Specific peculiarities of urban subcultures are not exclusively current. These peculiarities, especially those pertaining to graffiti culture, might have only taken new form, but have existed as long as humans have been drawing and writing. From an administrative standpoint, these pictograms and inscriptions can be absolute acts of vandalism and, for practical reasons, a drainage of public resources. Already city administrations spend substantial funds to not only crackdown on illicit graffiti, investing in special enforcement units and offering rewards to vigilant citizens, but to also paint over new inscriptions as soon as they appear. As soon as a piece of graffiti appears, covering a wall to a municipal parking, for instance, public works agents would paint over it, and still there is no end to this cycle of inscription and obliteration.
In the past few months, as the pandemic raged, New York, the city that never sleeps, slid into a deep slumber. For days and nights, week after week, the streets were empty and shrouded in a ghostly aura. When the conditions alleviated, and residents could mob the streets again, they were met with a confounding addition. Graffiti exponentially resurged, cloaking every accessible façade, from parked vans to park benches. And at the peak of the dark and unnerving period of anti-racist protests, more socially conscious and legible graffiti multiplied on boarded store fronts. Graffiti rose to its role as an embodiment of parallel, anti-establishment, and marginalized voices.
Still, in any contemporary urban society, the question of graffiti as visual noise prevails. Across the world, in most cities and towns, thousands of graffiti adorn store fronts, bridges, walls, abandoned buildings, railway tunnels, and road signs. Together with billboards, neon lights, and posters, they compete for the saturated public attention—saturated by a deluge of information and the addiction to technological devices. Yet contemporary graffiti is attributed to hip-hop culture, an urban eclecticism that fuse cultural objects to reproduce a distinct style. And while any attempt at eradicating or discouraging graffiti can be considered as an affront of hip-hop culture, it is also a statement by the uninitiated, those who cannot relate to the often-obscure messages.
But any analysis of contemporary graffiti would be incomplete without deliberation on the influence of violence on this form of expression. Within urban centers, and especially in the context of 1970s and 1980s New York, graffiti appear to thrive in disorder. Infested with drugs and organized crime, New York City was almost in complete decadence. Some neighborhoods were abandoned, and only revamped in the last two decades with the upsurge of gentrification. Graffiti was almost the way of life, with inscriptions on any open space. And during the Cold War, graffiti was the mode of expression in the divided Berlin. Evidence of the proliferation of graffiti in Cold War Berlin are still visible on the fragments of the Berlin Wall, today preserved for historical reference.
And so, there is still the challenge of whether contemporary graffiti is genuinely a product of hip-hop culture, or an import from the Second World War. It is possible that graffiti could have entered the popular American culture after the European campaign, in which young soldiers could have been influenced by some aspects of anonymous inscriptions. The most popular and comical, was the marking “Kilroy was here,” which was accompanied by a geometrical drawing of clean-shaven man peeping over a fence. Such association between the contemporary graffiti and hip-hop culture is important, since it reveals that extent to which disorder, as well as the resultant search of stability and peace, contribute towards this form of anonymous public expression. Whether or not Kilroy was a notorious soldier, and whose identity was known to only a few, is still unclear.
While violence and disorder can be preconditions for the emergence of graffiti, the events after the gulf war reveal a slight reversal of the tactics, as was evident in the controversial show, “Theater of Operations: The Gulf War 1991-2011,” hosted by MoMA PS1, from late 2019 to early 2020. Though the show was controversial for, among other aspects, placing emphasis on how the Gulf War shaped American culture, as opposed to the extent to which the intervention (or invasion) disrupted Iraqi culture, it also revealed the extent to which graffiti art can include acts of obliteration. For example, Susan Meiselas’s photography print of an obliterated image of Saddam Hussein demonstrated the iconoclastic nature of graffiti. In this case, there is an absence of writings or pictograms, which are the primary elements in this form of expression, but simply a reversal—by the dint of scratching over the image, to conceal and distort, and therefore inscribing over the image.
Superimposition, the act of layering inscriptions, then, is a primary technique in graffiti art. Whenever one graffiti appears, almost as a contest, another emerges beside or above it. And these multiplications, on a single edifice, can be repulsive, rather than impressive. Scarcely would one have the chance to appreciate the calligraphy, or decode the inscriptions adopted from popular terms. These markings are distinguishable by the graffiti and the accompanying pictograms, and still meant to be ambiguous than straightforward. Because of this tendency, this universal approach by graffiti artist, this form of expression is primarily abstract, as it demands a withdrawal and that one ignores details. It will be inaccurate to label all pieces of graffiti, every inscription, as art. But a criterion for evaluating the art in graffiti is the quality of those involved, borrowing from abstraction, to “systematically arrange the multiplicity of objects.” Above all, those who read graffiti writings, must withdraw from the conventional rules of typography, and decode special, unprecedented characters formulated for the moment.
If the purpose of graffiti is to express social concerns, or even to appeal for solidarity, then the message is often lost for technical reasons. Not only because of the methods used in graffiti, which insert objects and signs intelligible to the initiated, but also because of the perceived anonymity of those involved. Without obscurity, graffiti would cease to surprise and upset, and these two are necessary ingredients for the interaction between graffiti artists and the audience. Being anonymous as a graffiti artist is itself part of the performance. Some artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, tapped into the notoriety that comes with being anonymous as a springboard for their careers. Jean-Michel was known for his “SAMO,” inscriptions, which in Ebonics referred to how little social conditions have changed. In contrast, although celebrated in high art, as an established artist, Banksy’s identity is unknown.
Still, there are contexts within which graffiti, in neo-liberal leaning societies, is legitimate. Such are exceptions, and they occur only when the effect is quantifiable and there is an overt benefit to be generated. But it is also necessary to distinguish graffiti from other forms of street art. While street art, in its pure form, can include drawings of forms in unconventional spaces, graffiti is essentially a pictographic representation of language. Graffiti presupposes the existent and dominance of writings, borrowed from various scripts, and is little concerned with both realistic and naturalistic expressions. Yet these inscriptions, in an attempt to engage, demanding the uninitiated audience’s attention, can also be infantile—meaning that more emphasis is placed on rudimentary concepts than the philosophical or theoretical background.
No doubt graffiti has been the pedestal upon which some artists have established their careers. But the glory rests with street artists more than the graffiti artist, for precise reason of their anonymity. Graffiti artists might often work alone, materializing one moment with a spray paint, and vanishes in the thin air. On the other hand, the street artist is the anti-thesis to the graffiti artist. The work of street artist can engage the public in both conceptualization, production, and consumption. Here consumption refers to the audience engaging the final work. When the work of street artist gain popularity, they are swiftly appropriated by either the authorities (regimes) or by corporations. In context of governmental appropriations, the works of muralists serve as examples, as evident in post-revolutionary art of Diego Rivera. But more interesting are some of those works of street art that are easily absorbed into mainstream commercial culture, such as those of the American artist GucciGhost.
Perhaps graffiti is just what it is at face value—unnecessary property devaluation, culture jamming, and vandalism. Any evaluation of this nature, even to those who find the methods disagreeable, must discern the materialism of graffiti. Apart from familiarity with a surrounding, in which the graffiti artist operates, the spray paints and materials used can suggest economic surplus. Or else, the graffiti artist would be making a sacrifice, and therefore, for instance, opting for a can or spray paint, as opposed to a warm meal. Requisitioning the materials needed in graffiti involves opportunity cost. For that reason, is graffiti solely a privilege of the developed world, and in developing world, an attribute of the indocile but economically privileged few. Also, in most big cities, with thousands of construction sites, perhaps the paints are readily available as by-products and surplus destined for dumping sites, and so easily accessible for use by the economically disadvantaged.
Though urban authorities around the world have passionately denounced and attempted to eradicate graffiti, over the years, it is still an elusive social phenomenon. With every generation, arises inspired graffiti artists, most of whom operate anonymously. But without anonymity, if absorbed by mainstream culture, graffiti would be less edgy. Would visual competency, the capacity for a wider audience to resonate with the sporadic inscriptions, legitimize and decriminalize graffiti? For the techniques of graffiti artists, subsisting of distortion of alphabetical characters—an esoteric representation of pictographic language—renders the ability of decoding some graffiti messages a prerogative of a smaller audience, and only intelligible to the initiated. Those incapable of deciphering the embedded codes stand tongue-tied, irresolute, and struck by what can be dismissed as visual pollution.