Saturday, October 20, 2007


I have been meaning to write a post on graffiti for this blog for quite some time now. Graffiti is such an interesting way to communicate and it is such an interesting art form. I can’t even begin to describe the diverse cultures that surround all of the different kinds of graffiti art. For those interested and/or unfamiliar, the following documentaries might prove to be an interesting introduction for you: “Who is Bozo Texino?” (by Bill Daniel) and “Style Wars”. These documentaries will give you a small glimpse into two very diverse graffiti styles and cultures. There are thousands of other great films/documentaries, zines, books, and blogs out there to look at that have amazing images and stories.

What is it about graffiti that I find so interesting?

Many of us are born graffiti artists. I remember the little elementary schoolboy that I used to be who couldn’t resist carving a name or a phrase into the desk or the window nearby.

What does it mean to put your name on something? Are you claiming that thing to be yours? Are you just communicating that you were there (“________ was here”)? Are you desperately attempting to communicate with others in a world that you are largely alienated from? Is it an expression of anger? Passion? Pleasure? Love? Frustration? Disgust?

What is graffiti? Nowadays I’m scared that many people would say that it is another style of highly commercialized art. It has been co-opted by the “mainstream” world and pigeon holed as merely a flamboyant, rambunctious and very colorful style of painting, perhaps associated with some kind modern west coast vs. east coast gangster brawl and bad rap music. This is unfortunate because, while that culture may have roots in a richer culture that was involved in doing graffiti, the commercialized version has completely missed the point. It has sucked the very meaning, purpose, and danger out of it.

What is the goal of the artist? A main goal for artist is to have her art seen/heard/experienced by others. Traditionally, artists do their art in or through their chosen medium at home or at a studio of some sort. When the art is finished or perfected, the artist tries to find people to show it to. This can be done in many ways. Art galleries can buy it, or show it and possibly help you sell it. You can show it or perform it in any chosen venue. The main goal is to get people interested in viewing, hearing, or experiencing it. It is natural for the artist to want to share the work that they have created.

Graffiti takes a different approach. My friend Vegor pointed out that graffiti is the most effective form of art because its medium is ANYWHERE the artist chooses. Where art is done interacts with, compliments, and adds various meanings to the image or message. It (the medium) is just as important as the image, performance, or message itself. The whole world is the graffiti artist’s gallery and venue.

What does it mean for a graffiti artist put a message on a piece of property? Does it call into question the concept and legitimacy of private property and ownership? Is it just an effort to communicate or share ideas and creative expression in a common area? This part of graffiti has been watered down and misunderstood into claiming the property as the artist’s own. This not productive, it merely sparks a battle for power and territory. Why is graffiti against the law? Should it be?

Does uninvited, unstaged, and/or spontaneous performance, installation or poetry qualify as being graffiti?

Graffiti shows an innate need to create and to share. There is a very interesting short documentary film called “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal” that is very appropriate to mention at this point. Check it out! (That link leads to a written introduction to the film and has a link to an excerpt of the film.)

My intention was to write a sweeping and far reaching post on the meaning and purpose of graffiti (ha ha ha...). But I now realize that this is completely over ambitious and absolutely impossible. (I’m not writing a volume of books here...) This post, more appropriately, can hopefully spark a discussion about graffiti and its purposes, meanings, successes, mistakes, etc.

So...what do you think?


Scott Abbott said...

The work of graffiti that struck me as absolutely surprising and exactly right was done on a masonry wall just put up on University Avenue in Provo, a few blocks north of Wills Pit Stop. The wall was built to make a gated "community," inside of which were massive houses for the brain dead. One evening the wall was there by its exclusive self, the next morning it was adorned with a beautiful "dildo."

Made me so happy!

Was that Blake's work?

Grabloid said...

HA HA HA! Yes it was! I remember that... I'm surprised that you saw it, I think that the Provo SWAT team was immediately dispatched to clean it up within a few hours... ;)

Vegor said...

Sorry I am so late to the conversation...this stuff absolutely fascinates me.

I was telling Travis during our graffiti conversation that essentially all artists (the good ones at least) are graffiti artists. Art is a quest for immortality, to make a mark on the world...graffiti artists take this literally.

I thought about that when I saw one of Blake's Riot tags on the trailhead at Rock Canyon. I never knew Blake when he was alive...met him once at Joey's Non-Art Show. But here was his tag...still hanging around.

Torben B said...

When I was younger (around 12 or 13), I had a short stint as a graffiti artist. Problem is, I'm not that great of a visual artist. I went out at night, bag full of spray paint, and tagged wonderfully ugly bubble letters in green and white on the underpass near my house. My tag name was ace :)

I've been back to my hometown a few times as an adult and I always feel the same feeling: the urge to see if my tag is still there, or if its been cleaned up. Each time I've been back so far, my hideous tag still stands. I drive beneath the underpass and wonder about the hundreds of people who have done the same. Have they wondered who "ace" is? What stories have they told themselves? Has the tag went ignored? Have any of them imagined a twelve year old boy who wanted to mean something in relation to the world?

It doesn't matter that the tag is ugly. What matters is that it's still there.

To this day, I keep a small collection of street art on my computer. I also take pictures of street art when I have a camera in hand. Something about street art brings back good memories and leaves me with a most comforting feeling.

Vegor said...

I was watching VH1's "And You Don't Stop" doc on the history hip hop and they talked briefly about the Graffiti culture of 70s New York. One of the kids talked about putting his name on a train that was going to go all over the city. He went from being a nobody to being somebody in one night. Truly the most democratic art form!

Grabloid said...

Sounds similar to that documentary "Style Wars" that I mentioned in the original post. New York subway and city graffiti/hip-hop scene...mainly focusing on the subway/city is really fascinating. It is all on YouTube in about 8 different sections marked 1/8, 2/8 and so on. Just type in 'style wars' in the search on YouTube, or follow this link: