Ghetto art: Thousand voices in the city

by Valeria Appel, London England.

First published in:
EDIT° 3, Territoires/Territories, 30 march 2006, Paris.
Edited by TIDE association

The graffiti subculture is a system of action that renegotiates the social significance of public space. Certainly, the city is a structured space that mirrors social, economic and cultural forces in its organization and architecture. The city is a place in which markers of identity and collective meaning are displayed and exhibited in a democratic space.

Similarly, urban spaces shape individuals' perceptions and determine the way they interact and relate to the whole group. The city is a nest in which a group of distinct individuals behave or 'misbehave' according to society conventions. Within this diversity the visual sphere interprets primarily mainstream ideas and reproduces political and economic ideologies of the society in which it operates.

As a reminder of what society should not be a spray can is in some places equated to a gun. Writing on the walls is the oldest way for human expression. A means for expression (pictorial) that preceded language in primitive times re-emerged in New York's 1960s and spread globally as an artistic and political form of graffiti. The graffiti subculture incorporates elements of its parent culture, performs a symbolic resistance and defends a cultural space introducing alternative voices. Moreover, the graffiti subculture suggests that the city is either a no-man's land or everyone's territory.

Heartened by its public exhibition of signs graffiti originated in the city of New York as a neighbourhood-based activity. The first art form born in the slums responded to the political conditions of the city. Street signs, lights, cinema, theatre billboards and advertising among others made up a permanent display of messages, names and images acknowledging the existence and significance of particular elements in the visual landscape. The recurrence of particular brands, artists and corporative names in the city were commonplace. The semiology of NYC in the 60s seemed to suggest that some identities enjoy a greater level of participation and inscription in the shared public space than others.

When examining the city, Lewis Mumford once defined it as 'primarily a storehouse, a conservator and accumulator' (Lewis Mumford (1961) City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects) and stressed its capacity to transform. Besides, he pointed out the city's role of 'storable symbolic forms'. When theorising about the city's conceptual essence and future viability Mumford located it somewhere in between Necropolis and Utopia.

Certainly, several authors have considered akin binary oppositions when analysing the city. Indeed, Joe Austin refers to this antagonism when he defines New York and its other, the 'naked city' as a metaphor of decline.

A related reflection brought Walter Benjamin when he looked at late nineteenth century European cities and noted that: 'urban spaces carried a potential that hesitated between conformity and utopia a world of commodities or of dreams. Today, urban places respond to market pressures, with public dreams defined by private development projects and public pleasures restricted to private entry' (Walter Benjamin in Zukin (1991) Landscapes of power: From Detroit to Disney World).

Undeniably, it could be argued that Benjamin's today is to a large extent ours. Similarly, it is this battle between commodities and dreams, necropolis and utopia that demonstrate the potentiality of the city as a symbolic arena of power struggle.

The city is a space that has the power to organise since it operates as a structuring medium. Moreover, this structuring medium can also generate people's sense of belongings, desolation or isolation. Thus, the public space is a symbolic structuring medium that expresses itself through urban planning and material design.

Nonetheless, there is a certain structural logic, urban planning interventions are ideological expressions disguised in documents and city plans that have significant social consequences. These decisions have an influential political background and can alter to some extent the very structure of the public sphere. Indeed, these transformations in the visual landscape can provoke changes in the relationships and perceptions among the inhabitants of a space. In fact, the changes in relationships and perceptions may lead to an urban apartheid or/and a classification of citizens based on the district they occupied.

Indeed, Austin explains how post- war urban renewal policies and post-Fordism excluded some parts of the population in New York since: 'significant portions of the poor and non-white populations were further pushed economically, physically and socially towards the margins' (Joe Austin (2001) Taking the train: how graffiti art became an urban crisis in New York City)

Similarly, the suburbs were intentionally built out of sight in the outskirts around most of France's major cities and there was hardly any transport connecting the suburbs to the urban centres. As a result, these policies confine some sectors of the population and prevent them to participate in the city life. Obviously, this designed exclusion does not remain only as a physical condition.

Certainly, urban planning and architecture make the city 'speak' by creating semiotic barriers, representing dominant discourses and reproducing physical structures for control and surveillance. As an example, it is not a concealed secret that the Eiffel tower is not a symbol of submissiveness and humbleness but the very visual expression of [Jeremy Bentham's panopticon as discussed by Michel Foucault]. Indeed, representations of surveillance and control are unexciting routine in contemporary western societies and their matching cities.

However, as renowned urbanism theorist Manuel Castells points out 'a society is not a reproduction of structurally dominant social tendencies but a confrontation of goals' (Manuel Castells (1978) City, class and power) and so, it could be argued, its public space is.

In this urban setting graffiti comes into play. In fact, the signatures or 'tags' as known in graffiti jargon originally associated a name to a street number. Thus, they were visible in the neighbourhood in which the 'writer', that is the graffiti writer, lived and his body, face and persona were recognised by the members of his community. Hence, writing one's name on the walls seemed to provide the opportunity of being locally recognised.

In fact, later on when graffiti spread beyond district boundaries it meant than from being nobody one could become someone. To be sure, the city of New York and all its visual signs seemed to imply that there was a possibility for being visible to the public eye. In fact, being someone and achieving a certain status is in the graffiti lingo known as 'making a name'. Subsequently, writers started to develop their art beyond the margins of their local communities.

In extending their activity to the entire city graffiti writers began a prestige economy of writing. In the case of graffiti, a prestige economy means a set of subcultural rules that determine how status is assigned, achieved, generated as well as the way it circulates. In local communities status is synonymous of 'respect'. However, when status transcends local environments is therefore equated to 'fame'. This is due to the unfamiliarity of the surroundings in which graffiti operates. Definitely, writing in unknown surroundings makes writers famous but not physically identifiable.

Thus, graffiti allows an experience with 'the stranger' since its medium contests the fact that the actual privatisation of the space has diminished interaction with others. Writers capitalise on the fact that shared public space leads to a mass spectacle and take advantage of the possibilities for public exposure in the city. Indeed, urban public space is always under scrutiny of the mass media, passersby and cameras. Thus, although graffiti is permanently in the public eye, its codes and language are alien to most of the citizens.

In fact, graffiti deliberately separates itself from the dominant culture and creates an inaccessible discourse by transforming the language and writing through unreadable messages. Graffiti's 'unreadability' is partly due to the 'redesigning' of the alphabet, this is the different style of letters, fonts and colours. This design should be considered as a message in itself. Certainly, the different style of fonts and colours challenges the standardisation and homogenisation of other public signage like street signs and ads.

Likewise, it is not by chance that graffiti finds mainly in walls its best canvas, since walls are symbols of spatial introversion, contention and fortress like constructions. Graffiti has the ability to transform walls of protection/exclusion into walls of 'fame'. Austin's structural standpoint claims that 'writing disrupts the uniform orderliness of shared public spaces, 're-coding' or 're-territorializing' them.' (Joe Austin (2001) Taking the train: how graffiti art became an urban crisis in New York City)

Skel train, Zurich, Switzerland (from Art Crimes).

Moreover, trains constitute a special category in this subculture. Trains allow mobility, literal and metaphorical. The writers' names, identities and messages acquire recognition within the city. However, in order to gain fame, a writer needs an audience. As a result, the places where they write signatures known as 'tags'/'throwups' have to be visible thus highways, overpasses, bridges, streets and traintrack walls become suitable surfaces for this purpose. The more dangerous and inaccessible the surface is the more respect the writer gains.

Although a writer once said that graffiti was a celebration of the self it is definitely also a tool for marking territory and establishing particular identities. Writers 'tag' and do 'pieces' that is the short for masterpiece, a drawing of considerable dimensions in a certain area or tube line, in order to gain respect, status and fame. Graffiti is a career path, which has a symbolic reward for the members of the subculture.

A writer becomes a 'king' when his tags and pieces are ubiquitous in the metropolitan area. Some writers specialise in tube lines and thus become the 'king of the 9' for instance. Or else they focus on particular boroughs of the city. This hierarchy seems to question the ownership of shared public space. If a writer is not the 'king' of a particular area then who is? In other words who owns public space? The people, sounds like a rather vain response.

Apart from being skilful at drawing writers have to be competent at shoplifting. Indeed, the graffiti subculture requires stolen spray cans to write with. If a writer is not able to steal sprays then he associates with other writers who are.

Aaagh's piece on a wall (from Art Crimes)

As any subculture, graffiti has been stigmatised and considered as an activity in which groups of young people engage in subterranean, unclear activities and communicate through unofficial channels. In the case of New York, the war on graffiti originated in the mid-1960s as a result of the urban crisis the city was undergoing. Essentially, this crisis was partly media staged and responded to political interests. In fact, some mass media drew attention to a number of urban issues like air pollution, crime and so on.

As Austin pointed out 'the shadows of the city had fallen over the bright lights of New York, New York'. In this context of social and cultural upheaval, graffiti did not limit itself to new-names writings it was witness of the deterioration of the city and started writing messages that conveyed political commentaries.

However, the distinction between graffiti and other forms of 'unauthorized' public writing was wiped out by a number of property owners, managers and maintenance workers. This had to do with their ideas or tasks of keeping the walls 'clean'. However, the construction of graffiti as a problem developed in the 70s.

Accordingly, some sectors considered graffiti as a deviant and uncivil practice that obstructed the social order and 'stole' the citizens and the ensemble of society by going beyond city budgets and workers capacity. Certainly, graffiti contests the semiology of the city and in doing so it challenges the values and beliefs that preserve the status quo. Thus, some structures may feel threatened by the ideology of this activity and the need to 'clean' that discourse becomes a matter of "survival". Likewise, to clean the walls means to leave the walls with no messages and 'cleanliness' in this case symbolises the annihilation of an alternative discourse that threatens the 'spotlessness' of dominant ideas. Miserably, a blank space denotes the absence of debate or the expurgation of facts.

Graffiti art dramatically changes the visual landscape and awakes passers-by's eyes that are too used to standard ways of communication. Eyes excessively adapted to signs that do not outdo particular dimensions, letters that are readable and measured, brands that are easily recognisable through colours or fonts type, and corporate identities that impose themselves in the shared public space. This state of affairs makes citizens feel like guests in their city. However, graffiti rises above this set of visual clichés. It invites to conversation, recreates the space by providing alternative meanings and interestingly, publicly exhibits a closed discourse. Everyone can see it nevertheless just a few are aware of it.

Contact Valeria Appel for usage and reprinting information.

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