the opinions of their peers, conformity and fastidiousness (Valkenburg and Cantor, 2001). Whereas kids in the 8-12 age group are more likely to visit the websites of extremely popular toy companies or television shows, a teenager's focus on identity can manifest itself in niche sites such as those of graffiti culture. Although the interests of young people change, the overall use of "children's digital media culture" (Montgomery, 2000) can be a constant throughout these years.
Graffiti websites today typically take one of four forms. The first is the individual writer site, which is essentially an online portfolio for that writer. Younger writers do not always have a large body of work that would warrant such a portfolio, but some do. Max, a 16-year-old writer from Rhode Island, has a site of his work, while Groe, a 17-year-old writer from Boston, who eschews the idea of making a website to promote himself, has a substantial body of work published on the sites of other writers.
The next typical form of graffiti website is that of a particular crew-(think "guild"( a collective that you do not apply to join, that invites you to join if the match is right). Crew sites are popular with teenage graffiti writers who may not have a large body of individual work, and who thus create a site with four or five friends.
The third type of site is one that highlights a local scene, with galleries of photos from the city in which the webmaster resides.
The fourth is the message board forum, in which graffiti writers can post photos and commentary. These sites are comparatively few in number, because the good ones are the boards that attract most of the participants, and small, local boards are often harassed off the Internet by one group or another.
Most graffiti sites have common characteristics. Most are light on text and heavy on images, with photo galleries separated by the surface on which the artwork was executed, such as "walls," "trains," and "sketches."
The questions of "who's paying for all this, and who makes money from all this?" are appropriate. The short answer is that almost all of these website, large or small, are labors of love. Art Crimes and The Writers' Forum are likely the two most heavily visited graffiti websites, and both are underwritten by businesses and individuals who take their costs on as a public service. Both of those sites, along with a great many more, offer an online store that sells T-shirts, graffiti magazines, and other graffitialia, but both Susan Farrell of Art Crimes and Allen Benedikt of The Writers' Forum offer hearty laughs at the notion that their projects are in any way profitable. The logical beneficiaries of the graffiti culture would be paint companies, but their attitudes to graffiti - as art or vandalism - are varied. Krylon and Rustoleum, the predominant spray paint brands in the United States, feature only anti-graffiti material on their websites, whereas the European paint brands Belton and Montana are vocally pro-graffiti, each maintaining a "team" of elite practitioners, just as sporting goods manufacturers sponsor athletes.
Modern graffiti itself is a practice barely 35 years old, and it has had a presence on the Internet for ten of those years. The writers surveyed largely agree that the Internet has influenced graffiti to a great extent, but are divided on whether this influence has been a positive or a negative one.
Boston's Groe states "the Internet makes it possible for anyone at all to see graffiti, no matter where they are from. You could live in an igloo in Alaska, but if you have the Internet you can see graffiti from anywhere."
Groe's mentor, Aves, explains "the Internet has beyond the shadow of a doubt had a significant impact on graffiti. As far as whether that impact has been positive or negative, I think it's a combination of the two. It truly is a double-edged sword. Unfortunately, it's been more negative, in my opinion. Having the ability to view work from every corner of the planet with the click of a button has caused regional styles to all but disappear."
Many graffiti writers, such as Empower, grew up with graffiti in a closely-knit subculture, and notice a sea change in the special qualities of graffiti. "The Internet has almost over-networked us, there's too many photos and you have no way to judge how representative the photos you're seeing are of a certain area. In a way a lot of photos is better than none, but it makes building a reputation for yourself too easy. The biggest negative effect of the Internet on graffiti seems to be the destruction of regional styles and regional techniques. Graffiti is very closely linked with the city you live in, and I see all these kids trying to pull off L.A. styles in Washington D.C. or whatever -- it doesn't look good, it doesn't make sense in that context, and it's disrespectful to your own city's history as well."
Graffiti writer Appear also echoes this sentiment: "As cliché as it is of older writers to say, I think that learning about graffiti locally is very important for a young writer, but it is overlooked with the easy accessibility of the Internet. It's kind of creating a type of graffiti that has no history or soul." Sank breaks down this soulless graffiti even further: "You now have toys that have handstyles like they're from L.A., piece like they're from Europe, and do throw-ups like they're from New York."
The writers surveyed who held the most reservations about the Internet were from cities with long-standing graffiti traditions, such as Boston, New York, and Chicago. On the other hand, writers surveyed from areas in which graffiti is a more recent phenomenon had a far more positive take on it. This demographic extends from writers living in the generally graffiti-free suburbs of the United States to writers in cities such as Athens, Greece, where graffiti first made its appearance only in the early 1990's.
Athens resident Naze explains, "In my opinion, the Internet has been 100% positive for graffiti. There's lots of talk about the Internet pushing more beef between writers, giving undeserving writers fame, and bringing more heat to spots. I can't say that these don't apply, but to be perfectly honest, all of these negatives existed before the Internet, it's just the change of scale that creates all the talk. Just because of my geographical position in Greece, a small country that was never on the graff map, I understand that this change of scale could be a lot more harmful for others, but it also gives me an understanding of how much more updated one can be by using the Internet and what amount of knowledge it can bring so easily."
Jeff, a writer from the developing graffiti scene in New Zealand, puts it even more simply: "I don't think there are any negative effects."
To some, the easier road to graffiti proficiency that the Internet presents is simultaneously good and bad: "You will get kids in the north of Norway who can learn some technique and study some styles and make a positive contribution, whereas before people from such remote places tended to make clumsy efforts when it came to graff," states a writer from England who wished to remain anonymous. Yet at the same time, he laments that "before the Internet you would get different styles from different places and you could tell where certain styles originated. Now, the style has dispersed so much that you get newjacks in Romania rocking styles from France."
Suroc, a Philadelphia graffiti elder (someone in his middle to late 30s -- sorry if that makes anyone feel geriatric) takes a larger view. "Because of the structure of the Internet as a medium, in a way it is divorced from negative or positive implications. When a plan goes wrong, you don't blame the paper it was printed on. I would say in a very universal manner of speaking that increases in communication will always cause positivity, negativity, confusion and clarity across the board."
Jeff, a writer from the United States, explains "the Internet has facilitated communication in the entire global community. The Web is like one big wall, parked truck or rolling train. Graffiti has positives and negatives as it is. The Web has just raised the existing levels. Doo-Doo and SunShine have both gotten a push."
Both Jeff and Suroc make key distinctions between the holistic effect of the Internet upon graffiti and the potential for individual uses of the Internet. Either can be beneficial or detrimental.
In graffiti, a "generation" of practitioners is separated by only a handful of years, and there is a built-in tradition of peer education and mentoring. The introduction of the Internet into this cycle of learning and teaching appears to have radically changed the process.
Slam explains how in many ways the Internet can be more effective than some of the media that preceded it: "the Internet proves to be a valuable tool that can keep things current on a worldwide scale (for research or other reasons). One does not need to wait for a new Subway Art-type book to be released, nor does anyone have to wait to pick up a graffiti magazine (most of which either thin out their graffiti content through time or only release a few issues, then they are gone). Thus the educational value is immense, for the sheer fact that it is current, well rounded, and globally based."
Nearly all of the writers surveyed agreed that the Internet now plays a key role in the "graffiti education" of the newest generations of graffiti writers. Several experienced writers even offered percentages as an estimate of how large that role would be, which ranged from 10%-95%. Others who developed as writers in an earlier era simply said something along the lines of "too much."
The most telling comments were from young writers themselves. Max, a 16-year-old writer from suburban Rhode Island, states "the role of the Internet in the 'young writer' graffiti experience is a starring one. I learned about various spray caps from the Internet, I learned about how to make good markers and ink from the Internet, I got a feel for what the general graffiti aesthetic is from the Internet, and I post most of my work on the Internet. I got a great deal of history from the Internet; a sense of where graffiti has been and the major players past and present."
Groe, a 17-year-old writer from Boston, says that the role of the Internet in a young writer's experience "depends how much of the Internet graff one eats up. I myself spent way more time in Boston just looking at walls and talking to kids, learning from people, not a machine. But at the same time being able to click on a website and see almost an infinite amount of graffiti, interviews, tricks-n-tips and even criticism, makes looking at graffiti on the Internet seem like looking up a certain subject in a library."
Experienced Chicago writer Empower cautions that young urbanites should follow Groe's example. "The Internet is good for people that are isolated to learn about history and style, but if you live in a city, you should pay attention to the work that's being done around you and verse yourself in local history first. There's a reason graffiti has developed the way it has in your city - make it a point to understand why."
New Jersey writer Enue feels that "the Internet is good for learning theory but it will never replace experience."
And there is of course the obvious: one is not a graffiti writer without actually getting up from the computer and going out to make something to show for themselves. As Athens' Naze states, Internet graffiti "education is only useful when you get to use it."
Experienced writers are quick to point out how important it is in graffiti to learn from one's seniors, and this type of learning is at once facilitated and complicated by the Internet. An anonymous Bay Area writer believes that the effect of the Internet is not something that we can simply avoid, because so many young people are using it: "I think the Internet plays a big part, and it makes the kids a little nonchalant. They know "everything" and can see it "all" on the net."
Writer Appear says that experienced writers have a key role to play in shaping the values of young writers: "it is important that credible people in the culture maintain a "guild" type attitude, giving thumbs up and down based on history and respect issues. Many new writers have a contorted value system because of the Internet's inability to tell the full story of the experience which is graffiti."
New Yorker Aroe remembers that his own learning process was dominated by the human elements of "being schooled and ridiculed by older writers."
Attitudes vary among more established graffiti writers as to whether their online presence is an educational one, whether as website content providers or as active participants in popular message boards such as The Writers' Forum.
England's Plymski explains that "The Writers' Forum is a great example of how the Internet can both be great and shit. The regular updates and constructive comments as well as getting hook ups and listening to those you would never previously have met is fantastic. However with this freedom comes the inevitable onslaught of toys and the crap they bring with them."
Joker is a moderator at The Writers' Forum, as well as being a renowned style innovator over the past 15 years. For him, the Internet's role in new writers' experiences will be a given for both good and bad, and he tries to take that given and turn it into a teachable moment: "It's easy for new writers to learn the basics and get going from there. It's completely killed the "mentor"... and has in turn become the mentor. On The Writers' Forum, I try to come across as someone who can be approached with questions. And I have been approached. I'm pretty open to critiques of my own work as well. When I post images, it's not only to show new work, but also to show what's possible outside of the normal hum-drum that writing can be. I've critiqued several writers' works and then have continued to do so with them for several months until they feel confident to go on their own. I've done that with about three writers last year, through email. I'd like to spend more time doing it though. I feel I owe it them because that's how I came up. It just seems right. The passage of knowledge -- the right way."
Michael, a Londoner, relates a similar viewpoint, albeit one more reluctant: "I was given a lot of respect and encouragement by older writers when I was first starting out. To some extent, I feel compelled to return that generosity in order to ensure that the graffiti subculture is kept alive and to a certain standard. However, many up-and-coming writers feel that they already know it all and are unwilling to accept advice. When asked, I am willing to impart my knowledge but, if anything, I feel that the subculture needs to go underground again. The exclusivity that first attracted me to graffiti has diminished with the advent of the Internet."
Naze, from Athens, Greece, is also a moderator at The Writers' Forum, and sees his own participation as a peer education process: "As a fully active member of the biggest graffiti forum for years, I feel that in some cases I have really helped people, offering advice and criticism, and hopefully inspiring, or bringing a new idea to the table. I could never know how that knowledge would be used later on, but the sparks went off to say the least."
Aroe, an active writer from New York City who paints regularly with some of the culture's stars, sees his own personal access to the best of graffiti as a responsibility. "I try to post a lot of flicks that I felt people had not seen before. I feel that if you have a position on the Web today, you should try to enlighten the younger writers (and there's a ton of 'em nowadays) to the history and not so well known writers around."
Malcolm Jacobson, a graffiti observer from Stockholm, Sweden, uses his "above ground" presence as a way to facilitate dialogue between graffiti writers and the lawmakers who often work against them. "We have put out some texts about new laws and our response to them, along with links to political discussions about graffiti, as well as interviewing politicians for our website (http://www.underground-productions.se)."
Kept, from the US, explains that while the online world is a flawed one, he tries to use it for what does well: "The Internet community doesn't reflect the reality of the streets, but reflects the interests of a very few, privileged and motivated Internet surfer graffiti writers. There is the obvious problem of bullshit. Reality can quickly be swept away and replaced by bullshit opinions from opposing and friendly factions on the Internet; adolescent boys can test their masculinity and play thug. It is an extremely distorted and at times absurd place for education of any sort. But personally, I offer counter-bullshit. I take advantage of the ability to show photographs to thousands and thousands of people and reproduce images that inspired me, images of unsung or forgotten heroes (http://www.kept1.com)."
Other writers, such as Empower, believe that their efforts are far better directed into graffiti itself, and not its online permutations. "It seems like connecting your graffiti personae with an Internet presence in these days can only serve to destroy your reputation. By maintaining an Internet presence, you give otherwise indifferent peers many reasons to dislike or disrespect you. In part because text used poorly is a very imprecise medium and writers have very fragile egos -- you make one or two misguided comments and everyone hates you. For that reason, I no longer participate in graffiti message boards, I participate in graffiti. That is the best way that I could try to educate inexperienced writers. If someone is interested in pursuing graffiti, they will use the resources at hand to learn how to do it themselves, and if they can't do that, they wouldn't have lasted long anyway."
Suroc offers a more holistic view: "Some writers embrace the Internet in a healthy way - it helps me to get stuff off my chest. Some writers use it for business purposes, which is okay, but I also believe that graffiti on the Internet is no different than architecture. The scale and grandiosity is completely lost. And that works both ways. Toys (inexperienced, undeserving graffiti writers) can slap up a website, and with the aid of computer graphics, come off like international all stars. With the Internet, the potential is there for education, and in some way, any time your senses are engaged in activity they are being educated and imprinted upon. As far as my monthly Byline column content goes, I often get love/hate e-mails from readers. But generally, as a content provider you can only concern yourself with interpreting the world, not so much trying to change it. In some ways education straddles both of these concepts, interpretation with the intent upon changing an individual, making an individual grow, which in effect is a small way of changing the world."
Taken as a whole, the scope and breadth of these opinions and approaches seems appropriate to complement the wide range of people who gravitate toward graffiti art as a youth culture in the first place. It is especially important to note how fully thought-out these individuals' educational philosophies are, for all their differences. As a youth culture dominated by peer and informal learning, and one not taught in any widely available formal setting, graffiti is entirely dependent upon its practitioners' teaching ability (whether they recognize it as such or not) and its own intrinsic appeal.
From an outside perspective, it's tempting to assume that graffiti is the voice of the voiceless: "Well-meaning outsiders may lament (graffiti writers') lack of voice, but, interestingly, such sentiments are not expressed by the writers themselves" (MacDonald, 2001).
To the contrary, graffiti writers describe themselves as people who have found a vital medium for their voice, and on the way, have challenged and circumvented issues that can continually paralyze the artistic voice, such as marginalization, ethnicity, poverty, and political oppression. The popular image of graffiti as a cry from New York City's minority ghetto-dwellers was perhaps once accurate, but it wasn't so for long. After all, Taki 183 was Greek, and the writer who coined the ubiquitous graffiti term "Wild Style" was Tracy 168, who was Irish.
The point is not to make an issue of it either way, because the names on the trains were faceless, and the ethnicity of the people who painted the trains roughly paralleled that of the people who rode them. "By self-organizing to bomb the system, which meant painting on the trains in ways that created communal bonds through a shared aesthetic, writers intentionally subverted the race consciousness of the larger society" (Miller, 2002, p. 32).
The names on the trains in New York City were a source of confusion for many New Yorkers, who assumed their origin to be Black and Hispanic youth. When graffiti was exported overseas and took root in Europe, Australia, South America, and later Asia and Africa, it was met with enthusiasm on a local level from a cross-section of the societies that it touched. The Internet, like the names on walls and trains, is faceless, and thus without ethnic identity.
Then, of course, there is the issue of class. Although many of the original graffiti writers in New York City were poor, "poverty" means something radically different in the Bronx than in, for instance, São Paulo -- a city that has seen nothing short of an explosion of graffiti in the past decade. Subway graffiti itself was born of a peculiarly prosperous sort of poverty. The vast majority of kids in New York City who spraypainted the subways stole their paint. After all, what young teenager, even one of great privilege, has the kind of pocket money that it would take to paint hundreds of trains with purchased spraypaint? Even so, the fact that there was paint to steal, and that such theft wouldn't be a tremendous risk, says a great deal about the prosperity that it took for such an art movement to take place. (Neelon, 2003).
The Internet stepped into graffiti's odd variegation of ethnicity and socioeconomic status. In 2000, 52% of United States homes with children aged 2-17 had Internet access. Assuming the trend of Internet access in such homes has continued to increase at anything close to the rapid rise seen in the late 1990s, the percentage of such homes with Internet access in 2004 would be in the area of 65% to 90% (Woodard and Gridina, 2001).
More than a quarter of low-income families (earning under $30,000 annually) with children between ages 2-17 also have Internet access. These percentages do not cut across classes and ethnicities (Bickham, 2003), nor are they particularly representative of the worldwide audience that graffiti now commands, but they give an idea of the complications involved in this changing realm of access.
If even just one in four young friends in a crew has Internet access, however, this would suggest that the rest of the crew could benefit as well. It is easy to look over someone's shoulder at photographs on the Internet, and the Internet is generally the least subject to parental supervision (graffiti's illegal, remember) of the major media outlets of television, video games, and movies (Woodard and Gridina, 2001; Jordan, 2002; Livingstone, 2002).
, This effect only extends to viewing the Internet, however, as opposed to creating content on it. "Teens who have computers and access to the Internet at home are most likely to maintain WWW pages; most teens are not granted sufficient time or guidance in school to develop computer and Web navigation skills, let alone Web design capabilities" (Stern, 2002, p. 267).
This access level creates a disparity in the ability to create Web content portals between rich and poor. In any case, as Susan Farrell adds, "it will sure help when the technologies get cheaper." No matter who makes the websites, the sites function as viewing points rather than replacing the graffiti they present, which of course must still be executed offline.
Every writer interviewed for this project spoke in somewhat awed terms about how the Internet had suddenly networked the graffiti culture and facilitated communication between people that were formerly impossible to contact. Max expands on the logical extension to graffiti: "It says in a book that I have that graffiti is all about connections. Connecting letters together, connecting pieces by way of multi-artist productions and hitched rail cars, and connecting with other people to do graffiti. The Internet helps people connect with each other." These connections are all the more remarkable when we consider the pseudonymous nature of graffiti, in which the ability to elude detection (from the police) is at a premium.
Still, this ability to safely network has had its downside, as Sank points out: "The nostalgia and mystery of meeting other writers is lost because it's a lot easier to meet other writers through websites and the exchange of email addresses. Before, you would have to rely on luck if you were to meet other writers."
Many writers spoke about having used the Internet to contact another graffiti writer whom they admired, and all of the experienced writers spoke of times when they had been contacted by younger writers who admired their work. In many cases now, this is how young writers seek out their available mentors, who previously might have been limited to their neighborhoods, but now could live on the other side of the world. The mentoring writers, on the other hand, are not always interested in answering a great many questions, whether online or in person, from young people who are not demonstrating dedication. About half of the elder writers surveyed also spoke to the importance of being a mentor to younger writers, but they clearly regard their investments of time and energy in person as far more important than the content they put forth online.
Aves explains that he mentors younger writers, but that "I have to know them personally, and I need to see a potential in them. I have to see them going out and using the city as their jungle gym. I have to see them having a passion for the action. If they're just going on the Internet asking questions, I can't bother with them."
There is a great sense that the Internet also makes it too easy to ask the most obvious of questions. Briton Sofa says it plainly: "I don't remember being that stupid."
While Aves' approach seems to weed out a great many potential students, those whom he does see potential in understand the importance of such an investment. Aves' protégée Groe recognizes that value, as have many young writers who benefited from a mentor. "I would most definitely like to mentor a younger writer, once I'm done learning for myself. I've definitely thought about it, and since I have mentors of my own, it would be awesome to keep that going."
Appear also feels similarly, even to the point of obligation: "I think if a kid goes up to a writer and shows respect, (assuming that the kid's not an annoying idiot) the older writer kind of owes it to what's left of graffiti in a local sense. I learned all the rules through a real live mentor, and I think it's made me a better, more well-rounded and respectful person/writer."
The long-term effects of the changes wrought upon graffiti by the Internet will likely be as novel and varied as the Internet itself. Given that one can be an active participant or a passive observer in one's use of the Internet, the longitudinal effects may well be difficult to encapsulate.
There is a temptation to think of the word "media" as something distant and separate from one's self. Dan Rather, Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, these are "the media." "Media" also means things like paint, ink, photography, or bronze. It's the same word, and the meaning is ostensibly the same in both senses, but the availability of human agency in each one couldn't be more distant. Young peoples' ready embrace of the Internet is an interesting bridge between the two senses of the word. Thinking of media as passive activities such as watching television is in stark contrast to thinking of media as a set of paints, which are inert and meaningless until one picks them up and breathes the life of art into them.
It seems that for graffiti writers, the Internet has the potential to act in both senses of the word: that agency over its content and use varies greatly with the individual. A young person like Max may be at a disadvantage in the suburbs of Rhode Island in terms of seeing graffiti in his daily life, but he has a school computer lab from which to create a website and to research others. A young person like Groe has the concrete classics of Boston's graffiti scene to pull from, as well as the human capital in the form of mentors such as Aves.
In the end, graffiti is a kind of democracy of effort, a system in which one's voice is heard in proportion to the volume with which one speaks. The Internet fits into this mix as another venue, but one always a crucial step away from the reality in which graffiti exists.
As Naze of Athens states, "the worst thing that can ever happen is to form and endorse the idea that graffiti jumped out of the streets and moved to the Internet."
Parisian writer Stak doubts very much that such a thing could ever happen: "young people are free, and the first thing they see is the graffiti in the street, not on the Internet."
Most crucially, the Internet holds a different set of lessons than the actual practice of graffiti. As Boston's Aves explains, "writers can improve their use of the Internet by not using it as an educational guide to the tricks of the trade, but rather to educate themselves on the history of the culture. To learn things about the early days of graffiti writing, to learn their history, to learn things they couldn't at the time, because they weren't alive back then. For example, http://www.at149st.com is a wealth of information on graffiti's history. A very significant part of graffiti is exploring the city, making the buildings, alleys, train yards and tunnels your own personal playground... The ability to gain street smarts isn't something you can learn from the Internet." The offerings of graffiti on the Internet and graffiti in the streets are distinct, but fortunately for graffiti writers, only one of them can exist without the other. The saving grace of graffiti has always been its appeal to kids who are not satisfied to experience the "playground" of the urban environment in any way other than firsthand.
Bickham, D.S., E.A. Vandewater, A.C. Huston, J.H. Lee, A.G. Callosity, and J.C. Wright (2003). Predictors of children's electronic media use: An examination of three ethnic groups. Media Psychology, 5, 107-138.
Chalfant, H. and Cooper, M. (1984) Subway Art. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Erikson, E. (1959). Identity and the lifecycle. Monograph, Psychological Issues, Vol. 1, No. 1. New York: International Universities Press.
Jordan, A.B. (2002). A family systems approach to examining the role of the Internet in the home. In S.L. Calvert, R.R. Cocking, and A.B. Jordan, editors. Children in the digital age: Influences of electronic media on development. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Livingstone, S. (2002). Living together separately: The family context of media use. Chapter 5 in Young people and new media: Childhood and the changing media environment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
MacDonald, N. (2001) The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity, and Identity in London and New York. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Miller, I. (2002) Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Montgomery, K.G. (2000). Children's media culture in the new millennium: Mapping the digital landscape. The future of children, 10, 145-167.
Neelon, C. (SONIK) (1997). Up from the lab: Virtual graffiti. Twelve Ounce Prophet 4.
Neelon, C. (SONIK) (2003) The art of freedom. Brain Damage 9 pp. 12-17.
Oliver, M.B. (2002) Individual differences in media effects. In J. Bryant and D. Zillman, editor. Media effects: Advances in theory and research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Stern, S. (2002) Sexual selves on the World Wide Web: Adolescent girls' home pages as site for sexual self-expression. In J.D. Brown, J.R. Steele, and K. Walsh-Childers, editors. Sexual teens, sexual media: Investigating media's influence on adolescent sexuality. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Valkenburg, P. and Cantor, J. (2001). The development of a child into a consumer. In Applied Developmental Psychology, 22 (2001), pp. 61-72.
Woodard, E. and Gridina, N. (2000). Media in the Home 2000: The fifth annual survey of parents and children. Philadelphia: The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
Other resources for graffiti on the Internet are best found by starting at Art Crimes, at http://www.graffiti.org
I would especially like to thank everyone who took the time to thoughtfully complete the interviews that I used in this study. Although not all responses ended up being quoted in the piece, your voices were all read, taken into consideration, and weighted equally. I also wish to thank Susan Farrell of Art Crimes and Allen Benedikt and the staff of moderators at The Writers' Forum for their continual insights.
This study was inspired by a desire to revisit a Twelve Ounce Prophet (then a proud paper magazine) article that I wrote in late 1996 about the then-incipient presence of graffiti on the Internet, which to the best of my knowledge was the first serious look at the phenomenon. The tenor of that article was hortative, urging writers not to be afraid of the new technology. How times have changed.
Caleb Neelon / SONIK
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