How to Make your Vandalism Count: an analysis utilizing Situationist theory

All images are artwork, and all artwork is a spectacle. Including graffiti.

Graffiti is one of the most liberatory thing that an individual can do to free themselves from the constraints of modern society.

My reasoning for this draws upon the concept of the spectacle, developed by the Situationist movement in 1960’s France, emerging out of the dwindling Avant Garde and Surrealist art movements and exploding into the political atmosphere of the 1968 student uprising in Paris. They eventually dispersed when the 70’s came around, however their ruthless analysis of the way that the media functions makes them one of the most liberatory movements of their time. Although they were the ideological children of Marx, who is infamous for unintentionally giving birth to the greatest lie of the 20th century, Marxism-Leninism, the Situationist adaptation applies his critiques of capitalism to the world of advertising and public relations, making it even more applicable today than it was during its inception, and doing so in a manner that rejects the methodology of Lenin’s corruption of Marx’s work.

Essentially, the spectacle that the informal leader of the movement, Guy Debord, highlighted is a false reality that is created by the media — television, books, news, magazines, artwork, billboards, the internet. Although we are aware of the fact that the images we’re seeing or the images we’re creating from the words we’re reading are not actually present, the effect that those images has on the mind is still present.

Right now you’re indulging in a spectacle that I have created, mimicking me saying these words to you, despite the fact that I am not actually there with you. Not all spectacles are inherently bad, as the entire genre of fiction relies on the creation of a spectacle. However, since the emergence of consumerist culture, the spectacle has become far more utilized as a way to implement oppression than creativity or liberation.

The example that I like to use when explaining the spectacle is a box of cereal with a picture of wheat on it. When you pick up the box at the grocery store, you’re aware that you’re not looking at real wheat, however it still manages to make an impression on your mind. If it’s a large wheat field with rolling hills and the gleaming sun in the sky, it creates positive and peaceful feelings, the image of a carefree person prancing through a sunny field makes you desire to experience that yourself, and thus you are more inclined to purchase that cereal.This is even more apparent in television advertising. With almost every commercial you see, you can identify the spectacle hiding behind it. Pickup trucks often try to cash in on the American male’s desire for absolute masculinity, and usually have a narrator with a rugged voice, and plate all of the words on the screen with a metallic texture. You want to be masculine? This truck will help you.

The spectacle in action

The most devastating aspect of the spectacle is that it does not allow for you to refute it, or at least not easily. With the overwhelming majority of spectacles that you witness, you are exposed to a monologue, not a dialogue. The images are not alive, however you, the person who is subservient to them, are. It is the domination of the living by the dead. The only way to fight the spectacle, therefore, is by using it against itself.

So how does this relate to graffiti? Graffiti is the ultimate middle finger against the prevailing order, whether you want to label it as capitalism, the state, civilization, or forms of social oppression such as heteronormativity, racism, etc. It defies the spectacle by converting its symbolic power against itself, and breaking its hold on those who view it, albeit temporarily.

Take, for instance, a building with towering cement columns, a grayish hue, and an American flag outside. When an individual who is not aware of their own oppression views this, they respect it because its imposing design not only makes them feel small by comparison, but they were taught in 9th grade civics class to hold respect for institutions that reside in big buildings with intimidating designs. However, what if someone was to tag it with graffiti? Whatever kind of tag it is, the aura of respect and superiority is immediately shattered and is replaced with shock, horror, and frustration. If someone was to see such a brilliant contrast — an imposing and respectable building with vandalism on it — they would begin to worry for themselves. Hooligans? Thugs? Gangsters? Anarchists? “Someone must have had the nerve to defile the sacred, to profane the holy, and their presence threatens the security of me and my family. Clearly we need to talk about the implications of this,” a concerned citizen might say to a local politician. Indeed, it is unknown if the individual vandal would have had any sort of intent to harm an individual person or their family, however the fear and paranoia that’s created by this still remains. A new spectacle is created, one that threatens the established order of oppression. That is how you use the spectacle against itself — against the institutions of capitalism, the state, civilization, racism, nationalism, whatever the case may be.

However what if your graffiti was only found where people expect it to be, such as poor neighborhoods, in bathroom stalls, at truck stops? It has an extremely minimal effect there, an only ads to the spectacle that is already created about those areas. But if you move the vandalism from the areas where it’s expected to somewhere new, somewhere where it’s not expected, then you’ve created a spectacle of your own to combat the prevailing one, and the cracks in the facade of oppressive society begin to become a bit wider and grow a bit longer.