Saturday, September 20, 2014

Graffiti Aesthetics 3: Stylistic Identity

This was originally published in The Valve on August 24, 2007.
I want to arrive at an approach to the question: What's the point of a writer painter his or her name if you can't read it? But I'm heading toward it slowly, indirectly. I want to begin by remounting the hobby horse I rode in my previous graffiti post, the need for accurate description.

I start with the assumption that the objects of interest – graffiti in this case, but it could be literary texts or musical compositions, for example – have an unbounded number of properties, only some of which are relevant to their aesthetic function. The most interesting properties are those which give them differential identity in the total field of objects in which they exist, the point that the early Structuralists made about phonological systems of natural languages. For example, while /l/ and /r/ sound different, that difference is not linguistically significant in all languages (e.g. Japanese). We cannot identify the relevant visual properties of graphs simply by examining isolated cases. We must consider them in relation to the whole field.
(As a side issue, I note that each object is created at a certain time and place in response to the field as it exists at that time. As more objects are created over time, the differential identity of each and every object in the field shifts as the field itself changes. This is a major source of the instability of meaning probed by deconstruction.)
Let us begin by considering another Ceaze, a very simple one:

Figure 1: CEAZE
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.
One of the most obvious characteristics of those letters is their angular and rectilinear form. The “C” is made without the standard curves and the “A” without sloping sides. Are those properties differentially significant, do they distinguish Ceaze's style from that of other writers? We can't tell by looking at this example. We need to consider other examples and compare them with the Cease. Here are two other examples:

Figure 2: Themo
in the spirit of picasso?.jpg
Figure 3: unidentified
The first is by Themo (identified for me by Problems) and has the rough form of an “X.” There are many X-form pieces. I can't make out the letters in the second one and no one had identified the writer for me. The overall form, however, is asymmetric and irregular, which is what I'm interested in. Lots of grafs are like that as well - I think of them as crazy organics.

These pieces are quite different in overall form from the Ceaze. By noticing the differences we can begin to see which properties of the Ceaze have differential significance. That the name is readily intelligible is one of those differentiating properties. As we will see shortly, thought, it is a secondary one in this system of differential signification. The relevant differential properties are utterly banal: 1) the letters are aligned to the same horizontal line, 2) the letters have the same height, 3) the letters are of roughly equal width and 4) they do not interact with one another; they are contained within boundaries that cleanly separate them from one another. Neither of the two other grafs have these four properties; note in particular that their letter forms are deeply intertwined with one another.

Returning to the Ceaze, its easy legibility is a secondary matter because, as we have already seen, he is quite capable of writing wild style. That intelligibility is thus not diagnostic of his style as opposed to other styles. It's just one of many graphic effects in his repertoire. Here are three more Ceaze's; two are wild style, one is not. Perhaps you could parse the wild style letter forms without knowing what they are, but such foreknowledge makes the job easier.

Figure 4: CEAZE

Ceaze in Black Curves.jpg
Figure 5: CEAZE
Figure 6: CEAZE
Notice that in all three pieces, wild style and old school, the letters are horizontally aligned, have the same height, and roughly equal width. They do, however, interact with one another. If you put lines between the letters, you'll find that the letter forms cross the lines. In that respect they are like the X-form and the crazy organic, but unlike the block-letter Ceaze. These marked-up photos illustrate these points:

0 ceaze-analytic1.jpg
Figure 7: CEAZE in blocks
0 Ceaze analytic 2.jpg
Figure 8: CEAZE in blocks
0 ceaze analytic 3.jpg
Figure 9: CEAZE in blocks
Whether or not we can parse the letter-forms of a Ceaze into the name, we can see that, despite the obvious differences between these Ceaze pieces, they all share certain characteristics which differentiate them from the other pieces we've examined, and X-forms and crazy organics as well.

Note that I am not asserting that only pieces by Ceaze have the characteristics I identified above. That's true in this sample, but not generally so. In fact, Gaser (who also writes as Gas) has a piece next to the Ceaze that shares those characteristics with it (note that I've enhanced the colors in this photo so that you can see the letters more clearly, though they blend in with the wall):

Figure 10: GAS / GASER
This piece has all four characteristics identified in the initial Ceaze: 1) horizontally aligned letters, 2) having the same height, 3) roughly equal width and 4) no mutual interaction.

Note however that the two pieces are stylistically different beyond the identity of their letters. The Ceaze in black and white while the Gaser is colored. Thus another graphic property comes into play: color. I haven't mentioned it before because it wasn't relevant to the differential comparison. Now it's relevant. Note, however, that coloring is not an inherent stylistic marker for Ceaze and Gaser, both write colored pieces and gray-scale pieces. It is differential only in this local context, where their pieces are together.

What I am asserting, then, is that the identity of a piece does not dependent on being able to parse the letter forms and thereby identify the name. This is common knowledge in the graf world. As Susan Farrell, of Art Crimes, said to me in email, experienced writers can identify pieces by the style; they don't have to read the names. There ability to do so, I believe, depends on their deep knowledge of graffiti, not in the trivial sense that they have seen many examples, but that they have examined them closely and have organized them into a system that they understand on an intuitive basis. They can see the pieces through the differential features of the system and thereby identify the writer at a glance. Correlatively, my difficulty in identifying writers has nothing to do with my inability to see what's before my eyes. I can do that perfectly well. But my sense of the differential features of the system is not well-developed. I can see, but I don't know what it is that I'm seeing.

* * * * *

Obviously I have not made a complete inventory of the differential features of the graf system. I have identified features that work for a limited set of examples. If we were to include other examples, we would have to identify more differential features. Further, whereas the differential feature set in the sound systems of natural languages is finite, there is no reason to think that the graf set is finite.

Whether or not the system if finite, my point is simply that there is a system and that it is rich enough so that each writer to create a stylistic identity. The name itself is irrelevant to this identity.

Gas Ceaze.jpg
Figure 11: CEAZE - GASER

* * * * *

Addendum 2014: Most of these are gone, either because the wall has been destroyed (Figures 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11) or the piece has been degraded by the weather and other writers (Figure 3, 4, 7). I believe that the Themo, Figure 2, still stands.

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