Symbolic Subversion and The Writing on The Wall

by Daniel Spigelman

BA (HONS) at the Courtauld Institute in London (Abridged for Internet Publication), 2005.

"Graffiti is much closer to rape than it is to art." (Capitol Hill, Denver (USA) resident Charles A. Hillestad, in a interview with Rocky Mountain News, July 7 1989)

"If you really want to understand the medium of graffiti, you have to start with its illegality." (Crispin Sartwell, Untitled Essay (Graffiti as Folk Art) p.1)

It must be recognised that graffiti must always be illegal by its very definition. Furthermore, this illegality is at the core of its being. That is not to say that certain superficial stylistic mimicries of the symbolic core of graffiti do not appear in other media, only that graffiti in all forms is inexorably linked with criminality.

As Coffield points out "Graffiti raises the odd problem of a crime that is, compared to others, relatively trivial but whose aggregate effects on the environment of millions of people are massive." (P.63, Frank Coffield, Vandalism and Graffiti: The State of the Art, London, 1991.)

A conclusive definition of the term is elusive, as it always surfaces drenched in a complex web of linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies. In some languages, such as Hebrew, Italian Hindi and Mongolian, it is apt to translate the word impartially as "writing on the wall," while in Korean, Maori, Chinese, Bengali and Armenian they have negative connotations. The West uses graffiti primarily as a noun, seeing it primarily as a product, not a process. Could this be part of the problem many have with accepting the medium? Korean, Armenian and Mongolian employ verb form. Other languages for example German, Dutch and Russian, define graffiti as at one with their place or medium. (P.15 Susan A. Phillips, Wallbangin": Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999.) Regardless of private belief, one must acknowledge that, on one level at least, "it is vandalism, no matter how ordered or beautiful." (Phillips p.19)

Although there are many contemporary manifestations of graffiti, the one focused on here will be referred to as agnomena, that is to say wall writing centred on a name (more commonly known as hip-hop graffiti). However, this should not result in the medium being stripped of any creative validity. Creation is often spawned from destruction, and vice versa; as the forest fire clears the way for new shoots to sprout, or as a writer desecrates the cultural sanctity of a pristine white wall in order that he may symbolically communicate certain unique subjectivities to all who pass by.

That being said, graffiti as a medium is obviously not to everybody's taste, some taking offence from its aesthetics, others from its illegality. Perhaps Federico Pena, Mayor of Denver from 1983-1998 and staunch anti-graffiti proponent, said it best in a moment of what presumably was inadvertent genius when he declared, "no matter how good it looks, graffiti is ugly." (P.179 Jeff Ferrell, Crimes of Style:Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality, Northeastern University Press, 1996.)

Yet one should also be aware, unlike Pena, that the statement's antithesis is also legitimate, allowing graffiti to reside in a paradoxical state between beauty and ugliness, destruction and creation. For this reason no other creative media attracts such contrary yet potent reactions, addressing issues of criminality, creativity, and the politics of cultural control.

Much debate has taken place over whether agnominal graffiti should be considered art. Personally, I find such discussion ultimately irrelevant not least because of the incremental cultural expansion of the definition of the word "art" itself. Many regard pieces, generally in a decontextualised form such as in magazines, on t-shirts, in store windows, in art galleries etc., as the only truly artistic modes of agnominal graffiti, displaying an ignorance of the culture at large. Tags are often dismissed as ugly scribbling, even by those who can appreciate the artistic merit of pieces.

Almost all prolific writers of undeniable talent began their careers developing their skills through illicit bombing. Unlike an art gallery, in which we only see the refined, finished products of those considered "artists", graffiti allows the viewer a glimpse into the entire spectrum of the medium. We can bear witness to work by established writers of supreme technical ability next to amateurs who are yet to learn elementary skills, incomplete or damaged creations, and critical responses that utilise the same medium as the criticized object. A trained eye can trace the stylistic progression of individual writers, as well as gain insight into the complex web of relationships within the community itself. These are traits rarely found in gallery art.

It should come as no paradigmatic revelation that culture has reached a point where if Charles Saatchi commissioned me to take a shit in the middle of his gallery, it would be considered art, at least within the cultural institutions and media that establish the definitions. If he didn't pay me I would be arrested. In this setting, a successful commercial gallery owner can situate something, anything, in their magical building, and it immediately becomes art; rows of bricks, an unmade bed, jars of elephant dung, a completely black canvas, a gallery with no visible art, photos, a lump of fat on a chair, a man eating a dead baby, and who could forget that good old urinal which started it all. The potential to profit can easily override urges to foster a creative climate in greedy individuals.

Has art been reduced to creativity in a financially backed context? Must all forms of symbolism be filtered through the purses of the elite? Is this why graffiti doesn't fit neatly under the heading of art?

Every time agnominal graffiti is brought into a gallery context, a part of it dies; it ceases to become what it was and becomes something else. One reason for this is that true graffiti defies commodification due to its impermanence. Unlike the assumed auratic presence of a work of art, graffiti is never considered precious or sacred; it is always subject to the ebb and flow of nature, and like a Zen sand painting, beneath its aesthetic facade lies an awareness of it destined banishment to the void of things past.

As Fleming states, "Graffiti, almost by definition, is produce in media and on sites which makes its long survival unlikely" ( p.34 Juliet Fleming, Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England, London, 2001).

Another reason graffiti often seems awkward in a gallery context is because compartmentalisation of conceptuality is a congenital characteristic of the art gallery, a factor that must be seen as antithetical to the spatial liberation of creativity intrinsic to graffiti. Although the art gallery has indubitably served a positive function in the evolution of human consciousness, it is simultaneously guilty of imprisoning conscious inspection of the world in a bare white room. And despite attempts by artists such as Robert Smithson to emancipate art from the art gallery, the two still remain culturally inseparable.

In such a climate, the next logical step in cultural evolution should be the development of an awareness of the wider implications of an "art is whatever I say it is" mentality. That is to say, the realisation that if anything, created or found, can be displayed in a gallery, and everything within its walls are art, then surely everything outside its walls are potential works of art as well. The consequences of such an epiphany is nothing less than a new mode of perception in which all life becomes as awe-inspiring as the most glorious masterpiece. This is the great lesson to be learned from art.

Art was once an active agent of change, as opposed to fulfilling the role of passive commentary it does now. It has been almost entirely stripped of these ancient powers, imprisoned behind bars of gold. When people go to a gallery to experience some art they leave perhaps thinking, "that was beautiful" or "gee, it really makes you think" but their psychosocial imprints are left generally unaltered. Graffiti, on the other hand, forces one to confront and evaluate these imprints in day-to-day life when one isn't prepared to experience art, which can be a disconcerting, though potentially cathartic, encounter for many.

Though it is true that art still retains the ability to criticise the system of the status quo it is almost exclusively from within the system itself. This significantly reduces the clout of such criticism, as it must ultimately be seen as biting the hand which feeds it. Conversely, graffiti exists as an autonomous form of expression with its own independent sub-culture, and as such appears more comfortable in its role as detractor. This being said, it is not a calculated act of subversion in many cases, but an obsessive creative act that happens to be subversive in most urban environments.

Writers are aware of seditious implications of their art form, but do not choose it simply to vandalise. If this were the case most would not bother with the significant costs and risks involved and would adopt more obvious and efficient forms of cultural sabotage such as arson or robbery. The graffiti sub-culture undoubtedly sees great artistic merit in its medium, even if the powers that be fail to agree.

In this way one can begin to understand that the destructive nature of graffiti is indispensable to its role as catalyst for change, both symbolic and social. It is the chaotic glitch in the aesthetic template of the status quo. A city in which graffiti has been entirely expunged "embodies an affection for authority, a pleasure in the way property looks when it is in the control of its individual, corporate and governmental owners." ( Ferrell, p.180.)

What is apparent here is a wholehearted embrace of an"aesthetics of authority." (Ferrell, p.178) The authority referred to here are those who flood purported "public" spaces with lurid signs whose cardinal intention is to make a quick buck; ultimately the same authorities that flippantly award draconian punishments to writers worldwide. (Prolific London writer Enzo was recently issued with a 3-year prison term for his actions. Kind of makes those demanding unbiased government funding for art during the Culture Wars of the eighties seem like a pack of whiners, doesn't it?)

If general consensus deemed advertising equally as offensive as graffiti, which would be the more pertinent political issue? Some may maintain that because graffiti destroys property, it innately adopts a more impertinent presence. To them I would first like to point out that graffiti very rarely, if ever, affects the functional capacity of the makeshift canvas. Furthermore, it is almost exclusively found in "public" areas. Private residences are scarcely affected by graffiti at all, and if they are it is to an extent that should induce only mild irritation (if not admiration!) in any well-balanced individual. However graffiti is undoubtedly a threat to artificial imposed order, to the rigid aesthetic dictate that grants the right of public symbolic expression only to those who can generate sufficient revenue. This being said, it should in no way be interpreted as threatening in any tangible sense, but instead should be recognised as an organic manifestation of an archetypical human impulse.

"If graffiti is vandalism, and vandalism is pollution, then man has left his mark with garbage at the furthest reaches of the universe" (P.154, Stephen Powers, The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium, 1999, NY, NY.)

On the cavern walls of the recently discovered Chauvet caves in France there are painted a large number of murals that have been dated as approximately 32,000 years old. Presently it is the oldest instance of graffiti known to man. There are examples of scrawled prehistoric symbols on the walls of the Lascaux caves dating back 15,000 years, the Romans expressed their aversion to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar in scribbled messages on the walls of the Forum Romana, while early Christians carved statements on Pagan temples and within the Catacombs. The graffiti of Pompeii, where the term was first used in context, gives insight into the mechanics of this frozen culture at a grassroots level. Although much of the history has been lost due to the popularity of charcoal as a medium, other examples have been found at locations such as the Domus Aurea of Emperor Nero in Rome, Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli and the Maya site of Tikal in Mesoamerica.

As Mai and Remke assert, "there are undoubtedly a number of examples of artistic graffiti in the history of mankind, but none of these ever showed a sign of aesthetic or stylistic evolution." (p.78, Markus Mai and Arthur Remke, Writing: Urban Calligraphy and Beyond, Berlin, 2003.) However, history demonstrates that writing not on walls has frequently been the focus of stylistic concerns.

The first language artists were almost certainly the ancient Egyptians, whose hieroglyphs can be seen to conjoin a will to communicate with a sense of aesthetic awareness. Intricate calligraphies, each with their own specific aesthetic templates, have emerged with the development of Oriental, Arabic and Latin scripts. Some place emphasis on the act of writing itself rather than the finished content while others seek to find forms in the external world that resemble certain letter shapes and amalgamate them.

Similarly, many writers do what they do more to experience the actual process of spraying paint than to create an impermanent finished product. As Armando Silva claims "ephemerality is not only physical characteristic of graffiti, but it makes the act of writing more important than the product." (Translation in Phillips p.30)

Furthermore, throw ups and pieces are instrumental in exploring the relationships between letter shapes and the shapes of tangible objects and icons. It must be recognized that line, shape and colour are all archetypical in nature; they never exist in pure form in external consensus reality, only in Jungian notion of collective unconscious. How they manifest in reality depends on subjective conditions. In this light, agnominal graffiti must appear unique in its ability to bring together two age-old human practices, that of writing on a wall, and that of marrying a conventional cultural script with creative aesthetics.

Thus it can be seen that various expressive symbolic modes throughout history and pre-history display trends analogous with those of contemporary graffiti. Nevertheless contemporary graffiti stands alone in its implicit references to identity and the subconscious. It is integral to recognize that"graffiti writing has often been accorded paradoxical value as a form of expression whose infantile or atavistic character allows it to function as a conduit for instinctive or unconscious forces." (p.40 Fleming)

The first word almost any child learns to write is their own name; we are programmed from an early age to associate the act of writing with the self. And in one sense a tag is nothing more than a boisterous signature, a symbol that purports to serve as evidence of the author's past presence. On the other hand one may be more drawn to the theories of Mai and Remke, who claim "tags are the result of very specific needs that have accompanied humanity for thousands of years. Tags are about spreading a message, about drawing attention to something." (p.29)

A tag paradoxically implies the once-presence and present-absence of an entity that in a certain sense was never present at all. For the tag exists as a form of deferred presence, implying the signer's non-presence in the now but revealing a hidden former presence in the past. This former presence is inexorably but not exclusively linked with the persona induced by the tag. Yet here the signature no longer vouches for any socially recognizable identity.

Instead, neophyte writers must re-baptise themselves in order that they may experience the sub-culture firsthand. In putting up his first tag, a writer simultaneously creates, validates and advertises his new identity. An adoption of an individual expressive writing style and a splintering of the conscious self also transpires. For "straddling both the "real" world and the subculture sets in play a sort of double existence" (p.187, Nancy MacDonald, The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2001.) in which the former conscious self must make room for a new identity.

When the two worlds merge, and writers meet each other, often the person fails to comply with the myths surrounding their forged persona. The detachment of physical from symbolic self occurs when a plethora of tags from any prolific writer generates a shadow self intimately connected with, yet simultaneously autonomous from, its author. This is a direct consequence of employing a longstanding symbolic tool of social transactions brazenly in public view without a culturally viable identity. The medium, however, is not purely an outcome of internal urges, with it also being sustained by a symbiotic relationship with its urban environment.

"Throw ups reflect the mentality of their cities." (p.46, Mai and Remke.)

It should appear evident that it is a quintessential function of human beings to personalize their environments through symbolism, be it a colossal undertaking such as the carving of one of the visages on Mount Rushmore, a jaded prisoner marking the days go by on his jail cell wall, or even a Britney Spears poster plastered over a pre-pubescent girl's wall. All these are instances in which an environment has been mutated by human symbolic impulses, but furthermore, they are examples in which the human element involved had no control over their environment's initial aesthetic form. And in a sense, all human endeavors, both symbolic and functional, are a kind of re-moulding as opposed to an outright creation. We are by necessity born into a world over which we have had no previous influence. As humans, either acting in cohesion as institutional bodies or operating individually, we have been constantly reacting to an environment that refuses to stay completely under our control. And, as Kepes states, "Image-making was basic in enabling the human mind to grasp the nature of our surroundings." (p.20, Gyorgy Kepes, The New Landscape 2: Sign, Image and Symbol, Studio Vista, London, 1966.)

Graffiti is unique in that it is an attempt by various individuals to come to terms with their environment through a symbolism that is played out on the environment itself. The writer and his/her environment are locked in a cyclical symbiotic relationship in which both feed of each other. This notion is better understood when one considers the writer, or for that matter any human being, as a part of their environment rather than as a separate entity. In this way, graffiti can be considered autochthonous, and in a sense is self-creating (p.15, Phillips.) Hence, the medium can be seen to function as an active agent of mutation as well as a tool of existential comprehension.

This instinctual desire to make our mark on our immediate environments is undoubtedly a way of gaining acceptance in a wider community. People with corresponding symbolic templates, or analogous desired ends, will tend to cluster together. However, these symbolic urges also serve to confirm and fortify self-identity. The mark we choose to make is not always as brash as a writer's; lawyers, artists, politicians, priests, journalists, graphic designers and advertisers all manipulate symbols for discrepant ends, but almost all the individuals involved will develop a connection with a distinct community, and in turn, form a more defined self-identity.

Yet graffiti must remain conspicuous amongst the previous examples partly due to the stream of propaganda spewed forth resultant of its illegality. As we have seen, certain authorities have already aesthetically defined the writer's environment. As far as they are concerned, the aesthetic template should only be altered when they see it fit to do so. Many people lacking in finances and/or education (the two often go hand in hand) must inhabit these environments without any say so in their construction. And although it is true that some well-off individuals choose to communicate symbolically through it, it must ultimately be recognized as a medium of the disenfranchised. Graffiti was spawned as an art of necessity, employing cheap materials and available space in order to create a new means of expression for those without access to more conventional ones.

A multitude of writers still remain in the grasp of scholastic institutions, meaning their intellectual liberties have been significantly curtailed. Their every day environments consist primarily of "public spaces", because access to "private" spaces usually necessitates an access to money. The lower one's financial status, the fewer "private" spaces one will legitimately be able to gain entrance to. However as we have seen previously, these "public" areas are not public in any real sense. The word "public" implies an equality stemming from a lack of ownership, yet these areas are ultimately under the thumb of the state, which dictates all things aesthetic and behavioral within its mandate.

The public is almost always denied a say in the appearance of public areas and are consistently shut out from the processes of creation. The only thing that seems to ensure follow-through regarding the aesthetics of public is money. It seems that only those able and willing to pay for a segment of "public" space are able to shape its appearance without admonishment. Unfortunately, those renting this space will usually only do so if they believe they will see a return on their investment. The result of this is the littering of public areas with icons of crass commercialism. In this context, graffiti can be seen as "a medium of public expression for people who don't have the money or proclivity to advertise. It's an equalization of expression in public contexts, a seizure of space for non-corporate, non-governmental messages." (Sartwell, p.1)

"We shall always be ruled by those who rule symbols" (p.45 Alfred Korzybski, Selections from Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Connecticut, 1962.)

When one attempts to view the visual composition of an urban environment with relatively objective eyes, one can discern a dramatic collision of symbols taking place every day. Here, the tag fights for attention alongside the fly-poster and the government-sanctioned advertisement. Corporations make bold visual proclamations by displaying their name (tag?) and logo (throw-up?) atop monolithic structure in urban environments everywhere. Gigantic billboards crowd motorways and city centres with purely monetary, not aesthetic, motives. Bus-shelters, phone boxes, highways, parks, train stations, not to mention the sky, have all been utilised as legal symbolic canvases without regard for the wider community's aesthetic concerns. Thus legitimate wall writing does exist in societies with anti-graffiti legislation, but only if it is for financial ends, and only if certain branches of government get a cut of the profits.

With the right kind of eyes, one can bear witness to a two-tiered symbolic war. On a superficial level, the aesthetics of graffiti clash with the aesthetics of advertising. However, if one delves deeper a more pertinent conflict arises. For the true symbolic nemesis of graffiti is money. Money is the most powerful and influential symbol in the world today.As Korzybski claims, "A piece of paper, called a dollar or a pound, has very little value if the other fellow refuses to take it." (p.45) It can fundamentally symbolise anything and everything in a capitalist society, and can essentially be seen to represent a certain segment of time and space. You hire someone to work; your money symbolises their time and energy, as well as the alteration to a desired sub-division of space. You buy a car; you are paying for the finished portion of space as well as the work that went into its construction. Furthermore, money is the symbolic nucleus of the aesthetics of authority.

All state controlled space is viewed in terms of financial value, and only those with access to sufficient monetary resources can be granted permission to mould this space. Almost every nook and cranny of an urban environment can be viewed in terms of money, which can now be defined as a relative symbolic measure of space/time in any given society. An inhabitant of a city has had a money awareness filter imprinted onto their conscious and subconscious minds from birth, with all notions of possession being ultimately seen in terms of money. What graffiti highlights is the fallacy inherent in this notion. When possession is implemented through an implicit or actual physical force, we cease dealing in extra-bodily symbols and tread within the realms of the signified. We encounter direct human interaction itself instead of a consequence of it.

It also must be recognised that there are systems in place which inhibit the employment of brute force at will, namely the law and its affiliated infrastructures. Yet they too must ultimately fight fire with fire, smiting a contrary physical force with force itself where deemed necessary. The capitalist definition of possession is a lie. You do not truly possess something through an ability to purchase it, you possess it only in your capacity to protect it. And although money has come to symbolise this protection, amongst other things, at the end of the day it is only a symbol. As Korzybski claims, "a map is not the territory it represents" (p.34, Korzybski.) that is to say, money is not what it symbolises. Consequently, money alone cannot fundamentally ensure possession as it requires a tangible human framework to back it up.

Although there is no question that money is the supreme symbolic driving power of societies, it is still nonetheless the threat of a forceful reprimand that ultimately dictates possession. And ironically enough, we are reminded of this through a symbolic medium, albeit not one that professes to signify ownership. If it were possible to possess every inch of a wall or a train, with true possession demanding total control, then by definition one would be able to prevent any undesirable activity within the possessed space.

If someone tags your garage door, while the paint is being sprayed, the door is not yours at that point in the space/time continuum, but the writer's. The writer is controlling the space, altering it as he or she sees fit. This realisation is accentuated by the nature of the tag itself. Writing your name on something has long been a popular method for proclaiming possession. However, when a writer tags the back of a bus he is not fundamentally declaring, "This space is mine" but instead "I have the right to use this space as much as anyone else." The impermanence of the medium, the fact that any piece of graffiti could be buffed by a street cleaner or lined by another writer at any moment, again highlights widely held misconceptions of possession.

The clash between money and graffiti stems from the nature of their symbolism. Here it is apt to adopt R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz's terminology of exoteric and esoteric symbolism. The former is what would broadly be considered the standard form of symbolism in which all the information, that is to say both the symbol and what it evokes, are readily discernible as exterior objectivities. Examples include representative initials, such as U.N. or U.S.S.R., or an image employed as a corporate logo.

These would mean nothing without prior explanation. "Esoteric symbolism" on the other hand "is a natural or artificial fact which elicits an abstract, vital response"(p.46, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, Symbol and the Symbolic: Egypt, Science and the Evolution of Consciousness, Autumn Press, Massachusetts, 1978.) such as a caricature making someone laugh, or a disharmony making a listener feel uncomfortable. However de Lubicz's focus lies intently on what he considers the paramount in esoteric symbolic writing, that is to say, Egyptian hieroglyphs.

As previously discussed, there are numerous parallels between graffiti and hieroglyphics yet undoubtedly the most pertinent similitude is their ability to function as esoteric symbolic writings. An evocative response to an esoteric symbol occurs when "everything corresponds symbolically to the significance of the place." (de Lubicz p.47)

As previously mentioned, graffiti is in complete harmony with its urban environment. When a viewer recognises this, they are able to interact with any piece of graffiti as an esoteric symbol, in turn evoking an abstract, vital response. In order to form a more lucid conception of this ultimately intangible response it is necessary to explore the relationship between symbol and synthesis.

Quite simply, the defining characteristic of the symbol is its capacity be a synthesis."For example, the arbitrarily chosen letter "A" is a symbol that synthesizes a palpable form together with "an objectively incomprehensible, inexplicable function." (de Lubicz p.54)

Just as a perfect circle cannot be found in objective reality, so too a chasm exists between every symbol and what it purports to represent. To reiterate Korzybski, "the map is not the territory." It is the innate nature of the symbol to function as a kind of conceptual glue joining an intuitively known abstract reality with a significantly more objective consensus reality; or as Van Eenwyk claims "Symbols are essentially interfaces. They mediate between consciousness and the unconscious by participating in both." (p.111, John R. Van Eenwyk, Archetypes and Strange Attractors: The Chaotic World of Symbols, Inner City Books, Toronto, Canada, 1997.)

Just as the hieroglyphic cubit (the forearm) is the symbol of the synthesis of measurements, agnominal graffiti is a symbol of the synthesis of human identity. Although the latter example may appear more diaphanous than the former, it is equally as valid. For every piece of graffiti highlights the instinctive human urge to make concrete the elusive internal maelstrom known as "self". It is externalised not only through the choice of a "name" symbol, but in its unique aesthetic construction as well. In this light one can gain better insight into the symbolic disparity between money and graffiti. Money is an exoteric symbol, a tangible representation of the tangible. Graffiti, on the other hand, does not signify anything corporeal, which often leads to the misinformed belief that it does not signify anything at all. However the discord between these two forces should not ultimately be understood in terms of an aggressive symbolic battle, but rather perceived as being exemplary of the natural phenomenon of chaos.

"Graffiti produces a perception of chaos on the streets" (p.179, Ferrell, quoting Don Turner of the Denver Partnership at the Metro Wide Graffiti Summit)

Once when traveling on a London night bus with an antipodean friend, a comment was passed regarding how "messy" the top deck was. This is not to say there was an inordinate amount of litter on the floor and seats, but that the bus was submerged from head to toe in a chaotic, drunken whirlwind of urban hieroglyphs. The implications of the word rung in my ears; a mess is a discomforting presence of disorder in ones immediate environment, demanding complete erasure in order to fully restore the desired original aesthetic and functional potential; the attitude expressed by my friend was completely compliant with the aesthetics of authority. So why do otherwise intelligent folk time and time again unwittingly succumb to the propaganda of enforced arbitrary aesthetics? More often than not these people fail to take into account the chaotic, sometimes anti-social, nature of change and the central role played by symbols regardless of their civic validity.

Change happens whether you want it to or not; it is a by-product of time. As Jung declared, "all true things must change and only that which changes remains true." The only way to stop change is to stop the clock. And at the core of every reactionary response is fear; fear of losing one's grip on illusory control, fear of opening oneself to the true nature of reality. For chaos is the cement of our reality, though an intimate realisation of this has been consistently been ignored by the general populus of the West. Perhaps this is because it is often wrongly perceived as entropic, not deterministic. For "while chaotic systems break down order, they also reconstitute it in new forms." (P.43, Van Eenwyk) Chaos does not utilize destruction for its own ends, but instead employs it as an active agent for ushering in radical change.

With respect to graffiti, there undeniably exists a discernible order in the product of this sub-culture but when it is experienced from within the prevailing symbolic template found in a Western urban environment it might seem nonsensical. Imagine for a moment a shadow reality in which graffiti were to dominate symbolic hierarchies. Other forms of wall writing such as financially backed billboards and posters would appear anomalous, and as a result would be widely uninterpretable and generally considered "messy". There are obvious pragmatic flaws with this example, and for this reason I do not demand the reader to accept this as a desired, or even possible, model for society. I only ask that the reader consider it briefly to help foster an understanding of the chaotic fluctuations in the symbolic domain. In both this shadow reality and in the one we inhabit presently the aesthetics of authority and the aesthetics of graffiti must be seen as polarities. Every time these opposing forces come head to head a certain cultural tension is nurtured.

Some elements of society (increasing those outside the boundaries of the sub-culture itself) will come out in favour of graffiti, while others will react negatively to this relatively recent symbolic system. In this way entire cultures can oscillate between one belief and another. Take, for example, the following relevant anecdote: London writer Devo 1 was arrested on Old Street for putting up a tag not ten metres away from a public area that had just been covered in graffiti commissioned by Hackney council for the Shoreditch Festival. Thus two antithetical belief systems, both expressed by discrepant branches of the same state, were able to occupy the same geographical territory. This oscillation continues until it gains enough momentum to break free from old patterns and establish new ones.

It is a basic scientific tenet that all growth originates from a tension of opposites.Van Eenwyk (p.112) sees it apt to expand this principle from the purely physical to the realms of the human psyche. Thus these cultural oscillations can be seen as an integral element in the evolution of human consciousness. In order to reach innovative higher forms of thought new must come into conflict with old. This should not be viewed as a typical battle in which one system will emerge as unanimous victor. Rather, it should be understood as a process in which hostile contention and destruction are necessary in order to progress to the next level. But before a new pattern emerges, and the oscillation gains momentum, we remain trapped in a state of affairs which is commonly known as suffering.

The oscillation between the divergent systems of graffiti and the aesthetics of authority should be apparent in most urban environments. As the newcomer, graffiti is subject to significant reactionary antagonism. Yet one can also trace the escalation in momentum of these oscillations. Graffiti is being incrementally absorbed into the status quo, from its appropriation from its original milieu into advertisements to its employment in council community outreach programs. That is not to say its detractors are backing down, they are clearly as opposed as ever. However, as time passes and the ranks of writers swell, emerging generations are shedding the disapproval of graffiti held by their progenitors and are beginning to appreciate it as a creative medium. And although one can only speculate as to the future outcome of these oscillations, one thing is certain: graffiti is here to stay whether you like it or not.



Donald M. Anderson, The Art of Written Forms: The Theory and Practice of Calligraphy, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Joe Austin, How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City, Columbia University Press, 2001.

Henry Chalfont and James Prigoff, Spraycan Art, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, 1987.

Frank Coffield, Vandalism and Graffiti: The State of the Art, London, 1991.

Douglas Crimp, On The Museum's Ruins, MIT Press, 1995.

P.D'Ancona and E. Aeschlimann, The Art of Illumination, London, 1969.

Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Jeff Ferrell, Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality, Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Juliet Fleming, Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England, London, 2001.

James Gelick, Chaos, Sphere, London, 1988.

Larry Gross, On the Margins of Art Worlds, Westview Press, 1995.

Gyorgy Kepes, The New Landscape 2: Sign, Image and Symbol, Studio Vista, London, 1966.

Alfred Korzybski, Selections from Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Connecticut, 1962.

Andrew Lock and Charles R. Peters, Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1999.

Nancy MacDonald, The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity and Identity in London and New York, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2001.

Markus Mai and Arthur Remke, Writing: Urban Calligraphy and Beyond, Berlin, 2003.

Susan A. Phillips, Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.,University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999.

Stephen Powers, The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium, NY, NY, 1999.

Nathan Rousseau, Self, Symbols and Society: Classical Readings in Social Psychology, Rowmann and Littlefield, Oxford, 2002.

R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, Symbol and the Symbolic: Egypt, Science and the Evolution of Consciousness, Autumn Press, Massachusetts, 1978.

Johann Georg Shwandner, Calligraphy, New York Dover, 1958.

John R. Van Eenwyk, Archetypes and Strange Attractors: The Chaotic World of Symbols, Inner City Books, Toronto, Canada, 1997.

Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity, Viking, London, 1992.

Roy Wagner, Symbols that Stand for Themselves, University of Chicago Press, 1986.


Daniel J. D'Amico, Thou Shall Not Paint:A Libertarian Understanding of the Problems Associated with Graffiti on Public v. Private Property, 2003.

Sarah Giller, Graffiti: Inscribing Transgression on the Urban Landscape, 1997.

Jeremiah Luna, Eradicating the Stain: Graffiti and Advertising In Our Public Spaces, Bad Subjects, Issue # 20, April 1995.

Caleb Neelon, Critical Terms for Graffiti Study, 2003.

Josephine Noah, Street Math in Wildstyle Graffiti Art, 1997.

Crispin Sartwell, Untitled Essay (Graffiti as Folk Art).

Ilse Scheepers, Graffiti and Urban Space, 2004.

George C. Stowers, Graffiti Art: An Essay Concerning The Recognition of Some Forms of Graffiti As Art, 1997.

Daniel Oliver Tucker, Graffiti: Art and Crime.

Jason Dax Woodward, How to Read Graffiti, 1999.

Contact Daniel Spigelman with comments and reprint requests.

Interviews and Articles | Art Crimes Front Page

This document is archived at