The Artistic Construction of a Culture

by Rashaun Esposito, 2005. Comments to

A wall throws down a challenge.
Protecting property,
defending order,
it is a target for protest,
and for every political,
or social passion.
-Gilberte Brassai

The roots of graffiti, and the multi-cultural ties that have been supported by the objectivity of those who have placed their subjective marks on previously established structures, has been traced back to a time that precedes our former understanding of the establishment of artistic construction. For centuries, mural paintings have adorned walls as symbolic representations of artistic expression, unconfined by the temporal restraints of the political conversation dictated within the murals themselves. As each generation passes the murals that adorn walls throughout the world, they are reminded of the adage that 'history repeats itself.' The mass medium that urban wall art presents provides communities with an artisticly-expressed embodiment of the collective conscious that exists within the community-at-large, reflecting the social norms, mores, and cultural expectations of the members within that community. From this medium a counter-cultural voice spawned in the artistic images known as graffiti.

The primal instinctive urge to write on walls is best described by the famed artist Quik One, of the New York 'graffiti revolution,' in his response to the question, "when did you start writing?" Quik One is considered a king in graffiti culture, where kingdom is awarded to those icons who have inscribed their names on more than 5,000 and up to 10,000 walls, using markers and aerosol spray paint throughout their home city and around the world. Quik remarks, "I had been scribbling on things at school and church as early as 1970," a common sentiment found amongst graffiti artists, also referred to as 'writers.' They attest to early childhood memories of writing on the walls of their homes with crayons, and the foreknowledge of the reprimands they would face for their acts. (Olsen, 2004, p.1) These acts are viewed as counter-cultural deviant-motivated rituals by those who maintain a mainstream perspective in opposition to graffiti, but graffiti has deep roots in the larger context of art history.

"On the cavern walls of the recently discovered Chauvet caves in France...murals have been dated at approximately 32,000 years old." (Spigelman, 2004, p.3) This is the oldest recorded image used as a mass medium to communicate a message within a larger societal context. Whether the original intended message of the prehistoric artist was to be conveyed to one, or to a larger societal collective is debatable, but its placement in a locality that was observable by others presents an argumentative perspective supporting its intended use as a mass communicative tool. When considered as a tool for communication, the materialistic qualities of the scribe's work extend beyond the aesthetic qualities it retains. However, can such an artistic piece, which, by its definition as an affixation to a wall as indicative of muralism, be considered graffiti?

The word 'graffiti' derives from the Latin root of the word 'graffiari,' meaning to scratch or scrawl. (Neelon, 2003, p.1) The negative connotations at the root of this word date back to the detestors of Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, who expressed their aversion to [his] dictatorship on the walls of the Forum Romana. (Spigelman, 2004, p.4) Following the revolution of graffiti that transpired in the early 1970's, when an aesthetic [and]/or stylistic evolution (Spigelman, 2004, p.4) took place throughout the world, graffiti scribes began to place their personal definitions on the elements that simultaneously emerged during the growth of the culture. Urban wall artists referred to themselves as 'Writers,' displacing the label of 'Graffiti' that was placed on their uncommissioned works. Their works held signifiers that ranged from 'Tags,' which were unsophisticated, stylistic monikers written on walls and lamp posts, to 'Bombs' and 'Pieces,' which rivaled complex murals, highlighting two and three-dimensional designs in elaborate schematic patterns that were indicative of the writer's artistic prowess. The fundamental basis behind these designs and the culture that evolved with the speed of graffiti was birthed from the mural wall paintings used as a mass medium to infer a message to, or from, a community that indicated the social perceptions, norms, and expectations found within the community itself.

The ability of muralists to capture the essence of a community is never more evident than in American works, particularly those of the African-American community. These murals hold a strong significance in a culture that is personified by a common heritage. This heritage is dichotomous in the primary definition of its existence, heavily steeped in a folkloric struggle for equality, and historically alienated through victimization by the larger collective of American society. The dichotomy that exists within the phrase African - American represents the social, psycho-social, and socio-economic disparities that have existed between people of African descent, and those of European descent, in the United States since Africans were originally imported as human cargo. The struggle for equality within the African-American community branches determinately from Marcus Garvey's mass-segregationist movement, which called for a return to Africa, to Booker T. Washington's post Civil War Reconstruction movement for enhanced integrationist policy. Many have contributed to the plight of African-Americans as a collective from within, and outside of, the Black community, since the first documented arrival of Blacks in America. The African-American community has remained an alienated, self-dependent community. The placement, structure and economic autonomy of the African-American urban community, when compared to the numerous homogeneous communities that proliferate throughout America; overflowing with homeowners of European descent, is one of delineation and segregation. These disparities place forced integration in the workplace and in the schools as the only means of direct, daily communication between separate cultures, leaving modes of mass communication as a unifier of diverse backgrounds in American culture. Through these means of mass communication, a White person that lives in Utah who has never been in contact with those who don't share her cultural background, and system of beliefs, can be exposed to the Latin rhythms of Tito Puente, or the comedic social commentary of Richard Prior. The down fall of such an omni-graphic paradigm is the propensity towards generalizing an entire culture using the images communicated as a representative model by which all other members within the newly found culture should be expected to adhere to. This process, and the generalizations/stereotypes that are resultant, are the basis for mass communication through murals in the African-American community. Murals within these communities present a voice that opposes detrimental images, distributed en masse, while presenting positive images that are "celebrations of skill, intelligence, imagination, and spirit that form an important thread in Black America, inspiring and shaping a culture of hope." (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.10)

Robert Scott Duncanson finished the first commissioned mural by an African-American in 1854. Although untrained and self-taught, Duncanson was paid to paint fourteen murals within the walls of what is now known as the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. Duncanson was hired by an abolitionist, acting upon his beliefs, which contrasted against those mainstream American beliefs that upheld chattel slavery during the commissioned work. Duncanson was hired with the understanding that he was considered the "finest landscape painter in the West." (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.11) The work of Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, and Charles White were inspired by the trailblazing efforts of Duncanson. Each artist bore significant attention to detail in the content and context of their artistic creations, which were critical to the progression of their murals and the progression of murals in the United States. They would carry the art form into the politically explosive Civil Rights Era, before the torch would be passed to the graffiti artists of the 1970's.

During the Harlem Renaissance a revolution was transpiring in the world of visual arts, led by Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros and Jose Clemente Orozco. (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.12) Utilizing skills reminiscent of the Mayan site of Tikal in MesoAmerica, Rivera was heading an effort to embrace the process of using murals as a creative artistic form, while presenting 'food for thought' to his audience. Rivera's murals were sculpted for display in public areas, rather than private art galleries, and the messages interwoven within his art were politically based, and accompanied by refined aesthetics that were rich in cultural tradition. Rivera's murals were contextually significant, tying elements of Mexican culture, history and folklore to desired politico-social movements and communal efforts. Rivera's continuous efforts to call upon the members of communities with persuasive messages that appealed to their heritage, and sense of self, through massive artistic mediums was controversial, often blurring the line between art and politics. However, this use of art as a means of access to the disenfranchised masses is what drew African-American artists like Woodruff, White, and Douglas to Rivera.

"In his travels, Woodruff saw how the Mexican mural movement focused on the resistive spirit." (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p. 16) Woodruff's mural, Mutiny Aboard the Amistad was painted on the 100th anniversary of the heroic efforts of Cinque, a slave who led the mutiny of a slave-trader ship, and safely guided the vessel to the tip of Long Island, New York. (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.52) The scene depicts Black men in loincloths, wielding cleavers and rifles in taut positions, prepared to strike, as the fully clothed Whites aboard the ship struggle to escape their subordinate positions beneath the strong Black men. Placed within the walls of the Historically-Black Talladega College of Alabama, the content of the mural extends beyond its historical context. From the perspective of a Marxist paradigm, it is the classic struggle of the subordinate class to overtake the Bourgeoisie; and succeeding. The super-ordinate class is forced to plea for their lives, and each African within the mural is staring into the eyes of his captor, as he wields a weapon above his head, threatening death. There is a process of identification that establishes a conversation between the audience and the mural. The power has shifted from the powerful to the powerless, and with the rising of the subordinate group, a question remains for the audience. The blood of the transgressor has not been shed, and the dead bodies of Africans who fell victim in their fight for freedom, surround the battleground; should the Africans kill their suppressive captors?

Such a scene instills a sense of pride in African-American heritage. Pride for those who were willing to endure a challenge dictated by consequences of freedom, or death. These images rival other mass mediums of the time depicting African-Americans in degrading caricatures, which over-emphasized distinctive African features, to a deplorable state, which implied a lack of humanity, and equated African-Americans to savage beasts. The mural emphasizes the intelligence of a people who spoke many different languages, and came together to overtake a ship commissioned and navigated by a solidified fleet of sailors. The temporal significance of the production of such a piece is considerable as well. It was produced at a time in American history when African-Americans were relegated to separate, under-funded educational institutions. There is an emphasis on courage, and strength, at a time when mass mediums were being used to denigrate Blacks through Minstrel shows, and Koons' scientific study in biological anthropology revealed that Negroids, and Mongoloids, were biologically inferior to Caucasoids. The political message within Woodruff's mural extended beyond the depiction of the mutiny, reaching many who faced a constant onslaught of degrading depictions in the mass media.

The work of Douglas and White contributed to the re-definition of Black America by African-Americans as well. Douglas moved from Kansas to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, and worked closely with the co-founder of the NAACP, social activist and author of the intensive sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B DuBois. Douglas incorporated Du Bois' philosophical perspectives into his murals, entitled, Aspects of Negro Life,, a three-part series of panels erected at the New York Public Library located in the heart of Harlem, on Lenox Avenue. (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.48) The murals traced the ancestry of African-Americans from African customs and rituals through reconstruction, vivified by a panel that captures the fear of the Klan in juxtaposition to silhouetted images of soldiers proudly marching into the distance. The three panels display silhouetted images, with strong contrasts of shading, which reveal action, rather than detailed expression and emotion, leading the piece to read as a story line of a journey taken by a collective entity. Charles White's work contributed to the visual basis for murals being adapted to the African-American mural from Mexican influences. "Greatly influenced by Locke's The New Negro, Marxist ideas, Taller de Grafica Popular, and the muralists of Mexico, White saw himself as a cultural warrior, one who made images that would reveal the beauty of Black people and give them the confidence and pride to move beyond victimization." (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.19) One of his major works, The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America, depicts prominent African-American figures that range from Marian Anderson to Frederick Douglass. Further, the tradition that these artists established in the African-American community presented future artists, and the communities that they represented, with a voice, and a means of reaching a larger societal spectrum with that voice. Artists that include John Biggers, and Henry Ossawa Tanner studied under the guise of these muralists, carrying the tradition into the Civil Rights Era, where murals would leave the guarded walls of hospitals, and libraries, as the fight for equality would be 'taken to the streets.'

"People had a great attachment to the wall. I suppose maybe it was because they didn't have anything. We came in the spirit of love and respect and giving. We didn't ask anything other than their cooperation, and once we got into it, we could even (safely) leave our paint on the scaffold in a community that was dominated by drugs, drug dealers, drug users, thieves, rapists, robbers, murderers. That wall meant many things to many people I saw a young man sitting in front of the wall. His back was just resting on the wall. So I said, 'How are you doing, brother?' He said, 'I'm gaining my strength.' I saw people cry, I suppose the people in that community realized they had something that other people wanted to share and deal with. I don't think we, the artists, fully realized what we had created in relation to how people would attach themselves to it. As far as doing anything to the wall, that was unheard of. When the wall was first executed, the people would come [at] all hours of the night. It was a truly wonderful thing." - William Walker (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p. 62)

William Walker's account of his participation in the original version of the Wall of Respect, which appeared on the cover of the nationally distributed Black-owned magazine, Ebony, in 1967, confirms the connection that it, and other murals that followed, had in impoverished urban areas. The wall was a testament to the fortitude of African-American culture with iconic figures that included Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and John Coltrane, as well as images promoting community solidarity. Larger than life images rose from the floor to the roof of the two-story grocery and liquor store, which was painted by ten muralists of all colors without authorization from the absentee White building owner. (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.62) The work marked a return to mural painting in the African-American community, however, the return was fashioned in the exploitation of exterior, rather than interior surfaces. Many murals followed the Wall of Respect with similar titles (Wall of Truth, Wall of Dignity, and Wall[s] of Respect in other locales) and styles founded through similar conceptualization. As the murals spread across the United States from what is considered the epicenter of Civil Rights Era murals: Chicago, Illinois, they continued to portray elements of African-American culture with artistic dialogues that supported unification within the urban atmosphere.

A mural created by Nelson Stevens in Boston, Massachusetts, entitled Work to Unify African People conveys the messages of hope and solidarity amongst members of the African-American community. Two faces of young African-American males are side-by-side in the mural, both looking to the sky - one with determination, the other with expectation. Their facial features are of African descent, but their skin color is indistinguishable, as the artist used vibrant yellows, blues, reds, and greens in a masking form that is comparable to Cubist techniques. The message is clear, that African-Americans come in all shades and colors, and each shares a binding ancestral heritage that must be recognized. As a means of mass communication in support of unification, the piece is delicately intricate in form, yet forward in its message.

As murals moved to exterior sites, restrictions were placed on muralists' artistic expression. Sentiments of the murals were conducive with the socio-political movements associated with the era in which they appeared. The vociferous pride of the Black Panther Party was clearly demonstrated in the 1978 painting, Blacks from Egypt to Now, located in the Fillmore District of San Francisco. The image is centered on the golden headpiece of King Tutankhamen, which faces a portrait of Queen Nefertiti. The symbols establish an equivocal text between the rich history found in Africa and the lineage of modern African-Americans, who are depicted on the right side of the mural. The mural is read from left to right as a historical timeline, invoking pride in the past, an understanding of the present, and hope for the future that derives from the pride instilled from historical knowledge.

Aesthetics maintained importance, for the sake of those living with the finished work of the artist, but the most important aspects for the members of the community were the symbolism, and the ability of the message to convey social norms and expectations representative of the community. When A.G. Joe Stephenson of Albuquerque, New Mexico was commissioned to paint a mural at the Astoria Housing Project of Long Island, New York, his dynamic message of perseverance, which incorporated images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., peaceful demonstrators, burning buses, crosses and the KKK, was brought to a halt. (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p. 136) "You wouldn't go painting swastikas in a Jewish neighborhood, or scenes of the Holocaust. That's what the KKK means to us," remarked a worried mother who protested against the mural. (Prigoff & Dunitz, 2000, p.136) Muralists were forced to recognize the space that their work existed within, and the members of society that would be confronted by the artist's images. In the case of the Astoria Housing Project, the murals' content was thoroughly negotiated, leaving the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other pleasant, neutral, images of peaceful iconic figures; losing its stunning qualities, but fulfilling the needs of the community as dictated by its members. While other artists have echoed the neighborhood unifying experiences of William Walker during his work on the Wall of Respect, attesting to neighborly interest from members of neighborhoods that were formerly devoid of unity. Others have remarked about the unprecedented respect for their murals subsequent to their display; indicative of a common respect for an outlet of communal expression. This respect is comparable to, and parallels, the ethical standards held in the graffiti community, dictating that artists won't paint over the work of others from within the graffiti community. However, the mass communication that murals evoke is limited to the collective expectations held within the community. This lack of freedom in artistic expression is limited in its scope of negative consequences, a community that unites in opposition to a mural, unites nonetheless. A.G. Joe Stephenson's controversial depictions may have provided a tool for communication in the Astoria housing projects that was more valuable than the unification he originally intended to promote.

Murals date back to pre-historic times, they've been used in a calligraphic form as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and they've been used to proclaim opposition to Julius Caesar's reign; 'Grafficar' has evolved into a clearly delineated mode of communication. Within the last century murals have been used to unite masses in the name of Mexican revolutionaries, and as a cultural unifier. Muralists have established a conscious use of an art form to reach the masses without the support (and/or restriction) of upper-class bureaucratic entities that place controls and restriction on the dissemination of mass communication. African-American muralists channeled their collective energies into the creation of a unified culture following the reconstruction of a nation. By placing iconographic images that reflected the hope of their communities, African-Americans took ownership of neighborhoods that they had little monetary investment in. The mural is much more than paint conformed to an aesthetically pleasing image. Rather, it has the potential to be a symbolic representation of the cultural imperatives that it embodies. The murals' ability to instill pride and to communicate hopes, fears, dreams and expectations, extends the murals' purpose, as well as the purpose of the community that embraces it, while validating their simultaneous existence.

Bibliographical Information

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Written under the study and assistance of Sandra Allen.

© copyright Rashaun Esposito, 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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