Many graffiti artists ("writers") lament that graffiti is dying, that the old values of originality and respect which kept it moving have been lost. This is not true. Its problems have simply evolved with the medium. Graffiti has become larger, and suffers from what might be called "cultural growing pains." In the early days, graffitists had to cope with scores of people asking "but is it art?" Nowadays, a glance through any collection of modern graffiti - such as Art Crimes - will establish certain graffiti as art to all but the most conservative observer. Much of his has to do with a worldwide boom in legally sanctioned spaces for graffiti art in the last ten years.
While some people do not consider any illegal graffiti to be art, few can argue with legally sanctioned work. Graffiti artists have pushed the spray can's technical possibilities to the point where they parallel those of the paintbrush. With its creative possibilities limitless, graffiti now has much more important questions to answer. What, specific to graffiti, makes a good piece? Beyond that, what responsibility does the artist have to the culture, and how does that tie in with making good work?
To answer these questions effectively, it is best to put yourself in the painter's position. Why do you take the trouble to paint? Why put the rest of your life in second place to an art form and its perfection? The most obvious answer to this question is that humans need to express themselves. For these purposes, however, that's not a good enough answer. Painters, dancers, authors, and photographers all express themselves. "I need to express myself" explains away all the arts, graphic or otherwise, but doesn't address graffiti specifically.
People paint graffiti because it is a means of expressing themselves and establishing themselves well outside of the norm. As an artistic work, even when created legally, any graffiti will have a certain renegade edge which has been bolstered by years of illegal work. In creating these public art works, graffiti writers experience a level of risk and adventure, artistic and otherwise, that anyone outside our circles would have great difficulty comprehending. It is also one hell of a lot of fun. But this hardly scratches the surface of what graffiti is to any moderately serious graffiti writer.
People start the practise of graffiti because in doing so they are different. However, if and when they decide to commit seriously to graffiti as more than a teenage weekend diversion, they will realize that they are hardly alone in doing so. There are thousands of very dedicated graffiti writers worldwide. Being the local graffiti writer may create yourself a "rebellious artist" image around your way, but in the global graffiti culture, that "cool" is standard issue. There's nothing special about being a graffiti writer in a room full of graffiti writers! How, then, can one truly maintain the true original attractions of graffiti; to be different, and to be yourself?
The answer lies in a comprehension of style, the one key word to any understanding of graffiti. Though there exist many verbose definitions of style, the best I've heard is simply that a good graffiti writer has one all their own. To those outside the culture, this is unfortunately not very useful. In an effort to promote better understanding of the artform both inside and outside the culture, a better breakdown is needed.
For most of its participants, graffiti is at least in part a quest for identity. Psychologically, this is rather obvious, for the act of leaving one's mark has been associated with self-affirmation since the dawn of time. However, since there are currently so many people out there doing it, each participant strives to have something special about the way they write their name in order to stand out.
The great challenge of graffiti is to create a design framework for the letters in one's name which is so personally tailored that it allows for the expression of attitudes, opinions, emotions, and soul. Since the set of letters in the name that one paints do not change, the way they are painted is what conveys meaning. For instance, I will always paint an S, an O, an N, an I, and a K, in that order, but in each painting I have different messages which I hope to convey. In order for any personal meaning to show through in my paintings, I must paint them with a style that is every bit as personal. If I paint in a way that is truly my own, I will have a voice that is truly my own. With a voice that is entirely personal, I can convey messages which are every bit as personal without losing any of their meaning.
Style alone will not impart serious meaning upon a graffiti piece, but it is the only tool with which meaning can be effectively conveyed via lettering. Style is how one presents one's ideas. It is the way one creates, the framework and the foundation for all of one's work. Beyond that, it is the one true voice that exists within each of us, the voice that has so often been buried by years of acting like other people. The framework of style is the framework of yourself. Style, loosely, is the artistic equivalent of enlightenment. It means fully knowing one's self.
Once one's style is firmly established, letters develop for the graffiti writer in a way that is meaningful: the design and shape of the letters means something beyond looking pretty, all the arrows and connections used have a purpose, and play a role in the piece besides simply saying "look at this!!" With a strong personal style, one can experiment and learn new methods of painting without rendering the work trivial.
At this point it is important to clarify the difference between technique and style. Technique is a means, not an end. It is the hammers and saws with which one builds the house - not the house itself. Technique allows one such freedoms as to blend colors cleanly, to draw letters that work in terms of classical perspective, or to outline without dripping. One of the potential drawbacks of technique is that it enables one to exactly replicate the work of others if one so desires.
Technique is something which can be taught, but style is something which must be discovered within one's self. Technique is universal, style is personal. Because technique and style are separate to some extent,this often creates confusion as to which to learn first. Technique is undoubtedly easier to learn, and will be developed naturally if one paints a great deal and constantly tries new ways of painting.
Many graffiti writers make the mistake of learning technique first, in order to make their pieces pretty, and think that style can somehow wait until they have the means to express it in a way that is technically pretty. This is a grave mistake. The first thing any writer must do is develop their own style, for without it they will create shallow artwork, regardless of how technically advanced it is.
Of course, everyone copies style at the beginning, and that's okay. There are "basics" to learn in graffiti, just like any other art form. Many great graffiti writers got their start by basing their work on the style of their local heroes, but then, initial lessons learned, they moved on to establish their own. It is indeed a beautiful sight to see individual writers make leaps and bounds as they develop their own voice and build on the work of their elders. However, what is infuriating is when graffiti writers young or old think that their success can be achieved by creating a collage of other writers' styles. These people only fool the ignorant. A classic trick of the style-less writer is to pick one of their favorite graffiti heroes and shape into their own name the letters that their hero has worked so tirelessly to perfect in an individual style. This is degrading on many levels. It degrades the copier for obvious reasons. It degrades the copied as well. Copying someone else's style objectifies them and renders them artistic commodities who have lost control of their work. This is not something which any true artist would want for their heros.
Each and every graffiti writer has been given the tremendous gift of a substantial culture and art form which has allowed for their expression and the ability to say things previously unsayable. That's one hell of a debt to carry, but each writer can do something about repaying it. The best way to repay the culture is to contribute something individual and unique back to it.
Again, this comes back to style. Aside from the personal gains one attains from developing one's own voice, if writers do the work it takes to create a style that is truly unique and personal, they have begun to repay the culture which sustains them. Individuality is hard, lonely work - and to the writers out there who may be reading this: if you have not gone to the trouble of developing your own style and are content to make pretty pictures that feed off of the work of so many others, consider yourself a cultural leech. You have no business in this vital art form if you do nothing to keep it vital.
However, there have been many who have said "fuck convention, I'd rather be original than good." Through hard work, these writers have developed personal artistic voices with which they can say anything, and have given their work substance which will last throughout the ages. These people are those who have truly given back to their culture. These graffiti writers, whether famed in our circles or not, have truly earned the respects to which we all aspire.
On Some Ol' Muhammad Ali Style....
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