The status of movable street art
By Cody Norton
Some say the origins of graffiti can be traced all the way back to prehistoric humans who created paintings on the insides of cave walls. Others look no further than New York City in the late 1960s, when a young teenager named Demetrius began scribbling his nickname, “Taki 183,” over any available surface—from walls and stoops to subway stations—in his Washington Heights neighborhood.
According to Craig Castleman, author of Getting Up, during the natal stages of the graffiti movement, many early writers placed an emphasis on the number of tags (or hits) they could produce, foregoing the aesthetic prowess of their creations in hopes of getting more widespread exposure.
As more writers began to emerge, attention to the detail and location of tags began to take more precedence over the quantity of images one could fashion. No longer could someone simply tag his or her name on the side of a building and expect to gain recognition. To achieve fame, not only would one need to explore the expression of his or her own personal style, but would need to display ingenuity for where the constructions would be displayed. This innovation began on the trains.
Writers turned to trains as a creative outlet, embellishing their names with radically different letterings to distinguish one’s own style. However, Castleman said, “When style alone failed to distinguish individual names from the general welter of tags, writers began to concentrate on the development of size and color.” The trains provided the writers with a canvas that could withhold the enormous whole car murals that featured labyrinthine drawings and explosions of color.
Yet, the purpose of the tags on subway trains extended beyond mere artistic expression. Jon Naar, author of The Birth of Graffiti, wrote, “Subway cars with thousands of names sprayed and dripped all over [them] reached out to a ‘global’ community that raced from Manhattan to the Bronx and from Brooklyn to Queens.”
This community of youth yearned to rebel against the stifling restrictions of government bureaucracy. So, writers created their own networks outside of the traditional system, electing presidents for their “nations” and creating “crews” to preserve the writers and their legacies. These works were more than just random scribbling; they told a history of people’s reactions to the terrible conditions in which families and individuals typically lived. They gave voice to those who thought there was nothing to say.
“As writers, we were pretty much left to exercise our free will to anywhere we pleased,” Stag 161 said. “We would write out in the open. Citizens were intimidated to the point where they would not say anything. We had free range over the [subway storage] yards and lay-ups.”
Initially, public response to graffiti writings was almost non-existent since the nuances and meanings of the words had yet to be engulfed by popular culture. As graffiti began to saturate New York neighborhoods, people began to take notice, especially after an article in The New York Times examined how this new phenomenon was becoming an epidemic that, according to Joe Austin, author of Taking the Train, “threatened to overwhelm the visual order of [the] shared public space.”
Even as police and government entities attempted to quell the urban writings, those who sought to pursue a war against graffiti did so with an overwhelming sense of futility in their efforts. An argument on this behalf, as illustrated by Austin, said, “If the writings on the walls had existed as long as humans have built walls, then how was New York City, with its multitude of problems, to effectively change the ‘natural’ course of human history?”
The inevitability of loss that accompanied the war on graffiti existed within the larger contextual framework of a dying metropolis that had been on a continuous downward spiral. The negative response that graffiti elicited, in some respects, was a manifestation of people’s frustration toward the city’s inadequacy to address larger urban problems.
Along the same wavelength, graffiti served as a cathartic outlet for those individuals who felt invisible and worthless by allowing them to legitimize their own identities without conforming to the confines of mainstream society.
Even if some people continuously attempt to eradicate graffiti from urban landscapes, their efforts may prove useless. Carl R. Wilson, former professor of art history at Lehman College, mused about the lasting impact of graffiti:
“Words made flesh in noisy catacombs and stretched high and wide in piercing color ribbons … this efflorescence of dormant sensibility … will excite our curiosity and respect long after tidy citizens have scrubbed the [streets] back to chase impeccability.”
The history and importance of graffiti can never be erased.
Cody Norton is a junior sociology major. He enjoys spray painting his self-portrait on scooters. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.