Monday, August 15, 2011

Graffiti and the Site: What’s to be Explained, Anyhow?

Really, the rise and spread of graffiti, largely outside the institutions of the art world. Not completely outside by any means. But the gallery world, the museum world, and the art school world have pretty much been at the periphery of the graffiti scene, and remain there to this day. That’s not mere happenstance. That’s deliberate.

But what are the nature of the deliberations, and by who?

Here’s what I think:
You can’t understand the rise of graffiti culture unless you understand the site. And you can’t understand the site if you think of it as basically a canvas substitute. It’s like canvas in that it has a surface on which paint is applied. Otherwise, it is different and must be conceptualized differently.
What I don’t know, is how to explain that. I can talk around it, but explain it, no. The purpose of this post is simply to think out-loud, to get some thoughts out there where I can step back a look at them and perhaps see something I’m missing. I’m going to talk around it, but in public.

Starting from Basics

Graffiti started as tagging, a way to get recognition from girls (Cornbread in Philly) and one’s peers. You put your name in a public place, so it’s visible. Alas, it’s also vandalism. So, there’s a tension, a conflict. You’ve got to get up while avoiding getting caught.

That’s the founding situation. From that grew . . . a world.

Enter, competition. You’re all competing for recognition. How do you do it? Let us assume, for the moment, that all are equal in technical skill (can control) and aesthetic skill (design). Let’s further assume that all we’re doing is single stroke tags. No throw-ups, no pieces. Given that, what’s the basis for competition?

Basically, visibility. You can be in more places, and in more visible places. The two are not at all the same. Thirty tags in a place where no one goes are collectively less visible than one tag in a spot everyone passes every day. Hitting lots of spots just takes time. Hitting the best spots, that takes luck, skill, and aggression.

And it doesn’t hurt to have some athletic ability and so courage. Visible places can be high up and relatively difficult to get to. Those who can and are willing to reach those spots, they have an advantage over others lack the physical skill, or lack the courage.

Keeping skill levels more or less the same, let’s expand the repertoire from tags to throw-ups. They’re larger and hence more visible than tags; further, they can go over and thus obliterate tags. But they take a bit more time to do; five minutes or perhaps ten, as opposed to a minute or less. How does this change things? It seems to me it favors the quick and the daring.

Add in Skill

Now, let’s allow for different levels of skill, both technical and aesthetic. And let’s allow piecing. What happens?

Of course, now some tags will be better looking than others, by far. This is aesthetics, not coverage or visibility. It introduces a new factor into the game.

The real difference, however, comes with pieces. That’s where skill most obviously differentiates one writer from another. But there is a cost to piecing. They take time to do, several hours or more. How do you make pieces that are highly visible and yet remain protected while making them?

Back in the subway days the solution was to paint the pieces on trains that were in lay-up for the night. By exercising reasonable caution and posting watch, it was possible to get several hours in which to paint. One was relatively safe. Then, the next day, when the train rolled, the piece became visible up and down the line.

Painting these pieces became something of a quasi-military operation. It had to be, as it was illegal. And so the whole process facilitated the growth of an alternative aesthetic culture. With the emergence of that alternative culture, visibility became a peculiar thing. Visibility within one’s subculture was one thing; visibility to the public at large was another.

As long as one painted on subway cars, the requirements of these two visibilities, the requirements of reaching these two audiences, remained the same. Once the cars were gone as a surface, things changed.

Subculture Needed

We now have a situation where at least some of the very best piecing is visible only within the subculture. Tagging remains visible to all, but piecing changes its valence.

Which is to say, graffiti needs a subculture in order to thrive. That’s the point, no? Or rather, that’s the question: Why did a subculture coalesce around this activity? Why didn’t the activity just disappear? Where did this subculture come from? It seems to me all thinking about graffiti more or less assumes the existence of a subculture.

Certainly, such a subculture existed by the mid-1980s, when Subway Art appeared. But did it exist in the early 1970s when Jon Naar and Norman Mailer did The Faith of Graffiti? Perhaps, perhaps not. The activity existed, yes, and was widespread, but had it become a differentiated subculture? Or is that what happened when it hooked up with hip hop?

Questions, questions.

Getting back to piecing, at least some of it became more or less secret. Hidden from the mainstream world, but not from the graffiti subculture. And it’s access to this hidden world that makes / defines the subculture. Is it, really? Do I believe that?

Now we have a distinction between legal pieces and illegals. Now we have the demand that writers maintain their street cred within the subculture by doing illegals. That’s what marks the distinctiveness of graffiti.

At the same time this puts a premium on the spots available for doing the illegal pieces. The site becomes an extremely scarce resource. And so it gains power, agency.

A Platonic Interlude

By way of contrast, let’s toss out a theory of art that most likely no one believes, but there’s a lot of talk that’s consistent with this straw-man theory.

This theory is Platonic. Works of art are expressions of Platonic ideals. So, the physical work of art isn’t the REAL work, it’s only an imitation. The real work is pure form, as such it has no size, no scale. It’s just a design. Size and scale belong to the imperfect expressions and, as such, are ephemeral.

On this model, graffiti is deeply mysterious. Why bother to break the law just to get access to the large surfaces needed for creating pieces? Why not simply render the design on a canvas? Yes, it’ll be smaller, but what’s important about that? A design is a design, and form is a form, regardless of scale or location.

If that’s what art were about, then, as I say, graffiti would be a mystery. But that’s not what art’s about, not entirely, perhaps not even at all. The designs the forms mean nothing without the world around them. They create the world that creates them.

The Rush, the Site

At the same time, we have stories of the adrenalin high the writer feels when working illegally, and/or in a physically dangerous location. Consider a passage from an interview that Cedar Lewisohn conducted with Sweet Toof and Tek33 (Abstract Graffiti, Merrell 2011, p. 95):
Talk me through the experience of making an illegal work.

[Sweet Toof] It’s that first pop of opening a can of paint. Your heartbeat is racing, you’re sort of looking round. The noise of the paint coming out of the nozzle, you feel that everyone can hear you. You’re scared and excited at the same time. Your senses are really aware. Your sight and hearing are sharp and you can smell the vapours of the paint. Then what usually happens is you go into a trance and are not quite aware of stuff. Sometimes it hits you harder. You can feel drunk without being drunk. You can lose track of time. The whole thing about getting busted—it’s not just when you’re painting; they can raid your house or you can get grassed up.

[Tek33] It depends on the spot, if there’s a high risk or being caught or of falling off a ledge, it it’s slippery and you could fall off. You do simple spots as well, just to keep your name out there. It’s like different kinds of adverts.
How deeply does THAT affect the work? Is it possible to get that rush in a studio? If not, then the illegal nature of the act itself has an aesthetic function. And that function is tied to the site, for it’s the nature of the site that makes the act an illegal one.

“We do want to preserve the kind of sacred quality of the place,” PAC said, “but we also want people to know it exists. And we want it to become part of the folklore of the urban art scene.”
That “sacred quality,” that implies a world. And that’s what we have to understand about graffiti, how it makes a world.

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