graffiti muralThe Romans wrote on the buildings of the towns they conquered, and even before words were used, the cave men painted on walls. (Who knows what primitive graffitnik didn’t get supper because he drew a lopsided bison in the family cave?).

This writing was first called graffiti in Roman times and holds the same name now. But as the times have changed, so have the forms that this writing on the walls have taken. Today, there are quite a few different classifications that separate graffiti. There is the gang graffiti that street gangs use to mark their turf, graffiti that people write to express political views and a new form of graffiti that has just emerged globally in the past twenty-five years.

This new form is artistic graffiti.

Artistic graffiti is a modern day offspring of traditional graffiti that has elevated itself from just scrawling words or phrases on a wall, to a complex artistic form of personal expression.

This new form of graffiti first took form in the inner city of New York, which is not anthrax surprising, because Madison Avenue is the undisputed capitol of advertising, and advertisers, like graffiti artist, have the same goal; to get their names up in front of the public as much as possible.

Graffiti is by definition a marking or scarification upon the social body, as is advertising, but unlike advertising, it is a symbolic activity by people who by and large have little or no access to the media or power structures within society – they are acknowledged only by the stereotypical cries of “vandal”, “dole bludger”, “anarchist”, “punk” or simply “youth”.

If you find yourself without a cultural code or legal language what do you do but transgress the order of things within the city of concrete signs and billboard ghettos and build your own corrosive codes and values?


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You have to ‘get a life’ through performing in public – even if its in the dark. You must inscribe or graft yourself onto and into the social order if you are to have any sense of self worth, dignity or currency as an ‘individual’ within the consumer culture. Individuals hold a credit rating, unemployed youths don’t.

The logic of graffiti: In the subway, on the sides of Rolls Royces, bus shelters, schools or hoardings demand the circulation of your personalized sign, often simply your abstracted ‘tag’ signature.

A tag is a “me” statement that plants a semiotic ‘virus’ inside the civic body – it microscopically alters the urban visual code. In graffiti lies the passionate; the dare to say “no”; the guts to call the bluff of free-enterprise consumerism. Ironically this is exactly what excites the business world, not because corporate heavies agree with the politics of graffiti (because they don’t), but because it’s where they sense energy and passion.

And where there is passion there is profit. Graffiti is hot and the multinationals have got warehouses full of products that are very, very cold. The straight world accesses the heat of graffiti without getting burnt by the antisocial politics of dissension, by appropriating and absorbing its image – enter mythical form and delete political content.

It is enough to evoke the tagged walls and translate them onto products, into magazines then remold the jag into new typefaces and grungey texture maps. Graffiti can be appropriated as decoration behind a fashion photo shoot or to jazz up the local hardware store.

The result is a range of design work that promotes the graffiti “look” while stripping away the voice of the work. The term ‘revolution’ used to mean a spontaneous uprising of the working classes against the ruling classes, now Revolution is a brand of white cotton-tail underpants.

If you’re an advertising agency you will want to tap into graffiti and appeal to cyberpunks but you don’t want to confuse your product with a pile of purple sh*t – at least not sh*t that isn’t really tasty. Witness Nike and Doc Martin shoe ads, Mac Donald’s retro James Dean ad, countless pop music clips and even a few luxury car ads that love to counterbalance the Blade Runner unwashed street with the security of the hermetically sealed saloon car.

And advertisers know, as do graffiti artists and taggers, that the power of the artistic image is irrefutable. In being denied access to the sources of artistic production and distribution, marginalized groups have been systematically denied the power of self-expression the image provides.

Culture is political. As a result of the elitism of high culture, those without resources (i. e. ; cash) are denied access to cultural production and distribution. Poor communities are not economically, politically, or culturally empowered.

Equally important, lack of financial power and cultural influence means reduced access to the mechanisms for the dispersal of knowledge and new forms. The exclusionary nature of billboards and the art world has prevented the inclusion of a variety of voices in the production and distribution of culture.

The politics of culture, especially its element of exclusion/inclusion, affects identity. Cultural politics produces subjectivity, creates meaning, determines truth and history, and distributes knowledge.

The means by which these products are then understood and used, profoundly impacts power relations in society. The result of an elite controlling the formation of cultural norms, meanings, and knowledge is that subordinated groups come to be defined in relation to that dominating voice.

In an exclusionary system, the experience of living as an “other” is not one of choice. “Otherness” defines what one is, constrains what one does. Power relations determine identity. Consequently, the act of defining one’s own identity is an act of power for those with it, or an act of empowerment for those without it.

For marginalized groups, art can serve as a source of identity and empowerment, art is a form of communication. Communication works by establishing connections between transmitters (speakers) and receivers.

Since reception is an act of speech affirmation, to speak and to be heard are empowering experiences. Thus, art is able to give a voice, to empower those who have been silenced. The significance of art’s power lies in its ability to allow the silenced voices to proclaim ” Look! We are here! We exist! Remember us! ” Clearly, art is both powerful and a means of empowering.

In the 1970s, the development of graffiti art gave New York City’s urban youth the power to transform urban spaces into sites of identity and signs of empowerment. Graffiti is the response of a people denied a response. In the face of subjugation, self-determined identity becomes a symbol of status. Thus, considering the power of the image, graffiti becomes a means of asserting identity, visibility, and power in a social context in which these youth were previously ignored.

Central to graffiti’s power to establish identity is the predominant role of one’s name. A name sets one apart from others, individualizes an anonymous individual. In the graffiti world, a name takes on special significance. A writer’s name is self-chosen, based on how the writer wants to be perceived by those whom he most respects and from whom he demands respect.

And just like in advertising, visibility equals respect and prestige. Getting up more than 10,
000 times, New York artist IN was awarded the highly coveted name of King of All Lines. High rates of visibility take precedence over style and artistic merit. Centered around one’s chosen name, a multiplicity of tags, throw-ups, and pieces assert the type of presence most members of the general public usually choose to ignore. Graffiti gives youth the power of self-identity.

Espousing self-chosen identities, urban youth use graffiti to reclaim and transform the denied space closest to them, but sold freely to advertisers; the neighborhoods and communities which surround and shape their lives.

Employed by those with few avenues for formal arts training and production open to them, graffiti is a visual means of resisting the privatization of public space. These “parasitic” art forms create “openly contested terrains. ” In “bombing” as many sites as possible with one’s chosen identity, graffiti is art attacking architecture, the marginalized attacking the mainstream.

In painting your name on a “public” space, graffiti writers symbolically take possession of that which society has made inaccessible to them. Simply stated, name plus place equal possession. In reappropriating an urban environment engulfed by skyscrapers and privatized spaces, graffiti is a declaration of identity and an assertion power. In the middle of spaces that have excluded them, graffiti empowers the marginalized to inscribe signs of their own.

Despite its ability to allow the silenced to speak, graffiti is officially considered a form of social deviance. Since the inception of graffiti, government officials and citizens alike have viewed graffiti as a disrespectful and demoralizing sign of decay. NY Transit Police Chief Sanford Garelik went so far as to suggest that “graffiti … leads to other forms of criminality.”

The magnitude of efforts to erase this “form of vandalism” points to the success of graffiti as a means of inscribing the presence of an otherwise neglected “Other.”

Insisting that “the public is frightened and disgusted by graffiti,” government officials have made incredible efforts to eradicate this problem. In the first decade following the appearance of graffiti on the streets and subways of New York City, the Mayor’s office, the state-controlled Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), and the New York City Transit Police Department (TP) were all employed in anti-graffiti efforts.

While Mayor John Lindsay established a graffiti task force to determine policy solutions, the TP created graffiti squads to track down offenders, and MTA bought new fences, train cleaning machines, specialized paint, and attack dogs to keep writers out of the yards. By 1978, the MTA alone was spending fifteen million dollars a year to unsuccessfully combat graffiti.

The trend continues today as municipal governments and private citizens around the world try solve the “graffiti problem. ” Even the sphinx in Egypt has been tagged!

The attention graffiti receives reveals its success at asserting identity and power. This success suggests that the source of graffiti’s strength lies in its ability to empower through a disregard of hegemonic artistic, linguistic, and commercial structures. With its internal hierarchy of values, rules, and influences, graffiti’s aesthetic is a-hegemonic.

Size, complexity, location, and materials determine the value of forms. Tags, names scrawled just about anywhere, are the simplest and lowest on the hierarchy. Next are “throwups,” two or three letter names blown-up and formed into a single unit that can be quickly sprayed with a minimum of paint. Visibility, which leads to fame among writers, as surely as the sales of large consumer products, is the goal of these graffiti forms. Finally, pieces, short for masterpieces, are the most complex, combining text with image over a large space. Piecers venerate and concentrate on the evolution of artistic “style.”

Style is judged on originality of design, smooth interweaving of forms (“flow”) and images, sharpness and accuracy of lines, brightness of colors, and ability to convey feelings of spontaneity and dynamicism. A strict code of ethics states that a work can only be written over if the newer work is of better quality.

A successful use of these criteria to produce a dynamic and graphic image endows the writer with fame, the goal of all forms of graffiti. Graffiti culture’s unique value hierarchy, which exists independent of, rather than in reaction to, mainstream visual forms and standards, is an element of graffiti’s a-hegemonic aesthetic.

Moreover, the images found in the mass media and the spaces that shape urban life serve as the raw, art historical material of graffiti writers. Writers incorporate images from television, magazines, comic books, movies, and advertisements. These references to and appropriations of popular commercial culture comment on the contemporary urban experience.

While denied access to art world traditions, urban youth are bombarded with consumerism, influenced by a technologically based society and captivated by the childlike innocence of fictitious worlds and characters.

Rather than following in the footsteps of Michelangelo, Degas, or Pollack, the tradition that informs the graffiti aesthetic arises from a mix of commercial culture and inner-city economic and social conditions. Further reinscribing dominant norms, the graffiti aesthetic holds that writing is a form of beautification and public service.

A primary concern of graffiti writers is capturing “the mesmerizing beauty of the images. ” Turning the notion of vandalism around, graffiti works to beautify the urban environment that the powers that be have neglected and destroyed.

In the late 1970s, was a piece on a side of a train that read, “Tho Running Through All this Grime and Crime There Is Still Beauty In These Trains. ” Similarly, in 1976 when a group of writers painted an entire train with American themes for the Bicentennial they viewed the work as “something [done] for the United States.”

In positing an act officially regarded as a symbol of lost control as a social good, graffiti transgresses traditional notions of beauty and order.

Because graffiti works only to declare itself (the “style” [the stylized letters] is the piece), the visual rhetoric of graffiti transgresses dominant notions of representation and communication. Graffiti’s aesthetic, characterized by its own set of artistic values, socially-specific influences, and self-referential approach to language, works against dominant artistic forms, expectations, and systems of communication.

Finally, graffiti is a-hegemonic in that it is a non-commodity. A commodity is something that can be bought or sold. Commodification is dependent upon ownership. Graffiti’s form, stylistic goals, and violation of property prevent its commodification. Graffiti is the wall it decorates, to remove or claim graffiti is to destroy it. By seizing the walls in one’s environment regardless of legal ownership, graffiti disrupts dominant notions of private property.

One cannot buy or sell something that one has never been owned, as a self-referent, graffiti has no commodifiable value. By advertising nothing other than itself, graffiti “establishes itself as a negative entity.”

By taking desirable space, as ownership suggests, while giving back an unalterable something that does not have value, graffiti fails to conform to codes that dictate commodification. In not being able to be integrated into a commodity system, graffiti is a-hegemoni
c. In essence, graffiti is simultaneously a salvation and a curse because it is a complete transgression from our social structures.

Traditionally excluded from economic and cultural resources, marginalized urban youth are able to use graffiti to access the power of the image. Continuous anti-graffiti laws and activity convey the success of graffiti to give the invisible the power to be seen. The source of this negative response to an empowering social element lies, however, in graffiti’s a-hegemonic nature.

Edited from an article by Sarah Giller Nelson This article has been adapted from a longer version that can be found at