The Artistic Construction of a Counter-Culture

by Rashaun Esposito, 2005. Comments to

Carving one's name,
one's love,
a date
on the wall of a building,
such vandalism cannot be explained solely
by destructive impulses.
I see in it rather the survival instinct
of all those who cannot erect
pyramids or cathedrals
to perpetuate their name.
-Gilberte Brassai

Twenty-two years separate the production of Style Wars and the major network prime-time television show The Apprentice, but many of the social conflicts found in Marxian power struggles are conveyed in a paradigm that pits a Durkheim-defined egoistic counter-culture against an altruistic dominant culture. The result of this power struggle, twenty-two years later, is an anomic collective that accepts graffiti as an art form, but continues to refer to members of the graffiti culture in denigrating terms, with connotations of delinquency and vandalism. Conflict theory dictates that "norms are established and power, and their substance may well be explained in terms of interests of the powerful." (Wallace & Wolf, 1999, p. 121) Style Wars presents a perfect model of the inequities that befit a struggle between a large bureaucratic force and a relatively small, culturally-defined collective. This model, existing in a socially stratified system, presents a government that is granted the power to impose sanctions, in the form of law and punishment, as a functional imperative towards halting the actions of non-organized graffiti writers.

The graffiti culture, as it existed in the 1970's and early 80's, encapsulated Durkheim's sociological definition of egoistic. As an unintegrated social unit, in comparison to the larger social collective that graffiti writers indignantly defied, the artists that Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant documented in Style Wars felt that they were not part of the larger society, and society was not part of them. Documented in 1983, many, including the graffiti culture king, Seen, reminisced of earlier years, when the collective was comprised of fewer writers and the social identity of writers remained disintegrated from the larger social collective. However, despite the disorganization of the large body of graffiti writers that existed in New York City in the early 1980's, there was a common identity that existed amongst them. As esteemed sociologist Lewis Coser has argued, 'external conflict is essential in establishing a group's identity.' (Wallace & Wolf, 1999, p.130) While the identity of graffiti artists may not have been formed by the conflict they faced (the origins of the rapid expansion in graffiti that took place in New York during the 1970's can be traced to an individual 'writer' named Taki 183), the conflict reinforced the socially stratified position of the sub-culture in its early stages. As Coser stated, "conflict sets boundaries between groups within a social system by strengthening group consciousness and awareness of separateness, thus establishing the identity of groups within the system." (Wallace & Wolf, 1999, p. 130)

The efforts of the New York City Metro Transit Authority (M.T.A.), at the opposite end of the spectrum of conflict, were altruistic, leaving the members of the governmental branch in a position where their inherent powers were being directly confronted by a largely unorganized collective. The constant 'bombing,' 'pieces,' 'burners,' and 'tags' to the interior and exterior of the Metro Transit Authority's railroad cars left the M.T.A. succumbing to a hopeless state of dissonance in respect to their altruistic values. They began to show evidence of the belief that they had failed the citizens of New York City in their accepted duty to meet the needs of their passengers. After re-painting 409 cars in eight weeks to eliminate the works of graffiti artists; works that had been travelling across the five boroughs of New York City for years, an M.T.A. worker remarked upon the altruistic atmosphere that existed within the organization. "Our personal pride was hurt...A lot of people's been knocking the transit authority, and we wanted to show them that we could do something." (Chalfant & Silver, 1983) His co-worker chimed in with pride and nationalist sentiments, "See. If the Japanese can do it, we can do it." (Chalfant & Silver, 1983)

This juxtaposition is the epitome of the origins of the image that graffiti writers have inherited as the artform has developed over the last three decades. The opening narration of Style Wars points to a sub-cultural tradition that threatens the system of power as it currently exists.

Graffiti writing in New York is a vocation, its traditions are handed down from one youthful generation to the next. To some, it's art, to most people however, it's a plague that never ends. A symbol that we've lost control. (Chalfant & Silver, 1983)

Such a negative image is directly related to the value systems of the dominant culture, as well as economic and political authority, as outlined in the aforementioned conflict paradigm. In his essay, "Bombing" L.A. : Graffiti Culture and the Contest for Visual Space, Saul Bolivar examined the origins of terminology congruent with the word deviance as it is used in reference to graffiti writers in the power struggle for control over city walls. "Many times access to space is denied to certain sub-cultural groups because their values and practices are perceived as being deviant in relation to norms of the wider society." (Bolivar & Groth, p.1) It should be noted that such a conflict maintains socio-economic complexities that reach beyond the legality of the sanctioned painting of public space, "the task of cultural usually relegated to people of European descent, as if their perspective was universal." (Giller, 1997, p.1) Style Wars, a mass medium outlet capable of informing and influencing global opinions, revolves around this previously constructed image of deviance. Deviance is a label with negative connotations, which is defined as: One who deviates; turns aside or wanders from the common or right way; to diverge; to err, or to vary from a uniform state. Style Wars glorifies and reprimands deviance in the same instance, as an ominous narrative counterbalances shots of youthful graffiti writers celebrating the first run of their burners on a train line that will be seen in all five boroughs.

The writers, rightfully, refuse the term 'deviant.' it doesn't describe their intentions, their goals or their aspirations. Dondi, a king who has tagged and bombed more than 5,000 spots, refers to his deviant activities in tones of transcendence:

"I think it's something you can't never recapture again once you experience it...even the smell you get, like when you first smell trains, it's a good smell to, like, a dedicated graffiti're there in the midst of all the metal, and like, you're here to produce something." (Chalfant & Silver, 1983)

Many graffiti writers speak of their experiences of writing graffiti in similar terms. References to cities that have quieted in the night, and walls that the artist 'owns' for a short period of time are comparable to the soulful atonement that Walt Whitman often described when referring to being alone in nature. Their culture is an alienated, egoistic element of society, however, their accepted alienation refuses to be defined by those they have been alienated by, or those they have alienated (within the larger social collective).

In a Style Wars interview, a group of writers are confronted with allegations of vandalism that extend beyond their artistic creativity. The narrator informs them that they have been accused of malicious acts to public property, to which a writer responds with vivid emotion, "They're trying to make it look like graffiti writers break windows and everything, and it ain't even like that." (Chalfant & Silver, 1983) To the young man, this was an offensive accusation against him and the members of his community. This misrepresentation, presented by 'them' in an 'us vs. them' conflict, is ill-representative of his culture.

In an effort towards a fair, balanced presentation of information, Style Wars documents an interview of, then Mayor of New York City, Howard Koch. In reference to graffiti and his distaste for the aesthetic qualities displayed by local writers, Mayor Koch states:

"Well it is one of the quality of life offenses, and you can't take just one of these quality of life offenses, it's like three-card monte, pick-pocketing, shoplifting and graffiti defacing our public and private walls. They're all in the same area of destroying our lifestyle and making it difficult to enjoy life." (Chalfant & Silver, 1983)

In this extremely persuasive argument, Koch uses balance theory to establish identification with the interviewer, and thus, the viewer. Koch refers to the offensive action that has been made against the larger collective and refers to it as a 'quality of life offense.' With this definitive initial movement against the greater good, any action made against the graffiti community is, therefore, a defensive movement to protect the citizens, rather than an offensive against a small minority. The Mayor continues, taking an authoritative stance, telling the interviewer that he 'can't take just one of these quality of life offenses.' This statement infers that the interviewer, and thus, the viewer, may be misinformed and possibly ignorant to the severity of the issue. As Mayor, it's his job to know how devastating such an offense can be; and he immediately informs the viewer of the immense threat. Using "slippery-slope" tactics of persuasion, Koch points to robbery and petty theft, insinuating that these crimes are implicitly linked to graffiti, due to their lawful categorical definition. Such an argument presents the question, "if we allow graffiti today, will we allow pick-pocketing tomorrow?" His office's definition of graffiti as a crime places offenders in a sphere amongst predatory thieves, rather than in the realm of muralists and other historically recognized artists. Koch leads the viewer to believe that graffiti artists are capable of destroying the lifestyle of the larger collective, which he admits identification with by repeatedly stating 'our.' Further, within this response Mayor Koch has created a specific 'other,' "a culture of opposition because it is perceived as deviant, and because the dominant culture limits and denies access to the kind[s] of specialized space suitable for [artistic] expression." (Bolivar, p.2)

In a sociological study conducted by Staffan Jacobson, Ph. D., the lack of morality characterized by maliciously deviant behavior amongst graffiti artists was closely examined. The study was conducted with 45 graffiti painters and the study found that "the profile [of] the average painter does not coincide with the image certain mass media and authorities give them as hardened young criminals." (Jacobson, 1997, p. 2)

"For instance, the group has the same average grade as other pupils in the same year. In art, however, their average grade is significantly higher than among other pupils...On an average, the young people in the investigation had produced 20 "lawful" paintings, a slightly higher number of [illegal] pieces and a very large number of tags. The predominant spare-time occupations were sitting at home sketching and being with friends...Nobody in the group had been sentenced to prison or had any convictions for serious crimes; their offenses were most often connected with graffiti." (Jacobson, 1997, p. 2)

The image that has been constructed is detrimental to the efforts of the graffiti community, leading to stringent policies that constrict their behavior. National [USA] store chains including: Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, currently require a valid driver's license for spray-paint purchases, and an age restriction has been instituted nationwide. Instead of making a valid effort to increase the amount of public space available for legal graffiti use, anti-graffiti crusaders have been recorded proposing caning, or paddling of offenders. (Cavan, 1995) Proposals have been made to punish the parents of offenders along with the offenders in an effort to enforce social regulation. Laws, punishing merchants if they don't eradicate the marks on their buildings, lest their indifference give the appearance of support to the prohibited activity, have been enacted. (Cavan, 1995) These are clear examples of a social group exhorting peer pressure, and government authority to maintain a position of power over a perceived 'deviant other.' (Cavan, 1995)

As time has passed, graffiti's image has endured mutations that have altered its popularity in a larger societal context. Large companies have found a use for graffiti in their marketing campaigns. Graffiti's ability to reach a target market considered to be searching for a perceived counter-cultural identity has become extremely valuable. Today's teenagers are,

"the largest generation of teenagers ever - at 33 million, larger than their baby boomer parents...they are undoubtedly the wealthiest generation of teenagers. Last year, for example, they spent about $100 billion themselves and influenced the spending of another $50 billion by others (i.e. parents)." (Dretzin & Goodman, 2004, p.1)

International conglomerates like Sprite have worked diligently to embrace a 'hip-hop' image that will fuel astronomical sales. Through the use of graffiti kings like Totem, of the legendary Tats Cru in the Bronx, New York, Sprite has utilized consultation on their 'hip-hop' inspired, graffiti-infused, "Obey Your Thirst" campaign in their effort to circumvent governmental officials to reach an ever-expanding teen market.

A society that was once staunchly opposed to graffiti, with a minority community willing to accept a clear, cultural division, has moved towards an anomic state of social morality where "old norms no longer apply, but new [norms] have yet to develop." (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004, p. 178) For graffiti artists, their artistic endeavors, which were once considered a dysfunctional element to society, have shifted to a functional (profitable) element, but social norms continue to lag, prohibiting their freedom of expression. Society continues to vilify graffiti, demanding the removal and eradication of 'non-profit' and/or 'illegal' graffiti, while simultaneously accepting and glorifying profitable pieces that utilize similar styles in the marketer's effort to maintain rewarding social cues. "Despite all of the propaganda, prohibitions and punishments associated with contemporary graffiti, representatives of the dominant culture exploit the character and style of graffiti when it is profitable [for] them to do so." (Cavan, 1995)

NBC's national hit-television series,The Apprentice , recently provided a distinct depiction of graffiti's use in national marketing campaigns by major corporations. In an episode that pitted two teams of contestants vying for a position as an apprentice to the multi-million dollar mogul, Donald Trump, each team was given the task of creating a twenty-foot high wall ad in Harlem, New York. The ad was then judged by representative executives of the $6 billion a year, video game industry leaders, Sony PlayStation. As a promotion for the newly released game, Gran Turismo 4, the show provided millions of viewers with a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the development and implementation of a trend that Donald Trump proudly introduced (with a sales pitch befitting the discovery of a nearby solar system) as the, "new form of urban advertising. It's called graffiti." (Burnett, 2005)

Trump quickly alters his voice, walking a tight rope as he takes an authoritative stance, clearly stating, "I'm not thrilled with graffiti. I don't like graffiti, but some of it is truly amazing." (Burnett, 2005) As the contestants regroup, and brainstorm angles for product promotion, they are provided with a target demographic of 'hip,' 'cool,' 'urban,' 18 to 34 year-old males. While this age group doesn't explicitly include children and teenagers, there is an implicit inclusion.

Marketing to children is based in theory, dictating that kids desire the objects that the age group ahead of them adorns. Therefore, to sell a product to a 9 year-old child, it is best to promote the product using a 12 year-old model. In this example, the 9 year-old's desire for the product is tied to her future expectations and she is given the power to construct an image of her ideal future self by constructing an identity that is reflected in the advanced sophistication of the ideal product that has been presented to her through market demands. This is clear during Saturday morning cartoons, which are aimed at pre-pubescent children and contain a majority of ads, and promotions sold with the use of teenagers playing an 'older sibling' role. From this paradigm, an appealing product targeted towards males between 18 and 34 is just as 'cool' to a teen that identifies with his/her elder role models, including them in the target market.

This use of graffiti in advertising leaves children with a schizophrenic, conditional view of society where graffiti is glorified and implicitly linked to their aspirations. At the same time, the 'cool' counter-culture they aspire to take part in, which authoritative figures idealistically present to them, is shunned, and quieted with large blocks of 'dove white' paint that blot out bombs and 'illegal' pieces by graffiti artists. In their elusive quest to capture the essence of 'cool,' marketers have breached nearly every socially accepted principle, as they stand behind young adults like puppeteers, sending a barrage of sales pitches towards the young uncertain minds of children.

Hope remains, however. "Like opposite polarized magnets, the closer corporate America comes [to cool], the faster cool kids flee in the opposite direction," in a market where cool is often defined by opposition to mainstream marketing. (Dretzin & Goodman, 2004) Graffiti has become a transitional point for most teenagers, as they take in, and are taken by, the images they are fed from corporate America. Young women have been sold an image by way of graffiti tags, which were intricately stitched into the fine linen of Victoria's Secret clothing lines, worn by supermodels. Young men are initially drawn into graffiti culture by Sprite's images, and their social cues are verified by companies like the snowboarding giant Burton, which has slated a 2005 line of snowboards promoted by the graffiti crew, The London Police. The "feedback loop" is so tight that 'cause and effect' are blurred, and a culprit can no longer be identified in the cycle of media studying child behavior and kids who consume media. (Dretzin & Goodman, 2004) As young merchants come to the realization of their counter-cultural supplication by marketer, or they become tired with graffiti as they look for a new trend to follow, a new group of youngsters begins to find enthusiasm in graffiti's mythic image and unknowingly submits to mass exploitation. With marketing researchers readily waiting for the exodus of teens from the graffiti-infused market, inter-cultural respect is often abandoned in the race to meet the perceived needs of the consumer. The effect that corporate America has had in graffiti, and hip-hop culture, is questionable. It has provided multi-media, and graphic design careers to passionate artists that may not have otherwise found such an advantageous employment niche. Corporate America has also injected its hyper-competitive nature into a culture that has been extremely competitive for more than three decades, pushing artists to create multi-dimensional computer-aided designs that were unimaginable in the early 1970's. However, elements of the culture have become diluted, forcing members of the community to change in their efforts to maintain the egoistic social foundation that the culture was founded in.

A moment of pure disrespect for graffiti, and its foundation in a hip-hop culture that immediately embraced it during the 1970's and early 1980's takes place on The Apprentice when Alex, the leader of an Apprentice team, is utterly confused and dismayed by the project he and his teammates have been assigned. His statements are comparable to those of the mother of graffiti king, Skeme, during a Style Wars interview. "You listen to them talk," she says in an indignant reference to her son and the crew he tags with, "they sound ridiculous...He's 'King' of the yakkety-yak yard...Who died and left him 'King' of any yard? He owns nothing in the subways... You know?" (Chalfant & Silver, 1983) Skeme's mother speaks with distaste about the distinct language, social norms and expectations that are native to graffiti culture. Alex, of The Apprentice, similarly speaks in a condescending manner, mockingly shifting his hands back and forth like a hip-hop MC delivering a rhyme to fans, as a police car sits protectively on the Harlem street behind his predominantly White, private-school educated graffiti crew. "I mean, what the hell do I know about G-wheels and, 'c'mon, how you doing.'" (Burnett, 2005) He's at a complete loss for graffiti-inspired images when he asks 'on-lookers' from the Harlem community for help, "Hey, I was wondering if you guys could help out or add..." his voice drifts off as he suddenly realizes he's being looked at like an alien figure by the members of the Harlem neighborhood. "What it'll rock to?!?" the gentleman, who represents their key demographic quickly retorts, figuring he may be able to lend some supportive ideas to the piece. "YEAH, Exactly!" Alex says surprisingly, like a language barrier has fallen, along with his previous confusion.

No connection exists between those performing the job and their target market, other than the market potential of the latter. Alex's attitude sustains a pure disrespect for the culture and the art forms he has been asked to imitate, and he carries his 'task' out with sheer contempt for his consumer. In a happy ending, Alex's team wins the contest, and Alex is derisively 'delighted' to have learned words like 'mad-props,' 'bling-bling,' and how to 'trick a car out.' Notably, his team's victory was contingent on their ability to convey a profitable marketing message congruent with Play Station 2's image, rather than an artistic message.

The underlying implication within The Apprentice is that money separates graffiti artists from the larger social collective. The definition of legal and illegal is based on significant monetary gains subsequent to a monetary investment. The point becomes clear in the episode. The corporate world, and graffiti culture are so far removed from each other that the possibility of co-existence is futile. Further, if graffiti had been overlooked as a form of urban advertising, capable of redeeming high profit margins, these Harvard and Princeton trained lawyers and executives, each vying for an authoritative position within a high-profile company, never would have stepped foot in Harlem.

The aforementioned state of anomie within society may be mythical. Profit shares may be the driving force of a 'graffiti fad' that will take mainstream America through the back streets of brownstones and tenements, like a tornado that leaves only the well-laid foundation behind. However, the culture is deep-seeded, with roots that expand around the globe; flourishing into new styles as 'Toys' grow to 'Kings.' Whether graffiti retains its marketability will be dictated by economic forces beyond individual control. Market-salient or not, graffiti will remain a conflictive element of society that authoritative powers desire control over. Control has come to define the counter-culture, increasing group solidarity and re-enforcing the efforts to restrain its growth by a larger, dominating social group's cultural imperative. Over a 22-year period, the picture presented by powerful mass-mediums have become skewed, but exclusionary undertones of deviance and vandalism remain intact when referencing the "other."


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Written under the study and assistance of Sandra Allen.

© Copyright Rashaun Esposito, 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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