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Graffiti

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Graffiti can be defined as writings or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or sprayed onto a wall or other surface. It commonly appears on the sides of buildings, both public and private. There has always been an ongoing debate about whether graffiti is art or just a form of vandalism. Often it is store owners and the owners of establishments who critiscize this form of expression because it is on their property that graffiti appears. Graffiti is most prominent in urban environments, in cities like New York and Los Angeles. People living in big cities often come into contact with graffiti whether it is on the train or simply walking down the street. Because of this most passer-by have grown used to its presence and barely even notice it. So why is it that some so strongly object against graffiti while otherwise recognize it as a cultural icon? One of the biggest distinctions to be made between art and graffiti is that art is sanctioned by the property owner whilst graffiti is done illegally. That is why two pieces that can be both classified as works of graffiti can illicit entirely different reactions. For instance, if the owner of a store allows a graffiti artist to spray paint a mural or even just a symbol on the side of his establishment, the end result would be considered a work of art. Scrap 1 is a photograph of a mural done by some local artists in the neighborhood commemorating their deceased friends. It is painted on the side of a hair salon and the owner allowed the artists to create it. It is an intricate and large piece that obviously required artistic talent. The people who live on that street often marvel at it when walking by. The first time I saw it I was also captivated but it made me question the rules of street art. In this case the permission of the owner was probably necessary because of the sheer size of the piece and amount of hours that would be needed to complete it. But had the artists not received permission and still successfully completed the piece, it would be just as beautiful and just as meaningful. It would still be considered a work of art by the people in that neighborhood and certainly by the people who knew the boys depicted in the piece. And yet, had it been done illegally, it would have been called graffiti by the authorities and labeled as vandalism. Vandalism is defined as the destruction or defacement of public or private property. It is considered to be intentional and malicious. Graffiti is often classified as vandalism mainly because people claim it can lower property value. Another critisicm is that it creates a heightened sense of fear in the community. A neighborhood with a lot of graffiti is considered to be uncared for and can indicate gang activity. It is undeniably that gangs always have and continue to use graffiti as a method of signifying which neighborhoods they inhabit. Susan A. Phillips studies the gangs and graffiti of Los Angeles in her book “Wallbangin”. She identifies the many different forms of graffiti that gangs use and examines their meanings. She explains how gangs use graffiti to mark their territory, inform other gangs that they aren’t welcome in that neighborhood and to signify the locations of spots where they sell drugs and perform other illegal activities. The 4 most distinct types of gang graffiti she identifies are “hitting up, crossing out, roll calls, and RIPS (memorial graffiti)” (Phillips,118). “Hitting up” entails writing the gang’s name or the name of the writer in order to symbolize the gang’s presence (Phillips, 119). “Roll calls” express gang membership and consist of the names of the gang members, or the new recruits. “Crossing out” means literally crossing out another gang’s symbol as a challenge and “RIPS” are meant to commemorate the dead. All of these forms of graffiti used by gangs are defined as vandalism and create a feeling of deterioration in the neighborhood. However, though this graffiti can’t be classified as art in the most common sense of the word, it is all still a form of expression and art is at its core, an expression of an idea. It is understandable why many people object to graffiti that is linked to gangs. But there are so many forms and most of them aren’t affiliated with gang activity. Most works are simply forms of expression and a way for the artists to make a statement that transcends verbalization. Graffiti isn’t just a modern practice. It can be traced back to the Mayan civilizations and even the cave drawings of the Paleolithic era. Graffiti has always expressed the human need to communicate. The art of graffiti began sometime around the 1960s and began spreading throughout the 70s. It was a way for people, most commonly the youth of society, to rebel against a society they viewed as corrupt. It quickly became challenged by authorities and graffiti artists found it harder to express themselves. In those days it wouldn’t be uncommon to find works of graffiti on the sides of train cars and buildings. Recently this art form has been moving off the streets and into galleries and exhibits of museums, further validating the belief that graffiti is a form of art. The Brooklyn Museum boasts a large collection of graffiti paintings by artists such as Michael Tracy (Tracy 168), John Matos (Crash), and Sandra Fabara (Lady Pink). The Museum of the City of New York currently has an exhibit called City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection that has over 150 works. With all these graffiti artists becoming accepted as cultural figures and their creations being accepted into the art world, I began to wonder why so many people still consider street graffiti as vandalism. In order to understand the general sentiment towards graffiti in the street I interviewed store owners and homeowners about graffiti in their neighborhoods. Suffice to say, the opinions were very varied. Scrap 2 shows a work of graffiti on the side of a building just barely visible to the street. It is right by the entrance to a house whose inhabitants must see the work every time they enter or leave their home. The family consists of a wife and husband and their three children. The oldest of the children is 18 and the youngest is 10. The 18 year old, who I will call Jack, has a different opinion than his parent about the piece. He wouldn’t define the piece as art but neither does he view it as vandalism. Jack admitted that he never thinks much about the graffiti he encounters on the street but when this graffiti first appeared by his home, he rather enjoyed its presence. Like many people, he views graffiti as a cultural icon and though he doesn’t have much of an interest in it, he appreciates the value of one expressing their individuality, even if the method is considered illegal. His mother, who I will call Mary, has a very different approach. She thinks it the work of delinquents who have no better way of spending their time than defacing public property. It is important to note that while neither Jack nor his mother understand the meaning of the graffiti, they each have different opinons about its value. Mary is somewhat more accepting of graffiti that has meaning, or at least a meaning she can understand, such as a mural, while Jack believes that even if he doesn’t understand it, that doesn’t take away from the expression of the artist. Mary also believes that graffiti in general is vandalism and claims that it makes a neighborhood seem less sophisticated. This is the view of many conservative and older individuals in New York. It seems that the younger generations are more accepting of graffiti as an art form than their elders. Perhaps this is because they are more used to its presence in their everyday life. It can also be because younger people feel like they can relate to the ideas of these graffitists, who tend to be rather young, and understand their need for expression and the desire to be recognized in a city of so many people. I also interviewed a graffiti artist in order to understand why one would engage in this practice. The artist is a 17 year old boy named Kirril whose tag goes by the name “Mezzle”. The tag is essentially the word “Mezzle”, written rather incoherently in my opinion, with the face of a frog sticking out his tongue in the background. The tagger explained that “Mezzle” doesn’t have a specific meaning. It is merely something he came up with one day several years ago while scribbling on his desk in his classroom. He uses the tag because it is unique, and indeed I haven’t seen a similar version of it. Tagging is his hobby. He explained that when he was 14 he fell in with a bad crowd. He started using drugs and stealing. His friends at the time were graffiti artists and that was when he first became interested in it. He is no longer on drugs and has matured much since that time but he still retained his interest in tagging. It is his passion and he is drawn to the idea of having his tag all over Brooklyn. When asked what specifically it is about tagging that captivates him, he replied “When I’m walking around and I see my tag somewhere, that’s awesome. I know I’ve been in that place before and I left my mark on it. People see it and the people who know me know it’s my tag. They know I was there.” When looking for places to put his tag he searches for areas that would draw attention. Either someplace high or weird so that people would look at it and wonder how he got it there. His desire is to be noticed. He is excited by the idea of people seeing his tag, even if they don’t know who he is. This sentiment is popular among many graffiti artists. Most people want the pride of being able to claim a tag for their own. It expresses their individuality and through their work they are noticed. It is that desire to be noticed and to express their unique ideas that drives many graffiti artists to tagging. In the most basic sense, the art of graffiti is counter hegemonic. Taggers challenge the authority of the city that tells them they cannot express their individuality. I believe everyone has the desire to feel noticed, to feel like they are part of something. Through their tags, graffitists become part of the city. New York has a population of approximately 8 million people making it the most populous city in the United States. It is no wonder that many people can feel insignificant when faced with those statistics. As I’ve mentioned before, the difference between graffiti and art is that art is sanctioned while graffiti is illegal. However there are many graffiti artists whose work was illegal until they became noticed by an art collector or some sort of connosuiior and suddenly they transitioned into the formal economy. This then becomes more of an ethical dilemma. Our society only acknowledges graffiti as art if someone recognizes its worth and value and invests in it. The two main approaches to the concept of graffiti see it as either vandalism or an artful expression. I have met people that believe that all graffiti is vandalism and is defacement of property. I have also encountered people that believe that all graffiti should be allowed, whether it is on public or private property. I understand both sides of the argument and I believe that neither one is without flaw. Even people who hate graffiti can be accepting of it if they understand the meaning behind it. If the piece expresses something meaningful then it isn’t as offensive. In an ideal society, the city would designate areas where people could express their individuality. By allowing graffitists to practice their arts in certain locations, perhaps they wouldn’t need to “deface” property. However, that is not the world we live in. I sympathize with the struggle of the graffiti artists. I understand their need to express themselves and I admire their approach. People may call them hoodlums, but they are in a way, revolutionaries. I understand the desires of property owners to keep their establishments free of graffiti but people will always need ways to release their creativity and graffiti is a good outlet. We accept graffiti that someone tells us has value and then puts in an exhibit. So we should also accept graffiti that we encounter every day, even if we don’t see its artistic potential. There is no doubt in my mind that graffiti is in fact a form of art. It expresses the cultural identity of the city and the individuality of its citizens. Graffiti has always existed and it will continue to exist. I believe that one day graffiti will be recognized as the cultural icon it is and will no longer be considered vandalism.

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