Noises for November

Buford Youthward

As suprapersonal imagery it's ironic that graffiti writing remains fixated on charismatic, idiosyncratic personalities. But beneath the surface of anecdotes, the real agents of change are abstractions to which individual will is subordinated.

Even the Great Legend theory of historical writing, with its apparent focus on the individual exercise of genius, falls into this category. When So-And-So is said to have been called upon (like a minister receiving the call to preach) to change the language of graffiti, to reinterpret its fundamentals and give it a way to continue, So-And-So seems to have no matter in the choice. Or more precisely, questions of choice become irrelevant: had So-And-So declined, or proved unfit to the task, the call would have passed down the line to someone else.

There is something to this view, of course. Currents in history are often larger than individuals. But the habit of telling history this way sacrifices the complexity and ambiguity of lives lived in a particular historical moment. Bringing the focus of graffiti back from lofty abstractions to quirky contingencies restores a measure of common sense to graffiti.

Warring abstractions aside, distinguished from the masses by special gifts and absorbed with the details of their craft, these graffiti tradesman carried out their work with a certain disregard for their immediate environment. Servicing rep is usually mistaken as disservice to the community. But you can say whatever you want. Stories involving identity are never complete.

Graffiti casts great shadows of culture autonomy, yet there's no shortage of knuckleheads looking for the fraudulent goal of assimilation. Frustration, ingenuity and despair stake claim and shape pain. Graffiti is unfinished business. Outliving its time, watching its social and aesthetic meanings sway into new formations syncopated from original contexts. Demons on missions are forever trying to find new ways to say old things.

Trafficking in gesture and technique, framing your questions, envisioning a history, well, these are matters of majestic imagination. Figuring it out is a game for fools and hipsters alike.

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