Stupid as it may sound, graffiti is a phenomenon very close to my heart. Sure it’s goofy, but at the same time infinitely complex and enriching to the right set of eyes. Without writing an essay or sounding overly complex, I really have no way of explaining my affinity for graffiti in a concise way.
So, taking a cue from the mighty Kurt Vonnegut, I’ve decided to step outside the realm of the sane and interview myself. Oddly appropriate considering the schizophrenic nature of the topic. Anyways, bear with me, (us?) as I do my best to flesh this out.
OK, so as far as the average football-watching, Lacoste-polo-wearing, overweight, underworked, overpaid, podunker is concerned, graffiti is only done by dangerous gangs of minorities and drug addicted loonies who are going to steal your car and kill your pets. Am I in the ballpark?
No. I’m a normal dude. I even told one of the cops that when they arrested me seven months ago, to which he responded, “you sure don’t do normal things.” The irony to me was sickly apparent seeing as he was the one shining a massive Mag Light in my eyes after shackling me and grilling me on the whereabouts of every graffiti writer in the entire state, as if I carried a rolodex with all of their contact info.
Anyway, yes–gangsters do paint graffiti–but I’d say on average it makes up about 2% or less of the criminal activity they regularly partake in. When a gang moves into an area or tries to start shit with a rival gang they’ll do a little graffiti to make their presence known. But they’re much more concerned with hustling drugs, extortion, murder, etc; where as graffiti writers, or taggers, or bombers, or whatever you want to call us (“writer” is the preferred term) are no specific class of person, just like any other art form it spans all facets of society.
Yes we’re all criminals, but that’s only a designation we have no control over. Three of the writers I’m closest with attend a major university. I’m a semi-professional and (somewhat) well-respected musician who also attended a major university for years. There’s plenty of people who write graffiti who are “thugs” but that’s part of the roots of the culture. But there’s a drastic difference between a gutsy hood rat out re-decorating your boring neighborhood and legitimate gangbanging lifers. The twain shall never meet.
So why do this? You mentioned the term art form? Why not take up basket weaving or something? Why write a name? Sounds like a bunch of maladjusted megalomaniacs to me.
Why not do it? Leaving a mark on the world is one of the purest human imperatives: why did ancient civilizations scribe stories and glyphs in the stone? Why did Zoro slash a “Z” into the wall whenever he carried out an act of justice? There is no better representation of the fact that you are alive in my opinion.
Really all it comes down to is context. For instance, there’s an American flag painted on the wall on a major street in my old neighborhood growing up. It was not painted legally, guaranteed, but because it is a symbol that is recognized by majority of society as a symbol of great pride and strength it has remained untouched my entire life. But at its core it’s just a symbol on a wall–so what makes an arbitrary word written a block away different in the eyes of the law? The American flag, realistically, represents a nation forged by violent rebellion and the mass genocide of various indigenous peoples; but a meaningless name is somehow loathed as horrific blight.
As for the question of graffiti being considered an art form, I’d say it depends on your perception of aesthetics. I will say this though: painting graffiti is HARD. It is not a matter of just wandering down the street scribbling on random structures at will. To produce anything half decent you have to spend months and months honing your craft in a process known as “black booking” named for the stereotypical black sketchbooks artists often use.
Then it’s a matter of learning to do the same thing in the middle of the night, with an aerosol can or one of many various writing instruments, each with their own specific purpose and feel. All while simultaneously trying to keep a focus on what you’re doing, knowing full and well that anyone who sees you will retaliate in some way whether it be just flipping you off, to trying to chase you down and beat you, or calling the cops. A psychotic vigilante even fired a gun at me once. Don’t believe me? Try it. It’s unsettling how viciously people despise you for simply painting on a wall.
It’s still destruction however. Is nothing sacred to you people? Why not paint something everyone can understand understand? Why so cryptic?
It is destruction, no argument there; but so is bombing children in third world countries to defend “freedom.” Destruction is relative to whoever feels that they have right on their side. If people were at all civil about the public space, it wouldn’t be considered destruction. But part of the allure of it is the fact that it’s breaking the “rules.”
Everyone wishes they had an alter ego at some point in their lives, even for a fleeting moment. Graffiti for me was just a doorway to embracing it. And yes, even though it seems oxymoronic there are rules to graffiti culture. A lot of them actually that would take pages just to summarize, but schools, churches, houses, and vehicles (save cargo trucks) are off limits.
There’s a criminal code and acting out of line isn’t tolerated by anyone who’s anyone in the graffiti world. It’s insanely ruthless and you’ll get weeded out fast if you don’t wise up to the game, so to speak. Along those lines, learning the ins and outs of graffiti–in terms of how to understand and appreciate it–is part of the magic.
It’s not for the rest of the world, it’s for an authentic subculture that can never be truly commercialized (people sure are trying though). Once you figure out what’s what you begin to see the streets in a completely different way. They come to life and speak. Every surface is an opportunity. You’ve gained a new type of vision. And for whatever it’s worth, you feel less alone in an increasingly hostile world.
Deep, bro. How do you even get into something like this? You sure sound like a know it all. Is there some FAQ out there or something?
When I was first getting started the internet hadn’t fully gotten a hold of graffiti yet. Nowadays it’s starting to go the way of skateboarding, in the sense that you used to be shunned as a menace to society if you skated. Now it’s like playing little league. As I said before it will never be completely embraced or gentrified, but it’s coming as close as it can.
It’s pretty easy to get in the know due to web resources and a lot of “Old Heads” like to bitch about it. Rightly so because for every legitimate graff writer out there, there’s a dozen “Tumblr writers” who paint in super safe spots and post pictures as if they’re hot shit. The game is changing, not necessarily for the best, but whatever.
To answer the question, I learned the way most people learn anything: studying. It took years of exploring the weirdest reaches of my city to learn hand styles, decipher “pieces,” and recognize every facet of the culture. Realistically, you can read Wikipedia all day and still be miles left of center when it comes to graffiti. Every region has it’s own vibe. It’s own unique twist. The only real way to learn is to get off your ass and put in work. Figure it out.