What’s Really Going On? A Critical Look at the Complexities of “Graffiti”

On the surface, the idea that a person’s name spray painted on a wall can be considered a form of art, a political act, or biological expression can seem laughable, especially since the act is usually sensationalized and associated to antisocial or criminal behavior, gangs, and urban blight. The oversimplified and misleading phraseology (“graffiti”) used to describe and define the act is itself a media imposed pejorative used to polarize the conversation and assign a negative connotation on a phenomenon that has been misunderstood since it became a subject of debate in the late 1960s. Kool Klepto Kidd a Philadelphia wall writer who started writing in 1967 explains,

The media put the title ‘graffiti writer’ on us and we accepted it. I didn’t actually call myself a graffiti writer; I was just writing. We were just having fun (Wall Writers: Graffiti in its Innocence p. 238)

Sensationalized media reports published during “graffiti’s” formative years in Philadelphia and New York City routinely contradicted the realities of the people writing and their motivations. Articles such as, War on Graffiti Vandals, How can we Stop Graffiti Vandals?, and Barbarians with Spraycans did not consult the writers themselves, and chose dramatic labels such as “Graffitists” and “Vandals,” to portray writers as malicious hoodlums.

There have always been, however, those who sought to understand the writing on the walls. In his essay titled “The Faith of Graffiti,” which appeared in the May, 1974 Issue of Esquire Magazine as well as in the book with the same title, Norman Mailer recognizes wall writing as a contemporary art form worthy of being included among the movements of the great tradition:

For six and a half centuries we have been moving from the discovery of humanity into the circulation of the name, advancing out of some profound and primitive relation to dread so complete that painting once lay inert on the field of two dimensions (as if the medieval eye was not ready to wander down any fall). Then art dared to rise into the renaissance liberation from anxiety which loosed the painterly capacity to enter the space-perspective of volume and depth. Now, with graffiti we are back in the prison of two dimensions once more. Or is it the one dimension of the name – the art form screaming through space on a unilinear subway line?

Mailer wrote this essay after spending time with and creating relationships with some of the more prolific writers in New York City.

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Fourteen years later Author, Photographer, and Community Activist, Jim Prigoff, who consulted with writers from numerous cities around the world, introduces his extensive examination of how “graffiti” became a global phenomenon by explaining,

Kids write graffiti because its fun. It is also an expression of the longing to be somebody in a world that is always reminding you that you’re not. (Spraycan Art p.7)

Prigoff’s words are echoed by the work of Developmental Psychologist, Eric Erikson, who highlights significant parallels between identity development and the popularity of competing with one’s peers to saturate the city with one’s name/moniker. The vast majority of writers get their start during adolescence, a time when puberty transforms children into young adults. Accompanying pimples, growth spurts, and vocal changes is the psychological and emotional need to redefine one’s standing in personal relationships and in society. The question that is on the minds of adolescents is, “Who am I?”

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A common expression of this narcissism is the way adolescents from all around the world commonly advertise their names on everything from their notebooks, articles of clothing (T-shirts, sweaters, and hats) and jewelry (name rings, belt buckles, and pendants). Further, young adults in this stage seek out exciting, dangerous, and ostentatious activities that garner the attention of adults and peers alike. The act of expropriating public space to write one’s name is illegal, dangerous, daring, and self-asserting, making it a sufficient rite of passage activity. Further, wall writing does not begin and end with a name applied to a public surface. Acquisition of paint and markers through “racking,” or stealing it, is also an essential part of the act. Framing wall writing in this context makes it easy to see why it has resonated for young adults in virtually every country on the planet.

Contrary to popular belief, the incubation zone for modern wall writing was not New York City, but Philadelphia as early as 1959 (Taking the Train p. 41). The list of pioneers is long, but a few recognized personalities who inspired countless others include Bobby Beck, Cornbread, Tity, and Cool Earl. These early writers gained a high level of fame and recognition by saturating the city with their pseudonyms, and it didn’t take long for it to spread to New York City, where it gained international attention. Early New York writers like Cay 161, SuperKool, and Phase 2 prolifically painted the city with their names and inspired many to follow, but it wasn’t until a New York Times article titled “‘Taki 183′ Spawns Pen Pals,” in 1971, that graffiti exploded across New York City. The article featured a 17 year-old writer by the name of Taki 183, who literally made a name for himself by tagging his nickname across all five boroughs of New York City. To answer the question of who was behind these acts, the article quotes a New York Transit Authority patrolman, Floyd Holoway, who explains that he had apprehended

teen-agers from all parts of the city, all races and religions and economic classes.

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Though writing one’s name on a wall may not be revolutionary, the fact that it resonated with so many and crossed racial and socioeconomic barriers was. In their painstakingly researched book, The History of American Graffiti Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon quote writer T-Kid 170 who explains this fact:

It’s a myth that all the writers were black or Hispanic. It’s bullshit. The truth of the matter is that graffiti was multiracial. Black, Hispanic, white – you didn’t care, and the guys who did it came in all colors. (p.28)

From this starting point, participants set themselves apart by developing their monikers into increasingly sophisticated forms. This ushered in a generation of artists like Lee Quinones, Seen, Dondi, Zephyr, who painted high art on subway cars and walls around the city.

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In describing the ethos of writing, Mode2, a first generation European pioneer who has stayed dedicated to wall writing and Hip Hop culture for over three decades explains,

People had to somehow be original and interpret an aspect of themselves. To be original, you have to draw from your own background, your own culture, your own personality, what you’ve lived through.

No matter where a person may be from, personal and cultural validation and the need to be acknowledged are universals, and wall writing provided the framework. By 1982, when New York sent its best ambassadors of Hip Hop on a global tour called The New York City Rap Tour, “graffiti” had evolved into high art, which made it extremely appealing.

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Like in New York, European youth from all backgrounds had a democratic outlet that provided a sense of purpose, community, and fun.

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Medellin, Colombia boasts a similar story. Due to the unbridled cocaine trade of the 1990s, violence, fear, and drug addiction ravaged many communities. In the ashes of this difficult time, Henry Arteaga, a founding member of the world famous Crew Pelegrosos, 4 Elements school of Hip Hop, explains

There were no cultural offerings, and the state left its youth abandoned.

To make matters worse, since countless youths had been swept up by the drug cartels, there was a huge generational rift. In response, Henry and his friends took up wall writing and the other elements of Hip Hop. Like in New York City and Berlin, youths in Medellin began interpreting aspects of themselves and their environment by developing writing their names on a wall into an art form, which empowered them to reclaim their communities. According to prominent sociologist and activist, Dr. Charles Derber,

Most social movements rely on art as a powerful vehicle for expressing dissent and resistance as well as helping articulate new visions of society.

The beautifully executed artwork adorning the walls of the Hip-hop school and the surrounding neighborhoods illustrate the power of this art form to, as Dr. Derber put it, “articulate new visions of society.” Wall writing was an effective implement for restoring humanity in a shattered community. Arteaga enthusiastically explained that today, the older generation, who were once terrified by the youth, no longer fear them.

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In addition to creating opportunities in bleak circumstances, the act of expropriating public space for personal expression is a form of dissent that directly challenges the power structure and its dominant culture. In a 2013 Lecture at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Professor Noam Chomsky (45:44) explained,

When people in power believe something firmly, it’s worth paying attention to them. And I think they believe firmly that you should not have revolutionary popular art in which people participate. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I think for destroying the graffiti on the New York subways.

On the surface calling the act revolutionary may seem exaggerated; however, consider that this seemingly trivial activity integrated diverse races, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds in a city on the verge of bankruptcy that was rife with poverty, racism, and violence. “Graffiti” writers mastered the urban sub-terrain of the New York subway system, dominated public discourse, and then spread the movement to virtually every country on the planet.

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It is also telling that from 1972 to 1989, New York City spent over three hundred million dollars on two separate “wars on graffiti.” Any movement a city is willing to spend that kind of money to eradicate deserves careful examination. In his detailed study of the sociopolitical implications of the movement, Taking the Train, Joe Austin PhD argues that the hostilities against graffiti,

[Were] informed by a legitimation crisis of the centralized authorities and by its plan to institute a neoconservative regime of social discipline to remedy the contradictions in the social system over which it had jurisdiction.

Evidently, allowing young people from every walk of life to get away with writing their names all over the shared public space reveals points of vulnerability in the power structure and raises questions about the legitimacy of authority. These attitudes against wall writing reveal the deep seated fears about the general population asserting its collective will.

In Philadelphia, New York, Medellin, and Berlin, individuals have embraced the democratic and creative attributes of wall writing because it was fun and rewarding, but also it became a catalyst to re-imagine, redefine, and recreate their realities. Other examples reveal a political imperative. Regardless of the intention, writing one’s name in the shared public space is a powerful medium, and blindly repeating the official media provided tagline diminishes the power of an activity that has changed the way we interact with the mass mediated public sphere. Whether it is loved, loathed, or dismissed, wall writing, like many other art forms is a powerful tool that can affect social change.

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