This paper was written as a final project for a class at Brown University, Semester I, 1996, entitled Race and Art in America. I am very much interested in receiving feedback from this work. Please forward any comments, thoughts, opinions, questions, or uses of this paper to

Graffiti: Inscribing Transgression on the Urban Landscape

© copyright 1997 Sarah Giller

The power of the artistic image is irrefutable. In being denied access to the sources of artistic production and distribution, marginalized groups have been systematically denied the power of self-expression the image provides. In search of the identity and empowerment refused to them as people of color, African-American and Puerto Rican youth growing up in New York City in the 1970s began "writing" graffiti on the only areas accessible to them - the walls and subways that defined their urban experience. By transgressing dominant notions of aesthetics, commodity, and property, (not surprising since age and race denied them access to it), graffiti becomes a successful a-hegemonic strategy used by a marginalized culture to establish a voice.

Marginalized groups have been systematically denied access to the mainstream art world and their establishments. As Guillermo Gómez-Peña suggests, museums, galleries, auction houses are "monocultural." White curators, administrators, and patrons make up a cultural elite that

"bases its selections on arbitrary, Eurocentric standards of "taste" and "quality"- code words of racial indifference and exclusion....These taste makers, in turn reflect the interests of the ruling caste of cultural institutions. The boards of art museums, publishers of art magazines and books, and owners of galleries rarely hire people of color in policy-making positions. Thus, the task of cultural interpretation . . . is usually relegated to people of European decent, as if their perspective was universal."

Pervading the mind set even greater, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. suggests the white elite fundamentally doubt blacks have the ability to create classics. These Eurocentric standards similarly inform the canon and academia. Biases arise as art by artists of color are systematically excluded from art history lectures, museum studies classes, and Ph. D. programs. In overlooking the contributions of these artists while concentrating on a value system not their own, art history becomes irrelevant to students of color.

Consequently, it is no surprise that whites outnumber blacks and Latinos in terms of interest in high art.' A survey conducted by the NEA in 1982 suggests that out of those questioned, 10% of blacks, 18% of Latinos, and 24% of whites attended an art exhibition in the last twelve months. Perhaps more striking, 89% of Latinos surveyed and 84% of African-Americans surveyed had never taken an art appreciation class (in comparison to 79% of whites.) Thus "a privileging of the culture, history, and values of bourgeois, White men" informs museums, galleries, academies, learning institutions, critics, and cultural interpreters. Culture is political.

As a result of the elitism of high culture, minorities are denied access to cultural production and distribution. Communities of color are not economically, politically, or culturally empowered. Lack of sufficient economic resources prevents marginalized communities from developing their own production and patronage networks. Art is dependent upon "the kind of time and money that has rarely been available to African Americans" and other marginalized groups.

The same NEA survey discovered that cost is a determining factor in museum attendance for Blacks and Latinos (In contrast, time and distance are the main factors preventing Whites from visiting museums). With the promotion, presentation, and purchasing power in the hands of a culturally homogenous patronage circle, artists of color are at a disadvantage for finding significant support for work that reflects their sensibilities and values. Lacking the power to shape cultural norms and forms, aspiring artists of color "must deculturize [themselves]" in order to be accepted into the mainstream art world.

Equally important, lack of financial power and cultural influence means reduced access to the mechanisms for the dispersal of knowledge and new forms. Graffiti artist Duke laments that when he was growing up "[he] wanted to take art and art classes but they never taught [him and his classmates] about who's out there. It would have made such a big difference." The exclusionary, political nature of the art world has prevented the inclusion of a variety of voices in the production and distribution of culture.

The politics of culture, especially its element of exclusion/ inclusion, affect identity. Cultural politics produces subjectivity, creates meaning, determines truth and history, and distributes knowledge. The means by which these products are then understood and used profoundly impacts power relations in society. The result of an elite controlling the formation of cultural norms, meanings, and knowledge is that subordinated groups come to be defined in relation to that dominating voice. In an exclusionary system, the experience of living as an "other" is not one of choice. "Otherness" defines what one is, constrains what one does. Power relations determine identity. Consequently, the act of defining one's own identity is an act of power for those with it, or an act of empowerment for those without it.

For marginalized groups, art can serve as a source of identity and empowerment. We have already suggested that social and economic factors traditionally prevented these groups from having a voice in the cultural-political establishment. Art, however, is a form of communication. Communication works by establishing connections between transmitters (speakers) and receivers. Since reception is an act of speech affirmation, to speak and to be heard are empowering experiences. Thus, art is able to give a voice, to empower those who have been silenced.

In its ability to empower, art becomes a powerful way to stimulate social change and to formulate identity. Whether positive or negative images, art has the ability to provoke an emotional response. Art serves as "a catalyst,..helping to heal a society that is alienated from its life forces." With the power to affect social norms comes the power to create and legitimize new subjectivities, new definitions, new values, new histories, and new memories. Once this power is reached, identity can be self-determined and self-defined. For the victims of marginalization, respect and positive identity are crucial. The significance of art's power lies in its ability to allow the silenced voices to proclaim " Look! We are here! We exist! Remember us!" Clearly, art is both powerful and a means of empowering.

In the 1970s, the development of graffiti art gave New York City's African-American and Puerto Rican urban youth the power to transform urban spaces into sites of identity and signs of empowerment. Graffiti is "the response of a people denied a response." While communities like the South Bronx and Harlem were still suffering from the blight of urban renewal, the politics of the Reagan administration, which undermined much support for the urban poor, and the increasingly insular high-art world further hindered accessibility to economic and cultural resources. Jack Pelsinger, who founded Nation of Graffiti Artists (NOGA), suggests "everybody has the need to be important" and regards artistic expression "as the quickest way . . . to feel important and be important to others." In the face of subjugation, self-determined identity becomes a symbol of status. Thus, considering the power of the image, graffiti becomes a means of asserting identity, visibility, and power in a social context in which these youth were previously ignored.

Central to graffiti's power to establish identity is the predominant role of one's name. A name sets one apart from others, individualizes an anonymous individual. In the graffiti world, a name takes on special significance. A writer's name is self-chosen, based on how the writer wants to be perceived by those whom he most respects and from whom he demands respect. Names include Super Kool, Zephyr, Blade, and Mad 103. The numbers in names such as Stan 153, Eva 62, and Tracy 168, refer to the streets where these writers live, revealing identity's intrinsic tie to the urban environment. A sense of identity and pride arise as one's name is spread.

As Wicked Gary describes, "the more you begin to write your name the more you begin to think about and the more you begin to be about who you are." Perhaps not coincidentally, visibility equals respect and prestige. Getting up more than 10,000 times, IN was awarded the highly coveted name of king of all lines. High rates of visibility take precedence over style and artistic merit. Centered around one's chosen name, a multiplicity of tags, throw-ups, and pieces assert the type of presence most members of the general public usually choose to ignore. Graffiti gives youth the power of self-identity.

Espousing self-chosen identities, urban youth use graffiti to reclaim and transform the denied space closest to them, the neighborhoods and communities which surround and shape their lives. Employed by those with few avenues for formal arts training and production open to them, graffiti is a visual means of resisting the privatization of public space. These "parasitic" art forms create "openly contested terrains." In "bombing" as many sites as possible with one's chosen identity, graffiti is art attacking architecture, the marginalized attacking the mainstream. In painting your name on a "public" space, graffiti writers symbolically take possession of that which society has made inaccessible to them. Simply stated, name plus place equal possession. In reappropriating an urban built environment engulfed by skyscrapers and privatized spaces, graffiti is a declaration of identity and an assertion power. In the middle of spaces that have excluded them, graffiti empowers the marginalized to inscribe signs of their own.

Despite its ability to allow the silenced to speak, graffiti is officially considered a form of social deviance. Since the inception of graffiti, government officials and citizens alike have viewed graffiti as a disrespectful and demoralizing sign of decay. In the days when subways were the chosen sites for writers, officials believed graffiti's "ever-present markings [served] to persuade the passenger that the subway is a dangerous place." Transit Police Chief Sanford Garelik went so far as to suggest that "graffiti . . . leads to other forms of criminality."

The magnitude of efforts to erase this "form of vandalism" points to the success of graffiti as a means of inscribing the presence of an otherwise neglected "Other." Insisting that "the public is frightened and disgusted by graffiti," government officials have made incredible efforts to eradicate this problem. In the first decade following the appearance of graffiti on the streets and subways of New York City, the Mayor's office, the state-controlled Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and the New York City Transit Police Department (TP) were all employed in anti-graffiti efforts. While Mayor John Lindsay established a graffiti task force to determine policy solutions, the TP created graffiti squads to track down offenders, and MTA bought new fences, train cleaning machines, specialized paint, and attack dogs to keep writers out of the yards.

By 1978, the MTA alone was spending fifteen million dollars a year to unsuccessfully combat graffiti. The trend continues today as municipal governments and private citizens across the country try solve the "graffiti problem." A key element in Philadelphia's 1995 neighborhood revitalization programs was Mayor Edward Rendell's "Anti-Graffiti Action Plan." Not surprisingly, International Graffiti Control Inc., one of many companies around the world that develops and markets a chemical graffiti removal kit, attributes its $2 million in annual sales to contracts with New York and other city governments. The attention graffiti receives reveals its success at asserting identity and power.

This success suggests that the source of graffiti's strength lies in its ability to empower through a disregard of hegemonic artistic, linguistic, and commercial structures. Graffiti solicits such an emotional response because it has its own approach to aesthetics, language, and commodity. With its internal hierarchy of values, rules, and influences, graffiti's aesthetic is a-hegemonic.

Size, complexity, location, and materials determine the value of forms. Tags, names scrawled just about anywhere, are the simplest and lowest on the hierarchy. Next are "throwups," two or three letter names blown-up and formed into a single unit that can be quickly sprayed with a minimum of paint. (Fig.1 [ figures not included in this version]) Visibility, which leads to fame among writers, is the goal of these graffiti forms. Finally, pieces, short for masterpieces, are the most complex, combining text with image over a large space. (Fig.2)

Piecers venerate and concentrate on the evolution of artistic "style." Style is judged on originality of design, smooth interweaving of forms ("flow") and images, sharpness and accuracy of lines, brightness of colors, and ability to convey feelings of spontaneity and dynamicism. A strict code of ethics states that a work can only be written over if the newer work is of better quality. A successful use of these criteria to produce a dynamic and graphic image endows the writer with fame, the goal of all forms of graffiti. Graffiti culture's unique value hierarchy, which exists independent of, rather than in reaction to, mainstream visual forms and standards, is an element of graffiti's a-hegemonic aesthetic.

Moreover, the images found in the mass media and the spaces that shape urban life serve as the raw, art historical material of graffiti writers. Writers incorporate images from television, magazines, comic books, movies, and advertisements. These references to and appropriations of popular commercial culture comment on the contemporary urban experience. While denied access to art world traditions, urban youth are bombarded with consumerism (fig.3), influenced by a technologically based society (fig.4), and captivated by the childlike innocence of fictitious worlds and characters (fig. 5). The frequent inclusion of skylines and neighborhood buildings (fig. 6 & 7) as well as the interweaving of images of sex and violence (fig.8 & 9) convey the degree to which the conditions of the urban life shape the lives of these writers. Rather than following in the footsteps of Michelangelo, Degas, or Pollack, the tradition that informs the graffiti aesthetic arises from a mix of commercial culture and inner-city economic and social conditions.

Further reinscribing dominant norms, the graffiti aesthetic holds that writing is a form of beautification and public service. A primary concern of graffiti writers is capturing "the mesmerizing beauty of the images." Turning the notion of vandalism around, graffiti works to beautify the urban environment that the powers that be have neglected and destroyed. In the late 1970s, Lee painted a piece on a side of a train that read, "Tho Running Through All this Grime and Crime There Is Still Beauty In These Trains." Similarly, in 1976 when a group of writers painted an entire train with American themes for the Bicentennial they viewed the work as "something [done] for the United States." In positing an act officially regarded as a symbol of lost control as a social good, graffiti transgresses traditional notions of beauty and order.

Similarly, graffiti's highly stylized depiction of the name, its central entity, disturbs the structures that comprise language itself. Graffiti is an art of letters. Letters are symbols of written language. Pieces work to reinvent, through distortion, the appearance of these letters. In reinventing the appearance of these symbols, graffiti reinvents written language itself. As writer Chaka Jenkins describes, graffiti "is the attitude that subdues average linear letters and twists, bends, and shapes them . . . [to create] visual slang."

The cryptic looking appearance and meaning of tags, throw-ups, and pieces (fig.4 & 7), understood only by the initiated, reveal this reinvented system of communication. Some writers work to distort the letters as much as possible to ensure non-writers will not understand their internal code. By repeatedly inscribing distorted text on the urban landscape as a means of asserting identity and power, visual slang becomes "a new kind of visual rhetoric."

Because graffiti works only to declare itself (the "style" [the stylized letters] is the piece), the visual rhetoric of graffiti transgresses dominant notions of representation and communication. Graffiti's aesthetic, characterized by its own set of artistic values, socially-specific influences, and self-referential approach to language, works against dominant artistic forms, expectations, and systems of communication.

Finally, graffiti is a-hegemonic in that it is a non-commodity. A commodity is something that can be bought or sold. Commodification is dependent upon ownership. Graffiti's form, stylistic goals, and violation of property prevent its commodification. Graffiti is the wall it decorates. This quality suggests three interrelated conditions. First, to remove or claim graffiti is to destroy it. Secondly, by seizing the walls in one's environment regardless of legal ownership, graffiti disrupts dominant notions of private property. One cannot buy or sell something that one has never been owned. Thirdly, as a self-referent, graffiti has no commodifiable value. In advertising nothing other than itself, graffiti "establishes itself as a negative entity." By taking desirable space, as ownership suggests, while giving back an unalterable something that does not have value, graffiti fails to conform to codes that dictate commodification. In not being able to be integrated into a commodity system, graffiti is a-hegemonic.

In essence, graffiti is simultaneously a salvation and a curse because it is a complete transgression from our social structures. Traditionally excluded from economic and cultural resources, marginalized urban youth are able to use graffiti to access the power of the image. Continuous anti-graffiti laws and activity convey the success of graffiti to give the invisible the power to be seen. The source of this negative response to an empowering social element lies, however, in graffiti's a-hegemonic nature. Graffiti's self-referential approach to aesthetics, language, property, and commodity suggests graffiti exists outside of, rather than in response to, dominant norms. Clearly, in a society where the cultural is political, graffiti's strength lies in the fact that it transgressively declares only itself.


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