Loitering With Intent
This article is an amalgam of my thoughts posted to blipfoto in recent days and an answer to a question posed by Micah Purnell drawing on my observations from photographing graffiti in London over the last 10 years. So if in reading this you get the feeling it’s a re-spray job to disguise two insurance write offs welded together and lifting the bonnet will reveal that the serial number has been filed off, it’s because it is and it has.
It is also punctuation in the story of my life. A life I enjoy all the more for what I have come to see in graffiti.
To the ‘Drive By’ Art Critics
Let’s start with claims that Graffiti isn’t really art. I’m not going to tell you it is or it isn’t but what I am going to do is discourage prejudice and encourage informed judgement.
All art is life lived out through a variety of mediums; it is therefore about humanity and the human experience. Those who recognise this enjoy looking for the statements and questions raised by artists in their work. No-one who claims to be genuinely interested in art is satisfied with viewing a single piece. Even exposure to an artist’s full catalogue of work isn’t evidence of real engagement. The desire to connect with the personal journey of the artist is what separates those who appreciate art from those who are looking for expensive home decor or sound financial investment.
Now a lot of people judge the graf they see on its complexity, discriminating against less elaborate and colourful styles. I just don’t get that at all and graf writers certainly don’t make this distinction, they don’t think their stuff is only valid if it’s big and pretty. As a graf writer recently commented on one of my blips:
“There isn’t a single graffiti artist who didn’t start out with tagging; it’s a vital part of the process of learning to write. Nothing beats a good tag!”
(I hinted at my stance on tagging in the article ‘Signature Analysis’ so I won’t touch on that here)
My point is this: if you don’t make any effort to understand where the artist is coming from can you say you’re a fair judge of the art?
Stop and Search – Getting Graffiti To Turn Out Its Pockets
So it’s in trying to look more deeply into all the various forms of graffiti that I have come to realise some quite startling ‘givens’ shared by those who practice the various disciplines. To illustrate my thoughts I want to address the question: what is graffiti about and what can we discern from it which sets the real protagonists apart from casual vandals? I’ll begin with a rather basic and clinical observation:
It seems to me that authentic graffiti is about the core human need to be known. It is comprised of the two component needs for a secure positive identity and permanent intimate relationships. The messages contained in true graffiti in their simplest irreducible forms are:
1) ‘I am here’
2) ‘Am I alone?’
The subject matter of graffiti also communicates both the aspirations of the artist in relation to these two needs and sometimes the reality of their success or failure to achieve them.
1) I am here and my identity is secure/positive – insecure/negative
2) I am alone/not alone
These messages are far easier to discern in (what is referred to as) street art as opposed to the more traditional form of graffiti which first flourished in the 1970’s but they are present in both. It’s easier to discern in street art because there are significantly fewer conventions or rules giving the artist greater latitude to communicate. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the deliberate discarding of the requirement to broadcast a complete and confident message allowing the artists to be more honest and sometimes vulnerable. Although both disciplines can be cryptic ‘traditional’ graffiti rarely (if ever) indulges in concepts like self doubt or disillusionment.
All graffiti that conforms to this understanding I find inspirational.
That may sound a bit over academic but in truth it’s this basic understanding (conscious or unconscious) that enables anyone to spot Trojan horses; things that mimic graffiti forms but actually conceal aggressive commercial, political or religious (in an enslaving sense) agendas.
This doesn’t preclude commentary on commerce, politics or religion from an ‘I am here and this is my identity’ approach but it’s this understanding that makes it easy to separate graffiti messages rooted in genuine personal conviction from those trying to dupe the gullible or influence the naive.
Strip Search – A Deliberately Invasive Examination
I originally got turned on to the newer forms of graf back in 2002 when I saw a piece by The London Police just east of the city. I was so gob smacked by its freshness that I immediately went in search of a disposable camera and I’ve never looked back.
For a long time I preferred the newer forms epitomised by the likes of Invader, Sheppard Fairey, D*Face and Banksy, dismissing trad styles as old hat, reactionary and rather boring. But it was only the process of looking into those older pioneering styles that precipitated my present day appreciation and respect for the artists themselves.
What I have seen in graffiti and those who dedicate themselves to it has inspired me to a deeper commitment to my own creative practice. And this in no small part due to how accessible graffiti is in contrast to many other art forms.
So what is there to admire in graffiti and graffiti artists? What are the startling ‘givens’ shared by those who practice the various disciplines?
The standard virtues of any creative discipline apply, for example the craft demands dedication and artists spend years developing and evolving their technique. Does this one look a bit plain to you? Look closer, it’s plain because it’s familiar and it’s classic but it hasn’t been borrowed of the front of a global brand cereal box or candy wrapper. Any font freak will tell you how influential this field of creative expression has been on modern type face. Then there’s the adept use of the can, those lines are as crisp as fresh frost, no gaps, no overspray. And then there’s the overall proportion, it’s pristine, most of us couldn’t even draw this free hand on A4 but these guys work outside the physical limits of their field of vision as standard.
But there are things Graffiti accomplishes that no other art form either does or does as well: it invites curiosity and provokes questions on the street. It’s not the only form of creative expression that seeks to give poignant emphasis to the socially crippling effect of some aspects of modern culture. But it’s the only one that does it in the open air, for free. The combination of accessibility and lack of commercial agenda gives graffiti the power to connect passersby with their everyday environment. Often in direct contrast to all the other street signs that say ‘buy this crap’ or ‘don’t do that’.
The cost of this accomplishment is higher than most of us would be prepared to pay. There is the standard cost of time, thought and materials (there’s no chance of lottery funding here) but over and above that; the risk to many aspects of personal liberty. For their efforts the artists are classed as law breakers, displaying work publicly risks prosecution, prison and a criminal record.
There are only two ways to go with that:
One – write off a relatively small but by no means insignificant subculture of society as irresponsible fools for whom we need to bring back National Service.
Two – try and understand what motivates them. The fact that they do what they do without wanting help or permission from anyone is evidence of strong belief in something. Especially when in contrast the people tasked with removing all such images never put in quite the same effort yet in many cases they represent authority, draw a wage and are protected by the law.
Are they really criminals? Time for my favourite quote (again):
“When explaining yourself to the Police it’s worth being as reasonable as possible. Graffiti writers are not real villains. Real villains consider the idea of breaking in some place, not stealing anything and then leaving behind a painting of your name in four foot high letters the most retarded thing they ever heard of.”
I Only Stole His Shoes So I Could Walk A Mile In Them Officer.
Earlier I stated that there is a difference between the real protagonists and the casual vandals. Whilst my focus is on the former I feel it is important to comment on what could be construed as destructive examples of graffiti. There is such a thing as mindless vandalism but there is also such a thing as social inequality.
There is an open challenge to consider that a tagger brought up in a fractured community with little in terms of wealth, education and prospects scratching his name on the side of your BMW or spray painting it down the side of your suburban semi, is more than an act of mindless destruction. From another perspective it’s protest from someone who knows considerably more about social inequality first hand. My guess is we’re not supposed to like it. The choice then is the same, take the offence that’s offered or choose humility and look for understanding. I’m not saying don’t judge, I’m saying pursue right judgement.
Our emphasis on the right to individual freedom has cost us dearly in terms of functioning community. Individual freedom is important but there is no community where the counter-balancing necessity of interdependence is neither acknowledged nor cultivated. The proof that this need is being ignored en mass is when the complicit ‘haves’ pretend innocence while jealously destructive acts are done by the ‘have nots’. Instead of community we have a disparate proximity of people who have to forcibly take because nothing is freely given, conduct which is identical at both ends of the economic scale. As philosophy professor Jason Read famously pointed out recently:
“People who dismiss the unemployed and dependent as ‘parasites’ fail to understand economics and parasitism. A successful parasite is one that is not recognized by its host, one that can make its host work for it without appearing as a burden. Such is the ruling class in a capitalist society.”
Some of the most monstrous and large scale acts of vandalism in the world are being conducted by those who have more money than anyone could even use in one lifetime, people who are protected by the law.
But anyone making the mistake of thinking I’m entirely pro won’t find anything in this article saying I think graf is right or wrong, good or bad. I’m trying to understand it from the foundation of belief in common humanity and what I have understood about it that is positive has had a fantastically positive effect on me personally.
Release Without Charge
Is my house vandalised on a weekly basis? No. Do I live in a ‘deprived’ neighbourhood? No. Am I a graffiti artist? No. I’m sure plenty of people will think me unqualified to talk about all this so why risk criticisms I cannot possibly defend myself against to discuss it openly? Because I’ve been wandering London (amongst other places) for the last decade and the graffiti I have encountered has lead me on a long and enormously beneficial exploration of the inside of my own heart and head; a fantastically positive effect.
The most surface benefit to me has simply been its accessibility; that it exists at all. One of the most persistent insecurities I suffer from relates to my own creativity and it’s this ever present metamorphosing gallery of the streets that ultimately put me on the path to conquering it. Whilst I had a creative habit for years I was petrified of producing my own work. After a few years of gathering graffiti as source material the river simply burst its banks.
On the few occasions I’ve had actual contact within the world of graf I’ve often been impacted by the kindness of those I’ve met. Flying Fortress brushed aside my marker pen and took time out from preparing an exhibition (Visual Rock Stars at the old Stolen Space venue near Edgeware Road back in 2006) to hand paint his tag on my Jim Philips ‘Flying Hand Remix’ hoody.
The Black Rat Press (a pioneering gallery in Shoreditch championing ‘Interventionist Art’) ran a family day in 2011 where my own kids (and me) got to produce work under the tutelage of Matt Small and Best Ever.
Then there are the guys I’ve met under the Westway doing big pieces. They always stop and chat even though I’m always unavoidably sucked into a slight hero worship vortex and probably sound like a total freak.
And these are just a few in a list of growing examples. Even the older graffiti crews who like to paint themselves as bad boys of the scene seem very happy to run creative workshops with kids with the goal of inspiring both strong positive identity and building good relationships.
Then there’s the practical side because there’s a curious parallel in their world and mine. We both seem to have very small windows of time in which to work; for them it’s because of the legality, for me it’s because I’m raising a young family. The borrowing of techniques used by graffiti artists is what has enabled me to be as productive as I have.
But ultimately its best influence has gone beyond creative inspiration and challenge, it has been instrumental in changing my own prejudicial attitudes. If this article isn’t illustration enough this aspect of my journey is more fully elucidated in the aforementioned discussion ‘Signature Analysis’.