Graffiti is complicated. Real graffiti even more so.
When I invoke the term “real” graffiti, I refer to graffiti that embodies the nature of the illicit act: gestural marks that are made with an economy of form, time and materials, applied to public or private spaces without the permission of anyone involved.
I am not writing about stencils, stickers, wheatpasting, multi-color mural-esque productions or pieces or “street art” in regards to format. Furthermore, I am not referring to sanctioned sites of activity such as walls or surfaces dedicated to the legal application of spray paint and street aesthetics.
When I write about “graffiti”, I am invoking sheer vandalism: the seeming destruction of public, private and liminal spaces and properties. Some examples might be Etch Bath-mop-tagged storefront windows, spray painted throw-ups on vans, hastily marker-tagged mailboxes, profane ballpoint pen-scrawled bathroom stall writing, and Dremel tip-tagged mirrors in rest stop bathrooms. I am referring to forms of graffiti that don’t rely on permission and are evidence of the human hand behind each mark.
Due to my interest in writing and letterforms, I am also specifically referring to graffiti that involves letters — be it Philly style, New York style, Berlin style, Pichaçao, placas/blocks, or the old standard, non-stylized handwriting. For simplicity’s sake, what I term “real graffiti” can be most easily categorized as tagging and bombing.
This is the graffiti that I subjectively enjoy looking at. I don’t like pretty pictures. I like seeing the results of deliberate criminal behavior. I like seeing vandalism. It is an expression of that which is most human — of the pack member eluding social and physical capture.
This type of graffiti tends to repeat the same message over and over, with slight variations: the adopted name of the writer, maybe the name of their graffiti crew, or in the case of bathroom graffiti, obscenity/obscenities. The former might include some additional marks for emphasis — an underline, some asterisks, or other decoration — the proverbial ‘icing on the cake’ of unwanted mark-making. With tagging, the audience might perceive a stylistic sameness as to the tags’ application — a repetition of content (name), stylistic form (particular handstyle/calligraphic approach or means of construction). This sameness helps viewers connect the dots as to the potential trail of a tagger — akin to a visual trail of bread crumbs. This content/container/site synthesis creates a discernible system within which the writer operates.
Within this system, the syntax of placement is paramount. If the audience intends to perceive graffiti as an alternate form of language, one must analyze the linguistic elements in use. Often, graffiti tends to say the same thing over and over — namely, the tagger’s name. Graffiti as a system is given definition by the individual and collective sites where each tag is applied. It is the spatial delineation of the name inscribed on a police car windshield using glass-eating acid, the linear tag that spans doorframe and door alike, the scratched name on the bus stop acrylic advertisement cover, the paint drip-tagged street corner, and the monumental name splashed on the side of a building using paint pumped out of an insecticide sprayer. We can put together collective meaning through where the marks are made in regards to illegal graffiti as much as through visual form.
These spatial bodies of repetition and disjunction form the lexical systems within which a writer’s work exists — porous due to space and time, connected through style and content, and accretive as the writer adds to the dissemination of marks. Graffiti is a system developed much like literature, though the defining traits differ. Each mark matters, creating correlations with other marks and creating a larger framework of marks. The syntax of densely or loosely sited repetition is proof of the writer’s feral determination to inject the name into the sphere of others. The site of each mark gives further definition: public bathroom = bad, someone’s front door = worse, ambulance = potentially worst. What one marks gives the mark more potential power, creating a symbiotic semiotic relationship that can only be unwoven in the mind.
Viewing graffiti in regards to linguistic systems helps us understand it beyond acts of seemingly simple transgression and atavistic anti-social behavior. Writers beg for their bodies of work to be read and understood beyond mere self-expression and style.
Just like literature, the best graffiti isn’t “pretty” — it eludes easy classification and operates in multiple modes of meaning, provoking the viewer to potentially think about it more deeply. In opposition to a ‘destructive’ force, it can create corpuses of reading that offer far more than we might have ever considered, should we choose to look more closely.