Ephemerality and Persistence, pt. 1

Despite the persistence of paint on the walls of the caves at Altamira and Lascaux—which are over 20,000 years old—and the writing on the walls of Pompeii, graffiti is a largely ephemeral affair.

The easiest surfaces to mark (sandstone, for example) are the naturally the quickest to decay. Spraypaint fades due to sunlight, automobile exhaust, and the elements. Wheatpasted posters and stickers decay over time.

Some works, however, (and like the earlier, persistent examples) persist over time, due to conditions of its display (on the street or in an art gallery), the materials from which it was constructed (newsprint or archival paper; spraypaint or etching compound), and the attention paid to it by passersby.

Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster (made for Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign) hangs in the Smithsonian institution. The Museum of Modern Art owns six works by SWOON. Residents of Bristol build protective enclosures for works by Banksy.

Simultaneously, a largely decayed Hope poster clings to a building in Chelsea; sixty wheat-pasted SWOON pieces disintegrated on the streets this week, year, month, whatever; and the city of Bristol buffed a Banksy mural just last month.

Similar sorts of claims can be made about virtually all forms of advertising that enter the public sphere: as advertising campaigns change focus, new advertisements replace the old; some people tend to write on, rip, remove, or otherwise alter poster and billboard advertisements; environmental factors also play a role.

This is one of the problems that I’m having with graffiti, and in fact points to further problems with a definition of graffiti.

In the past, I used the term ‘Street Art’ to denote graffiti that had a strong potential to become persistent or serve as advertising, including works by Shepard Fairey, SWOON, and Banksy, among others. This strategy worked well for a time, but became increasingly difficult to maintain: the concept of ‘Street Art’ is not robust enough to serve a useful purpose, especially since groups like the TATS Cru employ graffiti techniques in service of advertising campaigns for multinational corporations, and can be aligned with advertising, graffiti, and street art virtually at will.[1]

Perhaps the concept of Street Art can be recuperated, but I am not yet at a stage where I feel comfortable reinstating the term or making any claims about its content. Ephemerality might be a decent starting point for this endeavor, but I have no confidence in this tactic either, since there are highly persistent graffiti works and completely decayed examples of objects formerly referred to as ‘street art.’

The main issue here is at what point an object becomes advertising, or at what point a work stops being advertising and starts being graffiti (or vice versa). I would be tempted to claim that legality served as the dividing line except that in 2006 TATS Cru put up illegal wheat-pasted posters throughout New York City as part of a “guerilla marketing” campaign paid for by SONY, not to mention Banksy’s community accepted and protected works, or Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster.

Can graffiti be subsumed into the advertising milieu? Is advertising merely another form of graffiti? If we wish to frame the question in this way, I vote for the latter. But I’m highly doubtful that this would lead to any meaningful resolution.

I’ll leave this hanging for today. Perhaps further exploration in other areas will allow some progress to be made here.


[1] I also had (and have) strong personal misgivings about Capitalism and mistakenly employed ‘Street Art’ to stand for the “Bourgeois” expression of graffiti, versus the resistant, “Proletarian” forms like Tagging and Piecing. This serves no useful purpose, since graffiti in the Twenty-First century has become a part of the capitalist economy and really has no compelling reason to distance itself from issues of capital.

Shepard Fairey and the API

Henry Jenkins shares an essay by Evelyn McDonnell (pt. 1, pt. 2) on Shepard Fairey and his recent and ongoing legal battles.

I’ve long had some issues with Mr. Fairey, but I believe his use of the Garcia photo to create the Obama “Hope” poster falls fully within the Fair Use exemption. However, his attempts to cover up or alter the timeline suggest that Mr. Fairey was not quite as confident. This is curious to me, since Fairey almost constantly claims himself as heir to the punk and DIY cultures, and should have some idea about fair use and appropriation. But who knows what lurks within.

Graffiti Lexicon

(Note: This Glossary will expand and contract as the project continues. Check back for updates.)

Cholo Writing – Gang-related writing, largely developed in and around Los Angeles by Latinos in the mid-Twentieth Century. Cholo writing continues today in much the same form as earlier epochs.

Guerilla Marketing – drawings, paintings, leaflets, wheat-pastes, and other materials placed on public and/or private property by individuals or groups acting as agents of a corporation or other entity for the express purpose of advertising a product or service. Advertisements may or may not be sanctioned by property owners.

Latrinalia – any writing or drawing that appears on bathroom walls. These may include lewd comments, limericks, names, or prejudicial comments, and include hand-scrawled signage (such as “Please turn lights off when thru”), but not advertisements or mass-produced signage.

Municipal Graffiti (Municipalia?) – writing and drawing made on sidewalks, walls, streets, parking lots and the like by city workers to indicate the location of underground cables, pipes, and other objects.

Toward a Graffiti Lexicon, part 1

“Can this have been quasi-intentional, a concerted effort to obliterate meaning by scrawling graffiti on one of the theater’s most profound texts?”[1]

The above quote comes from a review of Young Jean Park’s play Lear! — a sort of reworking or reimagining of the Shakespeare play — and gives a window into the common usage of graffiti (as both a term and a concept).

Here, graffiti is an obscuring force, an ugliness of sorts that blocks out or obscures beauty or importance or whatever. Graffiti is scrawled, scribbled over something that was written, printed, bound, and later performed and experienced and theorized and beloved.

Graffiti obliterates[2] meaning, distracts, takes away from, gouges. Graffiti is a destructive force, used to take away or to cover some quality of the surface on which it appears, into which it is scrawled.

Here, graffiti is deployed as negative, rather than a complex concept that consists of a wide variety of objects and activities. Indeed, there are forms of graffiti that would more properly be categorized as illuminating calligraphy, rather than obliterating scrawl. To limit graffiti to destructive acts ignores its potential to achieve beauty or serve as an enriching purpose. At the same time, to forget the destructive side of graffiti is to leave out an important facet of its character.

For example, the graffiti made by municipal workers on streets and sidewalks, which often indicate underground pipes and conduits. Such marks are important and useful, since they tell workers where and how deep to dig. They are graffiti, to be sure, but they are neither illicit nor destructive.

At this point, I believe it will be helpful to begin a glossary of sorts to name some specific forms or instances of graffiti and begin to make some sense of the graffiti milieu.


[1] Isherwood, Charles. “Blow, Winds! Deconstruct Thy Text.” New York Times, January 15, 2010. http://theater.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/theater/reviews/15lear.html?ref=arts (January 15, 2010).

[2] Additionally, as a word, ‘obliterate’ comes from the Italian obliterare, which has as its root littera, which refers to something written: to erase what is written. See http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/obliterate.

On the need for an expanded lexicon

I’ve been writing and thinking about graffiti for over five years and I’ve repeatedly run up against the failure of language to capture the nuances of the concept. Graffiti, if we believe the dictionary, refers to “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.”[1]

This is fairly easy, right? Well, maybe not.

First, there are writings and drawings scribbled, scratched, and sprayed on walls and other surfaces in public places that are completely legal (or at least sanctioned). For example, there are the spray-painted marks made by municipal workers to indicate sewer, water, power, telephone, and other sorts of underground pipes and conduits. Such marks look relevantly similar to illicit graffiti and have a direct stylistic relationship to Cholo writing and other types of gang graffiti, yet are completely legal.

Second, there are situations where illicit marks become sanctioned or protected by local populations and municipalities. In Bristol, residents and businesses protect illegal spray-painted marks by Banksy.[2] Such works also display stylistic and technical similarities to graffiti, and remain illicit, but have taken on a protected status not shared by other graffiti.

Third, there are already several terms in existence that separate out some sorts of graffiti from some other sorts of graffiti. ‘Latrinalia’ refers to graffiti on bathroom walls. ‘Cholo writing,’ as discussed earlier, refers to a specific sort of gang-related graffiti that entered the graffiti milieu in the mid-Twentieth century. ‘Street art,’ in popular language often used as a synonym for graffiti, which describes a small and vague portion of illegal graffiti that is appreciated by wide swaths of the population for its aesthetic qualities.

Other terms exist, but the extant graffiti lexicon is largely impoverished, and the classificatory system leaves a huge gap open that contains an incredible variety of illicit markings, made at different times, in different parts of the world, and under differing circumstances that share virtually nothing with contemporary graffiti forms. Think, here, of Kilroy, love messages carved in trees, the ‘I was here’ marks left by tourists throughout history, and the various sorts of messages found carved into walls in Pompeii.

Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to develop and define some new words to describe the various types of graffiti, in hopes that a new lexicon will open new avenues of discussion and allow for a greater specificity in extant discussions.


[1] Oxford American Dictionary, accessed 14 January 2010.

[2] See here, here, and here, for example.

Broken Windows, pt. 1

Rogan Furguson of The Great Whatsit provides a nice introduction to the Broken-Window Theory, and I couldn’t pass up making a few comments.

The Broken-Window theory comes from a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by George Kelling and James Wilson—conveniently titled “Broken Windows“—and is commonly used to initiate or toughen legal penalties for graffiti writing, loitering, and littering, as well as giving rise to the interesting practice of ordering building owners to buff and fining people for noncompliance.

Rogan’s post (the fourth in a series of posts about his move to Los Angeles and making a life for his family there) encapsulates a wide variety of stances and positions on graffiti and offers a point of entry into some important issues.

When he first moved to the neighborhood, “. . . gangsters were using the structure as a brothel and a place to ingest drugs, and they advertised their presence in green and black spray paint on the exterior walls.”

He continues:

In our first week in the house, a local gangster sprayed our concrete boundary wall with the initials “H.T.H.C.,” which stands for Hard Time Hustler Crips. The next morning we called in a police officer to come look at the handiwork. The officer assured us that it was common gang graffiti, and that there was no indication that we had been singled out for abuse. This was a huge relief. I bought a can of thick paint from the Home Depot and covered over the writing. It took a couple of coats, and it was only after I was able to see what the graffiti looked like under a layer of paint that I realized the thin dingy white on the rest of the house was covering up huge graffiti block letters. I had to stand back to make out the letters behind the veil of paint– H.T.H.C., four feet tall, running across the front wall, with another H.T.H.C running across the upper part of the house, just above the window. Our home had been a billboard.

Graffiti alone doesn’t make me nervous. I can easily cover it up, at no significant cost, and eventually the taggers will look for easier targets (we haven’t had graffiti since that first time). The problem is when I’m not home to clean it up. I worry that if the graffiti were to linger, the neighborhood gangs would realize that no one was home to protect the castle. . . .

First, some neighborhood gangster would tag the house. Two days later, another tagging. Then the gangster would bring a friend, and they would figure out that no one was home, so they would hop the fence and rummage around my shed. They would steal the bikes. When nothing happened the next day, they would grow more brazen. . . .

Rogan’s fears—that tags would lead to ever more wonton acts—show a familiarity with Kelling and Wilson’s theory, and perfectly illustrate (and perhaps prove) their thesis, but there are other interesting things happening.

First, there is an implicit confabulation of gang-related and other sorts of graffiti. Gangs use graffiti as a sort of direct marketing tool: in Rogan’s words “Our home had been a billboard.” Gang tags advertise and warn about the various sorts of activities that take place in an area to fellow gang members, rival gangs, community members, visitors and passers-by.

Other sorts of graffiti have a similar, advertising-related purpose, but the writer is usually the object being advertised, rather than, say, drugs, and graffiti is generally more of a decoration than a threat or warning.

Second, most graffiti looks quite different than gang graffiti. Where writers take pride in their facility with various styles and letterforms, gang writers are more interested in advertising the gang and its activities.

Gangs have specific styles, to be sure, and gang graffiti (specifically Cholo writing) has a long history. However, gang styles are fairly static: stylistic advancement is not particularly prized and gangs intend that everyone be able to clearly read the products and activities on offer, the warnings and exhortations, and to clearly demarcate territories.

Graffiti, on the other hand, is meant to spread: the writer’s objective is to ‘get up,’ to see their name on every bus, or on every freight train car, or on every block. This sort of graffiti is meant first for the writer, and second for friends and rivals. Passersby are a secondary concern.

This misunderstanding is understandable and pervasive and can be seen in people from a variety of backgrounds and socio-economic groups. Tags look relevantly similar to gang writing, and indicate—as the Broken Window theory claims—a blight on the area in the minds of many.

I’m looking for a new way of describing graffiti, a new term perhaps that clearly separates out gang graf in the same way that Latrinalia separates the writing on bathroom walls from tagging and other forms of graffiti.

Until then, thanks to Rogan and The Great Whatsit for providing a jumping-off point to this discussion. I’ll return to this topic at a later date, and hopefully have some more interesting things to say.