by Bradley J. Bartolomeo, B.S. (Psychology)
Additional Major in Anthropology
Union College, Schenectady NY, USA - 2001
Anthropology Honors Thesis, 2001
© Copyright 2001 Bradley J. Bartolomeo Please contact him with questions, comments, suggestions, and citation requests.
I was fourteen years old in the winter of 1993, the first time I went to New York City with my friends, the first time I rode the subways alone, and the first time I actually paid attention to my surroundings. Until that moment, the external world had been shielded from me; my parents and peers had kept my attention, and, by doing so, diverted it from the melting pot of culture around me. In retrospect, though I went with my friends, we experienced this freedom in solitude; hardly any of us spoke on the Oyster Bay line of the LIRR into the city. Rather, our minds became like sponges; we absorbed the visual, verbal, and material culture that we had just entered.
Not more than five minutes after we boarded the train, I saw, what was to me a beautiful work of art: a graffiti mural on a highway overpass. Though I had previously been exposed to graffiti, both by friends who were "skaters" and others, like my elders, I had never come to appreciate its artistic beauty. Painted in vivid colors and seemingly cryptic language, an environmental eyesore had virtually been transformed into a living piece of art. In the city that day, my memory was saturated with different tags and murals, all which were of a unique style and color. Though I had difficulty reading the words, and distinguishing the individual images, I had been exposed to a form of art, that, even today, lacks both recognition and social approval.
This new-found appreciation for spray can art led me to sit in the window seat every train ride into the city from then on. In the past eight years, as I sat by the window, I have seen popular graffiti become more prevalent. Not only have walls been painted, but subway cars, street posts, bathroom walls, bus seats, train seats, roads, sidewalks, telephone booths, truck sides, billboards, posters, and even notebooks have become the sketch pad where art is created, and thus, a home for graffiti art is found.
Parallel to the visual emergence of modern graffiti has been the creation of, for our purpose, a distinct "graffiti culture". Anthropologists, invested in the study of culture, will find that graffiti writers, uniquely defined by their style, purpose, and geographical location, are the participants in a distinct subculture of American society. Within this graffiti culture, taggers" (writers who sign their names on the walls in cryptic style) have formed "crews" that "represent" not only in big urban cities, but also, "bomb" in local communities. These aforementioned terms like bombing, tagger, crews, and represent are not only an aspect of graffiti culture, but more importantly, this dialect is a distinct testimony to the idea that graffiti "culture" is inextricably linked to the larger American culture which we are a part of. Language and culture go hand-in-hand; language creates culture, and similarly, culture creates language. Therefore, the difficulty I expressed earlier about being able to read tag art is justified; this distinct language is reserved for members of the graffiti culture and may only be acquired through the participation or repeated exposure to tag culture.
Interpreted in this light, graffiti can be seen as a form of communication. This quality of graffiti art, as a communicative convention, is a common feature of the "subculture" as explored by authors, primarily, Hebdige (1979). These authors share a similar understanding that the methods used by a "subculture" to communicate provide the opportunity for anthropologists to gain perspective and insight on graffiti as a subculture born of contemporary American culture.
Following the lead of other authors who have investigated and documented common features of the graffiti culture, this thesis aims to offer a new perspective on the contemporary state of graffiti in the 21st century. The goal of the anthropologist is to break down the walls of the ethnocentric scope. My purpose is not to judge the social, political, or moral merits or shortcomings of graffiti art, but to explore the range of attitudes and practices from both sides of the social spectrum — those who condone and those who condemn. Rather than passing judgment, I am interested in the ways graffiti becomes a flashpoint for debates about delinquency, art, urban decay and the appropriate use of public space. This thesis will explore how graffiti is used by the gang culture as a symbol of unity and communication and follow this history into the present day, highlighting graffiti's movement into public space and how graffiti acquired greater meaning through this shift. This transformation is marked as the first "face" that graffiti acquired throughout its social development, and thus, will be treated in the text accordingly.
Riding the hip-hop movement of the 1970's and 80's, graffiti was "re-born" into a more public light. Iridescent colors in cryptic form plagued the streets of NYC, generating a wealth of social commentary and political reactionary measures. As graffiti connoted the impoverished, violent, and unruly, graffiti artists struggled to carve a niche of significance in mainstream American culture. This cultural battle (that between the majority/mainstream culture and the minority/subculture was unavoidable) led to changes in the graffiti culture. As it was inevitable, chronological progression and extraneous influences were marked contributors to the reality of how the "face" of graffiti has changed in recent years. The "face" of graffiti, and its subsequent changes in recent years, will be the nucleus of the thesis argument — the material presented will relate back to this theme. In light of its present significance, I offer this summary as what I would like to be understood as the definition of the "face" of graffiti, "used throughout the remainder of this thesis in reference to the specific developmental stage at which graffiti finds itself". This "face" is inclusive of all cultural, stylistic, physical and implicit changes of, the graffiti culture participants, but also, the people, places, purpose, and presentation or style in which graffiti has manifested itself in American society since its contemporary "re-birth" in the late 1970's.
Through interviews and documented research, I will offer an explanation as to why graffiti has been a topic of social and political controversy for many years. In this research, I will uncover how the stigma attached to the graffiti world inhibits it from gaining artistic recognition, and in contrast, how some graffiti, in its inherent nature and meaning, add fuel to the fire of social disapproval. This social debate has come to the forefront in contemporary culture, and due to this immediacy, this thesis will explore how graffiti has undergone a shift of purpose, meaning, form, and aesthetic presence during the course of its maturation. Graff, the contemporary digital image of graffiti, will bring the thesis full circle. Using public vehicles to promote graffiti and overcome endless social problems, the artists who participate in this method of expression have invented a new way by which to immortalize and facilitate the visibility of graffiti in contemporary culture through the use of the Internet, and consequently, the Internet's home for contemporary graffiti, coined "graff".
Graffiti, like any other art form, can be an aesthetic tool used by the anthropologist to better understand the social, political, and cultural attitudes deeply embedded within a particular group. I am not necessarily claiming that art defines culture, but rather, am asserting the notion that it is visual representation of particular beliefs and attitudes, and quite certainly, is a material manifestation that, by nature, has the ability to contribute to culture. All people, whether a member of the graffiti community, or not, can see the art on the wall; the meaning is subject to interpretation, and thus, the intended meaning and audience may be overlooked, transformed into an unintended statement.
Therefore, this thesis will offer insight into the lives of graffiti artists. By documenting some key aspects of graffiti culture, it is the purpose of this thesis to better familiarize the reader with a micro-culture of our shared American culture that for so long has only been characterized by the art and not the artist. Susan Phillips, in her book titled Wallbangin' describes her similar interest in graffiti culture:
Graffiti has provided me a special window into people's lives. This window has allowed me to see the positive in what is usually viewed as negative, to find morality in what is often considered depravity, and to discover a creativity and depth of history that makes me grateful to live in the time and place that I do. (Phillips 1999: 351)
Anthropology is based in the narrative; the primary goal of the anthropologist is to understand a way of life through participant observation. This critical tool enables the anthropologist to establish a relationship with the people who are an integral part of the cultural system, and thus, learn from watching, helping, and questioning them in an honest and sincere environment.
Graffiti, rather than being identified as its own culture, is often associated with many other specific cultures; hip-hop, gang, and skateboard culture all contribute to the graffiti art culture. However, hip-hop, gang, and skater graffiti must be viewed in their own light; it would be a disservice to graffiti art to define the culture solely by characteristics of the previously mentioned contributors. As graffiti has changed over the course of time, the types of graffiti (hip-hop, political, gang) have developed differently, and so, as this thesis focuses itself on the changing "face" of hip-hop graffiti, it is important to read about this individual form, apart from the many underlying social connotations associated with the other graffiti sub-cultures. For example, gang graffiti may often be viewed in society as a visual territorial claim; sometimes misinterpreted, the myth of the "Bloods" and "Crips" of LA has heightened the social awareness of gang related graffiti and its ultimate purpose. On the other hand, hip-hop graffiti may also be territorial, but in a different sense. These writers fight for wall space. A mutual respect is found between many of the more prominent artists, and so, their murals are often left untouched and undisturbed. Finally, skaters have a tendency to tag all around NYC; no territorial claims seem to be made, rather, these sticker tags, and quick wall scribbles are the signposts where the skaters leave their name. Whatever the case may be, it is sad to understand that all of these graffiti types have been viewed as one rebellious culture; viewed as a group of delinquent individuals who have little self-regard and an obvious lack of regard for public property. Graffiti may not be viewed as a monolithic culture, but rather, must be engaged as a representation of a diversity of voices.
On this note, I would like to briefly mention the different types of graffiti as offered by Phillips (1999) — popular and community-based graffiti. By noting the depth of its message and the impact upon the individuals that it has reached, it may be possible to appreciate graffiti from an artistic, expressive standpoint, rather than it being approached from the stereotypical societal view. I do not intend to make the argument that graffiti is politically correct, in that it can be considered as defacing public or private property, but rather, I am hoping with that a more comprehensive understanding of both who creates and who sees the graffiti in America, it will be possible for the reader to understand graffiti in light of its cultural significance. This task, in itself, is the purpose of the ethnographic approach of the anthropologist; contact and discussion with the participants of graffiti culture is the only way by which to truly document graffiti culture as the graffiti artists experience it.
If we understand the diversity of graffiti in form, content, and construction, it is possible to see how graffiti is a unique method of expression used by an often-overlooked sub-culture in our global society. Therefore, I will offer a brief description of how graffiti is categorized in society; these categories indicate boundaries that distinguish one type of graffiti from another, and so, also draw lines between artistic sub-cultures within the graffiti community.
Susan Phillips (1999) identifies two distinct categories, which may be used to better understand graffiti; "popular graffiti" and "community-based graffiti" differ in their content, authors, and intended audience. However, it is important to note that though these types of graffiti differ on these particular domains, the inherent nature of graffiti is preserved in that they both share the same contextual arena — public space. Phillips here defines popular graffiti:
First is the ever-present "popular graffiti" — the everyday stuff, the witty commentary, Read"s "folk epigraphy," Dundes's "latrinalia," the phallic symbols, the jokes, the "for a good time call X's," the "eat me's," and "fuck you's," the love proclamations, and the "so-and-so's were here." This type of graffiti is generally written in the national language so that everyone can understand it and, if they want to, participate in its humor or respond in kind. (Phillips 1999:47)
Everyone encounters this type of graffiti on a daily basis; it is on bathroom stalls, public billboards, and even is chalked on the sidewalks of the Union College campus; from this graffiti, there is no escape. This pervasive nature of "popular graffiti" is what intrigues anthropologists like myself; its consistent representation in American culture inextricably links it to our contemporary social world — graffiti is a part of us.
If I am somewhat representative of the middle-class American male youth, and do admit to, from time-to-time, writing on the walls of bathroom stalls, carving my name on trees, etching my initials on school desks, and inking my name in school texts, then I may assume that my behavior is not uncommon. However, though these behaviors are not condoned, the greater public similarly, not harshly condemns them. In a matter of speaking, I am a graffiti artist; the act of disfiguring public property makes me a vandal, and consequently, a person who has created graffiti.
The argument may be made that graffiti does not describe my behavior, but rather, graffiti is a term used for spray-can art and initial marking in cryptic form. I am not here to attack or admonish those who have participated in behaviors similar to mine. Rather, I would like to illustrate the fact that according to Phillips's definition of "popular graffiti", it is difficult to lump all graffiti together as one type of artistic expression; if this were to happen, my initials on the bathroom stall in the basement of my high-school would carry the same public perception as a larger spray painted initial on the side of a NYC building. The American public disapproves of the latter graffiti based on its placement in the public arena and its inherent ability to alienate the public majority from its message and meaning. Because of the popular distinction between acceptable and unacceptable graffiti in our society I would like to offer Phillips's second category of graffiti which may better fit the stereotypical image of this expressive medium — "community-based graffiti".
The second category described by Phillips, community-based graffiti, in essence, is the graffiti that generally is viewed as a nuisance to a common citizen. Personally speaking, graffiti art classified under this heading were always the pictures spray-painted in exaggerated bubble letter and cartoonist style. These graffiti were the ones that I became enchanted by in the opening anecdote. These graffiti were the ones that appeared in vibrant pastels, vivacious characters, and a vicissitude of remote locations. These graffiti are the ones that at one time I did not understand. These graffiti are the ones that I hope to give the reader insight into, so that they too, may better understand their complex meaning, and dynamic culture from which they are born.
Phillips (1999) offers many sub-categories that fall under the aforementioned heading of community-based graffiti. It is important that all of the sub-categories be mentioned at this time, as the remainder of this thesis will primarily focus on one particular type of community-based graffiti — hip-hop graffiti. Briefly, hip-hop graffiti was chosen due to its innate ability to both alienate and create a cohesive group that reflects contemporary social trends and issues. Also, hip-hop graffiti is chosen due to the style, method, and individuals that create these images, as these individuals also seem to be a part of the middle-class American society that is confronted and affected by the presence of these images.
Gang graffiti is a type of graffiti that often underscores much of the social recognition that this expressive medium may merit. However, the power to create identity and communicate political rhetoric and personal anti-sentiments in gang graffiti must not be ignored. Political graffiti is based in internal symbolism by which negative political sentiments are voiced. These types of graffiti are common during times of politically charged movements, and consequently, the have the ability to evoke an emotional response, whether positive or negative, from their audience. Finally, in my opinion, the most interesting category of community-based graffiti is that which is a product of the "hip-hop culture". I use the term "hip-hop culture" to refer to the type of graffiti that is a product of contemporary pop-culture. Hip-hop graffiti is a visual product of the hip-hop culture, an offbeat youth culture emerging in society, and thus is ingrained in music, clothes, dialect, and messages stemming from roots of the hip-hop movement.
This type of graffiti is spraycan art, tag art, and aerosol art. Lining subway station walls, billboards, and building sides, "hip-hop graffiti" is what many would deem as the most intriguing and sophisticated style of writing. "Hip-hop graffiti" has become a global art form, and through its illegal expressive medium, has come to gain greater attention in the media (Phillips 1999:49-56). Though each of the aforementioned types of graffiti may engage a different issue, it is important to remember that each of these graffiti styles is a product of the graffiti culture. Each type of graffiti plays an integral part in the understanding of American culture and as it will become clear, the communal purpose shared by the individuals who create any of these types of graffiti structures the unity and cohesiveness that is a necessary feature of any culture.
Each graffiti artist has a unique style; just like Van Gogh, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Escher, and even Michaelangelo, all artists prefer different surfaces and materials with which to create. As the history of art indicates, experimentation with different mediums occurred, and in turn, certain individuals found that they could best express themselves on canvas, in marble, on wood, in oil, in watercolor, in pointillism, in small, in large, and even on ceilings. How were these choices a visual representation of the culture and time in which they painted? How did their youth experiences (material, symbol, and linguistic) understanding of the world shape their choice? As Abel and Buckley (1977) put it:
If the art and literature of a particular culture are often examined for insights into the preoccupations of the best minds of that society, should not graffiti be given the same consideration? Does a drawing have to be plastered on a page to qualify for such analysis? Do we stop searching for the inner meaning of a painting or a poem when it appears on a wall merely because we do not happen to acknowledge the wall as a suitable receptacle for art or literature? Do we stop trying to understand what motivated the artist or the writer merely because he chose to express his thoughts through some unconventional medium? (Abel & Buckley 1977:14)
The aforementioned questions bring to the surface many of the significant insights that the study of graffiti may lend to our anthropological and psychological knowledge and perception of popular culture. These questions also raise issues concerning the public perception and consumption of graffiti as art; it is understood that the inherent meaning of graffiti is often overlooked due to the unconventional medium in which it is displayed. The anthropologist, trained in a relativist approach to culture, may explore the significance of its meaning as an expressive form and social commentary. By understanding and appreciating graffiti as a part of our society, it is possible to develop and embrace a greater understanding of us as Americans.
Thus, a question arises as to what is the significant difference between a commissioned Michaelangelo fresco on the ceiling of a Church and a MTA subway car painted in the holiday spirit by P Jay and Lyndah? Further, what is the difference between these two scenarios and graffiti murals commissioned by Project Safe to be painted as an advertisement for an AIDS hotline and drug abuse center?
What distinguishes these three examples may be mainly a public stereotype and this idea will be explored further throughout this thesis. Michaelangelo is considered to be one of the most profound artists in history while graffiti artists are generally considered to be a nuisance to the general public. Even though Project Safe's murals helped increase the number of callers in search of help, the method by which this goal was achieved was shunned in the public eye. Needless to say, even though Project Safe undeniably provided a boundless social resource, they were forced to paint over their advertisements, and consequently, spend an additional $400 dollars that could have been used for a greater purpose. Project Safe used the private space, which had been approved for this use by the building owner. Project Safe, however, used this private space in a public arena; though they could choose to aesthetically develop the building side any which way they pleased, their social service advertisements were met with harsh disapproval by the political anti-graffiti movement team in Denver. After the anti-graffiti task force had conducted lengthy research, the team figured out a way by which to legally demand the elimination of these murals. "Working through Denver Zoning Administrator Dorothy Nepa — who announced that "they weren't murals. They were signs. They were erected without permits" (in Kirksey, 1989: 5B) — the city issued "cease-and-desist" orders to the buildings' owners" (Ferrell 1993:1823).
Thus, it is obvious that public officials, and subsequently, the general public look negatively at graffiti, even in its most productive form. Whereas Michaelangelo's fresco is a work of beauty and indication of a refinement of God-given talent, its purpose it serves in contemporary society is merely a painting to be looked at. And, in fact, if Michaelangelo's paintings were kept in his bedroom, their significance to not only the art world and its critics, but also its impact on contemporary society would have never occurred.
Project Safe's graffiti approach to a contemporary public medical threat may not be seen as artistic or beautiful by many, however, its beauty must not be defined by its aesthetics. Rather, by its inherent ability to motivate those people in need of help to seek help, its purpose serves humanity. Ernest Abel makes the distinction between graffiti art and "initial carving" or tagging, but consequently, arrives at a similar conclusion. He states:
The graffiti "artist" whose work brightens a drab area and adds color to the mind-dulling blandness of the inner city, whose designs enliven the sterile concrete jungles, is considered by some to be upgrading his environment: Initials are the work of a self-centered narcissist interested only in seeing his name; but the graffiti "artist," so the argument goes, is a public benefactor. (Abel 1977:139)
It can be said that graffiti, therefore, is a reflection on the relationship between art and society, and consequently, this raises the question as to the authenticity of art in the public world. Society has the ability to change and alter the boundaries and "walls", which define what is art. Though graffiti may not presently be categorized as a type of art, it must, however, be appreciated as a medium by which it is possible to reach particular individuals. The anthropologist would affirm that this ability to serve humanity makes this linguistic medium a critical part of our culture. Though every anthropologist may not agree with its illegal nature, it is important to understand that its ability to speak to the public is a feature that must not be ignored.
The aforementioned anecdote concerning the murals commissioned by Project Safe in Denver highlights an issue that lies at the base of both the graffiti message, as well as, the anti-graffiti opposition. It is clear that the use of public space to serve private purposes is unacceptable by the general public. Though, in reference to Project Safe, the building owners private wall was painted with his consent, there remained a problem. It was suggested, through the political reaction to the image, that there are implicit laws, which guide the way an individual utilizes this space. In summary, private space becomes public when the public disapproves of how an individual uses the space privately. The message remains that the public (officials and citizens) often dictate the private, and so, it appears as though the only truly private space that remains lies within the walls of a home or building, hidden from the public eye of disapproval and judgment. Graffiti, therefore, poses a threat to political and social control in its embedded message, regardless of the style or method by which it is conveyed. There is an inherent protest against the corporate and governmental control of public space in any graffiti art, tag art, or work of art that finds its canvas in the public forum.
In turn, I would like to address the question as to who controls public space. It is evident through the construction of billboards, their intended purpose and their contractors that public space is owned and controlled by a minority in our society. I will borrow an interesting fact from my professor's office door which reads that, "95% of the world's money is held by lower than 2% of the population" (Meade). This 2% of the population controls our everyday resources, makes decisions as to where they are most needed, and designates how we will consume them. Billboards are the products of capitalism, owned by multi-billion dollar corporations that make up the majority of the wealth in our country, billboards are an advertisement displayed in public space.
In essence, as we quietly walk through our daily lives, we are flooded with images, pictures, products, and slogans that we have not chosen to see. Why then, if graffiti utilizes a similar method of presentation, do we view the image and consequent message as vulgar, and the act, as vandalism? Though this question will be answered in more concrete depth later in this paper, I would like to explore this issue on both a psychological and anthropological front. Phillips (1999) initiated my interest in this particular aspect of graffiti. It is believed that an identical message when presented in a magazine would be viewed as graffiti if it were displayed on a subway car, alley wall, or street corner store. Phillips addresses this issue in light of Armando Silva's research when she states:
In his exploration of the "marginalized" aspects of graffiti, Armando Silva (1987) indicates that graffiti transform permissible writing into the impermissible. A message may be moral, legal, or social, but it is incompatible with societal norms due to its form. What is acceptable in a newspaper ad becomes illicit when it resides in graffiti, even if the messages are identical. In using graffiti, Silva indicates, writers marginalize activities that could potentially be legitimate. Further, the fact that the chosen medium is marginal and illegal often correlates to the type of people who produce graffiti — people who are themselves marginalized, even if only through the manner they choose to express themselves. (Phillips 1999:23)
So it is my question of who decides what is permissible public space that is conveniently answered by graffiti. A response to this larger issue of the control of public space; graffiti, in its expressive form, promotes a message that the public fails to interpret due to its chosen medium. There is a paradox here; graffiti uses public space to contest those who control it, and simultaneously, the public disregards the message as an act of vandalism due to our own biases and structural complacency. Though many are in opposition to the fact that the distribution of power is based on the control of money and this is the protest that graffiti expresses, the public fails to make the connection between this shared philosophy. By evaluating graffiti from an anthropological perspective, this type of resistance to an elitist dictation of public space may be understood.
It is a fact that money dictates both contemporary visibility and invisibility. Those who are able to pay for space may use it as they see fit, whether it be for the posting of advertisements or for the building of a mansion by which space is made private through the construction of walls and boundary markers. Therefore, it can be understood that the use of public space, whether or not commissioned by the general public, is left in the hands of the elite. The elite, in this respect, may be granted the luxury of privacy in their homes, as well as, be afforded the opportunity to advertise business ventures or other concerns in the public forum due to their economic status. On the other hand, the majority of Americans may only find privacy in their home, and the degree to which this privacy becomes possible depends on individual economic resources. Thus, the American public is bombarded on a daily basis with billboards and other advertising mechanisms in the public arena.
The ability to create images in public space is a power that must not be overlooked. Though, psychologically speaking, it may be argued that we have become desensitized to the presence of these billboards, their ability to shape our consumer decisions is more powerful than we may understand. Individual disapproval to their presence in public space is seemingly pointless, as only an elite few (corporations and individuals) seem to dictate the use of public space.
Therefore, I would like to suggest that graffiti, though seen as vandalism and an illegal use of public space, is rather a type of resistance that opposes the elitist control of imagery and message. Ferrell best defines this message in his book Crimes of Style when he states:
Graffiti writing survives as a creative, playful response to a prefabricated culture, a response as disrespectful of legal and political boundaries as it is the private and "public" property through which they are enforced. Graffiti exists as a public art outside the control of public officials, an alternative style outside the circle of corporate style and consumption. Graffiti illuminates the city, but sporadically, less a series of lasting monuments than evocative moments, vulnerable to the give and take of the street. Ultimately, it stands as a sort of decentralized and decentered insubordination, a mysterious resistance to conformity and control, a stylish counterpunch to the belly of authority. (Ferrell 1993:197)
Graffiti art, at its very core, is illegal in its nature, and so, a visual act of defiance and revolt. Though the messages may not be directed at authority figures or political ideals, the fact remains that behind each piece of graffiti lies public space.
A visually salient, though often artistic and creative manner of resistance, graffiti inherently opposes political domination and authoritative control of public space. Phillips candidly remarks, "Because of these destructive tendencies, graffiti says "fuck you" to society, even if it doesn't exactly say "fuck you" — though many graffiti, of course, do" (Phillips 1999:23). She continues with this thought:
Whether or not it says so in so many words, the fuck you message is implicit in the use of graffiti as communication. The medium itself implies alienation, discontentment, marginality, repression, resentment, rebellion: no matter what it says, graffiti always implies a "fuck you". Though addressing the larger society in this contemptuous manner may be a secondary or even tertiary element of the graffiti writer's agenda, this element always lurks in the background of every graffito on every wall. (Phillips 1999:23)
This type of rebellion and resentment, shared between the graffiti artists and their work, is exactly the type of message that society tries to suffocate. The blatant disregard for public space is interpreted by the public as a type of "fuck you" statement; internalized, the message of graffiti is seen as a personal attack, rather than a more general resistance to a system which leaves the fate of public space in the hands of a minority within our society.
Thus, it is obvious that graffiti inherently promotes a message of rebellion and resistance, a type of resistance that promotes an anarchist ideology in many layers. Reisner and Wechsler (1974) also maintain a position on graffiti that regards it as the voice of resistance. In this passage, it is obvious that the expressive medium of graffiti is an opposition to authoritative and aristocratic domination.
Graffiti are the voice of the common man. We are used to taking our history from aristocrats and statesmen and their paid scribes. But through graffiti we discover evidence of another version of history, characterized by oppression and opposition to the official point of view. Topics too sensitive, too bigoted, too outrageous for the official version are the natural province. (Reisner & Wechsler 1974:vi)
Along these same lines, other anthropologists have explored the nature of a resistance movement in society. Graffiti, with its seemingly global appeal and use, has been a form of political resistance for many years. It is important here to note, however, that though the basic message of graffiti remains the same, in that it is a commentary on the private control and use of public space, it is also necessary to indicate a second message of graffiti. Through the act of graffiti, a second message may be promoted, which is central to its nature; the content of each graffiti piece is unique to the context and circumstances from which every individual writes. Thus, graffiti is not only a form of political resistance, but also, remains a way by which people may assume a sense of cohesiveness, rallying around shared ideology.
Often, graffiti has been used as a type of political resistance in third-world nations; anonymous expressive acts of political rhetoric, these graffiti are a cultural commentary on the likes and dislikes of social policy. Stephen Leavitt relates this cultural phenomenon in his essay, "Cargo Beliefs and Religious Experience". He maintains the understanding that people occupy themselves with a particular behavior, action, or object in the face of political domination; in the case of Papa New Guinea, cargo cults have emerged as a convention by which to maintain identity and prestige in the face of political oppression. Similar to the way in which graffiti creates identity, the Papa New Guineans have used cargo as a material way by which to comment on social ideology and, in turn, create a shared system of beliefs through which people may have an identity. Leavitt remarks about the emergence of cargo cults as a response to political domination here:
The Europeans who arrived did not share the same view of how relationships are built. They had control over extremely attractive material goods, but they refused to enter into proper exchange relations with the local people. Instead, they instituted colonial control and acted as superiors. Some anthropologists have argued, then, that the Papa New Guinean preoccupation with cargo is a way of rebuilding a sense of independence and prestige in the face of colonial rule. (Spradley & McCurdy 1997:338)
This example clearly illustrates how people may react to cultural domination and colonial rule. Graffiti, therefore, is a cultural response to opposing ideologies; the graffiti artist "underdog", however, must convey dissatisfaction in a passive and harmless, but, resistant manner. This raises the question as to whether or not the political opposition conveyed through graffiti is just an American form of resistance to the dominant culture? Rather, the graffiti movement has become a global form of expression that often highlights the political unrest felt by certain members within a culture.
In Paraguay, for example, graffiti has been a critical medium by which political communication occurs. Under authoritarian rule, Paraguay has suffered extreme times of censorship and thus, the people have registered their anti-sentiments in public displays of art — namely graffiti. Lyman Chaffee (1990) has investigated the extent to which graffiti plays a part in Paraguay's political culture. Though his findings were geared towards the impact that graffiti has on Paraguay's political power struggle, he did argue that graffiti, in essence, is a popular form of resistance among youth culture. Chaffee explores why graffiti has gained popularity and the innate ability to promote cohesiveness when he remarks:
Graffiti writing is one of the easiest and most efficient ways for individuals and opposing groups to register political dissidence, express social alienation, propagate anti-system ideas, and establish an alternative collective memory. Groups can use graffiti to push their agendas or generally to make their presence felt, for it is an extremely easy means of communicating ideas and establishing a collective identity with the masses by putting a government on notice that anti-system sentiments exist with a definite historical memory. Given by the circumstances of doctoral regimes, graffiti communication can be, if recognized by groups and if organized sufficiently, an important medium for breaking the dominant control and censorship which authoritarian governments exercise. (Chaffee 1990:127)
Graffiti, as a type of discourse, therefore, may achieve many goals. The "in your face" method of presentation, boldly projects the animosity and/or neglect that a particular group of people may feel. It is possible for a number of people to join forces in their struggle and statement without knowing each other personally. Through this graffiti, writers have created an identity; grounded in resistance to a dominant system, artists share graffiti as an expressive form by which to communicate social unrest. The "walls" upon which graffiti is written remain a public forum by which many individuals are both reaffirmed of their anti-structural sentiments as well as given an opportunity to voice their opinion.
Lila Abu-Lughod develops this idea of a "Discourse of Anti-Structure" in her book about Bedouin women title Veiled Sentiments. Abu-Lughod discusses many different types of discourse in Bedouin society, each of these means of expression serve a different function. Lughod generally defines discourse as a formalized type of communication in which emotional sentiments are conveyed through an expressive medium.
Negative sentiments that challenge the "status quo" and the core ethics of a society are called "Discourses of Anti-Structure". In reference to the Bedouin emphasis placed on autonomy and honor, Lughod explains that ginnahwas (short love poems) are used to express feelings of love and desire. However, as she candidly remarks, discourses of anti-structure draw upon a commonly shared negative sentiment about the social world — the attachment to other people through this discourse eases, as well as, extinguishes any physical desire to act upon it. Therefore, the ginnahwas are a form of expression by which men in the Bedouin society may convey an emotion that is not socially accepted; if a man expresses love for a woman, he both dishonors his family, as well as, himself and consequently loses his autonomy. Then how does thin man maintain a positive social identity? How does act upon these feelings without disgracing himself? And similarly, since graffiti stands as an expression of emotion, how do these participants do so collectively and in public without actively threatening their own name or the dominant culture which within they have established an identity?
Graffiti may be understood as a discourse of anti-structure; a passive resistance to social complacency and the elitist dictation of public space, graffiti challenges the core ethics to our culture without actively posing a threat to its dominant ideology. Abu-Lughod refers to Michael Meeker's work with poetry in the Bedouin community; his findings illustrated the undeniable link between poetry and its purpose. Lughod quotes Meeker's claim here:
Bedouin words, far more than Bedouin actions, were the center of an effort to work out the various possibilities and impossibilities of uncertain political relationships. These words reveal systematic strategies for putting together a kind of political order in spite of uncertain political relationships. From the forms of a Bedouin voice, one can begin to understand with some precision the shape of a Bedouin experience. (Lughod 1979:27)
Relevant to American society, graffiti serves a similar purpose as Bedouin poetry; the writing on the wall is like poetry, sentiments about a cultural system are put forth in society and through their passive nature, implicitly question societal norms.
This type of passive resistance gives a minority within a culture a voice. However, I am hard pressed to say that the act of doing graffiti or reciting Bedouin poetry is not pleasurable in its own right. Many anthropologists have also commented on this type of pleasure associated with writing; though the pleasure may explored psychologically as a "risk" behavior, it is more important now to just mention that the pleasure does in fact exist. Anthropologically speaking, the excitement that the writers experience through doing graffiti is a characteristic that brings to the surface a common theme in our social world. The behavior of graffiti artists is representative of the dissatisfaction with a state of existence; it may be said that graffiti artists enjoy their trade due to its rebellious nature, as well as, its inherent ability to communicate a message of distaste. Ian Maxwell highlights this appeal here:
Graffiti is, of course, largely illegal. Its outlaw status constitutes no small part of its appeal: stories of close calls with the Graffiti Task Force ("the Graft Squad", or "the Transits" as they are known by writers) abound. Writers recount with evident pleasure the tingle of illicit excitement as a piece is put up, late at night, in a suburban train yard, the unavoidable rattle of the metal mixing ball inside the spraycan and the tell-tale hissing of the application threatening to give them away. They proudly display old scars from climbing barbed wire fences, crawling through drains. (Maxwell 1997:50)
It is clear that there exists a link between the act of doing graffiti and our social world; the pleasure inherent in conscious illegal behavior may be a way by which we can understand a part of youth culture. It seems as though graffiti may be a reaction that promotes a shared ideology of contempt, resistance, and political dissatisfaction. Understanding that this graffiti is not the act of one individual, but rather, is seen as a movement and matter of representation and identity will help society, as well as, anthropologists engage the idea that graffiti is only one type of discourse by which these negative sentiments are expressed.
Many authors, including Ferrell (1993), have interpreted the rebellious nature of graffiti as a type of anarchist resistance. Graffiti can naturally be viewed as a contemporary type of expressive opposition to authority; though each individual graffito contains a complex message of its own, there is the simple, implicit assumption that every graffito opposes authority. Ferrell outlines the different aspects of graffiti that define it as a type of anarchism; first, he argues, that graffiti may be considered anarchy due to "adrenaline rush" that is experienced by graffiti artists while engage in the illicit behavior. "The adrenaline rush of graffiti writing — the moment of illicit pleasure that emerges from the intersection of creativity and illegality — signifies a resistance to authority, a resistance experienced as much in the pit of the stomach as in the head" (Ferrell 1993:172).
The second defining element of graffiti that filters its ideological base towards anarchism lies in the fact that graffiti is a creative and stylistic means through which a message of resistance is conveyed. There is a dimension of graffiti that will be addressed later that indicates the emphasis placed on creativity and style. Graffiti writers, therefore, can be considered artists, whose message is conveyed through artistic expression that promotes spontaneity, individuality and creative thought. Ferrell summarizes this argument when he says, "Without the spark of playful creativity, resistance becomes another drudgery, reproducing in its seriousness the structures of authority it seeks to undermine" (Ferrell 1993:173).
Ferrell indicates another aspect of graffiti that may be used to define this expressive act as a type of resistance in that within its nature, graffiti is unpredictable and mysterious; when and where graffiti may next be found is a question that will forever remain unanswerable. The lack of predictability inherent in graffiti's nature makes it a threat to those in authority; most graffiti is done whenever the artist feels an urge to 'create'. This lack of a linear, pre-ordained time schedule removes the graffiti artist from the mass society, in turn, making not only their mode of expression an act of anti-social ideology, but also, their behavior a piece of resistance-oriented social commentary.
Finally, Ferrell identifies, what I and many others would propose as the most significant feature of graffiti; graffiti inherently maintains a position that opposes the authoritative, dominant, and hierarchically structured capitalist society in which we live. Graffiti shows up when, where, and how it wants; the graffiti artist, in fact, breaks down the 'walls' between the people and their environment. This is exactly what is anthropologically significant; graffiti, in its nature, is a reflection on the relationship between people and their environment. A testimony to an aspect of culture, the spontaneity with which graffiti is created gives us insight as to the people that do it; though the graffitist's behavior sporadic, his/her message remains the same. Graffiti artists contest the elitist control of the fate of our society's living environment. Ferrell summarizes this argument when he says:
Graffiti writing breaks the hegemonic hold of corporate/governmental style over the urban environment and the situations of daily life. As a form of aesthetic sabotage, it interrupts the pleasant, efficient uniformity of "planned" urban space and predictable urban living. For the writers, graffiti disrupts the lived experience of mass culture, the passivity of mediated consumption. (Ferrell 1993:176)
Thus, graffiti, in of itself, is a type of discourse that lends us to many different paths of exploration. On the one hand, the behavior of the graffiti artist remains a mystery to many of us; a psychological exploration of the intrinsic pleasures of its creation may only be understood through speaking with those people who engage in the behavior. This is where the anthropological perspective becomes significant. Through ethnographic research and personal graffiti narratives, it will be possible to uncover many of the underlying motivations for the behavior and also illuminate how graffiti implicitly comments on contemporary culture and the people who create it.
In light of the rebellious and political nature of this type of communication, it is significant to mention what audience graffiti artists are trying to reach through their pieces. Previously, I have addressed the issue of graffiti culture and it is again important to highlight the key features of this community, which separate it, and distinguish it, from all other sub-cultures in the American culture from which it is born.
Traditionally, anthropological research, which identified and indicated the presence of a culture, was based on 'field-work', a method by which anthropologists would actively participate in a culture in order to understand it. Therefore, culture was traditionally viewed as different, exotic, and misunderstood; the search for the 'Other' was the mission of the motivated anthropologist. Graffiti, as defined as a subculture, innately constructed as a reaction to the larger American culture, will be explored through methods of participant-observation and fieldwork. Only then, will it be possible to define graffiti artists as members of a particular community. Speaking with a number of different graffiti artists will inevitably give me a deeper perspective on the material, expressive, and communicative aspects of the culture that they create.
The question of whether or not the graffiti community may be defined as a culture of its own is a difficult issue. Many anthropologists would argue that graffiti is a community that only exists as a reaction to a larger culture; without its social context upon which it is built, it would be difficult to argue that this group would exist. In other words, the message, behavior, and implications of graffiti would not exist if it were not based in American culture. The particular social statement that graffiti makes within our culture would be insignificant if it were interpreted in a different social context; American graffiti is a reaction to American culture. Therefore, in light of this clarification, I will define graffiti and its artists as a culture for the reason that other words like 'subculture' and 'micro-culture' connotes a negative, subordinate image of this community. I will not use the word 'community' to define graffiti artists due to the geographical diversity from which the artists live; geographic proximity is one defining characteristic of a community. Thus, I have settled on the word 'culture' as a reference tool when addressing the act and participation of individuals in a shared behavior — graffiti. Susan Phillips also addresses other significant factors that will help clarify why 'culture' may be an appropriate term in the discussion of graffiti.
Phillips asserts, "How do we define culture in a globally linked world, where Westernized consumerism is spreading like wildfire through our sagebrush mountainsides" (Phillips, 1999: 45). Phillips answers, "One way is to look at the mechanisms people use to distinguish themselves from one another" (Phillips, 1999: 45). Therefore, it can be argued that what defines a culture is, in essence, exactly what distinguishes one culture from another. Thus, graffiti culture can not be identified by a style of dress, geographical location, ethnic or racial heritage, but rather, graffiti artists 'represent' themselves, and identify with one another through names and writing style. Ethnographic anthropology is pinpointed at representing 'the Other'; whether it be through film, literature, or photography, and ethnography serves to illustrate the importance of a cultures behavior not only to themselves, but also, to those that surround them. In regard to graffiti culture, it can be said that in essence, graffiti artists share a common medium and behavior; they paint on walls and the inherent meaning of their message, is conveyed through a distinct and particular language that is only understood by those who are part of the graffiti culture.
This graffiti culture that has evolved in American society is often socially romanticized; many common stereotypes depict the graffiti artist as socially inept, rebellious, and disrespectful. It is possible, however, that these stereotypes are based on an innate human rationale, 'the fear of the unknown'. Because graffiti writing on buildings, walls, and public space is not primarily geared to the pervasive American culture, the message being conveyed remains meaningless and frustrating for those who may not understand it. Phillips describes the intended purpose of graffiti here:
Graffiti allows people to create identity, share cultural values, redefine spaces, and manufacture inclusive or exclusive relationships. But because of its illegal aspect, graffiti both creates and reflects alienation. Oftentimes, this is secondary to the graffiti writer's primary objective, which is communication to his or her own group. James Scott (1985, 1990) has written extensively about forms of resistance, ways of indirectly confronting the dominating class. Graffiti can also act like what Scott calls a 'transcript' (hidden or open), which, with a little prodding in right areas, can reveal power relations at its base. (Phillips 1999: 46)
It is clearly evident through this understanding that graffiti writers use public space to communicate a message that is intended for a small cultural group. As Phillips and many other published researchers have noted, "Graffiti has traditionally been viewed as the product of people who have little representation within the traditional mass media" (Phillips 1999: 46). Here, Phillips argues that this form of expression, like many other communicative conventions serves a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, graffiti has the ability to convey a message to a selective group, while simultaneously, making a social commentary about the lack of the lack of acknowledgment graffiti culture receives in contemporary society. Reisner and Wechsler, authors of the Encyclopedia of Graffiti, reaffirm Phillips's claim in this passage:
Graffitists are people who do not have any other outlet for their thoughts. They are not in the media; they do not express themselves before the public in any way. (Reisner & Wechsler 1974:vi)
Other people who have studied graffiti have also come across a similar trend; the main purpose of graffiti is to earn 'respect' within the graffiti community, while consequently making a social statement in order to gain recognition in the media. Ferrell has interviewed a 'famed' graffiti artist under the tag of 'Eye Six' about the motivation and intended audience of graffiti. Ferrell concluded that graffiti writers share a common purpose, "Though they may hope that a piece will be seen and appreciated by the public, they can be sure that it will be seen and evaluated by members of the subculture" (Ferrell, 1993: 51).
What has come of graffiti since this literature challenged the public understanding of the graffiti culture? Since Ferrell (1993) offered insight as to the aesthetic side of the graffiti image, what social influences have helped shaped the "face" of the graffiti image as we see it today? Benedict Anderson (1983) and Manuel Castells (1997a, b) have acknowledged the current state of culture in both the modern, and post-modern, periods respectively. A notion of an "imagined community", as coined by Anderson (1983), has generated a more comprehensive analysis of how graffiti flexed its muscles during the modern period, as the graffiti artists themselves, contributed to a sharing of ideals, values, purpose, and behavior, during a crucial time of "identity" crises in America.
Castells (1997a, b) post-dated the work of Anderson, however, in theory, Castells' notion of "identity" streamlined directly from the point at where modernity ended and the point of post-modernity began. Castells developed theory concerning the power of the image, and in the case of graffiti, the image on the wall, and presently, the graffiti immortalized on the Internet have maintained a social and cultural value similar to that which Castells predicted. It is this "face" of graffiti, both on the Internet and undeniably on the streets on which we travel daily, that is the medium for which graffiti makes its mark. Whether it is on canvas or cement, public or private, graffiti has undergone a development that has culminated in the "face" which appears in our contemporary experience. It is through the contributions of these last two authors, when juxtaposed with Hebdige's (1979) theory of "recuperation", that a more clear understanding of how graffiti has become part of contemporary culture will surface. Graffiti has been appropriated the power to affect the daily experience of those individuals who come in contact with the graffiti image, and these findings are what will become the focal point of this thesis.
It is my hope, that through reading this thesis, the reader will come away with a greater appreciation of the artists involved in graffiti writing. Though their presence may often been look upon as a social nuisance, it is significant that their behavior may be viewed as a 'glimpse into contemporary American culture'. Graffiti culture is a testimony to the idealism shared by many resistance groups, the rebellious message regarding the control of public space, and the culturally constructed reception of graffiti as art and the people who create it.
Symbols lie at the core of every culture. Objects or behaviors that contain a shared meaning between members of a culture, symbols contain the ability to unify people through a common understanding. Kottak explains, "A symbol is something verbal or nonverbal, within a particular language or culture, that comes to stand for something else." He continues, "There is no obvious, natural, or necessary connection between the symbol and what it symbolizes" (Kottak 1996:25). In the case of graffiti, the 'writings on the wall' have stood as symbols of resistance and a general discontent with contemporary social realities and the 'status-quo'. Graffiti and art alike are the epitome of implied symbolism and as Kottak clarifies, "As is true of all symbols, the association between a symbol (water) and what is symbolized (holiness) is arbitrary and conventional" (Kottak 1996:25).
This arbitrary association is the reason why graffiti is indicative of resistance in popular culture. Although the cryptically constructed letters may often disguise the verbal message of graffiti, its identification in contemporary culture as a symbol for resistance is universally understood. Kottak continues to explain the significance of the symbol to culture in this passage:
For hundreds of thousands of years, people have shared the abilities on which culture rests. These abilities are to learn, to think symbolically, to manipulate language, and to use tools and other cultural products in organizing their lives and coping with their environments. Every contemporary human population has the ability to symbol and thus to create and maintain culture. (Kottak 1996:26)
Images on the wall, which are viewed by people in their daily lives, stand as a symbol of resistance. Every person in our society helps create contemporary culture, and by doing so, people construct the framework by which symbolic meaning is possible. Symbols are manifestations of an ability to communicate effectively, and in particular, graffiti is only one symbol, which is part of a greater symbolic system — contemporary American culture. Graffiti is equated to resistance through the essence of cultural communication — the symbol. WAX emphasized the importance of graffiti as a means of communication for its intended audience:
Graffiti…it's an identity among other graffiti artists or gang members… besides that, I don't think it means much unless you know each other… if you put your tag on the wall and someone sees it — they know who that person is. Sometimes, They'll put their crew next to their own tag and their crew name to let people know who they're affiliated with. (WAX, January, 2001)
Being recognized, famed, and admired are only a few of the many motivations of the graffiti artist. His interest in establishing a known identity through the ability to symbol is initially directed towards the graffiti community. There are circumstances in which graffiti artists seek social approval and recognition, although, these acknowledgments are secondary in the graffiti culture.
Artists like WAX are more inclined to seek approval by their peers rather than their parents. However, as graffiti increases in popularity amongst people both young and old, it appears as though graffiti is beginning to move away from its structural roots in resistance. This shows how graffiti is a malleable symbol, and like Holy Water, the ideological and theoretical meaning that the object (water or graffiti) suggest was once adopted by a small group of people. Following this, the symbol was slowly integrated into popular culture, representative of a meaning that may be different from its original use. This chapter will explore how this symbol is created by popular culture, consumed by popular culture, and integrated into the greater symbolic system of an ever-growing global culture. By examining how graffiti, as a symbol, is constructed, used, and perceived by people, it will be possible to gain greater insight as to the intricate and complex nature of American culture.
Symbols are an imperative feature to any culture. Graffiti is a symbol that enables communication between cultural groups — breaking down language, ideological, and political barriers, which impeded communication between groups. Graffiti, when understood as a symbol, is a particular feature of American culture that has generated interest due to both its undeniable presence in the public arena, as well as, its adoption by the middle-class youth of America. However, it is impossible to understand graffiti in of itself — its birth is in a larger cultural web, and so, its understanding may only come from an analysis that considers this cultural birth.
The dominant American culture can be viewed as a finished painting. Paints of a multitude of colors are layered in spots, dots, and lines. These marks on the canvas when viewed alone can only be understood as to what they truly are, a spot, a dot, or a line. When viewed in terms of their relationship to one another, relative position on the canvas, and magnitude or significance within the greater picture, the markings begin to take on meaning. In combination with one another, these structural elements are consolidated in what is seen as the painting. The spots, dots, and lines are analogous to the subcultures of America. Graffiti, as one of these subcultures, also contains various levels of culture within it. Thus, graffiti as a symbol of resistance used by gangs will be discussed. A communicative convention of opposing groups, graffiti became visible in the public arena. Increased visibility of this symbol, combined with the development of the aesthetic image followed graffiti's adoption by the middle-class youth of America. With this shift of participants and purpose, graffiti changed its "face" for the first, but not the last, time in the public arena.
Gang culture is increasingly studied by anthropologists in recent years due to the growing social concerns of gang violence, gang warfare, and the underlying political threat of gang politics to the larger American political system. Susan Phillips (1999) has done extensive fieldwork in Los Angeles, CA, as well as in other gang inhabited cities, concerning the systematic, political, and symbolic representation and construction of various gangs. Similar to other groups formed out of necessity, gang members often find a socially recognized identity through gang membership when otherwise ostracized from the 'social norm' and popular culture. Gangs are dependent upon the larger context from which they are born. The values, politics and culture of gangs is a structural and systematic reaction to often depraved social conditions and, in particular, a lack of representation within the greater American culture. Phillips (1999) clarifies the development of gangs in this passage:
Gangs are socially constructed entities. Their existence is inextricably linked to the larger society's politics, its skewed relations of power, the limited access to its economic resources, and the systematic persecution and exclusion of certain populations from participation within it. It represents perhaps a form of what Turner (1969) controversially referred to as "antistructure": the antithesis of the larger system, its polar opposite and the thing that ultimately reinforces the place of each. (Phillips, 1999: )
Constraints on economic resources, social acceptance and the lack of social recognition fuel the formation of gangs. Gangs are constructed upon a need for community, brotherhood, respect, and most importantly, the need for the individual to maintain a sense of identity. Contemporary politics and the exclusive/inclusive nature of the class system in America has streamlined certain individuals to gang culture. Gang affiliation and membership is a resistance to the 'status-quo'; this subculture is structurally indicative of popular culture, but similarly stands strong against the exclusive principles of contemporary society. In other words, initiation and acceptance into a gang indicates a life-long commitment and dedication to a particular way of life, a type of honor and devotion to a system that stands as a resistant measure to the personal rejection and the unfortunate failure of the American social system. Phillips expresses the essence of gang resistance when she states:
Gangs oppose the system without doing so in an overtly political manner. In this respect they are perhaps more clever than we might think — because no movement that is overt can wrestle with the power of the global corporate politic and the machinations of the modern state. The only "revolution" that can happen today is one that happens incidentally. Indeed, it has already taken place among those decentered populations that have been forced to radically shift their social and political affiliations just to survive. The affirmation of their separateness from the larger social conditions that have excluded them is relevant only secondarily to the internal relationships that carry greater weight in their daily concerns. In their apolitical relationship to the dominant society, gangs have found their politicization. Without confronting them directly, gangs have successfully threatened the dominant social and legal systems of the United States. (Phillips 1999:92)
It is understood that a gang symbolizes a resistance to the American social norm. A reaction to the exclusive nature of the United States social system, gangs seem to be a symbol of resistance — a subsequent culture that creates and integrates its own symbolic system into the greater American culture. This resistance is identical to that which graffiti initially opposed. A symbol that visually displayed these sentiments expressed in the preceding passage, graffiti was a way that both gangs and other members of society anonymously opposed the social system from which they were ostracized. Spradley and McCurdy (1997) summarized research conducted by William Beeman about American resistance movements, identifying the cause, effect, and symbolic nature of these revitalization in this passage:
When one cultural group becomes dominated by another, resulting rapid change and loss of authority may make its original meaning system seem thin, ineffective, and contradictory. The resulting state of deprivation often causes members to rebuild their culture along what they consider to be more satisfying lines. The process, which is called revitalization by anthropologists, has occurred over and over again among peoples throughout the world. Often couched in religious terms, movements prescribe rituals and beliefs designed to restore order to their existence. (Spradley & McCurdy 1997:330)
Gangs have integrated aspects of the dominant American culture in their inherent structure and organization. However, like other revitalization movements, gangs have adopted practices, values, and ethics, which are more applicable to their immediate situation and life.
It is important to recognize the ability of gangs to establish a sense of community, brotherhood, and family, before exploring the subsequent use of graffiti as a symbol identifying unity and ownership. Gangs can be viewed as a symbol for family, integrating kinship relations that denote honor, respect, admiration, and subsequent power and authority. Every gang has a name by which it "represents" itself and the members of a particular gang will refer to their group as their "family". Members of a particular gang often refer to their friends as either "brotha" or "sista" when not using a particular individual's nickname. Nicknames are another way by which a gang member may be identified; the often humorous nature of the name is evidence of the comfort and security in their identity, which is a result of gang membership.
However, gangs do differ from traditional kinship relations in a significant way. It is rare for a member to be addressed by his/her birth name. The subsequent anonymity implicit in this gang specific behavior is a testimony to the core values of the gang. Resisting traditional mannerisms by the use of nicknames, gangs promote unity in their purpose. Members are initiated into the family and thereby are given a nickname which indicates their similarity and brotherhood to those around them. The gang name is established as their family name and shared identity. A gang is a community, a family, and a culture which offers its members both security and protection, not only from a dominant parent culture, but also, from other gangs and groups which have arisen out of similar conditions.
The community, territory and boundaries established by gangs are not marked by what would be considered "traditional" methods. Due to the lack of social recognition, gangs have been forced to create a symbolic system which is created by and solely contended for communication between different gangs. Any given city may be inhabited by numerous gangs, and the close proximity with which they reside often results in a continuous battle for land ownership and living space. Contrary to much of what the general public may assume, gangs do not always resolve these territorial disputes through violence. Rather, the violent gang wars are often only a physical manifestation of the lack of communication evident in our country. Gangs fighting each other can be seen as a symbol of misdirected anger of American citizens in a depraved economic and social condition.
Gangs, in their inherent structure and communal nature, integrate a symbolic system as an initial response to territorial disputes. Gang graffiti, as mentioned earlier, is quite different than what would be considered as "popular" or "hip-hop" graffiti, due to its simplicity of style and unity of color. The latter genre of graffiti, identified by its cryptic lettering and barrage of visually stimulating colors, will be explored in greater depth later in this thesis as its form, purpose, and style are a type of graffiti which developed out of gang graffiti. Ideology and purpose were lost in this adaptation, and through this, a new "face" of graffiti developed. D-CON affirms the discrepancy between these two art forms, maintaining the argument that society confuses the two types of graffiti even when there are distinct differences between them.
A lot of people confuse gangsters with graffiti artists. They call graffiti — gang art, and that's not what it is… gangsters don't do colorful artwork… (laughing)… gangsters just catch a quick gangster tag on there and put a number 13 on the end to let you know that they're gang-bangers. (D-CON, January, 2001)
For D-CON and many other graffiti artists, there remains a bitter taste towards the notion that their "art" would be considered gang art. On a number of occassions, other informants remarked in a similar manner. WAX, explaining the essence of this confusion between crews and gangs, empathizes with the popular misunderstanding of their separate purposes. However, WAX remarks:
Crews do a lot of gang behavior…y'know, they depict stereotypical gang behavior. At least that's all that's been heard about them in the public and popular media. You never hear anything good about crews… gangs do graffiti that is more broad… it covers a larger territory… crews are about getting up… they're about getting their name out. (WAX, January, 2001)
This insight identifies a common theme in popular society by which the public often categorizes and groups individuals together for need to exhibit control around the surrounding environment. In other words, common social psychological thought that there is an innate human tendency which argues that people necessitate control over their environment for the sake of psychological comfort and emotional ease. By doing so, it may be argued, that the need which drives these members of popular culture to lump together different individuals under one category, is a similar need by which drives both graffiti artists and gang members to attempt to manufacture a degree of control over in an environment in which they feel none.
This thought helps us empathize with the shared human condition that makes individuals act in a particular expressive manner. However, this argument also promotes a greater appreciation, though not necessarily an approval, of other members in society who have found different outlets to manifest their inner frustration. It is evident, that there is a similarity which binds the two graffiti forms together, and this similarity is interwoven in the web of the human condition. Within this surface similarity are particular differences that separate the two genres of graffiti from each other — these differences are distinct and identifiable through both the group structure responsible for the graffiti and the graffiti itself. WAX, though not a member of a gang, helps explain his experience with the type of structural differences he has come to understand in his experience with crews, and the familiarity of gang presence in New York City:
The main difference between gangs and crews is that gangs are organized. There is a type of structure, like an agenda they follow… like certain territory or structure that they care about. A crew is just like a bunch of people who hang out together… they just do everything together. (WAX, January, 2001)
This depiction of gang graffiti, the meaning and purpose motivating its use, is affirmed through past fieldwork (Phillips 1999), as well as, through the present interviewee responses. Not only do gangs differ in their structure and purpose, but the consequent symbols used by either group, are intended for consumption by separate groups and for separate reasons.
Graffiti functions for gangs on many different levels. First, as a boundary marker, gang symbols in the form of graffiti are seen on stores, walls, alleys and corners, reminding enemies "Beware" and "Caution". Though the graffiti do not spell out these admonitions, the mere presence of the gang's chosen color and abbreviated family name function as a clear warning. Frequently, in disputed areas, two or more gang names may be present on a wall or building. Crossed out, scribbled over, and defaced, these graffiti are evidence of the symbolic communication through which gang members may communicate without verbal or physical encounters.
Usually, crews (name) are two to four letters long and then you put a K at the end to denote that it's a crew and not a gang or anything else… y'know, because gangsters have their own way of writing things to let you know that they're gangsters and crews have their own way of writing things to let you know they're graffiti artists. (D-CON, January, 2001)
These symbols are a shared identity that any member may tag; a sense of pride, unity, respect and fear are many of the cohesive bonds promoted by gang representation. A communal bond is formed through graffiti's symbolic meaning. However, there is a paradox that lies at the core of gang graffiti's intended message.
Though a gang is an organization formed upon resistance and the idea of 'safety in numbers', the meaning enclosed in gang graffiti is one that stresses a dichotomy between those people who are a part of the 'in' group, and those individuals who are part of the 'out' group. Exclusion from dominant society is a primary factor as to the reason why gangs are formed, and in the creation of these 'members only' organizations, gangs have created a social system, which promotes the type of exclusive atmosphere that they are resisting. Symbolism manifests itself in material culture, as gang members often 'represent' their colors in uniform style dress, family name, graffiti style, and geographic location. Graffiti, in turn, for gangs is a symbol of resistance to popular culture, although, it remains to be a question as to what social or political rhetoric is the focus of this resistance. Viewed as a sub-cultural entity, the entire gang system and its use of graffiti as a representation of identity may be considered a form of resistance to the dominant American society.
Only through this holistic analysis is it possible to appreciate the purpose that graffiti serves to the gang community. Although each gang may be an exclusive group, the production and consumption of gang graffiti for the sake of symbolic representation is solely directed towards other surrounding gangs. The exclusive social world which gangs have created out of the greater American society is indeed private, although, this sub-cultural system only remains private to the institution responsible for necessitating this particular lifestyle. Gangs, and subsequently the use of graffiti as an exclusive form of symbolic communication, have used public space to create a private community.
I think it's a resistance to corporate America and all these people that say… y'know, this is the way it should be. You need to get a job, and do this and do that… it's definitely a resistance movement — it's a defensive identity. it's a way of standing back and being like, I'm not part of this society, y'know… that condones X, Y, and Z… (D-CON, January, 2001)
Gang graffiti, among other genres of graffiti, make use of public space as a medium upon which a symbolic message is conveyed. In doing so, graffiti transforms what was once public space into a private canvas upon which an individual chooses the image to be displayed. In the 1970's and 1980's, New York City subway cars and passenger trains were transformed into canvases for graffiti artists. Considered as an act of vandalism and an "eyesore", opposition arose to this public form of expression. However, the anti-graffiti movement, and its support by the general public and political parties only heightened the excitement and increased the enjoyment felt by many early graffiti artists. When asked to describe the essence of public versus private space, in an attempt to understand how the graffiti artist may define these conditions, WAX responded:
Public… in graffiti, is basically anywhere you can get in trouble for doing it… y'know, like a public apartment building — you can't just spray there without worrying about getting caught. As far as private space… well, I know some kids who had my boys do the inside of their house and… if you saw on MTV CREWS, Outkast had a mural thrown up in their garage — I thought that was pretty cool. (WAX, January, 2001)
Through this statement, it may be understood that graffiti defines what is public and what may be considered private space; the threat of being 'caught out' plays a dual role in graffiti. Not only does the anxiety of being caught increase the addrenalin rush felt by the graffiti artist, but it also, as the amount of anxiety is inextricably linked to the danger of the 'spot', designates the type of respect that is to be given to a particular artist for his/her dedication. WAX continues to explain this idea further in this excerpt:
The public space is… public space like walls is definitely important for graffiti, because a lot of people do graffiti for fame and to get noteriety… so people will be like… I saw your shit up. Or, it's like marking your presence… getting your name up or whatever… so it has to be public space. (WAX, January, 2001)
Determined to get their name up and visible, graffiti artists have also moved towards 'hittin' up' spots that are visible, and consistently viewed by the public on a daily basis — billboards. Billboards, buildings, and sidewalks became a medium through which graffiti artists expressed their opposition to the public control of space. Though the actual content of the "piece" did not express anti-capitalist sentiment, nor did it openly contest the public control of space, the underlying message conveyed in the graffiti is one that is defiant, and critical of society's complacency and acceptance of elitist control over public space. Eye Six, quoted in Ferrell (1990), explains just how upsetting the passivity evident in public consumption is to him, legitimizing graffiti through its active defiance and public forum in which it is exhibited.
Your average person is just subservient to whatever is thrown up. Whatever building in built, whatever billboard is put up — whatever. They just sit on their asses; they pretty much go with the flow like all sheep do…. At least we act on our feelings. We don't just sit around and doodle in our houses, we go out and get paint. (Ferrell 1993:10)
It is not the purpose of this quote to identify the general consensus of the entire graffiti population in regard to their view of popular society. Rather, it is important to appreciate this insight in terms of its individual expression of frustration on behalf of one graffiti artist about the public control of space and the lack of social action confronting this lack of power. This lack of control has also been affirmed through members of the general public who have chosen to speak out against the inextricable link between corporate America and the control of public space.
It has been argued that billboards and other forms of advertising that manifest themselves materially in popular culture are similar in nature to graffiti. In essence, the graffiti artist attempts to take something that they that consider ugly, and through their addition, make it visually pleasing. D-CON maintains this belief with a brief anecdote.
We'd paint on a wall and… we'd be like, this wall is ugly before we start, and once we got up there, y'know… we'd be like now this looks a lot better. But, obviously the Freeway Commission didn't seem to agree with us too much on that…(laughing)… (D-CON, January, 2001)
The common citizen has no choice as to the content, placement, message, meaning, or psychological implications. However, due to the "socialized" method by which these advertisements are presented, there is a lack of contest in their dominating presence in the everyday social world of most Americans. Luna (1995) indicates his distaste with corporate America, as well as, the categorization of graffiti as vandalism. This vandalism, he expresses, is inherent in billboards and public forms of advertising; the hypocrisy that he advocates is evident in this passage:
But let's take a step back and reconsider the whole question of 'urban blight' from a new perspective. Couldn't we say that advertisements 'assault our eyes', that they are every bit as much, if not more, a part of this blight than the illegitimate graffiti with which they compete for our attention. If we don't think about it too hard, we can explain public advertisements away as so much 'filler' in our daily routine: we're always just driving by the billboard to get where we really want to be. But if we consider the question more deeply, we will realize that we never just pass anything, that we climb the mountain, not just to be on top, but for the process of climbing itself…and that there are a lot of billboards on the way up this mountain, which, like Tantalus, we are forever scaling. We dwell with these billboards and they subject our senses and intellect to a number of different responses; they engage us without consent and create needs that can only be met through consumption. (Luna 1995:4)
Not all forms of graffiti carry the weight of this resistance message, as it is evident, through the graffiti appearing in "legal yards" that there are some writers who do not choose to undermine their "art" through a violation of public law and policy. However, the historical roots of graffiti are found in a cultural movement opposing the control of public space. Earlier representations of graffiti by gangs were transformed into the more artistically motivated graffiti seen today. The underlying message conveyed in the act of writing graffiti is illegal, and so, the act implicitly promotes a resistance to those people who oppose it. WAX added insight as to the reason why many graffiti artists choose to do graffiti:
I know a lot of people who do it just cause you're not supposed to do it… y'know… they do it just for the thrill of doing it and not getting caught or, because of the rush they get from the chase. (WAX, January, 2001)
It is only through the voice of these graffiti artists that it is truly possible to make the connection between the negative feelings that are felt by some of the participants and the behavior that is a manifestation of their discontent. This, in turn, is the essence of anthropological fieldwork — the voice of individuals within a particular culture are heard. This feeling of resistance is again conveyed through the testimony of other artists; SCHMOO, an active participant in the graffiti culture, indicates one of his primary frustrations that has led him to engage in graffiti writing in the following excerpt from an interview:
Many people have the urge to write their name places to commemorate being there. People don't get upset when they hear stories of "Kilroy was Here" or kids scratching in Janet + Joe on a tree. But somehow when writing gets associated with the city, and kids from all races and backgrounds get together to express themselves in some rebellious way right in the face of everyone, it gets associated with evil. Then officials feel the need to go over graffiti with plain flat paint. The thing that they don't understand is that they are expressing themselves just as much as we are when we put our name or crew up. Unfortunately they don't have the creativity that we do. (ARTCRIMES Q&A, 1994: 6)
Graffiti, through an understanding of SCHMOO's statement, can be viewed as a culturally constructed symbol of resistance. However, the culture from which the symbol has been adopted, is the dominant American culture. Within this system is where the rules prohibiting private construction of public space were created, and, it is within this greater system that graffiti finds its meaning as resistance. Graffiti as a symbol for resistance is solely constructed upon the law and social policy currently in effect within any social system.
When the illegal nature of graffiti is removed as is the case, for example, with the advent and increasing popularity of contemporary "legal yards", much of the tradition, ritual, and ideological framework upon which this public form of expression is lost. The mere inclination of this loss of tradition and meaning in graffiti has spawned a 'revitalization' movement within the graffiti culture itself; the writers, using contemporary means of communication such as magazines, pamphlets, phone, internet, and even graffiti, have attempted to counter a move towards "legitimate and legal" graffiti. The mission statement of a graffiti 'zine' was titled "The haves will never subdue the public voice" is supplemented by the dedication written on the adjacent page reads, "Dedicated To All The Haters" (The Vapors 2000:4). These sentiments indicate the type of extreme opposition many revivalist graffiti writers are to this slowly developing trend of the commercialization of graffiti art; their dissatisfaction is affirmed in the mission statement which follows:
They can write their names out of money on their glassy building walls. They can loom over us any damn day they wish and sing little songs that remind us of them everywhere we go. They can do all these things, but the voice of the individual is just footsteps away.
These footsteps will take you as far as your heart, into more desolate and dangerous places than you ever thought you'd step, just to write your name and let the gods know that you cared. The haves will send armed men after you and the will strike and you must be prepared. But the numbers are on our side. From the highest rooftops to the dank tunnel passageways, we will be heard. And we will scream as loud as we can, because we want you to remember this.
Like reading poetry once written in another language, graffiti loses something in the translation when it tries to win the affection of the haves. It is not to be taken more lightly than weaponry, because that is what it is. Graffiti is our war. Graffiti is not supposed to be there. that's why it works. (The Vapors 2000:4)
It is here that the 'voice of change' is resisted; graffiti motivated by resistance to public, social, and political policy is starting to lose its significance in the overall graffiti cultural network.
However, though there is a small revitalization movement towards context and symbolically based graffiti, the bitterness with which the authors of the aforementioned "haves" statement is not representative of a popular view among contemporary artists. Rather, many artists expressed their knowledge as to the significance of resistance in the symbolic nature of graffiti. Resistance as a primary motivation for the display of graffiti has not been lost as a result of this trend. SCHMOO expresses his recognition of graffiti and understanding of its purpose as cultural symbol, indicating that this functional purpose still exists at the core of graffiti, regardless of whether or not rising artists understand this fact. SCHMOO comments, "Graffiti is meant to be a public display." He continues When it is illegal it is a political statement, whether the kid knows it who's doing it or not" (The Vapors 2000:4). It is at the core of graffiti in which resistance to public control lies. The mere fact that graffiti is written upon a wall without permission and thus, illegally is symbolic of opposition and resistance, will continue to exist. Graffiti is a method of expression, by which, certain groups or individuals resist the privatization of public space. Giller (1997:3) clarifies the contemporary condition of graffiti in the following:
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 mainstreatm. In painting your name on a "public" space, graffiti writers sybolically take possession of that which society has 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 of power. In the middle of spaces that have excluded them, graffiti empowers the marginalized to inscribe signs of their own. (Giller 1997:3)
For these people, the graffiti artists and those who appreciate graffiti as an art form, this control of public space is only a part of what is core to the meaning of graffiti. Instead, these individuals who appreciate the arts, use graffiti as an artistic symbol by which to construct both an individual, as well as, a group identity in an environment which facilitates pressure against this goal. In other words, many of the youth who participate in graffiti do so by membership in a "crew", promoting ideals of group and individual identity through artistic symbolic representation. Though crews may appear to be similar to gangs, as they both consist of individuals who write graffiti, they differ in structure and purpose, offering solutions to the needs of two different groups of people in contemporary American culture.
Ingrained within the walls on which graffiti is written, and expressed through the voices of its participants, the influence of the hip-hop movement, or rather explosion, in America can be understood. With this said, I will now take the time to provide the reader with a brief, but succinct, overview of the link between graffiti and hip-hop, and consequently, attempt to provide the reader with a more complete understanding of how contemporary American culture has come to only embrace the latter of the two movements in corporate and commercial society. SCHMOO offers a definition of hip-hop, further indicating the broad range of expressive mediums of which it embodies:
Hip-hop is a movement based around Rap music, breaking and graffiti. It was started in NYC in the early 70's. Each of the art forms has different roots, coming from different cultures. The culture still exists today, it's just not in the mass media like it was during the 80's.
(he continues later in the interview mentioning hip-hop artists)
Rappers: Run-DMC, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, KRS-One (Boogie Down Productions). Crazy Legs is the most famous breaker of all time. Naming the most famous writers would be impossible. (AC interview)
Including the artists mentioned by SCHMOO, there were a number of other artists who helped 'promote' or further the acceptance of the hip-hop culture in popular culture. In particular, the two films Wild Style and Style Wars are products of the hip-hop culture; both of these films, like pseudo-documentaries, help to highlight the key players in this hip-hop movement and simultaneously use interviews and live footage to emphasize their contribution to the success of this movement. Through networking and research, it was possible to get into contact with one of the many graffiti artists who may now be considered "veterans of style". BG 183, a graffiti artist whose taste and talent was generated through the graffiti movement of the early 80's, repeatedly informed me of the dramatic influence of the aforementioned films.
Next, y'know, I started lookin at people like… people like DUSTER, people back then… SEEN, or like… CRASH, DAZE, LEE… these people were like top management. And when I started in the early 80's with people like that… people in, y'know… Wild Style came out the next year and that got me wantin' to write like I seen it in the movies. People getten' busy… like I was already 'bombin', but that movie got me bombin even more. (interview with BG 183, March, 2001)
Media plays a dynamic role in the internal structure and development of any subcultural system, and this influence, may not be overlooked in regard to the hip-hop movement of the 70's and 80's. The impact of mass-media representation soon became even more evident through an enormous popular interest in this anti-structural method of representation. However, though the general public, including the Mayor of New York City at the time, Ed Koch, may have thought that they understood the underlying motivation behind these "Art Crimes", the ethnography of graffiti artists who participated in this cultural power struggle suggest a different notion.
Rather, graffiti artists like BG 183 have merely glanced over the "resistance" nature that was "tagged" on the identity of graffiti artists by the media and capitalist consumers in the mid 80's. Instead, the power of ethnography yields a different primary motivation than that which had been assumed by popular culture. Therefore, the remarks made by BG 183 convey the notion that graffiti was a fun and innovative way by which to display expressive art while simultaneously, through repeated exposure, serve as a means by which to establish an individual, discrete, and creative public identity. Threatened by consummerism and the structural elements of a capitalist society, BG 183 not only states his purpose, but also, indicates a distinct bitterness which he still holds in regard to the misrepresentation of graffiti in popular culture.
Our shit was not to make money. I go out just to paint… Fuck that… if I was going to do like, a painten' job for somebody, I'd rather take all the paint I possibly can and I wouldn't worry about the money… y'know the money was the farthest thing from my mind and I've just kept goin', y'know… the subway trains… I really wanted to be the KING to hit a train more than anybody else on that particular line. (interview with BG 183, March, 2001)
The distaste conveyed through BG 183's statement is quite indicative of both the birth and subsequent rise of popularity of hip-hop music and the incorporated culture. Parralleling a rise in social awareness of graffiti was a gradual increase in the popularity of the hip-hop musical style.
Hip-hop, like all other musical forms, acts as a voice that in turn may convey numerous meanings through the material and vocal stylistic choices, and consequently, the degree to which these choices are representative of what would be considered as socially approved. Graffiti is both a product and simultaneously a promotional means through which the hip-hop culture became integrated and adopted into popular society. Inherent relationships exist between music, the music maker, and the music consumer and these relationships are grounded in all aspects of representative culture. In Hebdige's words, the relationship expresses, "the symbolic fit between the values and lifestyles of a group, its subjective experience and the musical forms it uses to express or reinforce its focal concerns'" (Hebdige 1979:113). Through this analysis, it may be understood that graffiti is an expressive form through which individuals may communicate ideas. The fact that graffiti is associated with the hip-hop culture is merely an indication of the "coherent" and "consistent" value system shared by these two groups.
Hebdige argued that the styles expressed by different subcultures are a response to social conditions and experiences. Furthermore, according to Hebdige, such styles often encode an opposition to the dominant or hegemonic forms of culture associated with dominant groups. Such challenges are often indirect and can involve the utilization and transformation of forms of culture which were previously the property of dominant groups. In engaging in such practices, subcultural members act as bricoleurs engaging in a process of bricolage, responding to the world around them by improvising in a structured fashion, creating meanings that are different from those of the dominant culture or dominant groups. (Longhurst 1979:)
As hip-hop exploded on the American music scene as an accepted genre and a reputable identity for the graffiti artist, public and political opposition began to take structural form. As a result of the negative media attention paid to both graffiti, and in particular, hip-hop music, the roots which once stood as a firm structure for the tree of symbolic resistance became subject to the defacement of a movement by the popular press. The vulnerability of hip-hop to consummerism and commidification became almost inevitable, and a backlash of hip-hop patriotism and authenticity became evident.
Likewise, a similar trend is represented in documented past cultural developments that have shaped the Muvver Tongue into it present day verbal form. Initially, "Cockney" developed as a language by prisoners living in exile as a form of resistance to the dominant social order. By communicating in a tongue that was not readily translated by the prison guards, prisoners were able to speak freely, and consequently, prisoners were able to establish a sense of control in an environment that would otherwise by oppressive. Graffiti functions in a similar manner, and thus, enables the "oppressed" to voice their dissatisfaction through a communicative medium that is intended for a selective audience.
"Cockney" was considered a rhyming slang, predominantly used at the market by the working-class men, and therefore this language carried an extremely negative tone in popular English society. Similarly, graffiti also was viewed in a negative light due to the popular press and public stereotypes that suggest that graffiti is indicative of a lower-class finiancial status. Graffiti, like "Cockney" inherently possesses the ability to alienate groups by concealing the meaning and message of the word in a cryptic communicative style. However, it is evident that even though "Cockney" at one time represented a particular way of life, an identity, and a salient means by which the oppressed could voice opinions in public, the ideology and historical roots were lost in what Hebdige would term "recuperation".
Graffiti and hip-hop cultural traditions and symbols, which were at one time inextricably linked to resistance were buried in the up-market movement of a down-market symbol. Hebdige describes "recuperation" as having dual effects on culture. In his own words Hebdige lists these characteristic forms:
As evident in Hebdige's account, there is a tendency of dominant culture to act in accordance with a common cliché, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em". It seems as though through this process of "recuperation", it becomes possible for symbols of a subculture to lose their intended purpose and meaning as they become "commodities" of a more commercial, dominant culture.
Initially, the pervasiveness of Cockney worried British middle-class citizens, and so, reactive measures were taken on behalf of the British aristocracy. These reactive measures included a codification of a standard; anything but what was included in this text was regarded as a "Cockney Vulgarism". In addition to this reactive measure, British aristocrats also sent their children away to a scholastic institution — this place would assure the aristocrats that their children would be protected from both hearing and speaking "Cockney", and in turn, the aristocrats could avoid embarrassment to their family. Graffiti, in light of these reactive measures taken by the dominant culture, also experienced a similar fate. BG 183 describes action taken by a former mayor of New York, Ed Koch:
He (Koch) really was pushen' the issue with the MTA (Metro Transit Authority), y'know… he really wanted to clean up the trains and stuff like that… and then you had more like shit like the Vandal Squads, Graffiti Units (special Police units acting as anti-graffiti task forces)… all goin' after graffiti artists. They made the trains really impossible to hit. It was hard to find a decent area to paint after a while cause'… you had a lot of toys that destroy the trains. They were getten' caught bombin' cause they weren't lookin' out… they weren't runnin'. (interview with BG 183, March, 2001)
This political reaction to graffiti mimicked the anti-hip-hop feeling shared by the general public. Culturally speaking, movements were soon made to censor music and other, once free, forms of expression in order to protect the "ears" of America's children, and to prevent the freedom of expression through music to spoil the "innocence" of America's youth culture. The "hypodermic model" criticized by Walser (1993) offers a model of cultural transmission. The following quote identifies a public concern as to how music may influence the American youth:
a 'hypodermic model' of musical effects; music's meanings are 'pounded' or 'dumped' into listeners, who are helpless to resist. Young people in particular are thought to be more vulnerable, especially when repetitive listening and headphone use help create 'a direct, unfettered freeway straight into the mind'. (Walser 1993:141)
From this model, it is possible to better understand why public censorship, and private condemnation of many forms of music occurred. If viewed in light of Hebdige's "recuperation" theory, it is impossible to detach the cultural tradition, rituals, and behaviors from the music to which it was born. In light of these remarks, the reason why graffiti and hip-hop were looked down upon as social deviance by popular society are evident. However, just like Cockney persisted in the dominant culture, the hip-hop culture did also — leading to a slow integration of selective pieces of the subculture into the dominant cultural system. The adoption of Cockney by the British aristocracy occurred as a result of the language's infiltration of class distinctions and a subsequent pillaging of prejudiced images. Hip-hop culture and graffiti also became integrated into American society, and due to this "recuperation", a great shift occurred in both the motivation and ideology of these symbolic forms of resistance.
As a result of this up-market shift of hip-hop culture and graffiti as one of its defining symbols, the next chapter will attempt to explore and affirm how these symbols of resistance have been integrated into popular society and cultural norms. Brief anecdotes from the various interviewee's mentioned in this thesis will help clarify how graffiti as symbol of both gang culture, as well as, other anti-social and deviant behavior, has become a hobby of many youth in contemporary society — the following chapter, is what I contest, to be a striking example of how a new face of graffiti is developing.
It is difficult to synthesize the information that has been presented here, however, this task becomes easy if it is possible to visualize the change in purpose and people associated with graffiti, recently discussed in this chapter. A symbol indicative of social resistance, graffiti, in its initial public context, maintained the ability to voice political, territorial, and social unrest in a manner that both, secured an individual's anonymity, as well as, guaranteed that the visual message be heard by an audience. Gangs incorporated the use of graffiti to settle, or contest, territorial disputes, and likewise, adopted the use of this visual image into other areas of the interior structure of gang life. Graffiti's ability to make a general statement, without the presence of a spoken voice, enabled members of popular culture to develop its mark of resistance to suit the needs of individuals in a variety of contexts.
The surge of the hip-hop movement coincided with the expanding horizon, and consequently, the greater use of graffiti by members of the American society. Though, at this chronological time of graffiti's development, the "image on the wall" was viewed as nothing more than an eyesore, a greater public awareness of the power and producers of graffiti became evident. This heightened visibility of the graffiti image opened the doors to the new "face" of graffiti discussed in the following chapter — identity. Making an up-class shift in the producers of graffiti, the image quickly became an individual way by which to promote or "represent" one's identity — a private identity — in the public arena.
Back then I don't think anyone ever thought much about the future of the movement and where it was going. Surely I didn't. It was a passing fancy, a fad, a sign of the times. Social unrest and war were at the forefront of our culture. There were gangs and there were causes, there was indecision and there was pressure. There was a feeling of helplessness and there were messages to be delivered. Modern day graffiti was that movement. As an inspired observer and participant in this fascinating underworld I will attempt to document some of my experiences as well as share some personal insights into the unknown art. (FUTURA 2000)
This excerpt was taken from the mission statement of an article written by one of the more prestigious "modern-day" graffiti artists who identifies himself as FUTURA 2000. Epitomizing the essence of what will be discussed in the remainder of this thesis, FUTURA 2000 helps pinpoint the 'changing face of graffiti' and through his words, illustrates the shift of cultural attitudes towards graffiti. The reference made to gangs is retrospective in light of a new pseudo-gang structure, the crew, which has painted the path of graffiti into both the lives of middle-class suburban youth as well as the galleries perused by the eclectic art connoisseur and the intrigued social consumer.
The purpose of this chapter is two-fold. First, it will be necessary to clarify many of the cultural misunderstandings of the graffiti crew, and second, to illustrate these differences through the testimony of the informants who have participated and helped graffiti change its form, identity, and image in contemporary popular culture. Though graffiti is associated with gang presence and social deviance, a stratification of purpose, identity, and meaning of graffiti as a symbol has strayed it from resistance ideology in much of its present form. Though some may argue that graffiti has been stripped of its "authentic" culture, my research has uncovered an opposing view. The new "face" of graffiti, shaped by the crews and artists of the hip-hop movement, have not threatened authenticity, but rather, have helped create and expand the graffiti culture and its subcultural identity. In particular, graffiti has experienced a shift of purpose — in tune with the desire of the contemporary graffiti artists' need for recognition. Although this transition has made graffiti as a material image, an indicator of both an individual and group identity, the change of "face" has also disrupted the cultural value, once considered to be the essence of "authenticity" in the graffiti world. In light of this remark, this chapter will explore this shift of purpose and participant, concentrating the majority of the discussion on the construction of the graffiti image as a cultural "marker" of at first, a group, and then, an individual, identity. Graffiti, as a means of expression, is subject to the influences of individual taste, purpose, and performance, and in understanding this idea, it will become increasingly clear, as to how graffiti experienced another change of "face" in its recent development.
These crews, as will be explored next, are often lacking the structure, organization, ritual, and behavior, which may have been considered to be the concrete blocks upon which the resistance movement was built. The focus of crews, created and maintained by much of present youth culture, is on identity and fame. Graffiti, as a way by which to establish this identity, has not lost its embedded "fuck you" to society, but rather, this "fuck you" has become a secondary purpose to a primary intent of individual recognition and identity. Phillips affirms this idea when she states, "The protest is in medium only, not in message." She continues the thought, "Only time will tell whether the growth of hip-hop will strengthen or weaken grassroots political activity in the future" (Phillips 2000:56). With hip-hop serving as a catalyst for cultural integration, crews developed to fit contemporary social needs. SHMOO explains the essence of a crew from his experience:
A group of writers that feel some sort of cohesion. The people you get up with. Something like a club of writers. In its original form it was the writers that got up together. Not anymore. With crews that have members across the country or even the world, your crew has become your status symbol as much as anything else. (SCHMOO, AC)
It is evident that in its present form, the crew seems to merely serve the purpose similar to that of an elitist social club. However, SCHMOO's thoughts were followed by other graffiti artists who responded to this question in the same joint interview. The following responses are from two other crew members, KAIROS and CELTIC respectively:
In its most literal sense, it is a group of people who like to go writing together. While a writer can be "down" with many crews, they usually only explicitly write with a very select few. Crews are often composed of people who have a great deal of mutual respect and trust in one another and work toward some common goal. The benefits of a crew are clear: protection, the pooling of ideas and supplies, and an identity. Crews are often national or international and as a result they can become a status symbol. Crews like TWK, CBS, FC, and so forth, are all pretty well known in the graffiti underground, and writers who are down with them get a lot of respect and props. (KAIROS, AC)
KAIROS reaffirms the loose structural form of crews; a writer may have a surface association with many crews. Through this association, may gain fame, respect, and a more reputable identity both within the graffiti community and within the walls and spaces of a greater social system. CELTIC strengthens the notion of group membership in this excerpt from the same interview:
A crew is supposed to be a group of people who are supposed to help each other out. I guess you could compare it to a club where the members are all supposed to respect and share secrets etc. with the other members — of course it doesn't always work like that. (CELTIC, AC)
Group membership, whether through social clubs, religious organizations, or an innate national identity, is a core purpose upon which crews were born. As CELTIC and KAIROS both identify, there is a sense of unity and belongingness due to their shared passion of graffiti that forgoes other constructs in the social world. Crews, as is indicated, participate in an illegal activity by doing graffiti, however, their identity, in fact is not defined by the actual act, but rather, by the symbol itself, as each graffiti artist embraces an individual style.
It may be inferred that through these stylistic differences, crews have distanced themselves from an association with gang culture and their subsequent use of graffiti. Resistance is implied through both gang and hip-hop graffiti, but a distinct difference arises in that crews do not do graffiti as an act that defines boundaries, but rather, as a means to eliminate structural markers and promote unity among many. This postmodern concept which is embedded in popular culture is explored by Benedict Anderson; he emphasizes the search for identity in a timeless, seamless, boundless, and flowing society, which unites the masses, but squashes the individual.
Anderson (1983) explains how "imagined communities" are formed during times of chaos, indecision, and uncertainty. A "virtual community", not bound by what would be considered "standard" means of sharing ideas, space, and purpose, Anderson's imagined community serves the purpose to create a shared identity; a layer of identity in the compounded cultural identity of our existence. D-CON indicates that there is a presence of Anderson's community; the sharing of ideas and products, and the creation of meaning (the symbol) through the use and manipulation of goods, in this excerpt:
There's definitely a brotherhood… cause they share paint… they share markers… and they get together… and they draw together… and they sketch together. They're like, yeah… yeah… lemme' see this, and they look at that… and they compare and contrast ideas. There's definitely an element of brotherhood and community to it. (D-CON interview)
This "imagined community" is what defines the contemporary culture of graffiti. In contrast to the uniform writings of earlier forms of graffiti, hip-hop graffiti, aerosol art, and spray-can artists alike, are defined by a shared identity, in which they construct individuality.
The essence of membership in a gang, has been transformed in light of Hebdige's (1983) notion of recuperation, and in turn, the rise of the crew, has become a guide, rather than a definition of the graffiti artist. Phillips (1999) asserts her argument about the creation of graffiti culture and the rise of crews, both indicative of past symbols of resistance, from the dominant social system in this statement:
Through behavior, speech, and material creation, humans make their cultures into vibrant, vital entities. These are the realms through which people engage in forms of social "practice": how they act out their lives and their culture. Material productions like graffiti, therefore, become vehicles through which people define themselves and others. (Phillips 1999: 46)
It may only be possible to extract the power of Phillip's statement through the device upon which the essence of culture is founded — the ethnography. Thus, as has been previously argued by Hebdige (1983), a subculture often undergoes a process of recuperation, by which, the dominant social order adopts a subculture. In this case, graffiti has been defined in its grass-roots form and then redefined for the purpose of adhering to the demands of contemporary society. The diversity and individuality which graffiti embraces both in its structural form of crews and in its aesthetic complexity of style, has been admired by the mainstream and, consequently embraced. However, the interpreted symbolism of crews as gangs of resistance has been admonished; both social and political conventions have conveyed a message of distaste as to their representation of anti-structural sentiments. BG 183 in his interview highlighted these messages:
Yea… it's like here there are no colors… no way you can take out… or identify a group. You can't, cause everybody dresses differently… that's the thing about New York. If it's more than two people… it's a gang. Even if two people get stopped they can say they're a gang. You get kids hangin' out with each other and… y'know it's like a group thing… there's one or two… and when it gets crazy they're nine or ten… but only two are actually doin' all the work. (BG 183)
The kids doing all the work are not necessarily the "leaders of the group", but rather, are often just the most talented artists. These kids who are legally defined as a "gang" are simply the same youths that walk to school together, eat lunch together, party together, and experience life together on a daily basis, that are often defined by a label of recuperation, and titled a gang. Crews, therefore, may be understood as a symbolic opposition to this unjust social definition; legally speaking, crews have not been outlawed, and due to a graffiti artists' ability to be associated with more than one crew, it is difficult to define this "virtual community" as a gang.
People create culture through a shared use and understanding of symbols — creating a cohesive group and community. An element distinctive of Anderson's imagined community is the defining force by which the act of sharing and participating, though it may only be vicariously, in a behavior, group, or aspect of society is what truly creates a sense of cohesion. As much of Anderson's book, Imagined Communities, focuses on the fate of the "nation-state", and consequently, nationalism as a vehicle of community formation, the following excerpt is applicable to graffiti in that it epitomizes the dichotomy between the "creator" and the "consumer" of contemporary graffiti. Discussing National Anthems, Anderson states:
No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity… People who don't know each other utter the same verse to the same melody. (Anderson)
Graffiti is, in essence, like a shared language, or standardized lyric, which members of the graffiti community all sing. However, the average consumer of these lyrical compositions that take the form in wall writing, is not participating through an understanding of the meaning or purpose of these forms of identity. Thus, a problem arises as to how popular culture views graffiti. Taken off the brick walls of schools, transferred to the face of a canvas, graffiti maintains a symbolic meaning to those who participate in the act, and simultaneously, graffiti becomes an artistic form of expression that may be appreciated by popular culture. In tune with Anderson's message is the notion that crew affiliation and presence may serve as an international identity. D-CON, SCHMOO, and KAIROS, quoted respectively in this order, make this "virtual community" more recognizable and easily identifiable in this state of contemporary society:
Most crews are big like… fifteen to twenty deep… so, it's hard to get everyone together to do a project. Most of them go out in factions of five or three or something… (D-CON)
SCHMOO remarks about the increasing size of crews, affirming that multiple affiliations with different crews, and their seemingly endless list of members, is insignificant as to the purpose they serve.
Some of the biggest crews probably don't know everyone who is in them. But graffiti writers have thousands of names, tags, and crew names stored in their heads. (SCHMOO)
KAIROS supplements this statement, though, in doing so identifies a significant consequence that arises as a result of this limitless membership.
Often they don't (know everyone that is part of the crew). This is not usually a problem though, big crews (in terms of number of members) often let just about anyone in and hence have a limited amount of respect in the culture as a whole. (KAIROS)
It is evident, through these testimonies, that crew membership is significant only to the degree to which it may provide a means by which to promote an essence of individuality and thus, define an identity.
As it is evident, graffiti has permeated society and has poured through the cracks in the walls upon which it is written. Middle-class youth in America have integrated and adopted the identities of resistance movements, however, with no actual intent to rebel against the system. Rather, by carving a niche for the individual in a seemingly mundane social order, crews provide the opportunity for an individual to feel like they are a part of a special group. Crews are formed as a result of a need shared by urban and suburban youth in America. This need for a role and purpose is served by crews in that they offer a social membership that does not discriminate based on unity, but rather, propagates the essence unity through its shared and common diversity. Thus, again, we revisit an idea proposed by Hebdige (1983). Longhurst defines this insight in his statement, "Hebdige argues that subcultures often resist the dominant social order, though indirectly and in symbolic ways" (Longhurst 1999:214).
Crews and the graffiti that is produced by the members are a symbol of this new identity; membership in an unbiased group that stresses individuality promotes a symbolic resistance to contemporary complacency. However, it is important to recognize the change in the symbolic meaning of resistance — graffiti that once resisted the lack of expressive rights, now resists the lack of identity through communal membership. It seems as though these groups are indicative of a need for belongingness. It is interesting, however, that this identity is strengthened by the fact that group membership prides itself on individuality. D-CON indicates his experience with crews here:
If you're down with a crew it's respected… like lets say LTS… got a lot of respect because there are serious piecers in that crew that do like fifteen or sixteen different colors in one piece and so you get respect just from being in a crew… but you also get respect from just goin' out and puttin' your name up with respectable art… so people see your name up and you're all over the place… and it doesn't really matter whether you're in a crew or not. (Interview with D-CON, January, 2001)
It is implied by D-CON's statement that crews may serve the purpose of promoting oneself; crews seem to serve a similar purpose, as do advertisements. Oddly enough, both crews and advertisements often use a well-known name or symbol (for graffiti LTS and for advertisements an icon like Michael Jordan) as a route to promote an individual product or name (D-CON signs his tag in association with LTS and M.J. wears Nike). The purpose of these contemporary "ads" utilizes a common cultural mechanism, the symbol, in order to make reference and notice of an unrelated object. Ironically, these advertisements, images, popular media, and other like symbols are often integrated into the work of the graffiti artist. Giller explains:
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, influenced by a technologically based society, and captivated by the childlike innocence of fictitious worlds and characters. The frequent inclusion of skylines and neighborhood buildings as well as the interweaving of images of sex and violence 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. (Giller 1993:4)
The significance of the image, its urban, suburban, social, and cultural value will be explored next. Cultural tradition of graffiti, at one time, directly opposed the commercial image and symbols of consumer culture, however, through its expansion in meaning and communicative ability, graffiti has come to include messages prescribed for popular consumption. In doing so, the face of graffiti has changed, and although its innate violation of public policy is an implicit statement of resistance, its explicit function as both a symbol indicative of a "virtual community" and as means of defining identity through art must not be ignored. In the face of a disjunctive global culture, Giller (1993) asserts that the embedded power of graffiti lies in that it is an artistic medium through which a sense of community is formed.
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. (Giller 1997:2)
In this artistic ability to empower, graffiti as an art form, maintains a symbolic cultural significance; a symbol of contemporary culture and the voice of the marginalized, graffiti is an expressive act that has deep meaning. In its medium, graffiti is resistance to public control of space. In the letters and words, graffiti is both a group and individual identity. In its vibrant color and vivid imagery, graffiti is a statement about the strength of diversity and a uniform system of symbolling. Graffiti universally speaks for both the individual artist and the crew of affiliation. Crews are a manifestation of the aforementioned ideals; the graffiti is only a symbol of the community identity and a statement of shared beliefs.
Now that it has been argued that crews stand as the cultural mechanism by which the graffiti artist constructs and promotes an individual identity through group membership, it is significant to see who these graffiti artists are, to find out who they are writing for, and what they are really trying to say.
Throughout this thesis, it has been argued that there has been a shift in the "face" of graffiti; a shift that has brought graffiti into the public spotlight. This shift is what has changed the "face of graffiti in the 21st century". There has been a change in the demographic diversity of the participants, and thus, a change in not only the purpose, but also, the product of the behavior. The participants in graffiti culture are now connected by a shared purpose. It seems, though demographic proximity is important to crew membership, that particular crews are constructed upon style, purpose, as well as, demographic features. The study of anthropology focuses on these cultural developments, and consequently, explores culture in terms of its past and present form; the specific influences that help modify culture help us understand why a particular culture appears as it does today. In reference to graffiti culture, there have been many pressures that have shaped its present form including, social, political, and chronological pushes that have impacted the nature of the participants and their behavior.
The significance of the image, the essence of resistance, and the notion of commodification of culture have become the trends of particular interest in the study of graffiti. Anthropology helps to recognize these trends through its method and interviewing gives the participants a chance to speak and the anthropologist a chance to draw conclusions from these remarks. In turn, it has become increasingly evident through this research, that there has been another defining shift in graffiti. Initially, graffiti moved up-class and was adopted by middle-class suburban youth in search of group and individual identity through crews. Presently, members of these crews have solidified an identity, not necessarily through their association with a particular crew, but rather, graffiti "art" has become a commodity of the eclectic art world, and consequently, has acquired a meaning that is symbolic of the "resistance" ideology that was once at the core of the graffiti subculture.
Previously, the significant role graffiti plays in constructing identity has been explored and it has become evident that this identity manifests itself in the form of an image. This identity, proposed by Manuel Castells (1996, 1997), is a modification of the past premise of identity assumed through participation in an imagined community that Anderson proposed. This image is a symbol, the graffiti on the wall, represents a name written in 'style'; no two names are alike, and no two styles are identical. Every graffiti artist has his/her own tag name and each of these names, displayed in the form of an image, becomes an assumed identity by the graffiti artist. The name itself becomes a symbolic of an identity, as its meaning is arbitrary and conventional. BG 183 explains how his present 'tag' is an abbreviated version of his original name BRING. Like other graffiti artists, BG 183 is recognized within the graffiti culture by this name. BG 183 explains the meaning of his name in this excerpt:
BG 183 actually stands for BRING… BRING, cause I used to bring stuff to people and then… what happened, was that at that time I wanted to get a fast throwup… Having four, five letters would make it too long… so I said let me cut it down to two letters… the first and last letter… and people started forgetting that it meant BRING and started sayin' BG. Two letters in graffiti style is real hard… like the letter B and the letter G are rounded so I just kept it cause most people couldn't do it. Combining two rounded letters is really difficult. (Interview with BG 183, March 2001)
Abbreviating this tag name by BG 183 is indicative of the post-modern condition described by Castells. BG 183 has shortened his 'tag' name in order to decrease the amount of time that it takes him to write it. In turn, his immediate friends and fellow members of the graffiti culture, began to recognize him by this new identity — the image of BG 183. In light of Castells theory, the image is perceived as a commodity that in its actual form does not have value, but when associated with meaning, the image comes to signify value. The value of the "image" is relative to that with which it is associated. Like a symbol, the image is both constructed and consumed by individuals, the degree to which it assumes cultural value, therefore, is relative to that which it is designated by its creator and consumer.
In regard to BG 183's remark, the letters and numbers which are the "core" of his "tag" identity only acquire significance through their association. When juxtaposed in this specific order the characters become an image indicative of identity. Though BG is an abbreviation of BRING, the new "tag" name stands as an image that is unique and detached from other images upon which it may have been constructed. Consequently, the notion that images are flexible is significant. As Castells argues, it is imperative that the image, meaning, symbol, and identity be flexible in order to "flow" in post-modernity. The survival and influence of an image is based upon its ability to adapt to ever-changing social circumstances, and as graffiti has developed it has been forced to change with these social conditions. In light of this idea, BG 183 may change the actual image that is indicative of his "tag" identity, it is evident the meaning conveyed is steadfast. BG 183, as well as BRING, are multiple forms that may appear as this graffiti artist's identity and it is the shared meaning signified by these images that accredits them value in the graffiti culture. Graffiti artists may have multiple names that may be considered as images symbolic of their identity and as DAZE describes in his interview:
Some of the names I was writing besides DAZE were CHILL 2. I wrote WIND 2 for a while. I did a few pieces of BODE. I noticed a lot of people were painting Vaughn Bode's characters. I had no interest in that, but I wanted to take his name. (DAZE, @149st.com interview)
Another important aspect of graffiti's "new face" as an imagined identity surfaces in this statement. Initially, it may be understood that, although Bode's artistic work, according to DAZE, was not emotionally, nor intellectually, stimulating, his "identity", Bode's identity, generated an interest that was provocative. In turn, it is not surprising that the "face" of graffiti, as described thus far, again is fitted towards a different purpose. This "face", therefore, mimics Hebdige's (1979) theory of "recuperation" in that, DAZE, when paralleled with culture, adopts the, values, ideas and image, to fit a personal, or cultural, void. In other words, a name, and for these purposes, the "culture", becomes part of the creator (DAZE or "popular culture") in a manner that authorizes benefits from the "image" and not the individual.
DAZE remarks that he did not necessarily like the work of Vaughn Bode (an 'underground' cartoonist whose work will be described later), but wanted to use his name. Postmodern "flows" enable artists like DAZE to give new meaning to an image, and in turn, have the ability to take on another person's identity as their own. By writing BODE, DAZE consequently redefines this image and ascribes it new meaning as an identity of his own.
Graffiti artists create their "tag" name with the intent of promoting an identity, using the social context upon which graffiti, as an image, is constructed to generate respect from other graffiti artists and the members of popular culture. However, the graffiti artist seeks recognition rather than popularity — the graffiti artist wants people to say, "Oh yeah… I've seen that name before". It is the name that is recognized as the identity and not the person writing it that generates, and consequently, is given respect in both graffiti and popular culture alike. Giller expands upon this understanding of the purpose of the graffiti artist's chosen name in the following passage:
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. (Giller 1997:3)
It becomes obvious here that the nature of the graffiti name is grounded in its ability to establish an individual identity within both the dominant culture and the graffiti culture. The argument can be made that this desire to promote one's identity through "image" representation, is a core feature of Castells' theory of postmodernism. Postmodernism, as it is understood, creates social confusion, defined by the breaking down of the dominant cultural understanding of spatial and temporal boundaries considered to be the skeleton upon which communal identity was established in modernity.
It is important to explore the characteristics indicative of this post-modern society as explained by Castells in order to further understand how graffiti has become an image that assumes cultural value as an identity in post-modernity. In the "global society", discussed by Manuel Castells (1996, 1997), the image serves a particular purpose in constructing identity, and solidifying group membership. The age of postmodernism is marked by the end of 'Reason'. Thus, society has given up on trying to answer all unanswerable questions and has directed its attention towards the individual identity. Castells clarifies his definition of post-modernity when he remarks that, "The implicit assumption is the acceptance of full individualization of behavior, and of society's powerlessness over its destiny" (Castells 1996:4). In other words, Castells has defined postmodernism as the time in which identity becomes a primary focus and drive for the individual. Whether it is constructed through a group identity, or an individual identity, the significance lies in defining oneself — this has become the primary objective according to Castells' argument.
Graffiti, in essence, has developed in light of Castells' theory; graffiti has acquired new symbolic meaning that conveys this struggle for identity during a time when the control of public space and the 'flow' of everyday existence has become disturbed. It is important to view Castells' argument through his own voice, because though he speaks of religious and ethnic identity as a source of security, the tone with which he speaks makes it clear that this identity is crucial to all members of contemporary society. Graffiti, therefore, is a means through which this marginalized group creates identity — a voice that speaks to society through an image that is constructed in public space and available for public consumption. Castells writes about these social movements:
Social movements tend to be fragmented, localistic, single-issue oriented, and ephemeral, either retrenched in their inner worlds, or flaring up for just an instant around a media symbol. In such a world of uncontrolled, confusing change, people tend to regroup around primary identities: religious, ethnic, territorial, national. Religious fundamentalism, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, and even Buddhist (in what seems to be a contradiction in terms), is probably the most formidable force of personal security and collective mobilization in these troubled years. In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning. (Castells 1996:3)
It is evident through this statement, that there is a monumental movement to a secure identity. In tune with Anderson's comments about the nature of modernity and nationalism as a source of identity, Castells prescribes other, more localized, forms of identity as the world moves towards a global culture. Well, what does this mean for the graffiti artist? How does this notion of identity and commodification of the image, as explained by Castells, pertain to the culture of graffiti?
First, it is significant to revisit the use of "tag" names as a form of identity by the graffiti culture. There are certain particular features of these names that epitomize the argument made by Castells concerning the "flows" of post-modernity, and the image as a transient means by which to communicate. This "culture of real virtuality" is based upon the perception of symbols and images, in which an identity is not constructed in the act of creating the image, but rather the image becomes the identity. ZEMO indicates how the image or graffiti tag becomes the identity for the artist in this excerpt:
Well, I've had about seven different ones (tag names) and I just recently, like, for the last three years wrote ZEMO. I had a dream about that and so that's how I came up with it. The one before that I wrote was NOVA and that was from a 'House of Pain' song… y'know, 'I'll blow up like a superNOVA'… so NOVA came from that and there were just a bunch before that one, like random stuff, y'know, you just make them up. I mean, like, a lot of people use it to describe their personality… but I mean it kinda becomes part of your personality after a while. After you've been writing for a couple of years people start calling you by your tag and not your real name, so… (laugh)… (ZEMO January 2001)
ZEMO indicates an important issue in understanding graffiti as a source of identity when he speaks about how graffiti culture embraces the 'tag' image as his identity. After a while, he indicates, the artist's personality becomes enmeshed with the image, the individual's personality becomes part of the image, and the image identifies and conveys the individual's personality. Castells explains this process as a "diffusion" of the symbolic meaning of the image. It is here that it becomes evident that the process of constructing a meaningful identity is similar to Castells' theory of time/space distanciation.
Castells describes this theory as resulting from a deterioration of spatial and temporal boundaries in our physical world. The lack of definitive boundaries and cultural markers, Castells believes, leads to a culmination of a shared symbolic system created by this movement towards a "global culture and society". Due to this compression of time and space, the image acquires value and meaning in these different contexts. It is within this framework that the "tag" name becomes a comprehensive identity. This identity, regardless of spatial or temporal setting, is a reflection of the perceived meanings the "tag"/image has acquired due to its ability to impact and evoke a response from individuals in its immediate surroundings. BG 183 explains how the provocative nature of graffiti, in its ability to evoke an emotional response from its audience, accelerated acceptance of these various images in popular society.
When we're out there (painting)… we have the people supporting us like, "Yea… Yea… TAT's Cru. it's about time you doin' this shit. This wall right here was 'wack' (dull or boring)! Take care of it… I know you people wanna' get busy. What are you going to do?" And we have no idea we're just going to paint, we have a sketch or an idea, but before the wall's done, it don't look nothing like the sketch. But, that's how we do it. that's how we're keepin' it (graffiti) here a long time. (BG 183 March 2001)
This excerpt illuminates a post-modern development that has helped advance graffiti into the social world. Public recognition of this image-based form of an expressive identity has helped graffiti artists promote their identity, and simultaneously, attain prestige in the dominant culture. However, though the resulting public recognition of this identity was not necessarily that which was desired, it remains clear that this recognition of graffiti by popular society promotes a greater cultural appreciation of graffiti. In turn, graffiti acquires social value due to its ability to entice emotional response and similarly, influence the experience of individuals in society. This marks the presence of the opposing force to the paradox — even in individuality, graffiti maintains group identity in an image.
Graffiti, when viewed as an image, has the ability to communicate messages and create meaning out of the social context that is shared by members of popular culture. In the same way that billboards are effective in increasing product sales, even though the average citizen may not give its presence undivided attention, graffiti promotes the image as a method by which to solidify and promote an identity through repeated exposure.
In our town, like in the south Bronx, people want us to paint. They know us cause they seen our stuff before… seen our work… y'know, they give us a chance and let us get busy on their property… Like, we just recently… a week and a half ago, we painted a one hundred foot by twenty-four foot wall. We just finished painting it. Y'know, people were really hitten' this spot with graffiti, like people were not doin' the stuff that he wanted them to be doin'… y'know, so he's been chasen' us for years to do this particular wall and we just decided, let's do something before the beginning of the year. (BG 183 interview)
This passage illuminates the crucial turn that graffiti has undergone in the 21st century. Public recognition, and consequently, the use of graffiti as an image, by participants of the dominant culture is indicative of the theme explored by Castells' — the "image", in post-modernity, acquires power, in both a personal and monetary sense, as both an identity and equally as, an priceless commodity. However, graffiti as an image-based commodity is only a recent development, symptomatic of a shift in public status resulting in its trans-national popularity, and global recognition as a form of identity.
Graffiti, in its concrete form, is an image. A visual painting of letters and aesthetically crafted symbols; graffiti is an image, which in its present form constructs identity. Castells' theory of postmodernism promotes this notion of a search for individual identity, and often regards its solution as manifested in the form of the image. The intended audience for this image, however, is not limited by any spatial or temporal constraints. In other words, graffiti's visibility in the social world, both constructs and promotes this identity. Rooted in a public arena, the identity crafted by graffiti as an image enables it to create meaning and communicate a message to countless individuals in the dominant culture. Graffiti has experienced a change in its "face" in recent times. From the paint cans of crews and street artists, graffiti has recently been woven into the network of digital immortality through the Internet and the remainder of this chapter will highlight particular events that have integrated graffiti into popular culture and ascribed it aesthetic and social meaning.
Repeated exposure to graffiti brought it popularity in contemporary culture, redefining the historical role, which had created its negative connotation in society. Castells' (1996) initiates a discussion of the proliferation of the "image" in his book, The Rise of the Network Society, describing how technological advances including the Internet, telephone, television, and other popular sources of "new-age" media, have created the environment in which the image has developed the capacity for conveying meaning. Popular media are viewed as a network through which the image becomes identity. In this regard, media representation has promoted graffiti both as an image of meaning, and as an identity. Graffiti artists manufactured a cultural importance of graffiti through repeated public exposure of the image, displayed through two socially constructed methods. These "networks" or systems, through which the image becomes available to the masses, may be concrete or virtual, and in regard to graffiti, are the subway system and the Internet.
One of the social mechanisms that increased the exposure of graffiti, and consequently increased public interaction with graffiti were the subways of New York City. Pamela Dennant (1997) stated that, "The subway system was seen as a network system for graffiti" (Dennant, 1997). The artists often recognize this concept of the network as one of the key routes by which it has become possible to promote the significance of graffiti as a cultural image and simultaneously generate recognition of an identity. FUTURA 2000 recognizes the inextricable link between graffiti and the subway here:
I was always at home in the subway system. Obviously so were a lot of others. It makes perfect sense that the subway system would literally become the "vehicle". It just happened, it invited it. Suddenly graffiti wasn't limited to tenement halls, schoolyard walls, and bathroom stalls. Graffiti had found the speed at which it needed to be seen. To keep in step with the fast pace of communication and information sharing. What had started out as playing in subway tunnels had progressed into midnight forays deep in the interiors of the system. (FUTURA 2000 1996:1)
In this passage, FUTURA makes note of the "speed at which graffiti needed to be seen". The essence of Castells' "image" describes this need as being answered by the network system. In this regard, graffiti's use of a social "vehicle" as a transport of identity is somewhat ironic. However, it remains obvious that graffiti, as an image, has gained exposure due its ability to transcend boundaries and be carried to an unlimited number of people daily.
The statement made by FUTURA was from an article printed in 1996, well before the impact of the second "network", the Internet, had produced a significant effect on the international visibility of graffiti. In a space of "flows", according to Castells', the image has the ability to transcend all temporal and spatial boundaries. This means that it is possible for artists around the globe to share in, what was once a contextually grounded expressive form of identity. On the walls and in the streets of particular cities, the image of graffiti on the Internet reaffirms a "virtual community". Popularized by this common method of sharing information and the image, graffiti has benefited from its concrete presence on the Internet. This global network has enabled graffiti artists to produce an image available for consumption by all people and at all times.
It is significant to note that the image of graffiti has achieved a state of immortality due to its presence on the Internet. Though there remains a threat that a web page will expire or that computer 'viruses' will corrupt these images of graffiti, these events occur infrequently. The power once held by the dominant culture over the graffiti movement is subverted by the power of the Internet. This network system, when used in combination with other technologies like digital cameras, enables the graffiti artist to ensure the longevity of the image. Though it seems to be a bittersweet moment for the graffiti artist to see his/her piece buffed, or in other words, painted over by the transit authority, the graffiti artist seems to accept this act of "political vandalism" in stride. Immortality of the image is assured a certain degree of visibility due to the Internet, and sometimes, this form of publicity of a particular image may be more influential in constructing an identity than the original piece itself. At other times, the Internet, enables a writer to make reference to his or her work to other people; in the following excerpt from an interview conducted with BG 183, it becomes clear how this method of representation has become integral in graffiti culture.
No, that wall… the big wall went down. But, if you look into Art Crimes (http://www.graffiti.org) you'll probably see it there. All black wall… a bunch of names… At first, I was like, art crimes? What's that all about? And people just go in it and forget what the title stands for. (BG 183, March 2001)
It is clear that the web has influenced graffiti culture, not only in its concrete form of the image, but also the way by which the artists may share and communicate ideas. Numerous web sites have been created with the sole purpose of sharing the works created by various artists with anyone interested, and in turn, has provided an open line of communication between the general public and the image creators in a way that had never existed. In light of the original "resistance" appeal of graffiti to many of its cultural participants, it wouldn't be unfair to have assumed that the majority of graffiti artists would oppose to graffiti being posted on the Internet. However, this did not seem to be true of those artists who have spoken about graffiti and the net. CELTIC conveyed a similar appreciation to that of BG's when he said, "We like it cause more people can see what we've been doing" (CELTIC, ART Crimes).
From this comment, it becomes evident that CELTIC enjoys the Internet's ability to share graffiti with not only other artists, but also, with any people interested. In fact, this "virtual" resource allowed the author to hear countless voices of graffiti artists and enthusiasts from around the globe, and consequently, provided a more holistic picture of the graffiti culture. The Internet is anthropologically significant, as it has enabled the author to contact, speak with, and actually see the present and past work of artists from other cities. In this regard, the virtual network created by the Internet not only popularizes graffiti in the dominant culture, but also, promotes the identity of the artist through the presence of the graffiti image.
There have been numerous international web sites that have been constructed in recent years. Of these virtual graffiti "galleries", the Art Crimes web site (http://www.graffiti.org), created by Susan Farrell (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Brett Webb (email@example.com), provides the most comprehensive resource available on the Internet regarding past, present, and future concerns of graffiti. This graffiti information warehouse contains interviews, pictures, resources, links, and other useful information that may be of interest to popular society and graffiti artists. Farrell indicates the purpose for the presence of graffiti on the Internet in this excerpt:
Graffiti art is something lots of people around the world never see, while some of us get to see it all the time. I thought it would be interesting to show what I've seen and have others contribute their photos too. Now we can compare styles while we preserve great art. Every few days graffiti masterpieces disappear under a fresh coat of paint. If no one preserves them with photos, they are gone forever. If those photos never get shown, or they deteriorate over time, they aren't doing their job very well as a documentary record.
Graffiti is a natural for the Internet. On the net, information wants to be free; on the walls, graffiti wants to be free. Graffiti tries to reach as many people as possible, we're just helping it out a little. (ARTCRIMES)
The information provided to the public by Farrell and Webb is free for all people to approve or disapprove, critique, create, or simply just enjoy. Farrell indicates that the primary objective of this site is to provide the public with a means by which to view images of graffiti that may have otherwise been removed, replaced, or lost to the brush of greater powers. It seems as though Farrell believes that there is a need to "salvage" the pictorial and visual history of graffiti, and so seeks to perform this type of "salvage ethnography" through her dedication to the virtual immortality of the graffiti image. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is an obvious similarity between Farrell's intention in preserving graffiti and the primary motivation of early anthropologists who went to the field, performing "salvage" anthropology. Like Farrell's "ArtCrimes" website, the early anthropologists made an attempt to document, by way of ethnography, video, tape recording, as well as photographs, the reality of a "dying", or "endangered", culture. Therefore, it is possible to infer that the state of graffiti culture has presently reached a point that has warranted the attention of cultural appreciation and "salvage" anthropology.
It is fitting to end this section with an excerpt from Landow (2000) who remarked on how the Internet, in its capacity to promote and empower graffiti through its portable form as an image.
Obviously the product, in these cases (graffiti on the Internet), is nowhere near as important as the statement it makes, and its subsequent reproduction. The real painting on the train is powerless. The photographic copy of the original painting and the magazine-reproduced simulacra are far more wide reaching than the original. The copy and its simulacra are what hold the power. (Landow 2000:3)
The graffiti image, though powerful when in concrete form, manifested on the side of a train, building, or billboard, does not carry the same weight as an image does when immortalized through the Internet, magazine, or other type of publication. As a matter of fact, the lecture accompanying this paper also served as a mechanism by which graffiti's immortality was maintained. Though it was not intended, the aforementioned lecture facilitated the spread of many different artists' shared message and passion with the general public. It is through the Internet, digital simulacra, and other image reproductions that graffiti breaks free from the limitations of its original medium. Through these publication and preservation types (like ArtCrimes), graffiti is able to reach an infinite audience — the only impediment lay in an individual's decision to ignore it.
It is through the "virtual" preservation of the image, and its ability to transcend spatial and temporal boundaries, according to Castells argument, that graffiti has acquired international recognition. However, this movement towards a global culture is only one viable explanation of how graffiti, as both an image and identity, became integrated into the greater global culture of post-modernity. Shapiro and Varian (1999) engage similar themes explored by Castells regarding the compression of space and time, resulting in a culture and economy grounded in a network of information sharing.
Through their economic analysis of how monetary value is assigned to certain "information goods", it is possible to understand how graffiti's international popularity facilitated a shift in the "face" of graffiti's purpose and meaning. Graffiti, as previously discussed, became a method by which the writer established an identity in the postmodern world. However, due to its international visibility through the information network, graffiti became a commodity, and so, began to acquire not only monetary value, but also, graffiti generated meaning in the image. Both the creators and the consumers defined meaning, each participant having an equal impact on the creation of image meaning. Before engaging in the discussion of graffiti's rise to international recognition, it is first important to familiarize the reader with a better understanding of Shapiro and Varian's argument regarding information goods. In this passage, Shapiro and Varian discuss the impact of international recognition on the relative value assigned to certain "information goods".
We use the term information very broadly. Essentially, anything that can be digitized — encoded as a stream of bits — is information. For our purposes, baseball scores, books, databases, magazines, movies, music, stock quotes, and Web pages are all information goods. We focus on the value of information to different consumers. Some information has entertainment value, and some has business value, but regardless of the particular source of value, people are willing to pay for information. As we see, many strategies for purveyors of information are based on the fact that consumers differ greatly in how they value particular information goods. (Shapiro and Varian 1999:3)
This theoretical approach offered by Shapiro and Varian can be applied to graffiti in that its increased popularity was, in fact, one of the most influential factors in heightening the international popularity of graffiti. As more people began to participate as either a consumer, or creator of graffiti, there seemed to be a "domino effect" which resulted in the popularity of the graffiti image. Graffiti took on a social value of "cool" or "in", and so, reached a climax of popularity due to the number of people who were outspoken in their appreciation of the image. This popularity, as previously mentioned, was far-reaching; international participation solidified a global graffiti culture and in this "virtual form", graffiti became an identity understood in an international context. Landow (2000) remarks about this global identity using quotes from SABOTAGE (editions florent-massot, Paris 1996, pp. 3-4):
Today, graffiti has reached over 75% of the world and the scene has become a worldwide network where writers from Helsinki can come to France and paint trains… as surfers travel the world for the perfect wave, writers travel for the perfect train yard. (Landow 2000:1)
This international collaboration of graffiti artists is indicative of the movement that continues to grow in strength and numbers in the contemporary social world. BG 183 reveals how the "Halloween" wall spoken about earlier, able to be seen through Art Crimes, came to fruition as an international group effort.
About two to three years ago, we painted a "Halloween" wall in the Bronx located on 169 St. and 3rd avenue. When we painted it, about fifty-four artists from around the world came down. People from Italy… people from France… painted on that particular wall. People from Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx… even a writer from Virginia. Y'know… you just let people know your painting this wall weeks before and that you want people to come down to represent. You tell one graffiti artist to tell the next graffiti artist. Next thing you know… you got people callin' us to do it… Y'know, it was the first time doin' something like this… and it worked. (BG 183 interview 2001)
BG's testimony is indicative of graffiti's movement towards an internationally accepted image of identity. In its ability to transcend boundaries, its snow-balling popularity, and the explosion of graffiti sites on the Internet, graffiti artists have come together to form a global graffiti culture indicative of post-modernity. It is understood that the network which BG describes above is a crucial aspect of how graffiti survives in post-modernity; the ability of writers to share materials, thoughts, and information goods at an international level has defined much of the graffiti seen today. Post-modernity, as described by Castells, is identifiable by the movement of distinctly different cultures towards one "global culture" in which temporal and spatial boundaries that once restricted interaction, quickly become insignificant. It is the presence of graffiti on the Internet, the ability of the artists to meet, discuss, and share ideas over this information network, regardless of seemingly insurmountable geographic distances, that marks these recent developments in graffiti as progress attributable to the conditions of post-modernity.
As graffiti gained popularity and became internationally renowned, opposition from the dominant culture increased. Working with corporate America, and international businesses alike, the political forces of the dominant culture sought to eliminate graffiti at its roots — by making the paint and paint caps unavailable for purchase. However, as many graffiti artists have reported, discontinued colors and "fat caps", "skinnys", and the like are available through other resources. As BG explains, when the German artists came over to participate in the construction of the "Halloween" wall, he asked them a favor. Honoring a global code of ethics, graffiti artists from Germany (where spray can caps are available) came bearing gifts for their "boys" in America. BG explains this occurrence here:
A lot of the cans we spray paint from come from over seas… Krylon still don't have colors like they did back in the day: "80's Jungle Green", "Baby Blue", "Hot Pink"… Y'know, you got to go over seas… and that's expensive. A lot of people are using other true colors from France. Over seas market for paint is to the graffiti artist… I think, actually, that Krylon is even changing its can logo to a graffiti artist… Y'know… we ask people to bring caps from Germany when they come… cause' when they come over and say, "BG, do me a favor and find me an apartment to crash at", y'know… I say, "Yea, if you bring a box of caps over"… cause we go through like a hundred caps every week… (BG 183 interview, March 2001)
So, within the graffiti community there exists an idea of reciprocity, similar to that which Spradley and McCurdy (1997) describe in their introduction to Chapter 5 titled, "Economic Systems". In this chapter, the authors describe how relationships are solidified and individuals are recognized as honorable, trustworthy, and respectable in the community through the power of "giving". However, like with the gifts exchanged between BG and the artist from Germany, gifts also maintain the ability to strengthen relationships between individuals themselves on a global scale. Spradley and McCurdy explain this idea in the following passage, relating the concept of giving to the common citizen:
Although we are not so aware of it, we also engage in reciprocal exchange. Reciprocal exchange involves the transfer of goods and services between two people or groups based on role obligations. Birthday and holiday gift giving is a fine example of reciprocity. On these occasions we exchange goods not because we necessarily need or want them, but because we are expected to do so as part of our status and role. Parents should give gifts to their children, for example; children should reciprocate. If we fail our reciprocal obligations, we signal an unwillingness to continue the relationship. (Spradley & McCurdy 1997:154)
As is evident, there is a notion that there are cultural mechanisms at work in the notion of gift giving. There are two parties that make an exchange; it is insignificant as to whether or not the exchange is made out of necessity. Rather, the notion of reciprocity functions as way to increase the strength of the relationship between either two people or two groups, and similarly, is a form of tangible communication indicative of sentiments concerning the relationship. If there is no reciprocal gift given, Spradley and McCurdy indicate that this is a signal for the intent of one party to end the relationship.
As Castells has indicated that there is a move towards a global culture, structured around network systems, the aforementioned example of both collaborative graffiti writing sessions and international reciprocal exchange is indicative of how graffiti artists have facilitated this movement of unity. There has also been a move that has strengthened the cohesive nature of the artists and their role in the social world. In this thesis, it has been previously explained that there has been a move of the image of graffiti across temporal boundaries, making the "circle" of artists grow in size and diversity. However, it may not be the case that this growth is always a positive, as it has become increasingly clear that much of the movement has been towards not only public participation, but also, corporate inclusion of capitalism and the potency of money within the graffiti community. Thus, graffiti has attempted to avoid participating in the commodification of graffiti as an image, but have yet to find a way in which they can "Keep it Real", and create graffiti in a way that is reminiscent of "Back in the Day".
Initially, graffiti withstood the pressures of consumerism (a term used to describe postmodern cultural consumption of tangible objects and images) through its active participation in the dominant culture as a subculture. In other words, graffiti, for many years after its birth, maintained a "renegade" connotation; the deviant act of creating graffiti opposed the dominant culture and its legal system. However, as D-CON explains, the act of deviance became increasingly difficult as social pressures acted in a way to prevent further destruction of public property by graffiti artists. D-CON explains the public resistance to
But now its getting progressively harder and harder… and in fact — most hardware stores now… and even Michael's, a big arts' supply store we used to steal from… they have locked glass display cases in the front. it's damn near impossible to steal, but, we even managed to get some from there a couple of times, y'know… you get someone to open it then grab em' and bone out, y'know… it's getten' harder to steal cans now so people have resorted to buyin' cheap cans or to do this and that to get by… (D-CON, 2001)
There is an obvious challenge involved in "racking" paint that is expressed by D-CON's statement, however, though this challenge has modified graffiti's color, it has not changed the symbolic image, or its meaning. Other graffiti artists have noted similar changes in graffiti, as graffiti became more popular in the general public. However, the artists have maintained an indifference to this change. Castells' would argue that this indifference is a symptom of the postmodern condition; as the image is flexible and enduring, there is indifference on the behalf of the creator as to what form it takes. Pamela Dennant quoted an artist in her article whose words seem to epitomize much of the indifference felt by many graffiti artists in regard to this changing condition.
Graffiti when I was doing it, wasn't in magazines. It wasn't on the Internet. It was on a train… it was free. Now everything costs money. Graff is marketed. I don't know if it's right or wrong. I just know it's different. (Dennant 1997:2)
This excerpt highlights the indifference that many artists feel towards graffiti's induction into the public sphere. There has been, as noted above, a movement of graffiti into the commercial market, and consequently, a marketing of graff (a new popular term for graffiti) in the corporate world, but with seemingly no resistance from the artists themselves. The lack of cultural resistance to the commodification of graffiti is attributable to two factors; the rise of graffiti on the Internet and its ascribed monetary value that has been a recent trend that advocated the sale, purchase, and treatment of graffiti as a commodity. This movement towards the treatment of graffiti as a commodity is epitomized in its induction into homes and art galleries catering to the eclectic tastes of contemporary art world of the 1980's. Graffiti, in this medium, takes on a different "face"; an identity that is backed by stretched canvas and the name of the artist painted on it.
Have you ever come across a piece of art hanging in a museum, on the wall of a friend's living room, in a music store, in a psychologists office, or anywhere else and wondered, what is that? What was that person trying to draw there? And then, after becoming truly discouraged by trying to figure out the meaning, you ask someone the name, and you are informed that the painting is titled, Smoke and Fire. Still, you can't understand how the twelve overlapping lines (three yellow, one gray, two black, four red, and two orange) painted on a multi-edge piece of glass may be considered 'Smoke and Fire', let alone Art. However, though at first, you are left discouraged by the notion that your aesthetic taste for art may be shallow, you are reassured by a saying that your elementary school art teacher once said to you in response to your complaint that your picture isn't good. The art teacher responded, "Of course your picture is good art. And do you know why you're a great artist Brad? Because your picture is original, it's creative, it's beautiful, and I like it." Do you recall a similar experience? Well, if you don't, I guess you can borrow mine for these purposes.
Though the thick sarcasm may cloud and detract from the focal point of this chapter, the cynicism may be used as a guideline for how to approach the material discussed in this chapter. I think it is important to bend, as well as, expand your mind to completely appreciate the direction that this thesis will take, in that, graffiti, at one time, became the "hip" fad of pop-art critics, and the most desired style by eclectic art gallery owners across the globe.
Anthropologically speaking, it is difficult to say that there is a bad way or a good way to do things, behave, speak, or act. Rather, in the study of culture, people, and expressive tradition, anthropologists maintain a position of cultural relativism by which it is possible to appreciate people, and their behaviors, for who they are and what they are. However, in order to do this, it is first important to take a step back from the situation to see it objectively, and then, be submersed within the situation, in order to appreciate it from the position of those directly involved in it. This task is the primary purpose of this ethnographic approach to graffiti; through the lens of an objective observer, it is possible to document and record the living experience of an active participant, by functioning as an active participant.
Due to many of the social, legal, and cultural implications of graffiti as an expressive form, the credibility of its writers as artists has been questioned. If viewed as a cultural nuisance or an environmental defacement, it may be virtually impossible to understand graffiti as graffiti. In other words, it may be difficult to digest its artistic flare as well as its value as an expressive resistance medium that may be used as an incredible means by which anthropologists may learn about contemporary American, and international, subcultures. Thus, it is interesting to hear Art defined by an experienced graffiti writer. Often no different than our neighbor living next door, the graffiti artist is an active participant in American culture; their artistic tastes may complement ours, and much to our surprise, their linguistic eloquence may be an invitation for a greater understanding of graffiti life.
Graffiti has previously been engaged in this thesis as a form of visual resistance to the dominant culture. However, as graffiti's popularity grew, the individual tastes of those graffiti artists grew and became increasingly diverse. In its present form, graffiti may be engaged, as a way by which the artists construct identity, however, understood that the image is also an aesthetic expression. Graffiti can be considered as art. It appears that there has been a trend amongst the younger artists to be concerned with the aesthetics of the piece, whether or not the image is on a public wall or on the pages of a graffiti artists' "blackbook". The focus of graffiti, it appears, has turned towards art. ZEMO candidly states the primary motivation for his participation in graffiti in the following excerpt:
Y'know… like for me it's more just doin' the art… y'know… cause for some people, it's the adrenaline rush… y'know… of like I'm just going to throw up a tag and get chased by cops and run away and shit… I don't know, like… I do it for the art because I think graffiti is really beautiful. Y'know… to do a really nice burner… it's such a good feeling to come back the next day and to see the intricacy of it. Yeah, I'm definitely in it for the art… y'know, like I really don't care about takin' risks… cause, well, I guess I take risks… but for me it's about the art. (ZEMO interview)
This passage from an interview with ZEMO helps to highlight many of the transformations that graffiti has undergone in its recent development. There has been a movement away from the risk-taking, adrenaline rush behavior, consequently, moving closer to the development of individual aesthetic tastes and talents. Many of the graffiti artists became enthralled with the notion that they could refine their artistic skills in a much more progress-oriented environment. It became possible, as a result of graffiti's induction in the gallery setting, for the graffiti artist to create an identical replication of their artistic vision. On the other hand, it had, until this point, been utterly disappointing for a graffiti artist to not be able to enjoy the time with which they painted. Many graffiti artists discuss how, once the initial emphatuation with wall-writing had subsided, their interest shifted towards the aesthetic, artistic, and stylistic features of their graffiti art. DCON explains how he initially started as a "toy"; the beginning level of the graffiti artist who has not honed his skill or talents, and developed his art towards that of producing intricately crafted pieces. DCON states:
Um…I was hangin' out with a bunch of kids, at that point, from Fairfax High School (Los Angeles, CA), and they were all into it. We were all smokin' weed and hangin' out together and they were all into it and so I started doing it. And I started by simply by just catching little tags, and the little scribbles with the marker and what not. Then I moved on to really start to define my artwork by putting colors together with images and letters and the whole artwork behind it, the whole artwork, and started to get into that. (DCON interview January 2001)
It is this interest in the arts that has become the focus of many graffiti artists today. Their work, embraced, by a portion of the art world in the 1980's helped to promote the individual graffiti artist and promote respect for his/her name both in the art world and outside of it.
There is a certain type of conflict that has arisen concerning the legitimacy, or the "authenticity", regarding the graffiti art in galleries. Some graffiti artists feel that graffiti is only art when considered in its actual context. Pamela Dennant, quoting HAZE from Molotov Cocktail, writes:
it's tricky to call graffiti 'art' because it was born to operate outside the system. So when you put graffiti in a gallery, you are taking an outsider inside. it's like putting an animal in a cage. (Dennant 1997:HAZE)
It seems as though in this passage that HAZE is referring to the expressive freedom which is embedded in wall writing, and similarly, HAZE is acknowledging the lack of creative fire that both tames, and simultaneously, undermines the spontaneity and renegade image that at one time defined graffiti art. It seems as though other writers also consider the context to be inextricably linked to the meaning of graffiti, however, interestingly enough, do not outwardly oppose the production of gallery graffiti. Articles have been written that legitimize graffiti as an art form through an artistic analysis of the graffiti image as it appears in the gallery. George Stowers (1997) pinpoints how graffiti, regardless of location or unsolicited construction, is a form of art in the following passage:
Therefore, graffiti in the form of spray-can art is art. It has form, color, and other base properties as well as an arrangement of these elements into structures that qualify it aesthetically as being art. Just doing something with spray paint might make it graffiti, but id does not necessarily qualify it as art or graffiti art. In addition, when the spray-can art is analyzed according to the artist's intention and value to audience, there is even more evidence to suggest that it is genuine art. The only obstacle that has hindered the general acceptance of graffiti art is its location and presentation. However, the instances of acceptance of graffiti by the art world shows that conventional methods of presentation are not all that matters in determining if something is art. And graffiti art is not to be disqualified as art simply because it might appear unsolicited. In short, graffiti in the form of spray-can art is art like any other work that might be found in a gallery or museum. (Stowers 1997:6)
Though exhaustive, this quote serves to legitimize graffiti as an art form; whether or not the public may appreciate its presence, label it as good/bad, or suffers from its bold appearance and unsolicited presentation is not necessarily reason enough to disqualify it as an art form. In fact, though only a trend occurring in "tune" with the hip-hop movement of the 1980's, graffiti hit the gallery scene and the work of artists like CRASH, DAZE, LEE, SEEN, and LADY PINK were found at exhibits around the globe. If this example may be too vague, it is a fact that both CRASH and DAZE have had their work displayed at MOMA (The Museum of Modern Art) in New York City. BG 183 discusses how he, as well as fellow artists, perceived the movement of graffiti to the gallery when he states:
For us, in the beginning, it was like "sellin' out", we said… Oh, fuck those people (gallery artists) and, you know we were young and didn't know that selling your artwork meant something to somebody — like a buyer. We didn't think there were people out there that would pay thousands and thousands of dollars for your painting. it's good to have public places that showcase graffiti… now it's goin' to a different market. Different places, different people that's buyin' them. People that listen to rock… people that listen to Indian music that's buyin' them… Italian… Spanish… They are seein' the life and history of these people by buying these paintings. I think it's great, I hope it continues beyond it. I'm all for it. (BG 183 interview March 2001)
Just like many other art forms, graffiti does not necessarily have to be liked by the audience, to be considered art. Understanding that it has appeared in famous galleries across the globe, and presently is being critiqued as art by other graffiti artists carries enough weight to make the argument that graffiti should be treated in some situations as a form of art. BG 183 mentions how he appreciates the aesthetic style of each individual artist in this excerpt:
A lot of graffiti artists like to admire the paint stroke of a graffiti artist. Like… when I look at a wall I say, y'know… how tight can he hit the line? How tight can he get it without crossing over the other line? When you look at other graffiti artists' work, you bug out cause… Oh, I like the way he did that… Oh, he missed the cutline on purpose to get it that way… I see. (BG 183 interview March 2001)
It is here where the graffiti artist changes roles from being considered a "vandal" in the public eye, to putting on the "hat" of an art critic of eclectic tastes. Within BG's comment is a message, which promotes the appreciation of graffiti as an art form. It is within this context, whether on the wall or in the gallery, that BG encounters different images of graff; for each of these pieces, he analyzes them according to his ideals and standards of what "good" graffiti art is. Another graffiti artist, ZEMO, also has commented on the legitimacy of graffiti as an art form. ZEMO said:
I'd like people to realize that it is a real form of art. Just like anything else is and just like Dotto and Rococo… Y'know, graffiti is a form of art… like, you grew up in the city… it's done by city kids and it makes the city look better… y'know, because the city is gray and dull… that's why there should be a limit to not doing it everywhere. There should be designated places for it like… a couple of sidewalks that would be like a walk-through museum of graffiti and a couple of streets… Y'know, then it wouldn't piss too many people off. (ZEMO interview January 2001)
In this excerpt, ZEMO both recognizes a popular view that graffiti is an 'eyesore' and similarly, presents a viable solution to the problem in his "walk-through museum" idea. Implicit in this statement is the recognition of graffiti as a form of art; it is only under this heading as an "art", that it is possible to make it valuable of being displayed in a museum setting. Can graffiti maintain the two ideals of being both art and a "renegade" statement? Does a choice have to be made as to where the emphasis will placed, and thus, where the power of the image will stem from? Can graffiti serve one of these purposes, or integrate both of these themes and become something of an "underground success"? This remains to be seen, however, the graffiti artists' who have remarked on this issue seem to feel that there is a power in each of these ideas separately, as well as, power together.
Thus, the question remains not as to the legitimacy of the graffiti image as a form of art, but rather, the question becomes as to how this recognition of graffiti as an art form has changed both its inner purpose and outward presence in the social world. It is impossible to ignore how graffiti, as an image, has been translated into the social world. Graffiti artists today both have integrated cartoon characters, as well as other popular media icons called "karaks", that are spray painted replications of easily identifiable television images. For example, it is not uncommon to see an artist use the work of Vaughn Bode, a famous comic artist of the 1960's as part of their piece. Bode's "Cheech Wizard" is probably most popular among graffiti artists, though it is not uncommon to see images of "Deadbone" and "Junkwaffel" in graffiti art. Farrell explains:
Writers sometimes borrow characters from Japanese animation, also known as "anime", and "manga", which is a Japanese art form with roots in Ukiyo-e wood prints and other traditional art, whose characters and styles are often used in anime. (Art Crimes interview)
Graffiti artists maintain a lot of respect for other art forms, including the aforementioned "anime" and "manga" referred to by Farrell. These images are often posted alongside other more commercial images like the Coca-Cola logo and the D.A.R.E. logo; all these images are adapted to fit the graffiti artist's purpose. It is easy to view these graffiti images as being indicative of contemporary social themes; the television and comic book icons are easily identifiable by all people, and so, the incorporation of these images within a graffiti piece often attracts more public attention. The identity constructed through these pieces is a culmination of the identity that is boasted by the actual name represented, the type of meaning that the media image conveys, and the style and aesthetic appeal with which these aspects of the piece are integrated.
Corporate America has "caught on" to the public appeal of graffiti art, and in recent years, has made an attempt to incorporate this ideal communicative convention into its ad campaigns. Thus, many of the writers have "gone public" with their work, and so, have capitalized upon this opportunity to create companies which cater to the social demand for graffiti art as a form of advertising. One of the artists interviewed, BG 183, created a company with two fellow artists, NICER and BIO, that promotes graffiti art as a corporate product. BG 183, NICER, and BIO, members of the TAT's crew, (Tough and Talented Crew) have begun to market their art form towards both the individual consumer, as well as, the corporate patron. BG describes his company in the following passage:
What I do now… it's more the company… we have more to offer. Our company is a company… we do backdrops, we do balconies, we are artists for hire. Promotional campaigns, we do backdrops for commercials, for movies, for music videos and by doing this… in the beginning there was no company like ours that we could follow. We had to do everything by trial and error and the next thing you know they want us to paint Motor Homes… so now we paint motor homes with spray paint. We try, with enough skills to make it happen… the next thing you know we are doin' banners, canvases… now we have our own computer system and we do vinyl letters, logos, and other promotional stuff. We hire out other graffiti artists in different cities. We hire out in something like sixteen cities… campaigns in Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Florida to paint walls out there for us. Like we sub-contract for them. (BG 183 interview March 2001)
This company, one of the pioneers in the graffiti market, was started with the intention of each of its founders making enough money to feed their families. However, NICER stated in an interview that ad agencies were, "always trying to get a street sort of feel" (Saito 1996:3), similar to that which all three of the founders had practiced in the subways and streets of New York City during their youth. Now, as graffiti has been accepted as an effective means of commercial advertising, BG, NICER, and BIO have found a way to integrate their passion into a profitable business venture.
In line with contemporary theories of post-modernism, their company TAT's Cru Inc. (renamed Top Artistic Talents), is able to provide a product service that is available virtually nationwide. Their company, accessible via the Internet (http://www.tatscru.com), makes available numerous graffiti images that the three of them have constructed in recent years. The web site also offers the diverse nature of the type of services that they provide, making it possible for an interested consumer to see a completed example of each type of promotional mechanism, whether it be in banner, logo, motor home, motorcycle, canvas, or sign image form.
The company started somewhat, out of necessity as NICER became a father, consequently requiring him to provide financial support as well as maintain a stable physical presence within the home for his child. Other motivations were at work in the birth of TAT's Cru Inc., and as NICER explains, "I am out here doing this because, well, because I love it, and also because I want to take this art form and make it respectable — We're not just three guys painting on a wall" (Saito 1996:2). Legitimizing the art through this type of "graffiti for hire" is sometimes confronted with resistance from the core of the graffiti culture. However, there is corporate support, combined with the aesthetic marketing of their logo by graffiti artists, that disenchants many of the claims that some artists have "sold out". In fact, TAT's Cru Inc. has serviced some of the more prestigious corporate icons of America as is explained in the following excerpt:
TAT's Cru Inc., renamed "Top Artistic Talents" three years ago, began creating backdrops and video sets for rap stars like KRS One, Fat Joe Da Gangsta and Zulu Nation in 1993. In 1992, they painted 50 murals for Coca-Cola around the New York City area. NICER said that TAT's Cru is currently negotiating a $500,000 contract with the House of Seagram's. (Saito 1996:3)
It is here how we see that graffiti has truly broken ground in the public arena; the image of graffiti is currently being used in advertising campaigns and other forms of media due to its ability to reach the public and attract audience attention. Much of this popularity may be due to the media icons embedded in the graffiti image, which in turn, facilitate public identification of common icons and images. Also media publicity regarding the mass appeal of rap music and the hip-hop "scene", through artists like KRS One, has also generated public interest and thus, facilitated the acceptance of graffiti into the public arena. Through this understanding, however, we may return to a previously explored idea of "recuperation", offered by Hebdige. Recuperation, as it is restated, is the process by which the dominant culture "absorbs" and "exercises ownership" over all aspects of a subculture.
A type of irony is embedded in the "recuperation" of the graffiti culture, as it seems as though, many of the borrowed icons and images present in contemporary graffiti art and advertising became popular and consequently gained status through an identical process to that which graffiti is presently experiencing. For example, as previously noted, "manga", or Japanese comic books/magazines, became a source from which many graffiti artists pulled characters or images to paint in their graffiti art. Manga, like graffiti was at one time, considered an act of deviance, characterized by its resistance to the dominant culture ideals. However, over the course of time, manga became integrated, or "recuperated" by the dominant culture of Japan resulting in a subsequent control and use of manga not only for educational purposes, but also, was integrated into the corporate world as a means of advertising for capital gain. In Kinsella's (2000) book, she captures the essence of this "recuperation" of manga:
Accepting manga as a part of national culture appeared to become important to Japanese government agencies and institutions as well. Institutions and individuals concerned with reforming national and culture politics, and others concerned with altering the image of Japan abroad, perceived in manga a suitable symbol of change. Within domestic culture the promotion of manga to high-quality culture appeared to portend a more liberal and multicultural social environment, now ready to accept previously excluded social and cultural formations. For companies too, using manga helped to overcome social barriers and counteract passive but profound employee and consumer cynicism about corporate activities. Entering Europe and America manga became a cultural messenger distributed to deliver the subtle message that Japanese culture is still alive, kicking and different. (Kinsella 2000:96)
It is here where it becomes clear how graffiti has become absorbed by the dominant culture; manga is used to fit the ever-changing needs of the corporate world, giving the advertising industry a new "angle" to increase public involvement. Graffiti, in this regard, can be understood as functioning in a similar manner; graffiti art has become integrated into the dominant culture through the corporate world in a way that is beneficial to the capitalist ideals of what graffiti once symbolically opposed. Graffiti has changed the face of its purpose, and though there still exists a street culture of graffiti art, the essence of what many graffiti artists have turned to is inextricably involved with the dominant culture, and subsequently, graffiti is intertwined with the corporate industry of monetary exchange. It is clear that graffiti and the graffiti artists have conformed to the contemporary social needs, supplying a service for a retail price, subsequently facilitating the awareness and exposure in the dominant culture of the overall power of the graffiti identity and its image.
This thesis has explored the changes that graffiti has experienced since its contemporary birth in popular culture. In the recent past, graffiti has been used as visual symbol of resistance, an image indicative of group identity, and finally, viewed as an image that promotes an individual identity in and out of the art gallery as well as in the corporate social world. However, this thesis has failed to identify the present use and purpose of graffiti today. This current form of graffiti, created primarily by the artists, is one, which is grounded in the "challenge" of constructing an artistic and aesthetically pleasing piece in the public environment.
The purpose of graffiti artists integrates all of the "faces" that graffiti has worn in the past; there is an indication of resistance, artistry, group and individual identity, and a purpose of advertising combined in the creation of "Graff" today. Graffiti no longer is a subculture with a history completely independent to that of the dominant culture and so, it is now common to see how graffiti artists, as well as the graffiti image, giving back to the community. This trend is evident in many aspects of society. As previously noted, graffiti artists have tried to heighten the awareness of contemporary issues like AIDS or drug addiction, as well as, work together with specific groups to help adolescents and young adults who do graffiti shape their artistic talents into a marketable trade. Saito writes about how this trend manifests itself in society in this passage:
But they still make time to work with local kids interested in art. NICER and his two partners teach a biweekly class on "graff", or graffiti, to local Hunts Point teens in the new art and market facilities at a community center called The Point. Like others in the older generation of graffiti artists, TAT's Cru offers classes to newcomers to the medium and works with them on their lettering and figure drawing skills… The teen-age kids NICER and his partners teach these days, however, admire TAT's Cru's professionalism. At one class, an interviewer from a German news crew asked 17-year-old Julio "Shea" Oliveras what he wanted to do when he grew up… "To be like them," Oliveras said without looking up from an intricate pen drawing of his name, motioning towards NICER, BIO, and BG 183. (Saito 1996:4)
It is clear that graffiti has undergone a dramatic shift and in its present form the construction of the graffiti has served to bind both the public and the artists of graffiti culture through the image. Castells' has indicated that the transition that the image of graffiti has experienced is a feature of postmodern society. In the dominant culture, graffiti has facilitated the enmeshing of young and old, our social world and the way we experience it, and graffiti has enriched networking and the flow of communication as we know it today.
At the beginning of this thesis graffiti was presented as a means by which groups could communicate without having a face-to-face encounter. Aside to this purpose, graffiti was also explored in light of its use by public space by both gangs and crews. However, the foundation of crews were a result of differing sociological conditions, and thus, maintained a distinct ideological purpose than that of the gang culture. Therefore, future research, expanding upon both this thesis and the work of Susan Phillip's may seek to explore the reasons why the evolution of the graffiti of the gang culture has seemed to be stunted at, subjectively speaking, at a basic artistic level. A surface analysis may indicate the seemingly unavailable networking resources that became available to the more crew-based hip-hop graffiti during the end of the 20th century.
Crew based graffiti promoted group identity during a time when Anderson would contest demanded membership in an "imagined community". Graffiti artists who participated in this icon of membership acquired a sense of cohesion through purpose. Graffiti artists representing their crew, it may be argued, were facilitating a cause in similar fashion as to how Anderson argues that the National Anthem stands as a nationally identifiable icon for patriotism. Under this banner, graffiti under the image on the wall, and patriotism under the Flag, the voice of the individual is both acknowledged and heard by the dominant culture. D-CON explains the ability of graffiti to transcend boundaries and differences when he states:
it's definitely like, y'know, a middle-class to lower-class, I mean a lower income type thing. You don't see to many rich kids out there, y'know, like kids that have parents who have millions of dollars doing it. But, y'know, it's not about that. it's not about where you come from or about how much money you have. it's about your respect and your passion for the art. Like, that's all that matters when you really boil it down. It doesn't matter if you're white, black, Hispanic. If you're all about the art, y'know, and you're all about, y'know, living for that lifestyle than it doesn't really matter who you are or where you come from. (D-CON interview, January 2001)
The diversity promoted by participation, whether active or passive, within the graffiti movement is evident in this passage. Enabling both the disenfranchised, as well as, those individuals whom graffiti is primarily a passion, rather than, a voice is significant. Conveyed in D-CON's statement is the notion that there is a culture of graffiti; within it lies an attractive attention to the art of graffiti. Creating graffiti as art is a powerful event that is capable of constructing the "imagined community" which soon became integrated into popular culture.
Graffiti of the 1980's, with its creative touch and colorful appeal, seemed to be the time when the image became unavoidable in its bold representation in the social environment. Public space once "littered" with graffiti became the canvas upon which the awareness of graffiti permeated the media. Television, movies, and books all helped create the pervasive atmosphere through which graffiti is now understood. Identified as a form of art by a unique group of art connoisseurs, graffiti transitioned its background from appearing on the cement walls to being painted on the canvas. However, the canvas represented the individual identity through the image; it is this image, as noted that became the essence of a graffiti artist's identity in contemporary society. The spontaneity and flow of the graffiti image facilitated the adoption of popular media icons and symbols in the form of graffiti art.
It is following this chronological development that graffiti became a symbol of post-modernity. In light of Castells' research, graffiti became privy to representation in popular culture through the internet. Providing a network by which graffiti, like in its contemporary birth, maintains the ability to reach the masses, the internet heightened popular acceptance of graffiti as both image and art. Graffiti as an image has broadened its horizon, currently including various forms of digital art and imaging that represent the graffiti style. These forms of "graff" are embedded in the culture and history of graffiti, recognized by the public as a representation of a personal identity. ZEMO relates the favorable response that the "graff" he has posted on the walls of his school building in the following passage:
I know the general public… like New York City and Manhattan doesn't like graff at all, but… I'm a fine arts major, studying graphics design… and since I've been puttin' up my stuff… people have liked it… people have liked it a lot. Y'know… I've been doin' graff type shit… y'know, on the canvases and, like… people seem to be appreciating the art. (ZEMO interview January 2001)
It is here that the thesis comes full circle. ZEMO indicates a significant feature of contemporary graffiti in the previous passage; it is only through exposure that graffiti has developed the reputation, which precedes it in popular culture. Graffiti has climaxed at this juncture in time and the graffiti artists have benefited both economically and socially by means of this significant period in graffiti history.
It is truly riveting to clearly picture how graffiti has undergone a shift of purpose, construction, and aesthetic appearance in contemporary society. The power of graffiti as an image and identity are available for all of popular society to experience through the internet, this technologically based network for the image has increased the quality of graffiti as both an art and a behavior.
Referring to the story, which I related at the beginning of this thesis, it is significant to recognize graffiti as intriguing, unavoidable, and artistically beautiful. This beauty of the graffiti image, in its ability to take shape in the public world, as a piece of art has become the new face of graffiti art. In other words, it may be inferred that graffiti artists once valued their "exposure" and "fame" determined by the visual salience of their name as the primary purpose.
At other times, this transition of this identity focus led this "face" of graffiti into the art galleries of the world, consequently promoting the individual identity through recognition by the "art" world. However, in its present form, the new face of graffiti has combined both of these ideals, and it seems as though a writer's purpose is to create in the public environment a work of art that is far more detailed and involved than any other graffiti images as of yet. Thus the artist, like BG 183, will participate in both corporate marketing of graffiti and the illegal construction of graffiti in public space. Pamela Dennant makes reference to Keith Haring in her discussion of the contemporary concern of the image creator when she states:
Like some writers who went from underground to overground, Haring was only too aware of the destructive influence of the art world… he beat the system by operating both inside and outside the art market. (Tucker pg. 7)
It is this active participation, both "inside" and "outside" the art market, which defines the contemporary state of graffiti. The artists discussed in this thesis share a passion for graffiti art, and thus, have created paths by which to integrate this passion into their everyday lives. However, graffiti, as these artists experience it, is not just a form of art that is marketable. Rather, graffiti culture, as experienced by these artists is a lifestyle that provides the necessary means by which to solidify an identity.
This graffiti identity is only heightened through a combination of both public and private exposure to graffiti as an art form, and the consequent recognition of graffiti as the image of identity is what maintains its power and purpose in contemporary culture. Graffiti has become absorbed into the "virtual community" in which we all participate and thus, the graffiti artists responsible for its popular image form have constructed a new "face" of graffiti that is timeless, boundless, and seemingly immortal.
© Copyright 2001 Bradley J. Bartolomeo Please contact him with questions, comments, suggestions, and citation requests.Questions, Comments, Suggestions, and Citation Requests: BradBartolomeo@gmail.com
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