Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Visualizing Dissent: Graffiti As Art

If you haven't thought much about graffiti and its role in public debate, cultural life, and even civic beautification, the current political situation in the United States is making a pretty good case for its value. Public frustration with government is at an all-time high, the U.S. is on the brink of a third concurrent war, and the current administration has controlled the American media better than Reagan, with none of Reagan's finesse. If Reagan's was the Teflon presidency, that of George W. Bush could be remembered by friend and foe alike as the Katamari presidency: ever enlarging, ever strengthening, every potential crisis lending new momentum.

Advertising agency BBDO West recently offered its services pro bono to the city of San Francisco, and chose graffiti cleanup as its Up With People message. For the agency executives it may have seemed like a safe issue. (One of the three advertisements it produced is at left; the others can be viewed here.) But the frustration and anger the agency's outdoor advertising campaign has generated within the graffiti art community has given some of the form's practitioners ("writers") an opportunity to explain their work in both words and images on such websites as the Wooster Collective, which posts photographs of graffiti art from around the world. Graffiti boosters responded to the ad campaign with a series of inspired response images, and the Wooster Collective synthesized the messages of these works by taking the unusual step of responding in writing to BBDO and the mayor's office of San Francisco in a recent text post. The schism the conflict reveals is as transparently class-based as the sick feeling you should be feeling during the current Stanley Steemer Carpet Cleaner commercials where the happy housewife boasts about how "clean" the servicemen are who come to clean the carpets in her spacious and otherwise spotless home. She isn't cruel so much as pathologically insensitive, and her steam-cleaned existence speaks to a dominant culture that runs roughshod over many in its pursuit of narrowly defined goals.

Ironically, BBDO and the community it took on have much in common. Like billboards, wall advertising, bench advertising, posters, and flyers, graffiti art meets you on the street where you live. Depending on its content, it may be designed to elicit shock, anger, amusement, joy, desire, or introspection. But graffiti art was written or drawn on-site by someone, often displaying great skill with spray paint or imagination in setting an incongruous scene into your environment, and is by its nature illicit; while graffiti styles and techniques may be exportable to the gallery, the civic mural, and even the artist's canvas, many writers would agree with my belief that true graffiti is illegal by definition, and that much of the charm of the exported stylistic qualities are borne of guilt by association. In this view, graffiti is a protest against everything every successful ad agency stands for: the commodification of public space, the standardization of the built environment, and the permission-based, central control of communication in the form of visual display, which dystopians and state planners the world over agree is the most powerful way to communicate with large groups of strangers who are busy doing something else - the definition of a modern city.

The political nature of the act itself takes much of the pressure off of writers to supply politically-charged content; the accusation is implicit in the act, and the resulting image can be purely ornamental and still carry the same weight. For the creator, this protest is often so internalized as to feel like a purely natural expression, without malice or anger. As one writer put it in an interview with Art Crimes:

Many people have the urge to write their names places to commemorate being there. People don't get upset when they hear stories of "Kilroy was Here" or kids scratching in Janet + Joe on a tree. But somehow when writing gets associated with the city, and kids from all races and backgrounds get together to express themselves in some rebellious way right in the face of everyone, it gets associated with evil. Then officials feel the need to go over graffiti with plain flat paint. The thing that they don't understand is that they are expressing themselves just as much as we are when we put our name or crew up. Unfortunately they don't have the creativity that we do.
Taking its name from an Italian term for a method of ornamenting architectural plaster or pottery by etching into it - graffito, "little writing," "little scratching" - the term was adopted to describe the type of graffiti art that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in American cities, and which still constitutes a major strand of street art. In the words of Ilse Scheepers:
Although the general public criticises graffiti for contributing to the 'ugliness' of an area, graffiti writers as a rule do not write for the public as an audience. They write for themselves, and other writers, engaging in a dialogue with others who they may have never met, who inhabit the same city or visit the same areas.
This is the motivation that most people who have spared a thought for graffiti art can quickly recognize: These people feel cut off from other channels of communication; and, for some, engenders a curiosity about an otherwise "invisible" class of people who surround them. But there is another major strand of the modern graffiti art community which, while undertaking its project in the same spirit, attempts to communicate with its local community about issues of concern using a wide range of techniques and levels of meaning.

This fact can be attested to by the presence, in cities like San Francisco where graffiti is common, of illegally-painted murals executed with 30 cans of spray paint, dozens of oil paint sticks or markers loaded with artist-mixed inks, which have themselves been "defaced" by simple spray-paint or Sharpie tags. This visual conflict is tangible evidence of not only the competitive and performative nature of graffiti art but also a sign of competing communities at work who do not share a common goal. While simple tagging has its own argument to make as a system of meaning - if there is significance to the statement "Claudius Was Here" etched in a Roman monument, that meaning is only enhanced when the historical context is our own and the message is coded to prevent our understanding it - it is the latter type of expressive, engaging, and challenging street art that primarily interests me.

The anger expressed by the members of the Wooster Collective is largely a product of BBDO and the city of San Francisco's refusal to acknowledge the sociological significance of the former type of graffiti or the intrinsic value of the latter as an art form. And their argument has merit. In a city with a median income of $60,000 and a median home value of $750,000, in a nation where protest can be consigned to fenced "free speech zones" and where a programmer just testified to helping write code at the request of the Speaker of the Florida House that would use electronic voting machines to throw an election, those with alternative opinions have ample opportunity to feel like an outsider. (The best of several response images to the advertisement above is shown at left.) Why, they wonder, can Coke, Wells Fargo, the IRS or the Army inject themselves so easily into our public space, while artists and activists with a variety of critiques must stand on the sidelines or be accused of creating "visual pollution"?

Power has shifted towards dissent with the explosion of the Internet; the most concrete example of this is that through the Wooster Collective, The Streets Are Saying Things, and other websites, graffiti writers and artists who produce illicit public works can communicate better than ever before. Graffiti writers, producing their work under cover of darkness, once yearned for walls that had visibility but wouldn't be quickly painted over, to maximize locals' exposure to their work before it was removed; now they can write anywhere, take a photograph, and communicate their message with a worldwide audience. Illicit artists made the boldest statements possible in hopes of capturing the attention of a TV news crew to help publicize their work before authorities removed it, or created works so subtle they were rarely noticed; now a photograph of the finished project not only grants them the same exposure, but the work can even be designed with the photograph as the end goal. With the virtual space of the Internet rapidly eclipsing all other forms of visual communication, illicit art now finds itself with the same access to shape-shifting public stage that advertisers enjoyed almost exclusively in the last century.

Read my follow-up post, Visualizing Dissent: Art As Graffiti.


Anonymous said...

I live in the city of Midtown, Atlanta and we have a graffiti problem that saddens me.

To this statement:
"They write for themselves, and other writers,..." Says it all. Without any concern for the community around them or the people who live in the envrionment, they leave THEIR marks on public areas. You say it's a message I say it's selfish.

Over a period of 2 years we had a tagger in our apartment building that was nice enough to do $3,000 worth of damage to both of our stainless steel elevators, just so he could see his initals whenever he visted his friends. When we finally caught him he had no reason for doing it just a shoulder shrug. I've seen his same initials all over Buckhead, Midtown and Downtown.

Maybe graffiti serves a purpose, or releases a frustration, whatever. If these artists would like to spray over all billboard ads, bus ads, etc. to "make a statement" about feeling helpless in "system" go right ahead.

If they would like to contact others with the same frustraton with the "system"...start a club.

Graffiti on apartments, elevators, automobiles, office buildings, and so on crosses the line of MY FREEDOM to live in a clean and safe environment.

There are many ways for artists to use their skills for the better of a community...I suggest they be more creative and find a way to do that versus imposing their message in my community.

Jeremiah McNichols said...

I hope you understood from my post that I believe many are doing far more creative things with graffiti than "tagging." Splitting up my main arguments - that graffiti art is an often meaningful form of protest, and that "fine art" can learn much from graffiti art beyond pillaging its sense of style, may have left some readers in the lurch.

I knew a kid in high school who "tagged" - middle class kid, some family problems but very much of privilege. I understand that the urge to destroy things is not inherently political, as well as that there are many things which we feel shared ownership of - homes, apartment buildings, neighborhood shops - which do not represent "corporate power" etc. etc. to us or to taggers. Sorry if that didn't come across.

Anonymous said...

Background to the Wooster Collective

About ElectricArtists (This is the advertising corporation for which
Marc Schiller, Wooster Collective's co-founder, is a CEO.)


ElectricArtists is an innovative marketing services company that
develops and implements unique "community based" marketing campaigns.
Led by a team of seasoned marketing executives, ElectricArtists
fosters and nurtures relationships with a client's most influential
audience by providing the tastemakers with brand information that
triggers consumers talking to each other and spreading the word. Since
1997 ElectricArtists has seen 100% growth in profits each year while
serving a diverse list of blue chip clients in the global media and
entertainment sectors including Ralston-Purina, Levis, Sony Pictures,
and BMG Entertainment. ElectricArtists success has been given
extensive media coverage with features in Forbes, Time, Billboard,
Variety, ABC's World News Tonight, and others. The company has
expanded from its New York base with offices in Japan and England,
thus enabling ElectricArtists to develop and deliver global marketing

Strategic Philosophy
By targeting the "ideal customers" and providing exciting brand
messages, from behind-the-scenes news to downloadable samples,
ElectricArtists converts fans into loyalists and ultimately, into
advocates. Meanwhile, clients gain valuable market research insight
and honest consumer feedback. EA manages the trust and credibility of
your brand so that your message is heard and believed above the
clutter. Yet, the success of our strategies has everything to do with
you. ElectricArtists considers our efforts part of the bigger
marketing picture-if the other marketing pistons are firing, our
efforts will be considerably more effective.



"Too much "space" in our urban cities is sold to advertisers and large
corporations. Street artists are trying to reclaim a bit of their
space, even if it means doing it without the approval of the people
who control that space."
Marc Schiller, co-founder of Wooster Collective [and a street-arts
collector himself]


Some of the corporate clients ElectricArtists have worked for include: Warner Bros.,
Microsoft, Sony and CNN.
Go to ElectricArtists client's page to get an even deeper look.


I mean it is just kind of incredible that street artists are so stupid
to get on board with this fuck. It makes a bit of sense, but how is
street art under the hospice of Wooster Collective not the biggest

This is a rhetorical question presuming that the street artist is a
self-interested paranoiac, who wants to be seen plastering the streets
with their art wares. Who enters the market as a somnambulist, too
awake to put on a McDonald's hat, but too asleep to stop flipping
burgers. That is, the street artist is smart enough to feel disturbed
and want to change the commercialism of their city-scape, but instead
becomes beauticians in a competition with capital--where ultimately
selling their look lands them in the commercial seat which started out
disturbing them.

Kind of sounds like a recipe for street artist burn-out while the
collectors, museums and street art vendors make money off playing the
art market. Of course a good collector will do their best to promote
their artist. Selling them out to the largest corporations will
garner the largest return value for the collector.

That is why the collector will try to get their artists into museums,
in books, and out into the targeted underground. The underground is
particularly important since this is the life blood of capital, where
the collector's money places bets, like the chips on a roulette board,
where that which is new, and up and coming, will pay off with profits.

It is just as important that the collector hypes up his product. Be
it in magazines, gallery shows, over the Internet, in museums, or
through private purchase, the art needs to be sold. But everywhere it
is the same, the marketer's pockets bulge.

Jeremiah McNichols said...

I'll grant you, Hum, that there is a tension between commercialism and dissent in the graffiti scene, but a graffiti fansite's founder having a day job in grassroots marketing is not an indictable offense. If Schiller were contracting graffiti artists to produce advertising messages, like Moose (Paul Curtis), I would see a clear conflict. What Curtis does is paid vandalism for advertisers, that is, using public or private non-messaged space for private commercial messaging, free of charge - turning walls and sidewalks into billboards for computer and shoe companies. (The fact that he is cleaning the surface rather than painting it is really insignificant - both require expensive cleanup efforts.)

I lived in San Francisco in the late '90s, and was there to see the explosion in so-called guerrilla advertising, which basically meant having to stare at pervasive campaigns of commercial stencil art for months that turned into years because the city could not afford to clean it all up. The Symbollix (Moose's "clean graffiti" advertising company) "Size?" campaign for some shoe company really took me back to those aggravating days - there should be a special jail sentence for graffiti artists who are caught creating advertising. But to indict a fan of graffiti art simply because he started a marketing business, and keeps the two worlds strictly segregated? Unless you know something you aren't saying here, you have no legitimate complaint.

And your idea that art critics doubling as art collectors is a scandalous conflict of interest is frankly absurd. Very few art critics wield any significant influence on a personal level - their acclaim is hollow if it is not recognized and echoed by others. True, an individual critic can draw attention to an otherwise unrecognized artist, and if they collected that artist's work as well they could stand to gain from it. But please, don't give us so much credit. The prospect of critics beyond those at maybe ten publications in the world having enough influence over prices to make buying art and then pitching its value to others as a money-making venture is the stuff of fantasy. Many of us can't even afford to buy the work of the emerging artists we cover, and when we do, it's because we love it.

CHH said...

First of all, I really enjoyed your knowledgeable reflections regarding the post "Visualizing Dissent: Graffiti as Art," response to graffiti cleanup in San Francisco. I especially enjoyed the parallel you drew between the Stanley Steemer Carpet Cleaner commercial, where the housewife is boasting about the cleanliness of the servicemen who come to clean her already spotless house and the idea that the conflict of graffiti essentially boils down to a class-based conflict and/or insensitivity. The increasing visuality of our culture, because of mediums such as the internet, has posed some interesting situations regarding illegal, yet controversial, expression such as graffiti. While I can understand the arguments against public graffiti, I find it hard, considering the fickleness of advertising, to reason with the illegality of the public art, graffiti. Unlike advertisements that can continually airbrush a model or even commercials that can airbrush movement to the point where the model is subhuman and unrealistic, graffiti is the real deal, an argument and expression in and of itself. It is truthful in its original form. Unlike advertising, graffiti or any other form of public art does no need to be altered to be appreciated , it is original and that is half of the message being expressed. The artists who compose graffiti are doing so because they need to express a world view or communicate a message that otherwise would not be heard. In that way it can be considered a line of communication. What right do we have to regulate graffiti, while not regulating or at least agreeing to the placement of the cigarette or alcohol advertisements (see picture to the right) I see everyday on my way to school? Graffiti inspires the audience not just to look, but to truly see the visual vocabulary and practice behind the images drawn. While I believe the strength of graffiti is in expression, I think context has the ability to completely sway the appreciation. Take, for example, graffiti placed on a white wall in a Los Angeles museum. Now, imagine graffiti written in French at a center in Montreal, on brick "urban canvas." Next, imagine preserved graffiti in Warsaw, done on "ruins," where the paint is slowly peeling away. These images present the importance of understanding the context in discovering the background and underlying circumstances that created the need for expression. Understanding the artist's message and context, to me, is key to understanding or at least identifying the need behind such expression. In looking at the picture to left in support of the cleanup project, a private bathroom in a home is no context or argument where graffiti can be regulated. Therefore, I see little that is actually being advertised.

Anonymous said...

I am working on a paper for school on Graffiti and was looking up the word Vandalism, it comes from the 5th century: a east germanic tribe called the Vandals, when they invaded Rome they destroyed staues and artwork. This was common during the time as a way of claiming space but the Vandals were the ones whose name coined the term. I find it interesting that the word is now used against graffiti artists.