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Why is Graffiti Created

by Jasaon Shaw
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Does Graffiti Provide A Voice for People Alienated from Our Culture? If not, Why is Graffiti Created? Does Graffiti Influence Commercial Artwork and If So, Why?

Every day in the real world, we come across graphic design: a designer’s task is to communicate a message to the public through various styles of photographs and typography. A message may be communicated in a variety of forms, including broadcasting, publishing, advertisement, and stenciling. Graffiti and how individuals use it to communicate their own personal messages has increased dramatically over the last decade. Graffiti is taken from the Italian word’sgraffio,’ which means ‘to scribble,’ which has existed since the dawn of time. Within the Lascaux caves, there is proof of vandalism cut into the cave walls with bones and stones.

Graffiti is now produced using chalk, enamel paint, rollered throw-ups, and stencils, but many graffiti artists also believe spray cans to be the most real. These techniques grab the eye and successfully convey a meaning in an articulate manner. Graffiti may be sentimental, sarcastic, satirical, or sometimes damaging, and it allows artists to convey themselves in their work. Often graffiti artists use stickers, or branding as they like to term it, to promote themselves. It entails creating your own graffiti theme and writing your own tag.

Many people, especially the older generation, regard graffiti as vandalism and even a form of social activism, but is being unique and seeking attention always such a bad thing? Rather than being slandered, the ability to be known with a specific talent should be celebrated. I’m sure it’s tough to know where to draw the line on anything like this, but in the architecture community, graffiti is one of the strongest means of advertising and collaboration. It can be made almost anywhere, and often graffiti artists prefer locations where their work would be seen by the public, regardless of how dangerous or unsafe it is to ‘get up’ a piece there. Subways, trains, and buses, for example, are top priorities because everybody requires public transportation. Graffiti artists also mix cynicism with humour to produce thought-provoking messages, and all of them utilize solid form and concepts.

Why is Graffiti Created

Tristan Manco Who Has Written a Number of Graffiti Books Including ‘Stencil

Graffiti,’ says:

“Street art is both an expression of our culture and a counterculture in itself. ‘Communication’ has become a modern mantra: the city streets shout with billboards, fly posters and corporate advertising, all vying for our attention. They almost invite a subversive response. As high-tech communications have increased, a low-tech reaction has been the recent explosion in street art.” [1]

Stencil Graffiti is growing in popularity and provides an influential forum for creating personal dreams that connect with our everyday lives. Fly banners, buttons, collage, freehand, and spray cans are used by stencil artists to make their work. Within meaning, a stencil can be easily shaped on any board. It has been used in Europe since the 1980s, but it was first tested in New York subways, and it can be tracked back to cave drawings from the dawn of time. Egyptian pyramids were decorated with leather stencils, and Chinese silk and Buddha figures were decorated with paper stencils. These lovely techniques inspired stencil art in Europe during the Middle Ages. Fantastical stenciled fabrics were used to paint the church walls, floors, and chairs. What has evolved from what is considered to be one of the oldest art styles is incredible.

American artists such as Robert Rauschenburg and Andy Warhol created innovative screen-printing methods and visual ideas as early as the 1950s and 1960s, having a significant influence on the art and design community. They were considered forerunners of today’s stencil graffiti artists due to their hybrid strategies. Pop artist Andy Warhol was influenced by commercial art and mainstream culture. Here’s an illustration of his stenciled art:

Protest art and the art deco decorative tradition collided in the early 1980s to create something entirely different. Blek Le Rat, who discovered the Pochoir system, was an instigator and pacesetter in this (to hand colour by means of stencils). When attending the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, which is best known for its involvement in the 1968 Paris riots. Blek was a trailblazer and tried to change the way graffiti looked and was viewed. His work was often crude and shocking, as he wanted people to take note of his [2] stencils as he states:

‘My intention was simply to speak out through imagery, to address the collective was a commentary on love and hate, life and death. It’s a kind of therapy for me. I highlight the finer things in life by covering the walls with images that delight in distracting passers by from their own concerns.’ Despite the police’s underhand campaign to clamp down on graffiti, I continue to strike in dark streets because for me it’s a vital part of the evolution of art.  The scope for public paintings becomes more and more restricted as urban space is compartmentalized, and graffiti derives increasing meaning from its relationship to the surrounding architecture and social environment.’1

Other pioneers such as Jerome Mesnager and Nemo joined Blek Le rat in his quest for innovative new forms of graffiti. Although Mesnager was not a stencil artist he echoed similar forms in the way in which he painted, for instance the way in which his drawn figures are broken apart below:

By the late 1980’s graffiti had become international and was continuing to develop and mutate. In 1989 a Rhode Island design student named Shepard Fairey created the Obey Campaign.[3]  He used the image of the famous Russian wrestler, Andre the Giant, and a whole new idea took off; stickers began to appear and a cliquey absurd fictitious gang evolved headed by a 7’4” wrestler. An example of the sticker is below:

While graffiti is primarily a product of rebellion and its canvas is normally someone else’s property (either public or private), it is considered illegal and therefore criminal damage. So should this exclude it from entering the realms of art?

In her book Wallbangin (1999) Susan Phillips proposes that:

 ‘Graffiti allows people to create individuality, share social values, redefine spaces, and construct inclusive or exclusive relations’ (Phillips, 1999:46).[4]  Its canvas is situated within public space and therefore accessible to all, however, its presence evokes diverse reactions. Amongst the general public it may for some, provoke a sense of high regard; for others it may simply evoke a sense of fear. Characterized by instability, graffiti’s key dynamic is its transitory nature in which the act holds more relevance than the actual product, a feature which, perhaps we might consider, is analytical of the fragmentary nature manifested in the post modern world. It may also depict transference of control as the authorities to the alienated deviant elements of society who have, in effect, won that space lose the latter.

The British Transport Police have an anti-graffiti unit to whom the artistic merits of graffiti are irrelevant. They perceive instead, a situation in which one section of the population imposes itself upon [5] the rest. The very nature of graffiti production, however, may be perceived to necessitate the presence of such adversaries in order to provide the risks essential to prove oneself.

Perhaps we might also consider that the risks and dangers to which the graffiti artist is exposed, give fresh meaning to the concept of suffering for one’s art, a notion that invites us to discover further the private sentiments that motivate this phenomenon.

Macdonald (2001) [6] emphasizes the intrinsic agenda of the Graffiti subculture that distinguishes it from other activities, which are supposed to symbolize class resentment. Although placed amongst the realms of vandalism, graffiti fails to manifest the malevolence connected with many sub cultural activities. Macdonald explains the drive of graffiti artists who endeavor to reach their own goals rather than those of others and indicates that such features are at variance with the arguments of Cohen (1955) who stresses the concepts of ‘hit back’ motives or ‘status frustration’.

Macdonald cites Willis’s (1990:2)[7] words:

‘There is work, even desperate work in their play.’1. Macdonald argues that under closer examination, the underlying values honored by this subculture strongly reflect those manifested in wider society. Absolute commitment, hard work and the tenacity to overcome all obstacles might be considered to mirror the qualities, which aid the establishment of status for individuals in many legal professions. However, graffiti artists are instead characterized as ‘testosterone adolescents’ representative of [8] environments depicting ‘chaos and anarchy.’ Macdonald urges us to look beyond this stereotypical image in order to appreciate the concept of young individuals who are striving in their own meaningful way, to conform to their own particular guiding principles (Macdonald, 2001: 92, 93). She states:  “What all writers share, regardless of their differences, is a common motive. All of them enter this subculture with an ambition to be the best, the most famous, the most respected, and it is this that makes a graffiti career a ‘moral career’ in its purest form.” (Macdonald, 2001: 92)

McDonald (2001) examines the opportunities, which exist for graffiti artists who, reaching maturity, make a conscious decision to pursue a more serious and accountable lifestyle. For some ‘moving over’ and earning a living from performing graffiti presents a logical advancement from that which, hitherto, has been a risk taking hobby. Commercial commissions, such as murals or clothing prints remove writers from the realms of subculture. However, whilst expanding their audience through work, which is both legal and commercial, they may also retain the audience previously acquired during the phase of subculture in which their talents were established. Legal painting sites include basketball courts or playgrounds, which, similarly to art galleries, are visited by numerous other artists who photograph and publish the showcased items. The ensuing fame, which guarantees a more widespread audience, may also provide the opportunity to achieve international standing. (Macdonald, 2001: 91) Drax explains the importance of the increase in profile that must accompany such a step:

[9]“For bigger writers and more accomplished ones, once you’ve proven to everyone in London you do it and earn your respect in London, you have to move on from that. You know, you’ve got to crave for something more, worldwide respect . . . because you can only achieve so much here. Once you get that big as well in the illegal scene, you’re going to be so much in the eye of the police and stuff, its going to be impossible to do anything, so you need to, kind of like expand beyond that.”.(1)

Macdonald argues against the view that attempts to squeeze subcultures into a predominantly working- class mould with a ‘poor kid’ stereotype. Her own subsequent observational research suggests that graffiti writers span the entire social spectrum, a concept, which encourages her to look for explanations beyond the class, based Marxist framework.(3). She assesses instead, the value of sub cultural theories such as those put forward by McRobbie (1994), which, she feels, demonstrate considerably more theoretical leeway:

“Now that the search for the fundamental class meaning underpinning these formations no longer constitutes the rationale for their cultural analysis, we can afford to be more speculative, more open to reflecting on meanings other than those of class.” 2

One such question focuses upon why graffiti offenders manifest a predominantly male membership. Macdonald (2001) suggests[10] that in order to pursue meanings amongst this particular subculture the emphasis should be upon ‘why men carry out graffiti’ rather than ‘why women tend not to.’ She invites us to consider the subculture as a space for the construction of masculinity in a male dominated and seemingly misogynistic environment by reference to the sentiments expressed by the writers themselves:

“I think it’s attractive to boys because of the so called machoism with regard to risk and adventure.” (1)

“Not many girls do it…it’s more of a guy’s thing because of the risks you take and that.” (2)

Further questioning of the writers reveals that rebellion continues to occupy a major position within the subculture. The boys feel, however, that although girls may share similar feelings of rebellion, cowardice deters them from expressing it with the degree of vehemence. Macdonald compares the perception of a girl writer with that of the boys. She asks Pink “why is it, more women aren’t into graffiti?” In the answer given, she deduces that although Pink’s perceptions favor nurture over nature she nevertheless, cites female incapacity to be the predominant reason for the lack of female writers (Macdonald, 2001: 96-100).

Pink states: “Because it’s a dirty job, a dirty hard job. You have to carry paint in the dark, crawl through God knows what and hide behind disgusting things and scale big fences. Basically it’s men’s work. It’s that, you know, most girls are raised to be little feminine things…. it just takes some qualities and girls are just way too feminine and they don’t have nearly as much guts to do daring things like that.”(3)

[11] Raphael (1988, cited in Macdonald 2001: 101, 102) perceives graffiti as a form of ‘initiation rite’ or ‘rite of passage’ in which configuration and principle manifest enduring similarities in both modern and primitive societies. Such rituals mark the individual’s progress from one status to another enabled by some form of test or tribulation. Macdonald (2001: 102)) endorses this argument claiming that graffiti presents writers with numerous hazards that may be perceived to test an individual’s fortitude. The fear of detention, the threats of oncoming tracks, and the electrified third rail are only a few of them. She cites Mear who describes graphically the dangers involved:

“We used to cross tracks at stations, which is a real risk. You’ll be standing on the platform, jump down onto the tracks and tag the opposite wall. There are three rails and you’ve got to cross each one to keep your balance to reach the other side. If you’re on the third one for long enough and the train’s coming, you’re definitely going to get fried. I was on it once and I did a tag and I could feel a tingling in my foot and I ran back and the bottom of my shoe had melted.” [12]

The importance attached to the predominantly male membership within the graffiti culture may be elaborated upon in the arguments of Kitwana (2002) who questions the pervasive sexism which exists in hip hop culture manifested in the lyrics of gangster rap. She questions why misogynistic beliefs should endure even in spite of the development of more progressive thinking. Kitwana infers that resentment is engendered by the high degree of success experienced by black women in comparison to the ‘overwhelming

[13] failure’ of black men, it is, however, a feature which tends to be underestimated in the prevailing emphasis on racism. She contends that, even though the constraints of apartheid have diminished, black men may be perceived to continue to cite white racism too frequently for failures encountered in education and employment. The success of increasing numbers of black women and individuals belonging to other minority groups only serve to fuel the resentment, which black men harbor towards black women. (1)

Perhaps it might be argued that the arguments proposed by Kitwana may hold relevance for other societies in which the increasing success of young women in education and other spheres may have prompted young males to reflect upon the roles, which may now be assigned to them. In explanation of why this expressive but risk taking culture transcends class boundaries, perhaps we may consider that young men of all classes may feel vulnerable in meeting the demands considered to express manhood in the sanitized environment of modern society. Primitive societies, perhaps, presented less ambiguity for young males to dissipate their energies and to earn respect. These notions and those of Raphael pertaining to initiation rites are, perhaps, represented within the words of Kilo who claims:  

“The excitement, the risks, the challenge. It’s those sorts of things that attracted me to it. You know, the buzz you get out of the challenge involved…pushing yourself to the limit.” (2)

[14] Ferrell (1999) looks for meanings within the phenomenon of freight train graffiti, a popular medium for marginalized populations who possess few economic or political resources. The widespread painting of outward-bound freight trains has continued to develop despite high profile campaigns and severe legal sanctions. When Ferrell examines the topic of his study hundreds or thousands of miles from its original sense of significance, he encounters a certain crisis. He fails to find the evidence of the ongoing public conversations evident in hip hop graffiti in which pre-existing sub cultural status may be visited and reflected by other writers.

Freight train graffiti demonstrates instead the transient nature of a dialogue, which affords no time for response. Hip hop graffiti artists label their tags with their own subcultural nicknames or, in some cases, the name of their crew. In the case of freight train graffiti artists, though, the names of neighborhoods or three-digit area phone numbers can be used to indicate local roots and identification. In conducting his research Ferrell, from necessity was obliged to adopt unapproved methods in order to gain access to the rail yards in which formal interviews had been denied. He felt, however, that by sharing in some part, the risks previously faced by writers he had never even met, that this enabled him to establish [15] a certain rapport with them (1)He also stresses the dilemma in which criminologists find they concerning the phenomenon of hip hop freight train graffiti stating that:

“Like minded criminal justice practitioners would no doubt agree, and might add that traditional techniques of prevention and enforcement, grounded as they are in static conceptions of crime, criminals and criminality, today seem all but overwhelmed by sub cultural worlds swirling with impermanent imagery, renegotiated meaning, and ongoing self-invention. Other criminologists, more attuned to the dynamics of crime and resistance rather than those of crime and control, might instead marvel at the ingenuity of graffiti writers and other ‘outsiders’ in constructing networks of symbolic meaning, and thus collectively engineering an escape from the claustrophobic constraints of isolation and marginality.” (2)

Ferrell contends that the relatively recent phenomena of painting on freight trains, has its roots in traditions of spatial mobility and sub cultural dislocation. He reminds us that in the USA, transient populations and the disenfranchised as a means of transportation have

historically appropriated freight trains for themselves and their subcultures. Hip-hop graffiti’s rise further shows close links to train technologies and history. As a result, the first seminal book on hip-hop graffiti, Subway Art, was released (3.)  [16] indicates that rail yards have, in effect, been appropriated as ‘playgrounds for graffiti writers where disused locomotive turning houses have been transformed into illegal graffiti museums. Slow moving freight trains continue to be utilized as free transportation or as a means of escape from the pursuing authorities (Ferrell, 1999: 235-236).

Potter (1995) elaborates upon the means by which links are established between marginalized individuals, he also examines the wider impact of the hip hop culture in which its message of disaffection and rage has resonated within many facets of post-industrial America. Potter argues that historically, every aspect of black culture seems to have been appropriated and commodified in order to enhance the experiences of white culture, which, devoid of such input might otherwise be perceived as somewhat bland. (1)Potter perceives hip hop culture to be the ‘ultimate incarnation of this ‘spectacular cultural exchange.’ In addition to the commercial aspect of hip hop’s popularity it has impacted upon post-industrial America by enabling the emergence of a form of empathy which transcends the boundaries of class, gender, and race. He suggests that hip-hop may be indicative of representing generational rather than racial characteristics and as such, its invitation to traverse forbidden territory poses a threat to [17] the prevailing race-class system. Potter examines the notion of hip-hop as a “transnational, global art form capable of mobilizing diverse disenfranchised groups.” He demonstrates this feature by reference to Bhangramuffin music derived from an amalgamation between West Indian and East Indian communities in England. Potter emphasizes the notion that the line between cultures which were previously as high culture or popular culture may no longer be distinguished with such certainty. (1) Lachmann (1988) highlights similar notions concerning the empathy which may be expressed by this medium:

            “In terms of both its day-to-day practice and its cultural referents, then, hip hop graffiti has from the first emerged in a context of subcultural mobility and of portable and transitory images circulating between subcultural members. Speaking of early subway graffiti in New York City, a writer recalls that “we would see some fine cars go by … knowing there were masters out there we’d never seen .We knew them as artists before we got to know them as men” (Lachmann, 1988: 241 cited in (Ferrell, 1999: 237).

Although we cannot dismiss the aspect of illegality in graffiti art, perhaps we ought, nevertheless, to look beyond its constraints, in order to penetrate the meanings, which underpin this cultural practice. Ferrell speaks of the empathy, which may be exhibited amongst marginalized individuals for those they have never even met. Macdonald highlights the importance of constructing male identities and Kitwana elaborates upon this theme citing the feelings of resentment demonstrated by black men towards black  [18] women in their particular form of manhood crisis.

Macdonald (2001)[19] cites Willis (1990): 11) who contends that:

“Being human means to be creative in the sense of remaking the world for ourselves as we make and find our own place and identity.” (1) furthermore:

 “Rather than see humans as lumps of ‘labour power’, meaningful only in work or altogether ‘redundant’, we will then need to see them as creative citizens full of their own sensuous symbolic capacities and activities and taking a hand in the construction of their own identities.(2) (Willis, 1990: 145 cited in Macdonald, 2001: 229)

Macdonald (2001: 229) believes that the adoption of the latter manner of thinking would propel us beyond the ‘faceless landscape of the Marxist world, furthermore it might add dimension to the meaningless and robotic landscape of the postmodern world. 

The British transport police are disinclined to appreciate the artistic merits of graffiti, or of the meanings, which underpin its allure. To them and to others, graffiti is perceived as the primary element of a spiral of decline and its abundance signifies a lack of police or railway management control. Adopting the broken window theory, they feel that if graffiti is permitted to remain, it may induce others to contribute to its existence, [20] furthermore, it may invite other ‘undesirable types’ to believe that they may also act with impunity. Graffiti, if left uncontrolled, is thought to create a sense of anxiety among certain customers for using the railway. Therefore dealing with graffiti attacks is an important issue although it diverts valuable police and staff resources.[21]

The aforementioned views of the authorities may be perceived as brittle and unimaginative, however, a softer approach may be considered to deny graffiti writers the vital element which sustains their aspirations. To the Graffiti artist there exists an almost grudging respect for their adversaries, because without their pursuit, there could be no war, no opportunity to put into action the ‘rite of passage so vital for the construction of manhood. We have heard from the writers themselves, that fame and respect are the key dynamics which motivate their actions, characteristics which, in a different setting, might be revered. Therefore, perhaps we might consider that the rhetoric needs to change and terms of war must be replaced with some form of acknowledgement for the creative [22] abilities of writers. ‘Moving over’ might then be facilitated at an earlier stage and talents harnessed for the benefit of all. Every body deserves a chance to be heard, but perhaps the celebrity culture which has emerged in more recent times demands ever greater proof of simply being ‘somebody’. Therefore, perhaps it might be argued that, there is a strong case for not regarding graffiti solely as a crime, because in so doing, its expressive and cultural values are truly negated. However, perhaps we might also consider the consequences of too much understanding. A scenario, which invites legalized and controlled graffiti, may benefit the authorities and the general public, but what are the implications for the ‘writers’? Devoid of the elements of risk and danger, proving oneself will become purely a matter of talent, therefore, for those who cannot meet such demands, perhaps too much ‘understanding’ may be perceived to withdraw their last vestige of constructing the identities essential for self respect.

Graffiti has a significant presence in the field of industrial artwork. Many artists incorporate graffiti elements into their work. Graffiti is often used to deface billboards and advertisements in attempt to convey a deeper meaning. ‘Culture Jamming’ is a term used to describe this phenomenon. Rodriguez de Gerada is well-known for his culture jamming, which involves parodying commercials and hijacking billboards to dramatically change their messages. He discusses how these commercials include models sailing, skiing, or golfing, rendering the brands enticing to children who are trapped in the far reaches of the earth, yearning for a chance to get away. He needs his work to be accepted within group debates about the government’s policy around public room, unlike advertisers who present a pitch and then leave. People should be able to react to commercial and corporate notifications that they have not requested. Advertisers’ the belligerence in the communal sphere has bolstered this claim in recent years. Ads are painted on roads, wrap around whole buildings and buses, enter classrooms, gyms, and, of course, the internet. There is also an increase in the number of public town squares with shopping malls and superstores where only commercial messages are allowed. Many jammers are also also more concerned that the consolidation of media rights has devalued the right to free expression by separating it from the right to be understood.

Many people believe that the time has come for the public to cease requesting that any public land be left alone and to begin reclaiming some of it. Since it sells its way into our public environments, Culture Jamming seriously rejects the concept of advertisement, however it must be passively embraced as a one-way communication source.

Humans have tried to show off their opinions since the dawn of time. Graffiti is perhaps one of the oldest forms of expression in this regard. Graffiti is described as “typically illegal writing or drawing on a public surface,” according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. This includes anything from scratched, written, carved, or painted sketches, designs, scribbles, or messages on walls and other surfaces. 

A fairly universal phenomenon, graffiti has been found through the ages on pre-historic cave walls, rock surfaces and ancient monuments. The Lascaux caves in Dordogne, France for example, are embellished with paintings and engravings said to date back from 18000 BC. [23] In fact, any blank surface is fair game. Trees, school desks, even the walls of public lavatories have been freely used by people who have wanted to express themselves. Ranging from witticisms to obscenities, art to vandalism, graffiti reflects the mood of the people, and expresses freedom, rebellion and (mostly) original thought.

Over the centuries, graffiti has in turn influenced and entertained people, roused them to anger, indignation, frustration and thought…. Take the simple example of the ubiquitous scribble ‘Kilroy was here.’ There are so many legends attached to it, one no longer knows where it actually originated. This unremarkable line has been seen almost anywhere on the planet. On the torch of the Statue of Liberty, the Marco Polo Bridge in China, Polynesian huts, and a girder on the George Washington Bridge in New York, atop Mt. Everest, the underside of the Arc de Triomphe, scribbled in the dust on the moon, a confined outhouse at the Potsdam meeting, pillboxes in Germany, Paris sewers, walls, street signs, and freshly poured cement According to one account, Hitler thought Kilroy was some sort of American super agent because the graffiti kept showing up in safe Nazi facilities. The influence of graffiti is undeniable.

With time, a modern language has sprung up around graffiti, ranging from “marks,” a graffiti artist’s stylized logo, to “toys,” inept or novice graffiti artists. There has been a significant shift between the types of graffiti and the motivations of the graffiti artists who create it. The most prominent of these wall art trends started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has been expanding and changing for the past 35 years or so. Hip hop graffiti, also known as graffitti, has exploded like flames across the world’s capital cities and has now reached cult status.

Kids in deprived neighborhoods of New York City began spraying their neighborhood with ‘tags,’ which were stylized signatures of names they had made up for themselves. As more teens joined the bandwagon, they started to clash with one another, and the graffiti became bigger and more colorful, bursting with the graffitist’s personality and that of his “crew,” or group.

At that time, no one really thought about graffiti as ‘art’. To Cholo graffiti artist Charles “CHAZ” Bojorquez, “…the early New York style was about ‘getting up’ writing individual names, it was about ‘identity’. While (…) in L.A., it was about defining ‘territory’.”[24]    Whether it was about identity or territory it was a fierce personal form of expression, it was a way the rebellious youth of the day made their presence felt and demanded respect from the people who had squashed and oppressed them for so long.

Since graffiti began in ghettos and low-income neighborhoods, most Americans have associated it with urban gangs seeking to infiltrate the space and privacy of the middle class by challenging elite aesthetics and desecrating buildings. It has become a source of anger and irritation amongst property owners as well as the government. Since 1989, the US government has spent over 4 000 000 000 dollars per annum to get rid of graffiti.[25] It is uncertain how much of the damage can be attributed the hip hop culture, but there is definitely a clear differentiation between hip hop graffiti and other forms of vandalism.  

Hip hop graffiti actually evolved out of the rap music that burst out from New York’s Brooklyn and Harlem districts. Rap music was the ghetto’s rebellious answer to disco music, which was all the rage at the time. [26]

For the impoverished groups at Brooklyn and Harlem, rap music proved to be a great substitute for the more expensive and elitist disco parties at bars and pubs. Their street corners soon rocked to the sound of the rhythmic beats and lyrics of rap, which allowed rappers to express their feelings towards the conditions of ghetto life, politics, current events, and whatever else took their fancy.

Several DJs began to experiment with sound, using turn tables for ‘scratching’ out rhythms which gave hip hop an original edge that made it stand out even more from the music of the day. ‘Break dancers’ performed acrobatic moves to rap music, drawn from African and Brazilian dance traditions. This new mode of expression had a natural visual spin off – hip hop graffiti.

Hip hop graffiti originated from the same background, shared the same history as these hip hop musicians and dancers. In fact, very often they were the very same people, simply using a different mode to express themselves. They too reassembled and reshaped familiar bits of their life and history into fascinating original forms of art. “Together these music, dance, and visual expressions comprised a new urban culture, a rich mix of artistic practices that have come to be known as hip hop.”[27]  

Hip hop graffiti has also shown to be a great place for young people to vent their frustrations. Without it, there is no doubt that a greater number of urban youths may have been embroiled in abuse and crime. According to anthropologist Susan Phillips, “hip hop graffiti has actually functioned as an antidote to gangs,” with “writers” forming themselves into crews who compete “by style and production rather than aggression.”[28]

Graffiti becomes an entirely modern type of art as a result of the meticulous craftsmanship of graffiti artists, with graffitists being more obsessed with their style and ingenuity.

Soon, these ornate, colorful ‘pieces’ (from masterpieces) could be seen on the sides of trains and subways, as well as on walls, bridges, and billboards.

Graffiti artists started to form collaborations or crews to create ‘burners’ instead of operating alone (a particularly high quality piece with crisp outlines with no drips).[29]

The first ‘tag’ to get famous belonged to a boy called Demetrius, a.k.a ‘Taki 183’ (he lived on 183rd street). His tags appeared all over New York, especially on the subway, and spawned a whole generation of youth intent on out-tagging the other. With the advent of spray paint, simple graffiti tags evolved from monochromatic scribbles to ‘throw-ups’, or dual colour tags with bubble lettering and simple outlines.

‘No other art medium engages in this manner with our everyday lives, utilizing our urban space as its surface…[it is] conceptual, uncensored, and interactive [offering] great potential for expression…using humor and cynicism to relay thought-provoking messages regarding today’s culture,’ says Tristan Manco, graphic designer and creator of ‘Stencil Graffiti.'[30]

The very fact that graffiti interacts so closely with the daily lives of people makes it an ideal medium to communicate with them. It’s one of the main reasons why graffiti has become so popular with commercial enterprises for marketing their products.

Yet graffiti is diametrically the opposite of commercial art. While graffiti is illegal, unpaid for art, commercial art is legal and has a budget. And yet they have their similarities. Both forms are splashed in public places, vying for attention from the passersby, and are not always welcome. Comments about both range from complementary – it’s the purest form of art; to the derogatory – it’s the lowest form of vandalism. After all, both encompass a range of quality that runs the gamut from the lowest form of junk to moments of soaring brilliance. The interesting bit is that neither of them looks to art establishments for sanction or guidance. They have an aesthetic that’s purely their own.[31]

In spite of these similarities the fact remains that the soul of graffiti is in its illegal status. ‘Graffiti’ in commercial art is merely a look-alike of the real thing, which by definition cannot be contained and yoked to sell a product, like commercial art does. Yet, as with commercial art, ever since the first graffitist scribbled his ‘tag’ in pre-historic caves, the desire to communicate has been its driving force. So it’s almost inevitable that graffiti as illegal communication, and commercial art as legal communication should cross paths.

Graffitists are split in their views as to whether or not graffiti should be used commercially. Graffitist Rich Nasa graffiti as a positive stepping stone to a career in marketing and design. He argues that, “…graffiti is advertising, marketing and design all-in-one. Your name is your advertising, where your up is your marketing and your graff skills is design….like I said all-in-one!! Then utilizing those skills in the industry….your already one step ahead from the regular kids that went to school to learn that shit….you’ve got hands on experience!!!” [32]

Crispin Sartwell, on the other hand shows his contempt for billboards by defacing them. He claims that, ‘Advertising is the public expression of wealthy people and organizations. Graffiti is the public expression of people who are more or less broke. And that is exactly why advertising is authorized and graffiti is eradicated…”[33]   

To society’s powerbrokers, graffiti will always be simply vandalism. But to disenfranchised people, it’s a tangible form of expression, clawing back a stake in the psyche of society.[34] Jim Prigoff, co-author of the groundbreaking 1987 collection of graf murals, Spraycan Art, notes that anti-graffiti sentiments are not always about visual pollution, “Think about billboards. They’re the ugliest graffiti of all. But they’re OK. They have to do with money, the transaction of the advertising company getting money, the transaction of them selling you something. But there was no outcry there.”[35]

Eventually it all boils down to the war between art and commerce. Whether or not graffitists feel they should sell their art, it cannot be denied that, like all art forms, graffiti too has influenced commercial art tremendously. Not surprising, given that graffiti represents expression of self and the flip side of self-expression is communication. Since commercial art by its very nature is a communication tool, it takes its influences from the world around it. And in that world, hip hop cult is a force to reckon with.

In the last decade or so, hip hop culture, and within it, hip hop graffiti has suddenly caught the imagination of youth, overshadowing every other music genre and spreading like wildfire across the globe. Eventually, hip hop graffiti has become so trendy it has transformed itself into what marketing personnel call a ‘major lifestyle choice’. [36] Marketers, recognizing the market value of this underground culture, have lost no time in trying to harness graffiti as a marketable commodity.

Today, examples of graffiti-led art proliferates in advertisements, in various media from TV to posters and hoardings, in clothing, in brands and logos, music covers, and just about anywhere. As the demand for these products is increasing, so also is the demand for graffiti artists to design this kind of merchandise. As far as the artist is concerned, much of this media can be regarded as an extension of his/her canvas. A music cover, for example, can be designed by a graffiti artist who is merely expressing what he hears, in visual terms. There are also graffiti artists who put their talent to commercial use by selling their art on t-shirts and posters, designing movie sets and painting backgrounds, the common factor being art. Where a true graffiti artist draws a line, is at hard-core commercialism. Is it ok to sell out?  After all, even graffiti artists need to pay the rent. Should you resist commercialization, especially when you are broke and your art is being lapped up by marketers?

It’s true, graffiti-inspired outdoor advertising is definitely an emerging trend. Graffiti artists are being enlisted to sell products. More than that, corporate bodies and multinationals are not just imitating graffitists’ edgy work they are also commissioning graffiti artists to create art for them. So does that mean that graffiti is selling out to the corporate world? Or is graffiti managing to retain its identity? The interaction between the two media is too complex to be laid down in black and white.

Take Altoids, for instance, a well-known brand of breath mints. The British candy giant that owns them has commissioned three known graffiti artists to create billboards for them. But, the pieces don’t actually advertise Altoids; for this is just part of the company’s initiative to collect and support contemporary art.[37]  

In 2002, the city of San Francisco fined IBM and its advertising agencies with a $20,000 fine for its ‘Peace, Love and Linux’ campaign. They had apparently hired kids to illegally spray paint stencils of a heart, a peace sign and the Linux penguin on city streets and sidewalks.[38]

Nissan Cars is another company that tried to sneak in at the back door to reach out to young, trendy influentials, who advertisers are convinced, tune out traditional advertising. They had someone slather graffiti on their own street posters advertising the Nissan Altima. Though the company itself is pleased with its work, their effort has not been received too well by the graffiti artist community. Posts on the popular site “Wooster Collective’ have tended to be unsupportive.

One person wrote, “I hate these ads, (Nissan is) sneaking into a club they have no fucking right to join, and taking up more space with more blah blah buy buy blah blah. It’s sneaky and rude.” Another complained, “Nissan is cashing in this worldwide movement we call street art, they are using our aesthetics to sell us their products.”[39]

More recently, a graffiti-based campaign for Adicolour, by Adidas was lauded by the same site, which is dedicated to street art, because ‘they had got it right’. The advertising campaign started of with white billboards that practically begged for graffitists to tag and vandalise. Then a week later, the actual ads were put up. These incorporated the original graffiti and added on its own ‘seeded’ tags to direct you to their shop.[40] Done cleverly, it was received appreciatively even by the graffitist community!

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Sony recently hired graffiti artists in major urban areas to spray-paint buildings with images of kids playing with their latest product – the PSP III. This blatantly commercial venture at graffiti flopped miserably, scorned by the very hipsters Sony was trying to win over, with critics expressing their disapproval by vandalising the Sony graffii.[41]  The issue with Sony is clearly not the fact that they blasted the streets with their phony wall art. Rather, it was the fact that not only was the graffiti faked, it came across as inauthentic. As Grasse says, “Two kinds of people are going to be annoyed by this—community groups trying to clean up graffiti” and “people who are into authentic street culture that find this an appropriation of what they think is sacred. I think people respect brands that don’t try and be a part of their scene.”[42]

This sends out a clear message that graffiti that it is so obviously a badly disguised sales ploy cannot touch the hearts and minds of people, but graffiti that expresses itself with honesty can reach out even when under the banner of a brand.

Marshall McLuhan, communications theorist, once made famous the statement “the medium is the message” and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the desire of these organisations to use spaces that are traditional bastians of graffiti artists. Graffiti artists have made the streets not merely a medium, but a medium with attitude.

Today more than ever, commercial art is incorporating the aesthetics of graffiti to sell products. But there are still many people out there who feel that there is a whole world of graffiti that cannot be encompassed into either the fine art world or the world of commercial communication, because as Randall Lane, whose NY-based design firm often incorporates graffiti-inspired creative, says “… it’s too raw, too ugly, and in your face. Tags and throw-ups, graffiti is all about getting up and destroying shit–that mentality and the work it creates can’t be co-opted by these other worlds.” Grey, one of the three artists commissioned for the Altoids project agrees: “It is not possible. True graffiti is illegal. Legal ‘graffiti’ just borrows the look and tools of graffiti and leaves out the core element, which is the criminal act.” [43]

Despite this edginess, or maybe because it, graffiti sells. And there are many graffiti artists willing to sell their art to the extent their conscience allows. After all, if a graffiti artist is commissioned to produce something for a leading brand then it is his prerogative to do so. He can profit from the work, make a living from his art, and pursue more independent projects without worrying about paying the rent. This is a perfectly acceptable hypothesis but one which again treads the line between art and commercialization, and whether the artist is compromising on his personal style and tainting his individual identity when he adopts the standardized elements of style peculiar to corporate branding. Is he then in danger of crossing the line from tag to logo?[44]

TATS CRU, a group of Bronx-based muralists began their careers some 20 years ago as subway artists. Today they are reputed group of professionals painting murals for small businesses and organizations throughout New York City. Fellow graffitists, while accepting the fact that even graffiti artists have to make a living feel betrayed that TATS CRU has been painting for companies like Coca-Cola (who have been slammed by lobbyists for  international human rights abuses) and Hummer (an ‘epitome of America’s environmentally deadly SUV fetish’). They feel that before selling out “members of TATS CRU might want to take these concerns into consideration before accepting future commissions that impose negative images on communities that have sponsored their art and livelihoods for years.”[45]

Of course there are an equal number of instances when commissioned art is not compromised by materialism, some of the most famous examples being Michelangelo and Raphael, commissioned by the Vatican. Nearer to the world of graffiti, acclaimed graffiti artist and painter, Justin Bua, has been-there-done-that. Having worked on billboard campaigns, including a campaign for Nike, he refuses to have anything to do with them any longer. He claims he has no belief in their value systems because, “It’s all economics and capitalism just trying to soften the people, in my mind. Those billboards are the people’s enemy – McDonalds, the fast food chains and that kind of stuff. Most advertisements are about the dollar bill. I won’t do it anymore, wouldn’t do it for a million dollars. I don’t have any corporate branding either. I keep it all real, keep it all raw. And something’s right, because I sell more posters than anybody in America and Canada.”[46]

Clearly the war between art and commercialization cuts across all barriers. A brief peep into the world of commercial art will tell you a similar story – that of creative people, both artists and writers, struggling between art that’s true to themselves, and art that’s bastardized for the purpose of selling. It is telling that annual advertising awards regularly laud those who have produced the most creative work, rather than those who have induced the highest sales. Advertising too, like graffiti, has had its moments. It has entertained, moved and motivated us, and as Marshall McLuhan once said, “Historians and archaeologists will one day discover that the ads of our time are the richest and most faithful daily reflections any society ever made of its whole range of activities”.[47] The same can well be said for graffiti, in its own turf!

So despite the reservations of the purists of graffiti artists, it is obvious that the influence of graffiti on commercial art is here to stay. It is inconceivable that a raw, powerful in-your-face medium like graffiti with the power to inspire and influence people can escape the notice of commercial art. It is not only the language of the streets, but also one that represents a lifestyle that the youth of today aspire to.

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