Tuesday, January 17, 2012
The Conversation Continues: What is Graffiti?
My meeting with the Semiotics Workshop at the University of Chicago went very well, very well indeed. As you may recall, I was asked to present a paper: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: What is Graffiti? It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had in an academic setting. The workshop coordinators, Britta Ingebretson and Chris Bloechl, had distributed my paper to participants ahead of time so: 1) everyone had read it and had a chance to think about it, and 2) I didn’t have to make a formal presentation. Instead, 3) we could devote our time to discussion. To get things started Joseph Weiss made some brief remarks about my paper and then the floor was opened for discussion.
That discussion, as I said, went very well. It continued through dinner afterward. And I’ve continued thinking about issues raised.
What’s a Site?
Britta Ingebretson wanted to know how I determined the boundary of a site, but, as things unfolded, I never got a chance to answer. The question is important because I’ve argued that the site is an important locus for analytical and explanatory attention. The site isn’t simply where the graffiti happens to be, but it somehow plays a contributory role in graffiti culture.
At one level the question is relatively simple, relatively, but not completely. I’ve organized my online photos by site, and I’ve even marked up a Google Earth map with outlines of those sites:
The pushpins indicate buildings (green = my apartment, blue = a high school, red = entrance to/exit from the Holland Tunnel) while the yellow rectangles bound sites. While there are tags on street signs and dumpsters all over, the pieces tend to be within the yellow boundaries. They are not, however, uniformly distributed within the boundaries. The exact distribution varies from site to site. The large rectangular site, HC (Holland Corridor, right of center), however, is a bit different. It is not densely packed with pieces, but pieces are here and there within the boundaries, though many are now gone as the buildings themselves have been demolished.
The long diagonal left of center, BA-EC (Bergen Arches-Erie Cut), has densely packed graffiti in about a half dozen regions, but not continuously. It is close to BR, CT, and YD, which are close to one another as well. However, local geography is such that BA-EC is invisible from the other three; thus I’d been photographing the other three for perhaps a year before I even knew that BA-EC existed. I treated the other three as separate sites because local conditions of access and usage—though all three are on posted land—dictated differences. Thus, CT (The Cut) tracks an active freight line that goes into a tunnel; there’s also a low cliff to one side atop which are vaults in which one finds graffiti. The Yard (YD) has extensive graffiti on support columns for viaducts, but also served as a staging area for construction equipment for about two years or so. That usage both attracted writers to the construction equipment and seemed to discourage them from going over the graffiti on the viaducts.
And so forth and so on, for each of the sites. Each has its own story, a story dictated by local geography on a scale of meters, 10s of meters, and 100s of meters. While these sites vary in size—think of size in terms of square meters of markable surface—by a factor of, say, 100 (I’m guessing) even the smallest has a half dozen or more pieces while the more extensive sites (e.g. BR, BA-EC) have 20-30 or more pieces, plus various tags and throwies.
Now, let’s look at a single wall in that CT site, a wall that I’ve called the shrine of the Triceratops. This is what I saw the first time I saw that wall:
Here’s a somewhat different shot of the same wall, deliberately staged to create a sense of continuity between the train and the Triceratops:
This is the wall that got me thinking about the notion that graffiti somehow represents the spirit, the kami, of a place. The Triceratops is green, picking up the greenery at the site, while its massiveness participates in old tropes about trains as large animals, iron horses and fire-breathing dragons.
Now, that’s a fairly specific reading of that particular site. That Triceratops was by no means the only graffiti in that general area; and it’s no longer there. The weather degraded over several years it and then it was gone over, by two smaller pieces (L, Kemos; R, Jnub):
More recently, this pirate showed up just around the corner:
Could one think of these are representing the same spirit, the same kami, as the Triceratops? I don’t know. Nor, in the end, do I much care. What we’re looking at, of course, is how things change at a site.
As I said, it took several years for the triceratops to degrade. You can follow that happening in this set of photos, which includes some close-ups, such as this:
What that close-up reveals, of course, is that there was something painted on the wall before the triceratops. What? And for how many layers?
Some of the walls I’ve photographed have remained unchanged, except through weathering, for several years. While others, only yards away, have changed several times in a year? Why? Off hand I can think of several relevant factors: 1) quality of work, 2) accumulated credibility of the writer, 3) location factors such as visibility, accessibility, and use. Some walls were, in effect, protected because they are on property that was used as a staging area for construction work. Writers would tag the construction equipment, but they weren’t about to spend several hours doing a piece on a wall in the middle of that equipment. Tagging is hit and run; piecing is not.
And so, for each of the ‘macro sites’ I’ve outlined in that initial map I could look at each individual wall and develop an index of changeability. The index would have to be a crude one, as I didn’t photograph these sites at regular intervals, but it might make sense to divide individual wall sections into, say, three classes: 1) 0 to 3 changes in five years, 2) 4 to 10 changes in five years, three 3), more than 10 changes in five years. Now I don’t actually know whether or not those are reasonable cut-off points. The thing to do would be to score each and every wall segment and see what the numbers look like.
That would be a tricky thing to do for various reason. First, I didn’t photograph the sites on a regular basis and I tended to photograph only major changes. Second, matching photographs to specific walls and wall sections would be tricky too. Given two different pieces of graffiti, photographed at different times (all photos are automatically date-stamped), it’s not, in general, obvious whether or not they are on the same or different wall segments. I made no attempt to work to standards that, for example, I rather imagine would be typical of archaeological fieldwork. I thought of doing that, but the peskiness of in-the-field note-taking worked against just going out and getting the photos at all. Yes, I made field notes once I’d returned from a photographing trip; but making notes while actually in the field would have distracted from actually observing the graffiti and taking the photos.
Now, if I’d been funded and could have afforded to pay an assistant to accompany me into the field . . . . Practically speaking, that’s what it would take to get a handle on how graffiti lives on particular sites. I may well have the most systematic record of particular sites that anyone has attempted. But what I’ve done is, in fact, crude and incomplete. Getting better observations would require funding.
Some Other Questions Raised
At the very end of the session, when we’d (happily) gone over the allotted time, someone named Eric raised a number of issues that deserve consideration, but not now. As I remember them:
1) Perhaps the illegality of graffiti has changed its ‘valence’ (my word) so that now it’s merely a ‘cost of doing business’ (my phrase) and is otherwise no big deal.
2) What about street art? Do the people doing what’s called street art come from a different demographic and different educational background?
3) Some other specific thing which I forget at the moment, but which may occur to me sometime later.
Finally, Joseph Weiss ended his prepared remarks by wondering whether or not I was, in fact, pursuing a general theory of graffiti? As the conversation fell out, I never got to respond directly to his remarks in general, nor specifically to this one. However, when he offered that suggestion my immediate, and silent, response was: No, no theory of graffiti. But then I realized that, of course, in some sense, that’s what I was pursuing.
But why? Why my initial denial? And why does graffiti (seem to) require a theory?