A Modern Perspective on Graffiti

© Copyright 1995 CL

For as long as people have been able to write they have been writing on walls. The Romans wrote on the buildings of the towns they conquered, and even before words were used, the cave men painted on walls. This writing was first called graffiti in Roman times and holds the same name now. But as the times have changed, so have the forms that this writing on the walls have taken. Today, there are quite a few different classifications that separate graffiti. There is the gang graffiti that street gangs use to mark their turf, graffiti that people write to express political views and a new form of graffiti that has just emerged in the past twenty-five years. This new form is artistic graffiti. Artistic graffiti is a modern day offspring of traditional graffiti that has elevated itself from just scrawling words or phrases on a wall, to a complex artistic form of personal expression.

This new form of graffiti first took form in the inner city of New York. It started with people writing their names and street numbers on public buildings, street signs or more commonly public transportation. These graffiti artists started experimenting with different styles, colors and mediums once they grew tired of writing just their names in plain letters. Soon this new form of graffiti blossomed into intricate artistic works. Contemporary graffiti involves much more than just a spur of the moment defacement; it is now a skillful display from each particular graffiti artist. At first, the New York citizens were amazed when a train rolled past with a huge colorful spray painted work on it. The first reaction of the liberal New York public was to take pictures of this art work.

For a while, this graffiti was tolerated in New York by the law and the public which helped spread this novel form of graffiti to other cities. Artistic graffiti grew by leaps and bounds as younger aspiring graffiti artists became attracted to this mode of artistic expression. The majority of graffiti artists were young boys from the city looking for some way to express themselves, painting graffiti became an artistic form of rebellion. Eager to show everyone their artistic skills and earn respect from other graffiti artists, this new generation of graffiti artists enlarged the circle of people who did artistic graffiti to include all sorts of races and economic classes.

As modern artistic graffiti expanded, a graffiti subculture filled with young artists emerged. This subculture became fused with a rising music culture now known as hip-hop. This connection came about mainly because hip-hop started in New York about the same time as modern graffiti took root; hence many people were involved in both areas. As hip-hop and graffiti spread to other cities a large underground group of graffiti artists started to solidify. Making up this group were kids whose childhood hangout was the city, kids who knew the ins and outs of the transit lines and neighborhoods where this art form lived.

Unfortunately, artistic graffiti grew to a point where it invaded personal property. Graffiti artists had to compete for space, and it inevitably offended property owners. This combined with the common misconception that all graffiti represented gang activity led to community pressure on politicians. These politicians responded by ordering police pressure and other measures on graffiti writers. New York led the way with such constraints and other cities followed suit. Most politicians saw this problem as much easier to solve then a drug or gang problem. They realized that most graffiti writers are young and don't have the same resources as a gang might. Also the effects of graffiti can be painted over, while the effects of a drug problem take much more effort to "erase."

Instead of trying to work with the youth who are doing the graffiti, the various politicians have taken the classic stance and declared war on graffiti writers. This approach is outdated and accomplishes little as far as fixing the problems that motivate these kids to do graffiti in the first place. This strategy only breeds resentment from the youth who perpetrate these crimes. The fines, imprisonment and police tactics against graffiti writers continue to escalate as the law proceeds with its attack on graffiti. This reaction has come to a point where the police in many cities have formed special task forces in an attempt to trap graffiti writers. Various bans on the sale and possession of markers and spray paint have also been implemented. In some cases, the penalties for having a can of spray paint can be equal to the penalties for possessing a handgun.

At the advent of artistic graffiti, it was a new and accepted art form. Since then, the public outlook on graffiti has been changed greatly. This change occurred mainly because of reports to the public which equated artistic graffiti with gang graffiti. Soon people became scared whenever they saw any form of graffiti in their neighborhoods. This misinformation also gave graffiti an undying reputation of gang affiliation which contributed to community pressure against graffiti.

It is unfortunate that artistic graffiti has been given such a negative undertone. The positive conceptions of this form of graffiti would be restored if the public were more knowledgeable of what this graffiti really consisted of. This creative outlet for many people would be more accepted, and graffiti artists would have a better chance of achieving something beyond their neighborhoods if only the public perception of graffiti is changed.

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