Saturday, December 31, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral: What is Graffiti?

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.

Then we have a remark by Susan Farrell, who started perhaps the oldest graffiti site on the web, Art Crimes. She said, in an email a few years ago, that graffiti is a cross between art and extreme sport. One earns credit by getting up in places that are both highly visible and difficult to reach, on the upper parts of buildings and towers. Some writers have been known to use climbing gear to a gain access.

And then we have the standard advice on how to photograph graffiti (which you can find here and there on the web). Photograph it straight on, with no fancy angles. You can include some context if you wish, but the emphasis is always on the graffiti itself. Sounds sensible enough, no?

Well, not quite. A lot of graffiti is quite large and you may come onto it at odd angles. If you can get close to it, you probably will, at which point you can no longer see the whole thing. You may even all but put your nose on the wall examining a particular detail. In any event, you get close enough to see the grain in the concrete, or brick, or wood, whatever the surface may be. The way you look at it at different scales, that’s important. That’s how you take it in.

The standard advice ignores that. The standard advice, in effect, instructs you to pretend that graffiti is just like easel-painted art, except outdoors. And so that’s how you photograph it.

Through several years of photographing the same walls month after month, in different kinds of light, and at different seasons of the year, I’ve come to think of the site as itself and important locus of graffiti activity, perhaps THE most important locus. Thus I see it as a kind of ‘back door’ environmental art that changes constantly. The standard photographic advice simply makes that invisible, as do the usual accounts.

All of this taken together suggest to me that it is at least unwise, if not an outright mistake, to think of graffiti is some species of art that just happens to be on walls. It doesn’t just happen to be on those walls, and that the fact of it’s so being makes it illegal has far-reaching consequences, some of which I bring up in the notes that follow this introduction.

Finally, I note that photography has become integral to graffiti culture. Because much of the work is illegal, and almost all of it is outdoors, it is also ephemeral. It is either ‘buffed’ by the authorities, gone over by other writers, or simply degrades in the weather. So, photographs are important in documenting graffiti. Writers will photograph their own work, but there are also many photographers with a specific interest in graffiti (like me). And these photographs find their way onto the web in various photo-sharing sites, some general and some specific to graffiti.

The Rest of this Paper

consists of lightly revised posts from my blog. As such it is informal in tone and lacking in scholarly apparatus. It is also exploratory in nature. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on, not reporting closely argued conclusions. I note that while writing these posts, which are recent, I’ve been under the influence of Bruno Latour and Jane Bennet (Vibrant Matter) and so have been seeing how it feels to think of the graffiti site as an agent, or actant (Latour’s term), in graffiti culture. I did a series of blog posts on Latour’s Reassembling the Social where I used graffiti as a touchstone example.

These are the posts I'll be working from:

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