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Tag, We're It

Graffiti can act as a social barometer in revealing who is in and who is out, as well as who is in control.


To many, graffiti is synonymous with distaste, a crude art form practiced by punks and do-nothings. Graffiti can appear to some as representing disorder. The seemingly haphazard nature of the form threatens stability. This threat of graffiti is born in the idea that it is uncontrollable.

The elusive nature of its participants and indefinable placement of the art, however, make graffiti a powerful tool of expression. And because it is so easily produced graffiti is often adapted by those without power, to negotiate relationships with both the society from which they are disempowered and others within their own groups. The writers are forcing a change on an environment without recourse or permission. They blur public and private property into a haze.

The ability to work together despite differences, and develop understanding of others' lives is crucial in our attempts to reach social harmony. But it is too often that polarized worlds are severed and never again reconnected. The chasm grows over time causing indifferences based on generalizations and hatred spawned from prejudice. In this polluted environment, often only the loudest voices rise above the din.

Graffiti, in its very nature, is a form of communication. The medium itself implies alienation, discontentment, marginality, repression, resentment and rebellion.A message may be moral, legal, or social, but it is incompatible due to its form.In fact, it has been noted that a majority of the world's graffiti involves the use of the word fuck. In one context it is seen as destroying moral values and in another it is the embodiment of rebellion against capitalistic dominance. Graffiti can act as a social barometer in revealing who is in and who is out, as well as who is in control.

Despite its strengths as a mode of communication in public space too often the only connection a community has toward graffiti is that of vandalism. This connection is intrinsically linked to the nature of the act. It is undeniably illegal. The graffitist is viewed in some subcultures as the underdog outlaw. Robin Hood was hailed as a hero only until he stole from you. Unfortunately, this is a concrete view to those who oppose the appearance of public art in this form. The invasion of public space through the destruction of private property should never be condoned if done in malice.

Too often the graffiti that is recognized is that of so-called personal tags as opposed to the ideographic scenes developed in street art. This writing invades public areas with one individual's personal agenda. Their markings reflect back upon themselves and not outward toward a community. An artist wanting to step out into public space would be more effective if the dialogue allowed for the entire community to be involved by producing work that encourages interactions and improves daily life.

Nowadays our communities are far more saturated by visual images born of the media than by public art. Advertisements and billboards clog up the visual horizon at any distance. At home a person can turn off the radio and television, but in these public spaces there is no off switch. These businesses and corporations do not also consider the greater community when establishing these new landmarks. Hidden agendas and self-promotion drive them to continually flood areas open to all. The state of Vermont has spoken as a community and banned roadside billboards so that everyone can enjoy the view. The fact that money is exchanged should never validate the excessive legal intrusion of company advertising into public space. 

Forms of graffiti such as culture jamming, billboard alterations and subvertising have evolved just to combat these unsolicited images. At this time there is an ongoing battle between these two factions. Presently there is an overexposure of advertising as well as graffiti in some cities. Graffiti and street art has been viewed by artists as a way to gain exposure outside of the gallery setting. Although many graffiti writers remain anonymous, some have been able to achieve public recognition and support in the art realm.ƒ?_The birth of the superstar artist has fueled these dreams for recognition. But graffiti itself has been co-opted by corporations and printed on T-shirts at Wal-Mart or used in ad campaigns. Graffiti, the art form, has been drowned out by a white noise as abundant in some areas as 99-cent, sausage-biscuit ads.

So where is the middle ground between illegal graffiti and corporate-funded graffiti? The denial of any act only breeds more intensity. As long as people equate public art with corporations or vandalistic graffiti, the misnomer that art belongs in galleries and not on the streets will continue. Philadelphia has embraced the presence of art on its streets. To combat the urban decay, a citywide public-mural project has been in place that is slowly revitalizing the overall appearance of the city. Artists paint images for the community in the community. As well, other cities have sanctioned designated areas for the creation of public art. This compromise allows marginalized voices to be heard and seen. The end result is not the suppression of the quantity of public art but the increase of the quality for the benefit of all. S

Mike Dulin is an anthro-journalist, poet and conceptual artist who believes communication between all individuals to be the greatest form of democracy.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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