Today I have the massive honour of presenting you with a letter sent to me by graff writer delete in response to my article I Am Here. Am I Alone? I could say a lot about how big a deal this is to me but really you should just read the letter. It has the unmistakable air of someone who is walking his talk.
It’s certainly true that few writers would express themselves like you have in the article – as with many working class activities (like football for instance) there’s a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in graff that cries bullshit whenever long words are used. At the same time, much of what you’ve written is right on the nail and there are plenty of writers who will silently agree with the concept if not the language (and even some who will have the bottle to say it out loud!). Where I might add some comments are from omission – or perhaps to develop the argument – rather than because you got anything wrong.
I suppose the obvious place to start is the old “is it art?” question. I think there’s probably some mileage in a counter-point that if you won’t accept graffiti as art then it’s certainly craft, but generally speaking the choice seems to be limited to “is it art or is it vandalism”. To which I think the answer is it’s both. Whether it’s art or not is a question which honestly doesn’t matter to many writers, they are well aware that what they’re doing is a criminal activity (the “beautiful crime” as it’s sometimes known). There’s a strong current of opinion that legally painted graffiti is never as good as illegal work, but I think even the most hardcore bomber will give the occasional spectacular legal piece a respectful nod. However, you should not forget – must not forget according to some writers – that graffiti is a criminal culture, even if individual pieces are done on legal walls, they are always within that wider context and history. The whole dynamic of the movement is and always will be fed by the illegal side. If writers themselves are going to make distinctions about graffiti it is not generally on the basis whether it’s art/vandalism or legal/illegal, it’s on the basis of skill, style, flow, risk, coverage. Most important of all, are you UP.
For all of those who strive to make every one of their pieces a burner, there are still plenty of writers out there who just want to get their name up and to wreck everything they can. They’re not the slightest bit interested in artistic merit or style, an attitude summed up by the writer Sub, “I don’t claim to be an amazing artist, I am an out and out bomber, a pure vandal”. Someone like Tox does not give a monkey’s about what other people think. His individual pieces have no real style, but his style comes from getting up over and over and over, all city for a decade – beyond arrest and imprisonment to the point of addiction. Another writer Steas acknowledged that “Tox has forced writers into loving his tag, for the values and passion it represents to them”. In the end you’re not supposed to like it or to appreciate it as art, but you are supposed to see it wherever you go. Very much along the lines of your “I AM HERE”. There are other famous names, some of who have recently been given long prison sentences for criminal damage, who would admit that they don’t have the skills to do great big Wild Style pieces – but they are still enormously respected because their simple dubs and throws have great style and they put in an incredible amount of work to walk the tracks (and climb the rooftops) night after night after night to cover our city from end to end.
Although you mention very amiable and friendly interactions with writers (which I can echo), there is a rivalry within the culture which has been described as the toughest peer-review system of any cultural project. Although the haters might not see it, this is a form of quality control that encourages the highest standards of technique and creativity. If other writers don’t like your stuff they won’t write a polite critique. They will dog it, line it or just go right over it and show you how it should be done! This rigorous elitism can also extend to what writers think of “the public”. It is a deliberately suspicious, closed and secretive world (only in part because of the criminal risk) with many writers intentionally making their tag or letters illegible to those who don’t understand the code. Yet the contradiction is that it’s out there on the street, in your face – and if you want to put in the time you will break the encryption and the meaning will be revealed to you. This is that ephemeral joy of coming across some amazing new piece, even a choice tag in the right place, that makes your day – somehow left there in the street for everyone to see by some magic spell.
London is a different city at 2-3-4 in the morning when all the normal people are asleep. You get to go in places that are impossible in daylight. I’ve been in some of the most amazing spots to write or take pictures, non-places that ordinary people don’t even see or don’t think about – sometimes in the middle of a busy, bustling road junction, district or station you can find yourself in a calm and peaceful spot, in solitude and contemplation whilst the mayhem goes on all around you unaware of your existence. Of course writers enjoy the thrill of the risk and the triumph of success but part of the buzz is also the freedom to explore our city in this unrestricted way, where No Entry is an empty plea. I think that it’s important to live your life, not just exist – and part of that is the ability to connect with and properly inhabit our space rather than just pass through it. I think writers get to know a city like no-one else can.
Another crucial aspect (at least to provide some understanding of where many writers are coming from) is that graffiti is one of the “four pillars” of hip hop culture. As well as the continuity of hip hop graffiti styles from the early 80’s onwards, the anti-materialist do-it-yourself ethos of early hip hop and punk still informs the vicarious lifestyle of a writer. Graffiti attracts (or possibly creates) a certain mind set which effectively is the art, it is life lived out through the medium. The same hatred of rules and restrictions that feeds the urge to defy authority also stretches to hatred of commercial culture and the hypocrisy of the advertising billboards that fill zero-tolerance graffiti zones. The anti-materialist streak is also the root of the dislike that many writers have for street art, which is seen as a commercial attempt by generally middle class artists to cash in on a working class graffiti culture and history. I’ve specifically heard people talk about how unskilled street artists have made quick money off the backs of talented writers who have spent years risking jail and death to establish a graffiti culture.
So for me graffiti is a direct and visible challenge to fundamental questions about property and society – who owns our streets? Who says we have to live surrounded by bare concrete and grey walls (broken only by adverts). You only have to travel on the train or tube network in London right now to have the difference dramatically shoved in your face – miles and miles of joyous trackside burners have been buffed brown all across the city in an Olympian effort to persuade the world that we are all under control. The same question always comes up “would you like it if someone did that on your front door?”. Leaving aside the fact that hardly anyone ever tags anyone’s front door, I think it opens a metaphorical door to start thinking about property relations and their destructive impact on humanity. As you say, this is a protest from someone who knows considerably more about social inequality first hand. Where I would disagree with your article is that I don’t see graffiti as “jealously destructive”, more that it’s contemptuously destructive. We don’t want to be rich, we want to get rid of the rich!
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