Art Crimes

Critical Terms for Graffiti Study

© 2003 Caleb Neelon / Sonik

These short essays are an attempt to give a more thorough explanation of some of the more loaded terms in the vernacular and culture of graffiti. They are not applications of existing critical terms: rather, they are themes and concepts which are crucial to understanding graffiti on its own terms. With this background knowledge, it is my hope that other existing critical terms in the academic disciplines may be more appropriately applied. Primarily, these essays are written as a companion and a primer for academic work, and hopefully, they may be of use to those visitors to Art Crimes that are doing research in the topic area.

As this is online and not in print, there is no reason for me to consider these essays finished, so I welcome suggestions and comments from anyone who cares to give them. As much as Iıve tried to speak to the universals of graffiti, thatıs impossible: Iım still one person, and these are necessarily personal opinions, however much theyıre rooted in conversations with hundreds of others. Any graffiti writer with a pulse and strong convictions about what they do will disagree with me on certain points. Special thanks go out to those people who have already read these essays and have given their critiques.

For the purposes of these essays, I assume that you know the very basic vocabulary of graffiti: tags, throwups, pieces, bombing, etc.

"Graffiti", "Writing", and Legal vs. Illegal:

Most people will freely use the term "graffiti" to encompass the entire public art form that has emerged globally from the subways of New York City. Initially, subway pioneers such as Phase 2 would refer to their craft as "writing" and vehemently reject the word "graffiti," due to the negative connotations of the latter; its Italian root graffiari meaning to scratch or scrawl. Certainly, their desire to put some distance between their work and the previous popular conception of graffiti was appropriate, and probably, if there had emerged a new word for the form other than their choice - "writing" - it may well have stuck. "Writing" simply couldnıt stick, because its meaning is taken by the act of what I am doing at this keyboard, however well the word "writer" has stuck to graffitiıs practitioners. Calling it spraycan or aerosol art falls short as well, for the simple reason that it isnıt all done with spraypaint, especially nowadays.

Exactly what is considered graffiti - in the sense of it as "writing" as developed by the subway painters of New York City in the 1970ıs is a difficult definition, but the safest and shortest version that I can work out is the following:

"Writing" originally meant stylizing the letters of your name; accessories such as backgrounds and characters were secondary and not the focus. Also, since the activity took place almost exclusively on the subways, it was always illegal. Therefore, exporting these criteria, we get:

It is "graffiti" in the sense of "writing" only if it deals with stylizing the letters of a name, illegally.

Some complications of that little guideline: As for illegality, that notion can be iffy. Iıve personally been arrested at legal walls, and also have been painting a wall illegally only to have the owner walk up, thank me for doing it, and buy me lunch. Iım not unique in these experiences. The word "graffiti" can also apply to any illegal marking on a surface, and a key part of graffiti writing has always been drawing in the blackbooks (sketchbooks) of others, which is of course completely legal.

Legality vs. Permission

Graffiti is to many a state of mind and a lens with which one views the world. Part of this state of mind involves what Susan Farrell aptly calls "a fundamental shift to an unsanctioned point of view." This "shift" is the result of an examination of what the concepts of legality and permission really mean. This shift in point of view often beings with a fundamental disgust with what our society sanctions and condemns. This shift may begin with with a line of reasoning such as the following:

It is, for instance, perfectly legal for Calvin Klein to install billboards of a rail-thin female model who is adolescent in either age or appearance. That such displays encourage anorexia, bulimia, and statutory rape is well-documented. Cigarette and alcohol companies can advertise their products. Their products can kill people and can destroy families. Burger King, Dunkinı Donuts, and so on can advertise their fatty products with impunity even though habitual consumption of their food may cause obesity, heart disease, and adult onset diabetes. It is perfectly legal for violent Hollywood films and violent video games to advertise. Casinos can promote gambling to their heartıs content. While all of these ill effects of advertising are matters of common sense and should violate our common conscience, I as a writer (and here I mean an author) have to shift to the subjunctive mood and speak in softer language than is due in order to pass legal muster for publication.

It is, however, illegal to paint murals in celebration of line, color, and the beauty of life on a dull gray train trestle for the viewing pleasure of people on their way to work, all without demanding a cent for the service. That these surfaces are referred to as "public property" is a cruel joke on all of us. That a billboard encouraging the consumption of hard alcohol is "private property" when it exists only for the public view is another cruel joke.

One doesnıt have to be Thoreau, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King to see that these aspects of our society are fundamentally skewed, and that civil disobedience is one of the ways by which we as a society can cure ourselves of the misuse and underuse of public and private property. Graffiti writers have been doing their work, for free, on the offensive, uncared-for, and underutilized spaces in our urban landscape for so long, and have been met with such unreasonable resistance that it is no wonder that graffiti is also an outlet for the destructive urges as much as the creative. Our public spaces should truly be public. Businesses that encourage the anorexia, lung disease, alcoholism, obesity, or violent propensities of their clientele deserve every bit of vandalism that comes their way. Similarly, property owners that turn down community murals in favor of blank walls deserve to be out there repainting them every Monday until they get the hint.

Graffiti vandalism exists in part as a response to these social ills. Tags arenıt trying to be a cure, but an accurate measure of the anger which these social ills elicit. Graffiti writers, it is important to note, are certainly not in the habit of describing themselves as civil disobedients against advertising, in the line of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King. Far from it. Many, if not most, will say that they know full well that what they do is illegal and in some cases wrong, but that theyıre doing it anyway because it is a good time at the expense of people they dislike; going for theirs in a world with an already skewed set of priorities.

That said, the notions of "legality" and "permission" are pretty fuzzy. As I mentioned earlier, Iıve personally been arrested for painting a legal wall, and have been painting a wall illegally only to have the property owner walk up, tell me how nice I was for painting his wall, and buy me lunch. There are plenty of abandoned and public property spaces that are painted regularly by graffiti writers where the property owner could never be found in order to ask permission. In any case, the process of obtaining permission to paint, for free, what is by any objective account an act of community service deserving of respect and gratitude, is often completely degrading to an artist and guarantees bland art in the spirit of compromise. It is to the artistıs credit that they get fed up and create multiple works without permission in the time that it would take for the paperwork to clear (or not) for one.

Many graffiti observers, such as Jim Prigoff, author of the seminal work Spraycan Art, dislike the words "legal" and "illegal" in reference to graffiti, instead using "permission" and "without permission." In my experience, almost all graffiti writers themselves refer to "legals" (and one who paints them in too great a proportion to their illegal work, a "legal eagle") and "illegals." I suspect that the writers stick to these terms because most of them have had the fun experience of being arrested for painting "without permission," otherwise known as breaking the law, and doing something illegal. In abstract and academic terms, I agree with Prigoff that "permission" and "non-permission" are more appropriate terms. However, in the immediacy of the act itself, it is very clear in the mind of the writer that what they are doing is illegal, that they are breaking established laws, and that they are risking court appearances and a police record if apprehended. So although the writers among themselves will say "that kid is lame, he only paints legals" (themıs fighting words) or "that dude has the most ridiculous illegal spots in this city" (thatıs big praise) it is, for academic use, more appropriate to use the terms "permission" and "non-permission" in order to better elucidate what "legal" and "illegal" really mean in our society.

Real Estate: The Art of "Spots"

Placement is a great part of graffiti. If it were not, the art form would exist like any other of the fine arts, on paper, canvas, and in museums. At their best, graffiti and street art come to you. They demand little of your time (next to a novel), none of your money (unless you feel the need to "own" them by getting rid of them), and require no special training to appreciate. Quite the opposite, the more that one leans on an extensive knowledge of the history and theory of traditional art, the more difficult it can become to enjoy graffiti and street art.

Imagine the possibilities of the subways, an art space that is guaranteed the attention of tens of thousands of people each day - people that will walk up to your painting and walk inside it, to be greeted by the signatures of dozens more. Not only that, attendance is mandatory: people have to take the subway in order to get to work and maintain their livelihood. Next to a space of such vitality and immediacy, the potential of a gallery installation space seems dreadfully limited - we have expected shock in our visits to museums and galleries for so long that weıre never shocked. Subway graffiti in New York City held such a captive audience and was such a powerful force that mayoral administrations fell in part because of their failure to eliminate it - a demonstration of art affecting politics no other movement can touch.

The end of the era of running subways in New York City sent everyone scrambling for new spaces to paint. The most clever of the painters in the late 1980ıs and early 1990ıs took their work to street spots, tunnels, freights, and in some cases, to transit systems overseas. Writers coming up nowadays have the whole gamut to select from, but regardless where they choose to work, or even whether they choose to use the name and style base of traditional graffiti, theyıre still governed by the number one word in real estate: location. As it applies to graffiti, a locationıs quality can be judged on seven basic criteria.

1) The primary concern of any spot is whether it is "gettable" at all. Graffiti is all about risk and reward, and how high a risk one runs by doing a particular spot is often the best measure of the workıs success. Every spot requires a different set of tactics, whether nighttime ninja mission or daylight robbery. Sometimes, the risk involved is an obvious one, one that gives a charge to the piece, but just as often it leaves the writer out of control of the situation and hurrying too much to come off well. A perfectly executed piece in a wild spot shows not only the artistıs mastery of the medium, but also their mastery of their surroundings.

2) The second concern is the audience. Who will see the work? Booming spots, such as freeways, guarantee a wide audience, which is always nice, yet can sacrifice depth for breadth. Work done in an out-of-the-way space has the potential to be much more intimate and hit harder the few people that it does reach. If a writer is working on a clean subway train that is absolutely not going to run into public view (which isnıt the case with all trains, many do of course run,) the photo is all-important. Whether a writer decides to sit on it and only show it to their closest friends or show it to the world on the Internet and in magazines greatly affects the pieceıs public, but in either case limits it to fellow writers unless the train runs. Many city spots for piecing are utterly abandoned except for writers, the homeless, and other people as marginal as the space itself. Such spaces are good for conveying a message to oneıs peers, but will miss the mark completely if itıs the general public one is after. To counter this, some writers will work in very public spaces, but in ways that appeal more to the general public than to their peers.

3) Third on the list is the surface, the actual structure one works with. Graffiti writers get to paint some great surfaces: concrete, steel, brick, corrugated metal, and so on. Gallery artists can bring these materials inside and work on them, but always they run the risk of being trite and contrived when they do so. Graffiti, on the other hand, has a form for all surfaces: for instance, if a wall is too bumpy to elaborately piece, one can do a big throwup to good effect. Traditional surfaces such as paper and canvas are characterless by design. Good graffiti and street art always take advantage of a surface with a character of its own and meet it halfway.

4) The fourth element is the placement and incorporation of the work within the space. Graffiti escapes the boring, rectangular cage of canvases so well, and the beauty of it is that the piece does not stop at the borders of what is painted, but instead carries further and incorporates its surroundings. Scale is quite important here. Some spaces call for work that takes over, that dominates, and some spaces call for work on a smaller scale that may leave more of the surface deliberately unpainted. Some city spots that are frequently painted may be better served by going bigger and further than other writers have gone at the same spot. On the other hand, a writer working in a previously unpainted space may be well served to paint smaller with greater detail and attention to the integration of the piece with the space, in a way that becomes more difficult after a space has collected a great deal of graffiti.

5) The fifth criterion is permanence. Naturally, writers strive to make their work last as long as possible, but a fifteen-year-old piece is a Methuselah. Does the spot a writer is doing have any chance of lasting more than a few hours? If people see the writerıs work on the street on their way to work, have they seen something that wonıt last until their trip home that evening? Obviously, itıs nice when work lasts, but there are times when a piece lives fast, dies young, leaves a beautiful corpse, and itıs a good thing.

6) Sixth on the list is the originality or history of the space, and its surprise factor. Trains, rooftops, store grates, tracksides, and so on all call for graffiti as they are traditionally where it is placed. Yet the beauty of these spaces is that they still have the power to surprise when done correctly. Alternatively, a piece executed on an unexpected surface will always surprise and always be well worth the while. Also, most cities will have spaces that have a special local history, graffiti or otherwise: for example, the "Freedom Tunnels" in New York City, which were first painted in the mid-1980ıs by a writer named Freedom, or the small section of the original Berlin Wall that still stands.

7) Finally, there are the sensory intangibles of a spot, the qualities that cannot show up in photos, but frequently dominate the stories of the space. Is it in a place that always smells strongly of something? Are there wild berry bushes around it? Do homeless people live there and recite poetry to anyone who wanders by? Is the spot quiet? Is there always some strange noise? Is it going to piss off just the right people? Are there lots of bugs around? Is the sunset beautiful in the area? Good street artwork has the power to engage all of the viewerıs senses, even if it is an essentially visual art form.

Style: Bridging the Graffiti You Find Ugly and the Graffiti You Find Beautiful

Graffiti as we know it will be (about) thirty-five years old in 2004, old enough to get my vote for president of the USA. In the early days, graffiti writers had to cope with scores of people asking "but is it art?" Nowadays, a glance through any collection of modern graffiti - such as Art Crimes - will establish certain graffiti as art to all but the most conservative observer. While some people do not consider any artwork executed without permission to be art, few can argue with legally sanctioned work.

Graffiti is a great medium because it bypasses so much of the garbage that governs art done in other ways. It gets seen by the public, yet it also has an insider peer group both on a local and international level. The public is free to make of it what they will, since there isnıt some decision-making curatorial body to decide what will be exhibited, all the while biased and limited by the needs of their careers. Done well, graffiti astonishes and infuriates. It demands a great deal of work and dedication from the writer, and because of that it often ensures a more rapid artistic progression than studio work. Thereıs adventure, fun, peers, and stories galore for the writer. The recurrent tests of personal character and mettle in the form of chases, arrests, and scary situations will always keep one from the artistic rut of navel-gazing. And in the center of all of the craziness involved in finding spaces, painting them, and getting out again safely is the creation of the body of work for which one will be known.

Todayıs vocabulary of graffiti encompasses everything from astonishingly detailed, multi-week murals to writing your name on plate glass windows with glass etching acid for maximum damage with minimum effort. Extremes such as these are part of the totality of options that graffiti writers can explore while still remaining very much in the same game. There are plenty of writers whose individual body of work spans both extremes, and facility with the entire spectrum of activity is respected. Graffiti artists have pushed the spray can's technical possibilities to the point where they parallel those of the paintbrush. Graffitiıs technical toolchest includes ever-so-delicate strokes from tiny tips on low-pressure cans for photorealistic portraiture. The toolchest also includes the making of homemade markers that deliberately create ink tags with drips all the way down the wall to the floor in order to show that the writer has such command of their game that they have on hand so much of their supplies that they can afford to be "wasteful" with them. The graffiti toolchest includes a gigantic vocabulary of letterforms, serifs, arrows, fills, shadows, connections, and other calligraphic enhancements. More and more, writers experiment with various types of paints and new media. These developments are fueled by the contributions of thousands of young people the world over, each bringing their own culture and experience to their creations. Add to this an earth full of surfaces to paint on, and the possibilities are limitless.

So what, specific to graffiti, makes it good? What aesthetic principles govern it in all its forms, from a dripping, hastily written tag to a spectacular mural? People start the practice of graffiti because in doing so they are different. However, if and when they decide to commit seriously to graffiti as more than a teenage weekend diversion, they will realize that they are hardly alone in doing so. There are thousands of very dedicated graffiti writers worldwide. Being the local graffiti writer may create yourself a "rebellious artist" image around your way, but in the global graffiti culture, that "cool" is standard issue. There's nothing special about being a graffiti writer in a room full of graffiti writers. What sets writers apart from one another is style, the one key word to any understanding of graffiti. The best definition of style is simply that a good graffiti writer has one all their own. To those outside the culture, this is unfortunately not very useful.

For most of its participants, graffiti is at least in part a quest for identity. Psychologically, this is rather obvious, for the act of leaving one's mark has been associated with self-affirmation since the dawn of time. However, since there are currently so many people out there doing it, each participant strives to have something special about the way they write their name in order to stand out. The great challenge of graffiti is to create a design framework for the letters in one's name, as well as a dedicated and distinctive practice of putting them in public, both of which is are so personally tailored that they allow for the expression of attitudes, opinions, emotions, and so on. Since the set of letters in the name that one paints do not change, the way they are painted (and that includes where, how, and why) is what conveys meaning. That way they are painted, if distinct and unique over time, becomes a voice, a style. With a voice that is entirely personal, one can convey messages which are every bit as personal without losing any of their meaning.

A highly developed letter style alone will not impart serious meaning upon a graffiti piece, but it is the only tool with which meaning can be effectively conveyed. Graffiti is based as much on quantity as quality, and thus when a knowledgeable viewer sees a work by, for example, Sento TFP, that viewer isnıt seeing just the single piece so much as they are seeing a piece of his consistent and relentless progression. In Sentoıs case, this extends from the running subways of New York in the 1980ıs to the instantly cleaned NYC subways of the 1990ıs to the streets of New York City, as well as his accomplishments as the first New Yorker to really explore the trains in Europe, all the while doing so with an absolutely rock-solid letter structure. Perhaps a good analogy is that it is like looking at a still in a movie: itıs a piece of a story of development, perhaps a crescendo or climax in that story, perhaps a lull, but a freeze frame with its own mood and nuances invariably linked to everything before or since, or, in the case of an active writer, to come. Style is how one presents one's ideas; the way one creates, the framework and the foundation for all of one's work. Once one's style is firmly established, letters and their placement develop for the graffiti writer in a way that is meaningful, whether in the form of a quick tag or elaborate piece: the design and shape of the letters means something beyond looking pretty, all of the arrows, serifs, and connections used have a purpose besides simply saying "look at this!!" The locations painted are part of that development and speak to it as well: for instance, if a writer continually paints the same safe and tucked away wall, it shows an opportunity for development missed, whereas a writer continually painting new and daring spaces shows opportunity seized. With a strong personal style, one can also experiment and learn new methods of painting without rendering the work trivial.

While the display of style is most accessible to the general public in multicolored pieces, essentially murals, it is by no means limited to them. Graffiti began on the New York subways with tags. Over time, they grew organically into multicolored pieces in order to continue to stand out. After the piece was developed, and the competition for space intensified greatly on the subways, the throwup developed as a means of getting oneıs name up quickly and effectively. Almost every single graffiti writer got their start by tagging, and it remains at the heart of graffiti. A writer who can paint complex and technical pieces and yet cannot tag well is guaranteed to draw snickers from his peers, yet a writer who has well-executed tags all over the city and may never have done pieces will draw respect. Bombing - the illegal, dirty, reviled vandalism - is the heart and vital energy of graffiti. While it is difficult to understand and to judge in terms of traditional art, it is the engine of the craft, powering the more accessible work with an edge and an admonition not to get too close.

It takes a great deal of time to develop an appreciation of and eye for style, as it requires an understanding of the visual vocabulary and history of graffiti. Rather than wandering aimlessly into the graffiti in oneıs city or into millions of graffiti photos on the net and trying to evaluate them in terms of oneıs preexisting standards of art, it is a better idea to start by researching some of the best. The following is a list of names that enjoy near-universal respect in graffiti circles as letter stylists, and will no doubt make for rewarding research. This is by absolutely no means a whoıs who, but just a few names to get a researcher off to a good start, with an eye toward geographic, historic, and stylistic distribution. The reputations of the older writers are obviously more established, but Iıve also tried to list a few younger writers that are well on their way. If you canıt find pages of their work (almost all of these artists are on Art Crimesı featured artist list, however) use Google or some other image search with their name and city.

Blade, Kase 2, Dondi, Seen, Phase 2, Dero, T-Kid, Sento, Reas, Ces, Earsnot, (all New York City) Bando, Diego, Mode 2 (Paris,France) Delta, Zedz (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) Esher, (Berlin) Can 2 (Mainz), Chintz (Dortmund) (Germany) Bates, Swet, Kegr (Copenhagen, Denmark) Joker (Portland), Saber (LA/SF), Cycle (NYC, DC, SF), Ewok (Minneapolis), KR (NYC, SF) Twist (SF) (USA) Puzle (Melbourne), Atome (Sydney) (Australia) Os Gemeos (Sao Paulo, Brazil)

Watch for how these writers work over time with the letters of their name, and the constant motifs, techniques, and embellishments they employ. Some of these writers are known more for bombing and some for piecing, and some for both, so see what qualities are important in each area as well as both, and the ways that the lines between the two are blurred. Pay attention to the dates of the works to see how theyıve developed. Look for consistencies in how they address spots where they work quickly as opposed to where they have more time. Find the elements of their work that donıt appear in the work of other people - or more likely, that appear in the work of those younger than them. Examine the weighting of the letters, the visual balance of their pieces, and the overall timbre of the piece. Above all, enjoy. These guys are good.

The "Real Writer":

Graffiti writing began as a fun, creative, adventuresome, competitive expression among peers. It also had an incidental audience of the entire city of New York. It was not a plea for acceptance, certainly. As resistance to graffiti mounted in New York, so did the measures that the writers would use to work. Even today, when web sites, lovely fanzines, and books extoll the virtues of graffiti, it is rarely a soft or friendly medium, especially when done well. Popular interest in graffiti is at a bit of a high at the moment (which is late 2003, so watch for it to fall off soon, I suppose) and avenues for graffiti writers above ground are all over the place: legal walls, magazines, books, the internet, galleries, art school, clothing lines, etc. A "real writer" will likely do none of this stuff, and will stay illegal, steal his paint, and not bother with the aboveground avenues that inevitably water down the cultureıs original essence.

This definition is facetious, and it is difficult to write down a definition of "real writer" without sounding silly. This is because "real writers" do not write critical terms for graffiti. They do, however, enjoy a universal respect from a community of people that in many cases extends internationally, a status earned the hard way by displaying longevity in a world full of quitters, and significance in a world full of the insignificant.

The best way to find out what a "real writer" is would be to research the careers of people like these, who are not the only real writers out there, but certainly real to many: Sento TFP, Chintz, Jase BA, Veefer WKS, MQ DMS, Kaos VIM, Ghost RIS, Nema TPG, MOAS crew, Nace KCW, Kadism, Tie THR, Revs, and many more.

Beautiful Corpses: The Buff

Since graffiti was born on subway trains, inquiries about the life span of painted works were phrased in terms of how long a work "ran," as in "ran on the line." Even though works painted in the street do not go anywhere, if they are still in existence, they are still "running." If a subway train is painted, the question asked is "did it run?"

Graffiti doesnıt last. It gets painted over, sandblasted, dissed, postered over, faded, knocked down, walled over, renovated, scribbled on, washed off, scrubbed, and, in the case of at least one piece Iıve seen, shot beyond recognition. The cure for ephemerality, graffiti writers have found, is effort. The sheer number of paintings and hours logged by the best in the craft is staggering. It is not uncommon to meet twenty-five-year-olds who have done 500 to a 1,000 multicolored paintings in public spaces. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that the artist had to find the spaces to make those paintings safely, travel there and back, and that missions donıt always work out as planned.

Buffing means removing graffiti. Originally, this referred to the caustic chemical drive-through car wash that was devised for the New York subways. Writers now refer to any piece that has been taken from view by the authorities as "buffed." The original buff was an acid solution that left the subway cars a muddy mess - as opposed to a freshly painted car. Repainting the subways looked better, but the expedient buff, which smeared the tags and pieces beyond recognition, was perhaps cheaper, and prevailed. Later generations of New Yorkıs subway cars were made from stainless steel, so as to be buffed more easily.

Cities take different approaches to taking graffiti from public view. I say "taking from public view" because in most cases, the graffiti is not removed, but painted over with a drab, standard color. Most cities pick one such color and stick with it - for example, Boston uses a light slate blue gray. New York City uses a burgundy. Chicago uses a pale brown. What these colors have in common is that they are arbitrary, ugly, and institutional: I imagine that some city must use the palest of greens, in chromatology the most placative and sedative of colors, and thus used in most prisons. These buff colors are also uniformly great surfaces for further graffiti. Cities rarely have a precise and specific color specified, but instead utilize various shades of their buff color. The result on frequently co-targeted walls is a kind of collage of different tones; a patchwork quilt of action and reaction.

Graffiti writers have taken this dynamic into consideration for years. The buff squads need graffiti to clean up to continue their livelihood, and graffiti writers, in an odd variant of the hostage/hostage-taker fondness called the Stockholm Syndrome, often need the buff to free up wall space again, get angry and motivated, and to keep things challenging and interesting. Many writers who engage in studio work will partially "buff" their own work as part of the final product. The reappropriation of the buff into something which can be sold is a fine last laugh at the authorities.

Itıs a strange experience to drive or ride the train through cities with a prominent buff and see a certain, arbitrary color so dominate its landscape. For instance, the burgundy of New York, the pale blue of Boston, and the pale brown of Chicago hold no special places in the hearts of their citizens. They arenıt civic or sports team colors, nor do they refer to some special color of the genius loci, e.g. green in Ireland. The color of the urban buff is the arbitrary shade of officialdom in the city.

Self-Reference aka In-Jokes You Donıt Get:

Graffiti is a subculture that as yet has little in the way of recognition from or integration into the rest of the cultural canon. It began as an independent phenomenon in the very late 1960ıs, though by the 1980ıs, it was roped into the more recently formed hip-hop culture, for better or for worse. The cultural package deal of rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti art definitely made for fun and marketable sociology and ethnography, and thatıs not necessarily a bad thing. However, graffiti has, to borrow a term from economics, a "negative net present value," quite unlike the other so-called "hip-hop elements" of rapping, DJing, and breakdancing, which are profitable. This also hold true for hardcore music and skateboarding, two other subcultures that have generated great numbers of writers. For whatever reason, graffiti doesnıt receive that same attention from critics, scholars, and theorists that, say, rap music has received. There are academics galore who are ready and willing with theses and dissertations linking rap to griot culture, spirituals, blues music, and toasting, but as yet there are few art theorists who are willing to trace a path in graffiti with (for instance) hieroglyphics, Persian miniatures, Chinese calligraphy, Fin de Siecle lettering, Soviet posters, and Pop art. Instead, what graffiti attracts are criminologists and sociologists linking graffiti with broken window neighborhood decline theory and ritual transgression in young males. This is all fine and well, but graffiti is too highly developed a form of art to be ignored by art historians and critics.

I will likely face objection from my peers, but I feel that the type of scholarly and popular attention that graffiti receives has quite an effect on the resulting direction of graffitiıs own focus over time, by way of affecting the quality of attention that it receives in popular media. More simply put, this means that scholars and the media are affecting the kind of graffiti that writers are doing, whether as writers we would like to admit it or not. A great deal of this affect comes in the form of self-reference as opposed to a wider, pop and canonical scope of reference. Imagine yourself a participant in the culture, spending all your time and effort to do the work of a good graffiti writer. The risky, near-nightly work is just one part of it. Thereıs a great deal of history and a great many writersı work to know on an intimate basis. As in any all-consuming activity, it is important to know your craft, and that means learning a great deal about letters and artists and a hundred other topics. Yet even so, the popular world doesnıt much recognize that there is such a depth to it, so much to it, and instead focuses their efforts on eradicating it, treating it in academic papers as a harbinger of decline and its participants as deviants to be studied in the same distant manner as drug addicts and pregnant teens. At best, writers are treated to an ethnographic approach by scholars, and when we document ourselves, we market to our peers. If you were a participant in such a culture, would you still feel like tailoring your work to the people outside of it? Of course you wouldnıt. Not when you have a community of young people the world over who speak your language, even when it isnıt verbal.

Graffiti has grown up in a referential age as a self-referential art form. A graffiti writer can visually reference the work of Duchamp, Stella, Holzer, or anyone else, and do so just as easily as a gallery artist. Itıs paint. You can create references with it. However, since the wider world wonıt meet graffiti halfway, graffiti artists reference their peers far more than outside sources. Due to a lack of initial, basic scholarship, critics and art historians simply arenıt equipped with the visual vocabulary that is necessary to unpack all of what is going on in, for instance, a piece by Reas AOK. Reas did make the 2001 Venice Bienale along with Espo and Twist with their "Street Market" installation, but I can guarantee that no one on the Bienale selection committee had the background to appreciate the best qualities of his work: the amazing interplay of graffitiıs history of letterforms taking place in his pieces. Sure, they could tell that there was some virtuoso drawing going on, but they wouldnıt understand the virtuosity he displays in pieces that refer first to Billy 167 and then to FBA crew. However, plenty of young graffiti writers have done the necessary homework, all without degrees or tuition. Understandably, thereıs nothing like "not getting it" to annoy a History of Art Ph.D. with a decade of scholarship under his or her belt and the ability to unpack the nuances of utterly cold and inaccessible postmodern art. Doctoral candidates in Frankfurt or Cambridge just donıt seem to dig around for subversive thesis fodder in the photo albums of a writer like Ghost or Chintz. The fodder is there, of course, but it remains untapped, and most graffiti writers couldnıt care less and in fact are happily engaged in a closed system. As is almost always the case with graffiti, the punchline remains in the nuances of "fuck you."

© copyright 2003 Caleb Neelon (aka Sonik). For republication permission, comments, suggestions, beef, and all that other contact-the-author stuff, e-mail Sonik at More about Sonik is available on his website,

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