This is the first part of a three-part article. It was originall posted at The Valve on Sept. 25, 2007.
I always tell people that if you want to know whats going on with a city, look at the writing on the wall: you can tell what skill level and what social problems are happening, whats going on with the youth.
Toons, Los Angeles graffiti artist
Graffiti. Not graffiti in general, which has been painted and written since humankind first put markings on cliffs and in caves, but graffiti of a certain type that originated on the East Coast of the United States, particularly New York City and Philadelphia, during the late 1970s. This type of graffiti became associated hip hop culture, which also includes the music itself, with its DJs and MCs, the videos that go with that music, the various styles of break dancing, and certain fashion styles. As hip hop spread around the world, so did associated graffiti styles, though they've never become completely absorbed into hip-hop culture.
Figure 1: Mural, Jersey Avenue, Jersey City
Note: If you want to see a larger image, you can click on the image and thus be taken to my Flickr site, where I store these images online.
That is as typical of the style as one could hope for in a single example, and that is why I chose it. The style is based on letters, specifically, the letters of the writers nickname. A writer is someone who paints graffiti. Reading the mural from left-to-right, we have DR. SEX (notice the downward sweep of the two Rs), Jersey Joe (the green creature), and HOUR. That elephant-like creature in the middle of this mural is called a character; such characters are often used as embellishments, though in some cases the embellishments may expand and take over.
This mural is about 50 yards from my apartment building, clearly visible from my front windows and from the street. Or it was visible; now it is painted over it in a medium light gray paint. Someone complained to the City and the City responded.
While I am interested in graffiti in general, I am writing specifically about examples within walking distance of my apartment. Much of what I say, however, is informed by general reports and discussions about graffiti most of which are journalistic, even informal, rather than scholarly. I have no reason to think that my local sites are unique in any but a geographical sense. Ive seen similar images in books and websites devoted to graffiti.
The Lay of the Land
I live in the Hamilton Park neighborhood of Jersey City, New Jersey, located on the West bank of the Hudson River across from lower Manhattan. This is a complex urban environment containing housing, small businesses, major roads, abandoned buildings and lots, and small concentrated patches of woodland and grassland. Think of it as an urban savanna in a temperate climate.
While exploring one site I sometimes feel like Ive fallen into one of those jungle adventure movies at the point where the Intrepid Explorers first see signs of The Ancient Temple That Has Been Lost for Ages:
Figure 2: Lost Temple?
The letters to the left of center spell out AIDS, a graff crew that is quite active in the area. I have no idea whether or not there is any affiliation with an old Chicago crew writing under the same letters: Artists Inventing Def Styles. It should go without saying that these artists know quite well that AIDS is also the name for a chronic disease. Another locally active crew calls itself ADHD.
Less than a mile from that graff we come to the remains of an old chocolate factory at least thats what Ive been told about the building:
Figure 3: The old chocolate factory
Notice the remains of spent fireworks at the lower right. I dont know when those fireworks were discharged, though July 4th is a plausible guess, but I took the photograph on October 31, 2006.