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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Graffs in the Hood 2: Analysis

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/25/07 at 02:25 PM

This is the second part of a three-part article. Part 1 is here while Part 3 is here. NOTE: The full file contains many images and may take awhile to load in your browser; be patient.

Slum populations chilled on one side by the bleakness of modern design, and brain-cooked on the other by comic strips and TV ads with zooming letters, even brain-cooked by politicians whose ego is a virtue - I am here to help my nation - brained by the big beautiful numbers on the yard markers on football fields, by the whip of the capital letters in the names of products, and gut-picked by the sound of rock and roll screaming up into the voodoo of the firmament with the shriek of the performer’s insides coiling like neon letters in the blue satanic light, yes, all the excrescence of the highways and the fluorescent wonderlands of every Las Vegas sign frying through the Iowa and New Jersey night, all the stomach-tightening nitty-gritty of trying to learn how to spell was in the writing, every assault on the psyche as the trains came slamming in.

– Norman Mailer, “The Faith of Graffiti”

What’s in a Name

As we have seen, the graffs tradition is based on the name, a nick name that the graff writer chooses as his or her persona in the graff world. As I indicated in the previous section, tags are the simplest expression of the name. On the left in this photo we see the tag of a writer named Switch along with a crew tag, LNR:

switch LNR
Figure 26: Switch LNR

Throwies are a bit more developed. This railroad bridge is covered with tags and throwies (most of them in balloon-style letters):

tags and throwies on a railroad bridge.jpg
Figure 27: Tags and throwies on a railroad bridge

The most highly developed expression of the name is the piece. Pieces are written in two broadly defined style families. As far as I know the oldest family has no standard name, but the phrase “old school” is sometimes used when talking about them, so that’s the term I’ll use here. The letters in old school pieces are easily read by anyone; they may be highly ornamented, with drop shadows, coin-like edging, and patterned faces, but the forms are legible. 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.

In the rest of this section I want to examine a few pieces. My purpose is not to give anything like a representative catalogue of styles. I simply want to make a few broad but useful distinctions.

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

Ceaze, On Coles
Figure 28: Old School Ceaze

The letters are simple bold block letters with 3D extensions. The faces of the letters are lightly painted; in fact, it appears that the letter faces are not fully painted at all, but rather have patterns painted in them, as though Ceaze were eliciting the patterns from the concrete rather than painting them on it. Beyond this, it is not at all clear whether or not the forms in the letter faces represent an earlier layer of painting, Ceaze’s work on this piece, or a bit of both. To the extent that they a carry-overs from earlier painting, Ceaze has incorporated them into his own work.

Figure 29: Detail, Ceaze

Those patterns do not follow the logic of the letter forms, but rather “cut across” them 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 “shines” and the references to his girlfriend Jen (at the top) and his crew, MSK, at the lower right (in the first photo). This piece has been weathered awhile, dulling 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
Figure 30: Wild Style Ceaze, chocolate factory

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 (e.g. core letter forms in grey, curvilinear elaborations in heavily-shaded red, horizontals in green against red and purplish-blue clouds), that it took care and skill to work it out, but I do not find the result very compelling. 

Now consider a very different piece, which is painted on an archway that spans the Erie Cut, a channel which had been cut through the Palisades to accommodate four railroad tracks. Three of the tracks have been ripped out and the Cut’s been abandoned since, I’d guess, the late 60s or early 70s.

Figure 31: X form by Themo

This piece, by Themo, is strongly symmetrical about the vertical axis. Close examination, however, reveals that the symmetry is not exact. Presumably the difference answer to the requirements of the letter forms constituting the name, which is obscure to me. An expert is likely to recognize the writer simply from the style, without any need to decipher the name.

And that, the readability of the name, is an interesting question. At the very least it forces a distinction between insiders and outsiders. But this piece is in a location where no one would go unless they had a specific reason to do so, e.g. to paint, view, or photograph graffiti. It’s not difficult to enter the Erie Cut, but you have to know where to go and be willing to trespass. In this case it would seem that the distinction between insiders and outsiders is not just between writers and non-writers, but between a specific group of writers and everyone else.

In any case, though the intelligibility of wild style names is an issue, it’s not one I wish to belabor. As far as I know, no one has much to say on that issue beyond noting that that’s how the tradition works.

What is interesting to me about this graff is that an overall form has been imposed on the name in a way that’s quite different from what we’ve seen in the two Ceaze’s. In the Ceaze pieces the name-form is the result of the juxtaposed letterforms, as is the case in standard printing. In this graff a strong form has been forcefully imposed upon the letter forms of the name. Thus the X-form in this image has a meaning, a significance, that it would not have if this were an ordinary abstract design.

Few names, or words or phrases, are symmetrical about a vertical axis, so few that discovering them is a parlor sport. Further, the X-form also imposes a weaker symmetry about the horizontal axis. The X-form both forces us to distinguish between the letter forms and the name form, and to realize that a name form has been imposed on the letter forms. X-form pieces are quite common.

Let us consider a fourth piece:

Figure 32: Remix

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, perhaps an X – I have trouble reading the name. With the help of some internet friends (see the comment section), however, I have come to realize that the name is “Remix.” Given that knowledge, I leave it as an exercise to the reader to note in detail how the letter forms are constructed and how they interact with one another.

Even without parsing the details we can see that the letter forms are in vigorous interaction with one another, pushing and probing, pulling and twisting, invading one another’s space, whereas the letterforms in the Ceaze pieces keep each to its own space. Difficult though it is to parse the Remix forms into letters, 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.

At this point we have three distinctly different graphic strategies for dealing with the writer’s name. In both Ceaze pieces, the old school and the wild style, the name-form results directly from the combination of the component letter forms. The forms are of uniform height, are aligned against a horizontal base line, and each letter is “well behaved” within its own orbit. The letters in the Remix piece are not horizontally aligned nor do they keep in their own spaces. While the name-form appears to result from the positioning of the letter forms, that form is irregular, unlike the name-form of either the Ceazes or the X-form; I think of this as a crazy organic, and it too is a common strategy. Finally, the X-form piece has letter forms in vigorous interaction and a strong gestalt imposed on the combination of those forms.

This is not a complete inventory of the strategies used in deriving pieces from names, nor is it intended to be such. I don’t know of such an inventory. My point is simply to demonstrate that distinctly different graphic strategies have been developed and that they must be understood in relation to an underlying name, even if that name is unintelligible. What is important is that the name exists. One must read the forms as being in a dialogue with a name.

Note also that these graffs are abstract in the sense that they to not represent people, places or things. This art is not fundamentally representational. It would even be a mistake to think that the forms represent the name. They don’t, they embody it, with the tension between the forms on the wall and the name’s identity being a way to articulate the those visible forms. In this way graff artists have been able to move artistic abstraction from the walls of elite museums and galleries into the spaces and places of popular culture, streets, album covers, T-shirts, sneakers, and skateboards, all adorned graffiti style.

* * * * *

Back to basics. 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
Figure 33: Organic piece through the trees

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
Figure 34: Organic piece in the clear

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. 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 large-curved 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.

And then there is that odd big-toothed creature at the upper left. It seems to emerge from the forms as though it were the spirit moving them and emerging from them. This creature, like Jersey Joe’s green elephantoid, is a character. Characters, of course, are representational. As graffs have developed, the styles used in rendering characters have proliferated. The first characters – back in the 1970s – were often well-known cartoon characters and were, of course, rendered in cartoon style. Writers began inventing their own characters and explored realistic and surrealistic styles for rendering them. Often groups of writers would collaborate on a single extended work, called a production. Some productions consist of juxtaposed pieces, while others incorporate characters into the composition.

Here is a production painted on a bridge stanchion in a site that a staging area for a construction project:

Atomic Tableau: Innocent Screams
Figure 35: Atomic production

The right-hand piece is X-form while the left-hand piece is a crazy organic. The character in the middle is rendered in a realistic style, set surrealistically in a mushroom cloud. It is entitled “Innocent Screams.”

innocent screams sig.jpg
Figure 36: Innocent screams

But Is It Art?

To the extent that I am using my photographs and prose to document graffiti, the question “is it art?” is of little interest. In that context, the opinions that matter are those of the writers, their friends and families, and their wider and dispersed communities. Serious, skilled, and hard-working people take graffs seriously, and that’s sufficient for me in my capacity as urban ethnographer, a recorder of existing artifacts and practices, a maker of documents.

But that’s not all that I’m doing. I am also interpreting this phenomenon, graffs. In thus talking of “interpretation” I do not mean anything so trivial as the notion that any photograph is, in some sense, an interpretation and any prose around and about such photographs must necessarily be interpretive as well. No, I am interpreting in the deeper sense that I am attempting to comprehend, to find some larger order and pattern in graffs.

Just what that pattern is, that is not clear to me. That is why I sift through the photographs and sort them into piles, and why I write about them. As I explain below, many of my photographs are intended to be interpretative, rather than simply documenting the marks on the walls, or the railroad ties, the dirt, or the rocks, whatever the surface happens to be.

In this context, my sense of the aesthetic value of graffs is a legitimate issue. But the issue cannot properly be joined by asking: Is it art? The notion of “art” carries too much baggage, is too deeply enmeshed in issues of class, authority, elitism, and the universal. Those issues must be addressed, but not here and now, not at the beginning. We must get our bearings first.

Graffs are expressive culture. They serve various purposes for the people who make them. Most basically, they stake a claim on public space; they say “I am, my friends and family too.” They are also an expression of bravado, of machismo. Tags and throwies are can be made quickly and often and so are appropriate vehicles for the blunt assertion of existence and the staking of territorial claims. Complex pieces take more time to craft, and so must be executed in protected spaces. They are appropriate to the expression of skill, and of the thinking and learning that is behind the skill. These are the graffs that bring notions of capital “A” Art into play.

Graffs have been in gallery shows and museums for roughly a quarter of a century. In that institutional sense, graffs are Art, some of them at least. From my point of view, my deeply biased and interested perspective, however, that is hardly a recommendation. Lots of things have been endorsed by that institutional culture, some of them fine, some of them not. That the world of institutionalized art has room for graffiti is not surprising. But that is not, in itself, a recommendation.

Yes, I want to engage the Guardians of Art. But I don’t trust their terms. It’s not that I think they are particularly devious or dishonest but simply that they start with the conventions of easel painting and work outward from there. Graffs demand different terms of engagement. I’m exploring those terms.

The most basic aesthetic issue is that of materials, are they adequate to the full range of the human imagination? I am sure, for example, that there are some remarkable kazoo virtuosi in this world. But the kazoo is such a limited instrument that I see little future for it in the concert hall, nor does it have much of a role on the village green either. Similarly, I have seen photographs of intricate structures made by gluing burnt wooden matches together. But that material will not support, for example, Michelangelo’s Pieta or one of Brancusi’s birds.

Judging from the work I’ve seen in my neighborhood and photographs I’ve seen of graffs around the world, the material issue has been satisfied for over three decades. Writers skilled in the ways of aerosol can put anything on a surface they can imagine. But it’s not just aerosol and exterior walls and surfaces – though this is a matter of contention within the graff world. Exactly how the images are made is secondary. What’s at issue is just what the images are.

Or rather, the pictorial space in which the images are deployed. That is, subject matter is not the issue. If it’s been drawn, painted, tiled, or woven by anyone anywhere, chances are a graff writer has seen it and put it on a wall somewhere else. Not necessarily in Jersey City in my neighborhood, but somewhere – across the river in Manhattan, or across the ocean in Barcelona, Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Melbourne, or Tokyo. You can read the history of the world’s visual arts in graffs.

But have graff writers made any discoveries about pictorial space? That’s the question. And I don’t have an answer for it. But I can tell you why I believe it’s the question to ask and why I believe that graff writers may already have discovered something new, or are likely to do so in the future.

Consider the tradition of Western representational art from the Renaissance through the Nineteenth Century. All of those paintings and drawings and prints are inscribed within the projection of 3D Euclidian geometry onto the pictorial plane. The discovery and deployment of that projection is fundamental to Western art. It opened up a whole new world.

And when that world started to seem old and stuffy, artists moved beyond it, not by painting new subject matter – though there was some of that – but by proposing new conceptions of pictorial space. The cubists weren’t happy with the Euclidian projection and, in effect, tried to treat the picture plane as though it were a 3D space, or was it that they tried to project a 4D space onto the plane? Whatever. Kandinsky used the 2D image plane to depict a two and a half-dimensional pictorial space (the notion is from the visual perception work of the late David Marr) filled with lines and surfaces in motion, but no solid objects. Jackson Pollack painted motion in fractal space while Mark Rothko gave us colored luminosity in spaces of undefined dimensionality.

Geometrical terms and metaphors, however, are not the only way to think about pictorial space. We must also need to think about how the mind inhabits the space, about how the body, brain, and mind construct that space. We see through the eyes and the visual areas of the brain, but I’m quite sure that we understand through the motor system and balance system as well. Wildstyle graffs are rich in visual motion. We don’t simply see them with our eyes, we feel them with out hands and move about them with our bodies. We do this with all images, but do graffs ask us to move through space in new ways? That’s the question, and I’m sure that, at some level, the answer will be stated in neural times, not only for graffs, but for all the visual arts.

The physical scale of graffs is important, and almost impossible to convey in photographs. Graffs often extend six, eight, twelve feet off the ground. A piece may easily be ten feet wide or more, a production can span 10, 15, or 20 yards. They are painted with large motions of the arms and trunk, as Jackson Pollack painted his abstractions. You observe graffs by walking to and from them, back and forth from one side to another. When your primary contact with a graff is through a photo, all this body motion must be compressed into mere eye movements.

Yet that limitation might not be fatal to a viewer with imagination. Some years ago I interviewed an artist named Irving Geis; he’d spent the last decades of his career creating images of complex biological molecules. He told me that, in order to visualize the structure, he would imagine himself walking around inside the molecule. If Irving Geis can project his entire body into a molecule, then I suspect that we can project our bodies into images of graffs and thereby walk around in them.

Then there is the discipline of the name. Whatever the chosen name, the writer is stuck with it. It’s one thing to get tags and throwies in as many places as possible. This is a game about speed and coverage. Not only does it not matter that the tags and throwies are much alike; the lack of variety is what makes the game possible at all.

Making pieces is a different game, one about skill, style, and originality. Here the writer is challenged to invent new ways of writing the same name, new forms to impose on the name as a gestalt, and on the individual letters as components in the gestalt. Writers have worked with the forms in 2D and 3D, and with the surfaces as well. And they have worked figurative materials into their pieces as well, from cartoon figures through hyper-realistic figures, landscapes, and cityscapes.

What seems important to me is that, while graffs are created on 2D surfaces, the fundamental conception of the pictorial world is not itself spatial. For names are not spatial, though letter forms are. When the graff writer creates drop shadows he does not thereby convert the pictorial world into a 3D space. Rather he places a 3D space in the world as one object. That object may dominate the world, but it is not the only object in that world. It is precisely because the graff pictorial world is not spatially conceived that it has been able to work so effectively with letter forms and name forms in two and three dimensions. The dimensionality is inserted into the world as a pictorial device, but everything is anchored in the name, which is not itself spatial.

The name is ultimately an abstract object, a place-holder and pointer in a social network. It’s expressions must inevitably take on the spatial characteristics of the medium of expression. To use a well-worn terminology, the name’s signified is not inherently spatial, but its signifier is. When the name is expressed in speech, the signifier is extended in time; when expressed in writing, the signifier is extended in 2D space. We must not confuse the spatial extension of the physical graff with the non-dimensional name that it represents.

In the case of representational art within the realistic traditions of the West, there is a specific relationship between the 2D forms of the physical image and the 3D space that is projected onto and represented on the surface. Graffs, as we have seen, are quite different. It is the name that is represented and, by implication, that social network of graff writers that is implied in every graff. That network is the foundation of the expressive form, not the various graphic conventions employed in a given piece.

Graffs are 2D forms because they are created by inscribing names on planar surfaces. As appropriate, they may employ standard conventions for projecting 3D objects onto a plane; but that projection should be considered a local property of the object or objects that use it, not a property of entire pictorial space. That pictorial space, the space conjured up by the 2D marks, has no specified dimensionality. In particular, it is neither in rebellion against the projective conventions of Western realism, nor an affirmation of any of the various rejections of and replacements for those conventions – impressionist, cubist, surreal, abstract, and so forth. It is not that graff writers are completely unaware or unconcerned about those traditions, but rather that their own tradition arose outside that cultural stream – in tagging – and remains anchored outside it. Writers may well employ elements and techniques from such traditions, but that should not be taken as an affirmation of those traditions. But is not required by his tradition to have an opinion on such matters or to use such techniques. Only the name is required.

Even as graff writers have evaded and sidestepped the aesthetic controversies that bedevil and stymie the museum-and-gallery world, they have employed the technological tools of industrial and post-industrial civilizations – photography and the internet – to create an international and transcultural network of writers and aficionados conversant with these emerging graphic conventions. These writers treat the surfaces and digital networks of post-industrial civilization as a new savanna on which they make their marks, attempting to tame it to an order they can inhabit.

Graffland: how Many Degrees of Separation?

Now I want to turn from the graffs to the people who make them. What I am interested in is the relationships that exist between them, specifically, the relationships they establish by writing on the same surfaces with one another. Consider this photograph, which shows a part of the north face of a cliff outside the west end of Bergen Tunnel:

six degrees of plasma slugs
Figure 37: Cliff, West end of the Bergen Tunnel

It’s like the Bull Durham wall in that it has scattered graffs that are not ordered in any particular way. Like the Bull Durham wall, it would appear to be a community bulletin board.

Beyond the fact that one wall is man-made brick, the other natural rock, there are differences, however, and they are important. The people marking the Bull Durham wall live in the neighborhood and they don’t appear to be writers, at least not accomplished ones. I don’t know where the people tagging this cliff live, but it’s not located in a residential area. And all of them are writers; I recognize some of the tags from other sites. No one sees this site except for people associated with the railroad, graff writers (and photographers), and various miscellaneous people – the day I took that photograph I met a man who’d ridden his bicycle through the Erie Cut, which is 50 yards south of the tunnel and which is the route I took to this point as well.

Now consider this wall, which is on the underside of a large arch supporting Palisades Avenue as it goes across the Erie Cut a bit less than a mile to the East:

front row seat in the Theater of the New Reality.jpg
Figure 38: Piecework, Palisades arch

At the base of the wall we see a jumble of pieces, tags, and throwies. This is not a coordinated production. Rather, like the cliff outside the tunnel, it reflects the uncoordinated activity of many writers over some period of time. A writer comes through, puts a mark on the wall – a tag, a throwie, a piece, all of them – and moves on. Because this surface is smoother than the cliff, and more secluded, it is better suited to elaborate throwies and pieces.

Graff sites are like this. While isolated graffs do exist, for the most part, one graff attracts another. Graffs occur in clumps of varying sizes. If the surface is small, it will only attract tags. If it is larger graffs, throwies and pieces as the surface and local traffic conditions permit. As an order of magnitude guess, that cliff wall (Figure 37) has 10s of tags on it while the arch wall (Figure 38) has 10s of throwies and pieces, with many more tags scattered around. But that arch wall is one of a dozen or so such walls in the Erie cut, each with graffs on them. The Erie Cut must have on the order of 100s of tags, throwies and pieces in it, with new ones being added and crowding out older ones. And the Erie Cut is only one of roughly a half dozen areas that I’ve been photographing, though it may be the richest one. If you count all the tags, throwies, and pieces in this area, it must come to 1000s.

Now let’s play the six degrees of separation game with graff writers. Let us say that two writers are connected by one link if they’ve marked the same surface. If we were to do this as a real research exercise, we might want make distinctions between tags, throwies, and pieces, and weight the link between writers according to how many surfaces they share. But let’s not worry about such details, as we’re not actually going to map out the connections between writers; we’re just going to think about it.

The point of this exercise, of course, is to ask how may links, on average, connect any pair of graff writers in the entire world. I suspect that the number is very small; if not three or four, certainly under ten. Note that, as I have defined it, I’m not concerned about whether or not there is a personal connection between a pair of writers, whether they’ve ever had a conversation. I just want to know whether or not they are likely to have see one another’s tags, throwies, or pieces. If they have, then there’s a link between them. Note also that it is possible for writer A to have seen writer B’s work without B having seen A’s. While we might want to restrict this exercise to reciprocal links, that isn’t how cultural influence works. Cultural influence can be and often is unidirectional.

As you may recall, earlier in this essay I showed a piece by Meres that was behind a homeless man’s sleeping hut. Meres manages the 5 Pointz Foundation, a large warehouse in Queens whose walls been given over to graffiti artists, who come from all over the world to leave their marks there. There are tens of thousands of graffs at 5 Pointz, though only a fraction of them are pieces, and Meres himself has pieces on the walls at 5 Pointz. Does each writer who’s up at 5 Pointz get a link to Meres? If so, then writers who aren’t up at 5 Pointz will be only two links from Meres if they’re up with any writer who is up at 5 Pointz.

Keep in mind, of course, that Meres writes at other places, such as the ruins of the abandoned chocolate factory on the northern edge of Jersey City. Any writer who’s up at that factory is up with Meres and so is no more than two links from any writer up at 5 Pointz. Or would be if it weren’t for the fact that the Meres piece at the chocolate factory is destroyed and that it is only a matter of time before the remaining pieces, tags, and throwies are gone as well. Flux is thus an issue. Which is only to say that, if and when researchers attempt to establish the interrelations in the graff community, there will be interesting conceptual and methodological problems to consider.

What, for example, do we do about freight cars – “freights” or “fr8s” in the vernacular? Many writers paint freights, tags, throwies, and pieces, and a few specialize in them. At various times on my visit to the Brunswick Tracks site freight trains have come though and many of the cars have had graffs on them, for example:

hippo tanker.jpg
Figure 39: Tanker car with graffs

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Figure 40: Box car with graffs

Freight cars move around, often from one railroad line to another, and can thus pick up graffs from writers in different cities. We need to accommodate these graffs if we are to have a full picture of the connectivity that graff writers establish with one another through their graffs.

And then there is the internet. Graff writers are constantly in touch with one another through the internet. Photographs are posted and commented on, information is shared. Nor is it unheard of to see a URL painted on a graff. There are two at the top of this piece by Ceaze (which has recently been painted over), one to the left, the other to the right:

Blue Ceaze
Figure 41: Graff with URLs

The graff world thus spans two of the modern world’s core technologies, the industrial age railroad and the internet of the information age, and uses both to convey its images from one place to another.

This world-wide-web of graff writers is, in effect, a social organization dedicated to maintaining the world-wide-graff-web. It does so by keeping it in constant flux. A writer paints a graff, it erodes through weather and the work of other writers, and in time is replaced by a new graff or graffs. The appearance of the world-wide-graff-web changes constantly so that is overall integrity remains uncompromised and the network becomes larger and more varied.

The upshot of this is that ideas and styles travel rapidly through the network. The basic expressive forms of the graff tradition – the use of the name in the form of tags, throwies and pieces – exist wherever graffs are painted. Many of the same graphic techniques – letter styles and embellishments, 3D edges, drop shadows, “shines,” and so forth – are present everywhere, see, for example, Nicholas Ganz, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents. Yet, because the graff tradition has no foundational commitment to any artistic culture outside its commitment to its own tradition of letter styles and motifs, it can assimilate elements from other traditions, break them down, recombine them, and thus generate new styles and motifs.

In the end, this social organism may be the graff tradition’s greatest innovation. In this context the question of whether of not graffs are Art seems somewhere between irrelevant and quaint. It is a new social mechanism for the elaboration of expressive culture. Is this not more valuable than still more capital “A” Art?


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