Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

Buford Youthward

I found the following scratched on the window of a subway train. I'm not sure who wrote it but I have my suspicions:

"The creative process can be summarized in three words: 'imitate, assimilate, innovate'. Looking to other graffiti writers can give you ideas you may wish to develop further, and being able to successfully duplicate what they are doing is one step toward being able to express yourself. Next, you must understand why the things you are spraying look the way they do, so that when you want to create a particular look, you will know how to achieve it. Analytic processes are an aid to the creative process, not a replacement for it. Two analogies, one with language and one with mathematics, should help make this clear.

When you began to speak, you learned at first by listening to others and imitating them. Gradually, you became aware of grammar, and eventually the grammar was codified for you in English classes. Your vocabulary has probably been growing ever since you spoke your first word. In both writing and conversation, your tools are your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and appropriate subject matter.

To write or say anything interesting, however, you must have a certain amount of inspiration. It is not sufficient to merely string together grammatically correct phrases of words. What you have to say is generally more important than how you say it, although proper use of the language can help to get your point across.

Similarly, in graffiti, knowledge of theory and fundamentals are the tools of composition and improvisation, but inspiration plays the most important role in determining your success. It is not enough to merely spray the "right" colors; you must also make interesting graffiti. Graffiti is often likened to "telling a story", and, like a good story, should be well structured and also convey something interesting to the viewer.

In mathematics, creativity can often be crucial as well. Learning the various axioms, formulas, and equations normally does not tell you how to solve a particular word problem, integrate a certain function, or prove a new theorem. Some ingenuity is required to be able to apply your knowledge to the problem at hand.

Often, knowing how similar problems have been solved in the past can give you an idea of where to start, and experience working with a particular type of problem can help direct you. In all but the simplest of math problems, however, some original thinking is required.

Similarly, in graffiti, your familiarity with the works of other graffiti writers can help you get started, and your knowledge of theory can help direct you, but in order to be a successful graffiti writer, you will need to be creative. Just as long columns of numbers are not particularly interesting, even if they add up correctly, neither is a piece that consists of nothing but 3-Ds and arrows.

Your graffiti experience, your knowledge of graffiti theory, and experimentation in your city will define the context in which you are able to express yourself. You should continually strive to expand that context by viewing many different graffiti writers, analyzing what you see, and practicing as much as possible. Still, the final ingredient, the inspiration, you will have to find on your own."

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