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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Graffiti Aesthetics: Five Easy Pieces

Posted by Bill Benzon on 08/07/07 at 10:14 AM

Even as Tim Burke had been calling for explicit and focused aesthetic commentary on popular culture, I was thinking of making a few aesthetic observations about the graffiti which I’ve been documenting since last October (cf. Shrine of the Triceratops). As some of you know, this kind of graffiti is based on the name; the graffiti writer paints his or her name, sometimes simply as a tag, sometimes a bit more elaborately as a throw-up or throwie, and sometimes in an often highly elaborated form known as a piece (for “masterpiece”). When the so-called Wild Style emerged in the late seventies, the letters became elaborated in such a way that it was very difficult to read the name unless you already knew what it was. At this point the name seems to function primarily as an abstract framework upon which the writer crafts a design, much as blues musicians work endless variations on the same basic chord progression.

Let’s begin with a very simple, and readable, piece by Ceaze:

Ceaze, On Coles

Note: If you want to see a larger image, you can click on the image and thus be taken to my Flickr site, where I store these images online. Click on the “ALL SIZES” button (the one with the little magnifying glass) above the picture and then choose a larger image.

The letters are simple bold block letters with 3D extensions. The faces of the letters are lightly painted in patterns which do not follow the logic of the letter forms, but rather “cut across” it in visual counterpoint (look at the first “E” and the “a”). The letter forms are outlined in hot pink and a light blue that contrast nicely with the neutral tones of the letters themselves. Finally, notice the “sparkles” and the reference to his girlfriend Jen (at the top) and his crew, MSK, at the lower right.

This piece has been weathered for a few years, which probably has dulled the colors a bit. I don’t know how it would have looked when freshly painted. A few months after I took that photo Ceaze painted over it with another piece, in a more elaborated style.

But not as elaborate as we see here:

Ceaze Green

This was painted in 2005 (look at the lower right) and seems to me an example of the kind of baroque over-elaboration to which the style is prone. If you know the name, you should have relatively little trouble making it out, otherwise you may be mystified. But that is, at best, a secondary or tertiary issue. What I find bothersome is that the image lacks an overall visual form or focus. It is just a fussy mass of detail: grey, green, red, blue, and yellow. I’m sure there’s a logic to it all, that it took care and skill to work it out, but I do not find the result very compelling. 

By way of contrast, consider this piece:


Here we see boldly stated letters in black and white set against a brightly colored background of clouds accented with bubbles. While some letterforms seem clear and obvious - R M S, perhaps a 7 - I can’t read the name. But, as I said with the previous example, that’s irrelevant. These letters, though stretched, twisted, and connected so that the forms are difficult to parse, nonetheless the forms themselves are clear and compelling. The black-faces are set-off by white 3D extension with the whole letter-block outlined in red. Notice the use of yellow and a purplish-grey to see off the greens and blue of the clouds.

The overall effect is one of deceptive simplicity. There aren’t a lot of components here, as there are in the previous Ceaze, but they work against one another in subtle ways. Notice, for example, how the letter forms point toward the middle bottom - the pointed right leg of the initial “R,” the legs of the “M” and especially its 7-like extension. They don’t all meet at a point, but they seem to be moving in the same direction. This contrasts with the left-moving extension on the other leg of the “R” and the rightward swope of the lower curve of the “S” - but just where is the top of that “S”? These letter forms have a wonderful organic liveliness that contrasts with the almost mechanical fussiness of the second Ceaze.

Now let’s take a walk in the woods, not a large wooded area, just the trees around the stanchions supporting a major highway as a comes down off the Jersey Palisades and into the Holland Tunnel. As we approach the base of one of these stanchions we see white forms cantilevered across the base from the right:

Toothy through the trees.jpg

Once we’re through the trees and standing directly in front of the stanchion we can see the forms quite clearly:

cantilevered from the right

Whatever name is hidden in those forms is an utter mystery to me. But the forms themselves are quite attractive. They’re dense and heavy on the right and then become sparer and springier as we move to the left, where we see this odd big-toothed creature at the upper left. These forms seem to echo those of the surrounding leaves, branches, and trees. Whether this effect is deliberate - consciously so or not - I do not know, but I find it striking, and pleasing.

Notice that there is some blue scribbling on the surface of this piece. That is probably a later addition, perhaps a critical commentary as well. I don’t know what to make of the white and yellow paintball marks, whether they’re commentary or just collateral damage.

Finally, let’s consider this elegant piece:


What is it? Those rock-like forms coming up from the bottom may well be the tops of letter-forms, but I’ve not yet walked through the grass to investigate. As it is, they’re just large rectilinear forms topped by bubbles. And then there is that snaky tentacle and those clamshell-mushroom-saucers. And the odd composition; there is a clearly “framed” area in the center - well, it’s the center because that’s how I framed the photo - but those odd landforms move off to the left.

Whatever it is, it is not at all clear to me that it is by a single hand. We may be looking at the accumulated effect of two layers - or perhaps more - of activity arranged so that the most recent layer does not completely obliterate the older ones. I note further that the piece has an overall weathered look, suggesting it’s been around for awhile. That, in turn, implies that it has the approval of the writers who paint there, as there is considerable, and recent activity in that area. If people didn’t like it, they’d paint over it, and thoroughly.

Will I like it in the late Fall, when that grass has died and the images stand fully revealed? I don’t know. Is that relevant to the aesthetic assessment of these images? I don’t know. Do people talk about the various appearances of cliff art at different times of day, in different kinds of weather, in different seasons of the year? How do such things affect the artists?

I do not know.

weight of an alien world.jpg


“R M S, perhaps a 7" - perhaps “remix”?

By surlacarte on 08/07/07 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s possible. It’s possible. There is at least one Remix out there. I found this at a website where I’ve found images by other writers in my collection. But that throwie doesn’t look anything like the piece above. And there’s nothing on that piece to suggest any crew associations, at least nothing I can see by examining the photograph.

By Bill Benzon on 08/07/07 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This graf is from the same general area and the letters are similar in style. Someone on Flickr as Problems as associated this piece with Raels and Nise.

By Bill Benzon on 08/07/07 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I second surlacarte’s “remix” conjecture.

By on 08/08/07 at 01:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And I’ve got an email from Susan (at Art Crimes) who votes for “remix” as well. She calls attention to the dot over the “i,” the body of which has been attached to the “M” with an extension. Note, then, how the middle horizontal of the “E” is an extension of the “R.”

Which brings up an interesting issue. Stylistically, the lettering really is very much like the one that Problems identified with Nise and Raels. Further, I’ve found another photo taken in the same general area (alas in the poor light of a short tunnel) that outright says Raels and Nise. I’ve got other (currently unposted) photos from the same area showing similar lettering. Is this a crew style, or the individual style of someone writing under several crew names?

By Bill Benzon on 08/08/07 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

When I first photographed the Remix the name form had only one outline, a red one. It now has a second one, in a light lavendar, and someone wants to know why.

By Bill Benzon on 08/26/07 at 02:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The “R,M,S” piece does say Remix but the writer who painted it doesn’t write Remix—it was a tribute to a friend. The piece that’s obscured by the tall grass says Hemlock, and the fading space-ship-mushroom-looking things sticking up behind it were part of something completely different that the Hemlock guy painted over.

It’s cool that you notice the distinction between what Ceaze does and what the Remix is doing. The Remix guy is coming from a school of thought based on simple letter forms focused on movement and tension and dynamic structure ... while Ceaze is looking at things from a more decorative, technique-oriented angle, with less emphasis on what’s happening to the core structure of the letters. There are pros and cons to both approaches.

By on 09/30/07 at 05:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the insight, SteelerFan. I’ll go back into the Erie Cut latger in the Fall when the grass is gone so I can get a good shot of Hemlock.

By Bill Benzon on 09/30/07 at 05:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

its clearly “Remix” I knew that after an initial glance.

By on 11/06/10 at 12:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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