I'll be at the University of Chicago next Thursday talking about graffiti in their Semiotics Workshop (details here). The presentation will be informal and is based on a number of slightly revised blog posts. I've written the following introductory remarks to the posts.
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Graffiti: Some Parameters
What is graffiti? That’s the question. Well, actually, it’s two questions. One is relatively easy to answer, though the answer is, inevitably, a fuzzy one. The other is difficult to answer, perhaps even, at this time, impossible. Impossible because we may not have the terms in which to state an answer. But perhaps impossible as well because graffiti is still in a state of becoming and, as such, has not yet settled into being some one thing or several delimited things. It’s the second question that interests me, but I can’t get to it until I’ve provided an answer to the first.
Names: Tags, Throwies, Pieces
On the first question, by graffiti I mean an expressive tradition that seems to have started in North Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s and which spread out from there. It’s now all over the world, with visible stylistic links back to the 1970s graffiti in the Northeastern USofA.
Graffiti’s about the name, the name a person takes when they decide to write graffiti: Taki183, Snake, Dondi, Blade, Seen, to name a few names. The word “graffiti” has been externally imposed, though it’s long been accepted within graffiti culture. Since the form is about the name, the people who do it think of it as writing, and of themselves as writers. They write graffiti. A writer may write under two or more different names, nor is it uncommon for a writer to get up (that is do graffiti on a wall) under the name of another writer in his crew.
The tag is the most basic form of graffiti, but it can, in some hands, take on the grace of a master calligrapher. Tags can be done quickly. Throw-ups or throwies are more elaborate, generally taking the form of block of balloon letters with outline and fill in contrasting colors. They cover more space that tags and take more time to do. Tags can be done in, say, a minute or less; throwies take several minutes. [When you’re avoiding the police, time to execute is important.]
Pieces, aka masterpieces, are the most elaborate of the basic graffiti forms. A piece is likely five or six feet high, maybe eight or ten, and can be 15 to 20 feet wide. The design of a piece may be worked out beforehand in a black book. Pieces may be multi-colored and may feature various kinds of representational art. If executed in so-called wild style the name may be so distorted and elaborated as to be unreadable.
But What IS it?
When Norman Mailer wrote his 1974 essay, “The Faith of Graffiti,” he declared it to be art, perhaps the first to do so. But many New Yorkers – most? – thought it was vandalism. After all, it was illegally done. So, is it art or vandalism?
They aren’t exclusive categories. Remember, however, that those original graffiti writers did not come up in the world of art schools, galleries, and museums. They operated outside of it. And getting away with vandalism was important to them. It still is. That is, the illegal nature of the work is not an incidental fact of its production. Even those among the very small number of writers who make a living working with design firms will still keep up their street cred by doing illegals.
A tag sprayed on a moveable board is just a tag. But it earns the writer no street cred. A tag on the back of a stop sign, or on the side of a water tower, that tag is illegal and earns points. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it’s identifiably the tag of a named writer: Ceaze, Tdee, KH1, Sol, Werds, to a name a few that have gotten up in my neck of the woods. Aesthetics counts, but just where and why and how much, that’s tricky.