One of my first impressions of graffiti was its similarity to cave
painting. Long enough ago to date me, I created a slide show
contrasting images from cave paintings with graffiti art. The
similarity in that early imagery was actually quite astounding. Over
the years, I've noticed that the graffiti has changed to more
block-like forms, symbols, and names. Nevertheless, whenever I see
graffiti, I think of it as a mark-making endeavor of people leaving
their personal significance behind in ways that are mysterious and
sublime, leaving us to try and understand their existence as much as
we conjecture about our early ancestors.
This past summer, I was in Czech Republic and was invited to attend a
concert in a "squat." I met several young graffiti artists who had
traveled from Germany, Slovakia, and Poland with bags of spray
paint. My Czech friend is a tapestry artist and painter and introduced me as
a fellow artist. We had an interesting discussion about what they
were doing and why. At some point during the evening, they left
to create their works on places they had scouted out during the day.
To them, going out with their spray paint cans was the same thing as
me going into a studio to paint.
They were working class kids, disenfranchised by an economic system
they could never hope to be a part of. Around them are the fruits of
a system which keeps some people wealthy and other people poor.
Graffiti art is as much a statement about this as a protest and
outrage at the persistent disinterest in the plight of the working
and non-working poor.
We can choose to look at graffiti as an art form and those who create
it as artists or debase and defame them because we judge their
actions as wrong. Their canvas is the world, so to speak.
We can take a position of moral outrage and judge the actions of
graffiti artists as defacement, or we can perhaps try and recognize
the motivation, and the impetus, and the meanings behind graffiti art.
I personally believe that our cultures and societies disinherit us
from our place in the world and with each other, depersonalize our
existence, debase it into a mechanical extension. Who knows this
better than unemployed youth who see no future for themselves?
>From my travels, I can say that I have seen graffiti in every country
and every city I have visited, from tiny hill villages in the
Greek islands, to the cities and villages here in Africa.
Graffiti is a way of creating an identiy, a kind of self-expression
we are challenged to deal with in a new way. Instead of taking a sandblaster
attitude towards it, perhaps these artists are calling on us for
another response - perhaps some understanding, some empathy, some
In Prague, for instance, there is a graffiti wall which invites people
to come do graffiti art on it. It is full. If we want to transform
graffiti art into a more controlled canvas, like Keith Herring's
blackboards in the New York subway system, then let's
dialogue with the artists who are creating it.
Thankyou for your feedback on graffiti projects! I have been putting my
'feelers' out for suggestions and previous experiences because of the cultural
element and because I suspect that certain projects could have the potential
to backfire; glamorizing graffiti as 'cool'... which it is in certain respects,
but at other peoples expense!
I should tell you more about the project. There is a lot of funding in our area
for trying to curb graffiti in neighborhoods with a high frequency. Several
years ago the city even started a program called 'Graffiti Busters', a truck
manned with special sand blasters on-call and ready to remove graffiti when
local businesses called. They tried sending friendly police officers into
the schools but this was not half as successful as teaching kids about
graffiti through visual arts projects. I was wondering if any of you had ever
done similar projects in urban areas, or if any of you know of any outstanding
resources on the topic.