Graffiti As a Canvas for Popular Culture

The hieroglyphics and illustrations carved into and painted on cave walls and ancient ruins represent an expression of history, emotion, social norms, and societal expectations that, without, the description of the world’s history would be lacking. The murals, purposeful pictures, and colorful words spray painted onto the sides of buildings is looked at, however, as an illegal form of self-representation, neglecting the self-expression that encompasses the art of Graffiti. Graffiti, in all its purposes, is a form of art and popular culture that creates numerous communities of cultural citizens and portrays usable stories that can be related to by other graffiti artists or, perhaps, viewers of the graffiti. These effects result from the portrayal of history and societal expectations that are seen in the graffiti, as well as the use of public space, and are described in Joke Hermes’ “Introduction: Popular Culture/Cultural Citizenship” in her book, Re-Reading Popular Culture: Rethinking Gender, Television, and Popular Media Audiences,” as she explains the importance of popular culture in bringing a society together through the creation of a sense of community, which she deems “Cultural Citizenship.” Hermes illustrates the idea of cultural citizenship through her portrayal of popular culture—“Popular culture helps us to know who we are, and include us in communities of like-minded viewers and readers” (Hermes, 3)—which highlights the importance of popular culture as a dominant power in society. With this idea that stems from the importance of popular culture comes usable stories, which are “put to use in [the] ‘development of individual personality’ and ‘in the creation of social self-understanding’” (Hermes, 3). Through Hermes’ and Mepham’s ideas of cultural citizenship and usable stories, and how they contribute a sense of community and importance into society, it then becomes possible to ask how any particular piece of popular culture contributes to this work, including graffiti.

Graffiti began as an art movement in the late 1970s within the large cities of New York and Philadelphia, and “… has won commercial success for its artists and is a regular presence in pop culture and the contemporary art world” (De Melker, 1). This art form was also referred to as the “underground art movement”, and was brought about by two young teenagers—Cornbread and Cool Earl—who wrote their names across Philadelphia in order to gain attention and mark their territory in shared public spaces (Brooks, 1). This distinguishing characteristic of “tagging” walls with graffiti and its ability to withstand time is a reason for the graffiti artists’ earned respect, as PBS news reporter De Melker comments in her article on graffiti, “…There’s also an intrinsic subversion and vanity to an art form that defines itself by writing one’s name over and over again on property, which doesn’t translate when it moves into a more sterile setting like a gallery” (De Melker, 1). The importance of this tagging of common space relates to the principles of America, including the importance of the pursuit of freedom and liberty. This freedom and liberty can be found within the common use of public space, causing graffiti art or tags on public space to speak to the larger American society. Speaking to American society, graffiti artists are found to bring a community together through the expression of community values, as Jaimie Cudmore discusses in his paper on the ambiance of graffiti in public space, “The graffiti artist uses space to experience the city in a different but meaningful way, through self-mapping exercise, expressing the moments they experience through visual but non-verbal markers that many other community members do not communicate openly” (Cudmore, 633). With this use of city space comes the inclusion of the community that surrounds it, as Cudmore attributes Graffiti’s design and location to a “stewardship” with urban landscape through the finding of communal locations that allow for opportunities for communication and a reaction from the community (Cudmore, 634).

Figure 1 depicts an example of graffiti on the side of a building by graffiti artist noe-two, along with tags painted next to it.

This creation of a community aspect from graffiti in public spaces creates a form of cultural citizenship through the potentially shared emotions portrayed within the graffiti and because of the occurrence of disagreements within the community about attitudes regarding graffiti. These varying attitudes create micro populations of people with similar thoughts on the graffiti in their neighborhood. An example of this shared space within a community is depicted in figure one, a piece of graffiti done by French graffiti artist noe-two that is accompanied by other neighborhood graffiti artists, tagging their names next to the larger image. Instead of covering up the assumed original graffiti artist’s creation, the other graffiti artists tag their names next to the original image, even using complementary colors to do so. This is a clear example of a sense of community and respect created because of graffiti, as other graffiti artists share a common sense of respect for the art of graffiti and for the other graffiti artists in their neighborhood, becoming cultural citizens of the graffiti community around them.

Figure 2 depicts a piece of work by graffiti artist Banksy, entitled “Banging Your Head Against the Wall”.

Along with the creation of cultural citizenship—or the creation of communities of like-minded viewers of popular culture—, comes the creation of a form of usable stories through the representation of emotion and history that graffiti creates. A critic of art, Stephen Sewell of the Sydney Morning Herald, claims that because of art’s complexity, art does not qualify as a form of popular culture through the lack of familiarity, “While art is the province of the unexpected and the challenging, and likely to provoke incredulity and even rage, popular culture is the domain of the familiar, the mawkish, the sentimental and the trite and bears the same relationship to culture in general as a McDonald’s hamburger does to food” (Sewell, 2). However, although not as well-known as the McDonald’s hamburger, there are many famous pieces of graffiti that have shaped popular culture and society’s idea of what graffiti is. This sense of familiarity and sentimentality can be found within the work of globally-recognized British graffiti artist, Banksy, whose graffiti has been distributed throughout the world in order highlight the importance of social issues, as well as the unfair treatment of graffiti in society. An example of Banksy’s graffiti is depicted in figure two, entitled “Banging Your Head Against the Wall”, which illustrates the tension between the two groups created by the war on graffiti—the two groups being the graffiti artists and the portion of society that views graffiti as an invasion of public space—through the portrayal of a sanitation man cleaning up hieroglyphics and illustrations that appear to date back to the beginnings of mankind. Although these specific kinds of paintings are no longer a popular way of expressing human emotion, this piece of graffiti depicts the importance of graffiti to the artists through the stories it portrays, and the history of a nation. When discarding such history and importance found in graffiti, in Banksy’s eyes, this situation is similar to that of erasing countless millenniums worth of history—specifically the history of graffiti and the stories and lives it represents. Through the portrayal of lives and shared human emotions, a form of usable stories that allows for a development of one’s personality and dreams is created.

These stories and lives depicted are more relatable than one would think; graffiti, on a larger scale, can represent a mural of a social issue or personal struggle, but can also represent much more on a smaller scale, as well. Jaimie Cudmore discusses the creation of a more common and simple version of the graffiti we know today: scribbles on bathroom stalls and walls. Popular in middle schools and high schools, this form of graffiti, while not directly artistic, conveys a similar meaning and purpose as the graffiti you would find on the streets, “Early academic texts on graffiti focused on using private, bathroom graffiti text as a reflection of societal attitudes, especially towards gender, sexuality, and race” (Cudmore, 633). In short, the short phrases and expressions of love or hate found in bathroom stalls serve the same purpose as street graffiti—a reflection of societal attitudes and the artist’s personality. This portrayal of emotion and societal values onto a form of popular culture is an example of John Mepham’s usable stories due to the casting of aspirations and portrayal of fears and hopes for societal expectations through the outlet of graffiti.

A difference between the graffiti in bathroom stalls and regular graffiti is the demonstration of the art form, in a more aesthetically pleasing manner, on large surfaces in public areas. Although conveying the same principles, graffiti in a neighborhood leads to the status of the neighborhood to seemingly decline, as graffiti is related to poverty-stricken areas and crime. This is due to the societal label of graffiti as a form of destruction of public property, failing to look past the bright colors and varying patterns. This adds to the war on graffiti through the creation of groups of opinions on the matter, additionally creating another form of cultural citizenship through the communities represented in the debate.

In conclusion, graffiti—seen as a simple, common sight in large cities—depicts a larger message than appreciated and understood by society. The conveyed history, emotion, and expression of societal norms and personality in graffiti affect society through the creation of communities and a form of a canvas to cast dreams and fears onto, creating usable stories and cultural citizenship. Joke Hermes, in her section “Introduction: Popular Culture/Cultural Citizenship” from her book, Re-Reading Popular Culture: Rethinking Gender, Television, and Popular Media Audiences” deems cultural citizenship as a part of popular culture that creates communities of like-minded participants of a form of popular culture, in turn creating usable stories, or forms of popular culture that create a canvas for the projection of hopes, fears, and individual personalities.