By Kimberly Suchy
Storefronts, abandoned buildings, and subway cars have all worn graffiti. Like temporary tattoos, they leave ephemeral marks on industrial skins and exist to be noticed. They have been scrawled over, scrubbed away, and scorned by viewers, but always reappear. Most of the words are hard to decipher. Bubble-like letters are crowded into tight formations, but the word itself holds little significance in comparison to the power of its image. Bright colors leak emotion and grab viewers with their boldness. Ten-foot exhibitions sprawled across skyscrapers and freeways announce the writer’s presence and dedication to “getting up.” This lifestyle is heavy in danger and uncertainty, but experts aren’t just writing for enjoyment.
When graffiti emerged in the south Bronx in the 1970s, it was used as a tool to gain attention and rouse the public. As residents migrated to the suburbs, the area began to crumble beneath financial ruin. Landlords set fire to their own buildings to collect the insurance money, and people were constantly losing their homes. Just as the city was shrinking beneath the shadows of industrialist America, graffiti started popping up on buildings, bridges, and public places.
Unable to attract attention from the government or the public in any other way, many residents of the south Bronx relied on graffiti writing. Early writers were the city’s political activists and night crusaders, waging a war of words in the streets of New York. They proclaimed their refusal to be forgotten, clutching aerosol armaments and shielding themselves in the shadows of the night. Taggers and bombers stylized their identities and exploded them onto the walls that oppressed them. They sprayed tag names, thought- provoking phrases, and shocking statements to express their anger and social discontent. Essentially, early graffiti writers were taking advantage of public display to gain ownership over the city.
Despite its omnipresence, graffiti has rarely received positive recognition by the American public. People imagine spray cans spitting their noxious venom on pristine walls and reduce graffiti to thoughtless acts of vandalism. Their lenses are narrow – to them the word graffiti evokes the ubiquitous “Mike was here” scribbled on bathroom stalls across the nation.
Critics are correct in their contention that not all graffiti is a meaningful act of art, but mindless taggers and uninspired name scrawling give the work of true graffiti writers and artists a bad rep. Anybody can write their name on a wall, but graffiti involves risk and rebellion. People scale buildings, fall from freeways and tangle with law enforcement officials, all for the sake of their work. Inspiration and a fierce inner drive to communicate a message explain the large following and reverence for graffiti.
Origin of Graffiti
In the late 70s, Lady Pink promoted female empowerment and women’s rights by tagging her name across the city. Although her tag didn’t bleed profoundness and wisdom, she received recognition for the femininity of her identity during a time of male chauvinism. In 2009, the fatal shooting of unarmed civilian Oscar Grant by a police officer in Oakland, CA triggered a universal feeling of betrayal and mistrust with law enforcement. Graffiti artists around the country responded to this violent act of oppression through peaceful protest, producing a plethora of murals and stencils depicting Oscar Grant’s face.
Whether a simple tag or vivid image, graffiti can be used to enact positive social change. Its roots in the projects and association with thugs and gangs are what often turn viewers away, but graffiti has evolved into something much larger and more complex than its initial foundation in social disruption.
Like all art forms graffiti has branched out into several subgenres, the most prevalent being street art. Street art is more professional and polished than graffiti tagging and writing, involving complex images and media such as wheat paste, stencils, and posters. It is usually created by art school graduates and doesn’t involve the risk of traditional graffiti, as it is often commissioned and premeditated and designed. Works by street artists like Dain and Banksy can be controversial, and they are challenged by art critics who scrutinize and question their works as art. Techniques and form used to create words and images are what separate graffiti from graffiti art, but the subject of art is an esoteric argument.
The growing respect for graffiti may be credited to Banksy’s documentary, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” or the prevalence of street art on the Internet. Street artists can now gain global recognition in a matter of hours through YouTube videos and websites like Juxtapoz and Art Crimes, which promote the work of artists. Above all, graffiti art has suddenly struck the public with a sense of novelty because it is now accepted by the same people that initially provoked writers to act out in protest.
Graffiti Used In Advertising
Large companies such as GM and Time Warner use the talent of graffiti artists to advertise their products. Once graffiti emerged as a commodity that could gain a profit, more traditional artists explored the uncharted medium to express themselves and publicize their work.
Graffiti writers are beginning to scorn street artists that emerge on the scene with their art school degrees and superior attitudes. They enter the streets like they have a greater right to spread their work and often paint over graffiti tags, inciting an artful feud. EZ, an admirer and photographer of graffiti, explains street artists’ common lack of understanding and respect for the street scene.
“What angers many in the Graffiti world is the fact that Street Artists often place their art over Graffiti. In context, Graffiti from its earliest inceptions in the 1970s developed a firm etiquette about going over another’s writing. I won’t go into systems of rules here, but the point is that these art school hipsters put their wheatpaste stencils over Graffiti with absolutely no regard. They have little respect for what it is that they are dabbling in and therefore get little respect from the Graffiti scene in return.”
In order for new school street artists to coexist with graffiti artists on the street, they need to polish their respect for their predecessors. If it weren’t for the original graffiti writers in the Bronx, modern street art might not even exist.
Since its emergence as a cry for attention and act against capitalism, public opinion on graffiti has completely transformed. People look at the street art that has beautified urban living and have gradually legitimized graffiti as a legitimate subculture of society.
In an extreme example, many women have made their way on the scene with “yarn bombing,” a relatively new subgenre of graffiti art. Like the early taggers and bombers, women emerge at all hours of the night in artistic acts of vandalism. Instead of spray paint, they arm themselves with needles and yarn to plaster signposts, fire hydrants, doorknobs and statues with knitted sweaters. This more feminine side of graffiti art demonstrates that the culture has softened since its emergence, which many traditional graffiti artists view as negative.
However, this new, lighthearted approach to graffiti and appearance in other facets of society show that there is hope for change and acceptance; it just takes a fierce desire to communicate an idea and a medium to attract public attention.