The Purpose Of Graffiti:
What defines a cultural movement? Is it the way the people dress that follow it? The answer is no, because the defining characteristic of a cultural movement is it’s purpose, whether it be the movement’s purpose in history or in the lives of the people who follow. In this paper I have chosen to talk about an elite form of self-expression and cultural movement known as graffiti. I will provide background such as its history to answer the question, what is the purpose of graffiti?
You can’t exactly pin point where a movement like graffiti started when the only real forms of documentation are photos and stories. The documentation is a really important aspect of graffiti because of how temporary of an art form it is. Since graffiti is so temporary most writers take a picture of their work right after they finish it because a piece could get painted over by another graffiti artist, or buffed (when a wall that has graffiti on it gets painted over by the original color of the wall) by the city within minutes. It is also hard to find where graffiti started when a lot of graffiti is about respect and being known, so who wouldn’t say they were the first, to gain the fame that would come with it?
From what I’ve researched, the act of writing on walls has been occurring since the beginning of humans but it wasn’t until around 30 years ago that graffiti became a lifestyle, movement and culture. In the 1940’s or maybe even earlier L.A. was being painted with Cholo writing, which is Hispanic gang writing. The first example of modern graffiti on walls was debatably from the writer “cornbread”, which was in the late 50’s. “Cornbread” originally started writing to impress a girl, so he wrote his name on her locker, then her bus stop and finally it was all over Philadelphia. (Powers, Stephen. “The Art Of Getting Over”) Since then graffiti writers have taken the art form to so many different levels. Well-known graffiti writers like “Twist” and “Giant” from San Francisco have taken graffiti to the streets and to the galleries, which has made them stand out because they are known on the streets of San Francisco and in the conventional art world. A writer like “Sasquatch” has taken train graffiti to a different level in how many trains he paints and how unique his piecing style is, which has also made him well known for the thousands of trains that he has pieces on rolling around the country. There are thousands of writers that have become well known over graffiti’s life so it would be tough to pick and choose which ones to talk about. The main thing that it is important writers that have become well known is that they are all known for being unique in their own ways, whether is be in their letter style or their color schemes.
Graffiti has many styles and many medias because, like conventional art, graffiti is a mode of expression that is subject to the artist and as an art form there are choices to be made by the artist. In comparison to conventional art, some of the choices to be made by the artist would be the use of light and color or what genre of piece to paint, which are choices to be made within graffiti also. The environment of where the graffiti is done is also part of what the artist is trying to express. Just painting anywhere shows that you have been there and many times that is what each environment is trying to express. The media of graffiti include pens, stickers, spray paint, glass melting solution, shoe polish, sand paper and bucket paint. The styles include gang graffiti, piecing (complex 3-d versions of the letters), tagging (stylized signature), throwies (bubble style letters) and characters (stylized cartoons). Graffiti has been done pretty much anywhere but it is commonly found on doors, garage doors, trains, buses, bathrooms, trucks, rooftops, and on freeways.
These environments have become common because everyone who does it knows to look in those areas and those environments are good ways of getting a writer’s art seen by the public. “Graffiti is about presenting yourself, about writing your name as often and noticeable as possible,” says writer “Daim” while talking about why people paint trains (Farrel, Susan, 1997). For example, trucks drive around the city all day, so writer’s paint them because there is a high chance that more people will see them driving around with art on the sides of them than art that stays in one place under a bridge. Each environment is also a different story being told, where the environment is the setting and the word or words painted is the character. This is one of the really exciting parts about graffiti because the public doesn’t get to know enough of any writer’s story, which leaves them hanging until they see the next piece the artist has done.
Graffiti has made many changes since it’s birth. Some of the changes would be the writer’s styles, their media and the spots where they choose to paint at. What has caused these changes is basically just the evolution of a movement and how people think within that movement over time. What I mean by this is through experience artists figured out things like the best spots and what is a good style to make a choice as an artist as to which path to follow. One of the main things that has changed about graffiti since it started is that it is has become more and more wrapped up in the politics, which essentially is the controversies that arise.
There are three main politic movements involved in graffiti; they are yard politics, bombing politics and wall politics. All of these have to do with the formation of graffiti “crews”. A “crew” is not a gang, even though many times they can be much like them. A crew is a group of writers who come together in friendship or just writing. Crews are mostly about the art, but for a crew to last it also has to be about friendship because when everyone is more into the writing than being with their friends, conflict usually arises from the writer’s individual involvement in the art form. This happens because writers have the need to be heard as individuals, in other words, lack of unity as friends in a crew makes it hard for it to keep going when everyone is out for himself or herself.
The formation of crews is what took graffiti from being only about the individual to being about the individuals within the movement, together. Crews gave individuals a chance to work together as well as keep their individuality. Since individuals would choose a name to write so would the groups. Names usually were two to three letter acronyms that reflect a crew’s mentality. Just like individual people have rivals so do crews, but the difference between group and individual rivalries is that the people in the crews feed off of each others negativity and become a much stronger force of anger than the individual. When a writer is against or has a rival writer it is called “beef”, which is the same for crews. “Beef” between artists is pretty much the underlying element to any form of politics within graffiti.
Yard politics refers to a train yard. Train yards are places that train boxcars are parked or are taken through; and it’s where writers go and paint pieces on the parked trains. It is hard to find a yard that it is possible to get away with painting on the trains because of the security, and when writers do find them they are not safe for long because of how many people will start trying to paint there. The politics of these yards are fairly territorial because too many writers’ at one yard makes it easier to get caught. What happens is usually a crew will claim a yard to be theirs if they found it first and they won’t let people outside of their crews paint there. Many times these crews will use physical force and actually chase writers out of their yard or yards.
By now a crew probably sounds like a gang and many of them pretty much are, but with the smart artists it usually stays about the graffiti and not an issue of violence. How can a conflict stay about the graffiti in the art aspect? Well, one of the main ways is when artists “battle”. “Battling” is like a competition of skills between writers and crews. These “battles” can take place at a wall, on a train or even on the streets. It is hard to say who wins a “battle” because there is never really a neutral person who can give an assessment as to who won. Most of the time “battles” don’t end in resolution, because of this.
Another way writer’s deal with conflict through their art is by “striping” other writers. “Striping” is when a writer crosses out or puts a line through something their rival writer has done. The main reason that writers do this is because they know that eventually their rival writer will look at the piece that got “striped” again, because a big aspect of graffiti is going back to the spots you’ve painted to see what the piece looks like in the natural everyday environment. Writers also ”stripe” other writers because they also know that all writers will see it and that makes it like making fun of someone in front of a bunch of people, so in a way “striping” is used to embarrass the writer that gets striped.
“Bombing” is the illegal act of painting on anything, which includes trains. The politics of bombing usually only involve the spots people paint and “stripe”. “Striping” occurs a lot in the city because that is where everyone goes to “bomb” so writers are always coming across each other’s art on the street, and they know that if they cross someone out, because other writers out bombing in the city will see it.
Another aspect of bombing politics is the idea of “spot jocking”. Spot jocking is when a writer copies another writers spot to paint by either doing something next to what they’ve painted or doing something where they used to have something painted. Writers don’t spot jock on purpose, they get accused of it and conflict many times arises from it. They usually copy someone’s spot out of respect or just because they couldn’t find anywhere else to paint. The reason that spot jocking is bad is it shows a lack of creativity on where to paint, which is the key factor in writers getting their work seen by the public. The final and probably worst part of bombing politics is when rival crews or writers tell on each other to the police. This can ruin someone’s life because of how severe some of the graffiti charges have been assigned by the government. An example of one of these charges is the one that the writer “Kots” is getting. “Kots” from Portland and he writes for one of the most prolific crews in the Portland streets called “ADK”. When he got caught the police blamed him for everything the “ADK” crew has done. By the time he had gotten out of jail his charges were up to $20,000 and rising. Each little tag done with a pen on something like and electrical box has an estimated cost of about $1,000 to clean one of them. These charges have made it so he has to leave the country soon. It is a very serious crime to police and they have all kinds of vandal squads for graffiti so when a writer rats out another writer their house usually gets raided to find what they write, whom they know and what they’ve done. (Epstein, Edward, “No Tagging”, 2000)
Wall politics refers to legal walls or even just hidden walls that writers have time to do detailed pieces on. The territorial politics that come with a train yard, like crews claiming it to be theirs, are the same politics that come with a wall. Many times crews claim walls to be theirs also and that no one else outside of their crew can paint it. One of the main politics that comes with a wall is when writers “cap” each other. This happens on trains and on the street also. The term “cap” is used when a writer goes over another writer’s piece with something that is not as good or is just done sloppily, whether or not on purpose. It is also considered getting “capped” when the piece that got painted over shows through the one over it whether it’s just around the edges or if half of the old piece is sticking out. At these walls many writers do productions, which are pretty much big murals that they work on by themselves or with other writers. They are called productions because of the extreme amount of work that goes into them in comparison to an ordinary piece. These productions many times take more than one day to finish and most of the time they tell stories.
These politics all feed into negativity and most writers choose not to get involved in graffiti’s politics, but it is hard when one of the purposes of graffiti is the same as what fuels its politics. The purpose that fuels its politics is fame. “Fame” is a huge aspect of graffiti and it is what attracts a lot of people to this art form because being famous is a common dream. “Fame” in graffiti and “fame” in the public view are a little bit different because “fame” in the public view is being known by a wide range of people on the national to international level. While fame in graffiti is essentially being known by your peers and other writers for your skill level according to how many walls, trains or anything you’ve painted because fame in graffiti is on a much smaller scale than being famous for anything. There can be national and international fame in graffiti but it is only being known by the writer’s in those other places, which is still a small population in comparison to the general public. Tons of graffiti writers are out to get fame and they’ll do anything to have it because of all the attention from the public and their peers that comes with it. There is attention from the police because to have fame you have to have painted a lot of illegal spots so the police go after those certain writers. There is attention from other writers because they listen to the messages that graffiti gives and there is attention from the general public because of the outrage of all of the damage done. Most of the time getting caught comes with fame because it is hard for writers to lay low and consistently paint at the same time.
The purpose of graffiti is to be a visual language that is meant to be heard. One of the main reasons that it is meant to be heard is the environment it is done in. Graffiti has such an unconventional presentation that it makes people listen. It’s bold, exiting and most importantly, illegality. The fact of it being an illegal environment makes people pay attention to it for a number of reasons. People pay attention to it because they want to catch who did it because many times it is in their living environment and they have to clean it up. Graffiti uses social outrage as a microphone in that the more people are outraged by it the louder they are speaking. The artist’s actions are what are speaking and what they are saying is that they can’t be silenced, that they are anti-control or even anti-government. (Tucker, Daniel, “Graffiti: Art and Crime”, 2000)
Graffiti is meant to be heard no matter what you are saying. Writers choose some of the most bizarre words to write, which are usually nicknames; things that they believe represent them, or just even a word they thought sounded cool. Many times writers don’t have a direct story or identity to express they just want people to know that they live on this earth and exist with the rest of us. For many writers, just showing they exist is enough for them to say. That’s because even though it doesn’t sound like much it is huge in comparison to the drowned out individual voices in society. It shouldn’t be a shock to people to hear the voice of someone who simply wants to be recognized but if you think about it there really isn’t that many ways of going about getting recognized for just being. This is the beauty of graffiti to me because being is harder than it sounds and being lonely, misunderstood, and silenced is even harder than that to understand. Graffiti is people’s response to those feelings.
The reason graffiti is used as a voice is because of how populations of people like the government and society are looked at from the general public’s view. The government and society are things that the public is part of or involved in, but at he same time the system at which both run makes people realize how little their individual views matter. An example of this that shows up in our society is the media because in most of our forms of entertainment there is a narrow amount of views expressed, when the people in our society who watch it may have a perspective that is not represented in the media. Expressing opposition of society through actions speaks louder than the words that no one listened to. (Tucker)
Graffiti is meant to be heard, but not necessarily understood by everyone. It is an elite form of self-expression that is only understood by writer’s peers or people with background knowledge, because most of the times these are the only people who really know what writer’s are trying to express. (“Daim” interview) These factors make it harder for graffiti to be accepted as conventional art. The idea of conventional art is that you can have people with general art knowledge to none look at your work in a gallery setting and in someway be able to critique, understand and identify with the piece. It is hard to do this unless you have background knowledge about graffiti because you don’t have anything to compare it to. This is true with all art, but because of graffiti’s factors of being unconventional, like it’s presentation, makes it tough for people to even give it a chance and even try to understand. When you put a canvas with graffiti art on it in a gallery setting you miss the aspect of graffiti writing, which takes away the original purpose of graffiti being a visual language meant to be heard through rebellious actions. Many writers don’t even consider graffiti style art on a canvas, graffiti because of its intentional rebelliousness. It is hard to be accepted when much of the public is against graffiti because of its illegality. The illegality kills much of the market for such canvases, making it harder to be placed in a gallery setting because there are no patrons (Giller, Sarah, “Graffiti: Inscribing Transgression on the Urban Landscape”, 1997).
The vandalism that occurs makes people question graffiti actually even being art. It is vandalism but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be art also. I believe graffiti is art because of its aspects of aesthetics and expression. Those things definitely outweigh the illegality. I don’t even understand how someone could say that graffiti isn’t art because of laws, when art has been around even way before the idea of government.
The purposes of graffiti to people are to be a visual language that is meant to be heard but not understood by everyone, and to be a form of self-expression that people can use to express any perspective common to them. Most of what people express through graffiti is their voice because in almost everyone’s life there is an aspect of it where their perspective is silenced. Being silenced is the same as not being able to show what you stand for and as people what we stand for is what we live and die for. Graffiti tries to fulfill a void in people that began when they were silenced and ended when they painted. The voices or views of the people within a cultural movement is the purpose of that movement, which proves true in graffiti.