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.

Black-Magic Stealth Funk

From the NYT, one of the best descriptions I’ve come across in a long time: Spacious, Black-Magic Stealth Funk. As, “… in Bitches Brew Revisited, a septet led by the coronetist Graham Haynes, powered by the drummer Cindy Blackman and colored by the guitarist James Blood Ulmer, jazz became whatever it was Miles Davis intended in 1969: spacious, black-magic stealth funk.”

Now, I would love to think of myself in these terms, or to think of some personal quality as spacious, black-magic stealth funk, and I hope this will find its way into ordinary conversation within the coming months. Yet perhaps it’s already a way of thinking about graffiti and other sorts of clandestine activities.

Spacious, Black-Magic Stealth Funk as describing the solitary activities of the tagger or street artist:

  • Spacious: spreading its reach ‘all city,’ getting up, spreading seeds, tags spread and grow like wild vines
  • Black-Magic: How did he get up there?: this is the Sport-Character of graffiti: higher, faster, bigger, etc.
  • Stealth: act to avoid detection by authorities; creeping through the shadows do deliver the mark
  • Funk: what’s funkier than a graffiti-filled alley? What’s funkier than a writer’s shoes after running from the police?

So, graffiti as spacious, black-magic stealth funk. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But the article does provide some information on a variety of current jazz musicians should you be interested, and I can personally recommend the Vijay Iyer Trio’s Historicity: definitely one of the best records of 2009, imo.

MFA Thesis Exhibition, 2007

University Art Gallery, March 17 – April 14, 2007

The 2007 MFA Thesis Exhibition includes works by eight artists representing a range of styles, themes, and approaches to art-making: painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, video, and installation art all make appearances. Given the breadth of content in the exhibition, viewers might find themselves confused about what ties these works together, other than their having been produced by graduating MFA candidates at Stony Brook. However, careful examination of the works may reveal certain thematic relationships. Continue reading “MFA Thesis Exhibition, 2007”

Lorena Salcedo-Watson: ‘Morphologies’

Melvile Library Gallery, Stony Brook University, February 9 – 21, 2007

As we know, ‘morphology’ is the study of structures. Salcedo-Watson’s art is no different. The images in this show present views of the internal structure of the human body, not as seen with x-ray or other scientific or medical imaging devices, but as felt, as experienced and as imagined. Spinal columns, rib cages and pelvises play a large role in the imagery, though the structures appear distorted, convulsive, twisted, due to movement, pain, anxiety or ecstasy. The forms presented are intended to be a rethinking of the body. No longer merely a physical form, now an ideal (or idea-l) form, the ideas Salcedo-Watson has about her own body and the body of others as felt, as lived. Continue reading “Lorena Salcedo-Watson: ‘Morphologies’”