In Perris, California, the local authorities use talking surveillance cameras to discourage cinderblock Picassos strapped with Sharpies. In Chula Vista, California, city officials recently declared they can no longer afford to spend $360,000 a year to combat the local graffiti problem. The $139,000 anti-graffiti vehicle the city purchased five years ago to instantly vaporize outlaw scribbling now sits idle in a city garage, another art critic silenced by budget cuts. In Los Angeles, California, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is currently hosting the “first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art.” Sponsored in part by Nike, Levi’s, and various well-heeled foundations and individuals, “Art in the Streets” celebrates a form of cultural expression America has collectively spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to suppress over the last 40 years. Naturally, it’s generating some controversy.
City Journal’s Heather MacDonald has offered the most biting critiques of the contradictions and hypocrisies that characterize the show and the graffiti world at large. She reports that MOCA is selling designer spray paint in its gift shop but doesn’t actually allow visitors to bring that paint into the show itself. She explains how vigilant the many security guards on hand are as she flirts with adding a few scribbles of her own to the displays. She talks with former graffiti writers who are incredulous that she’s even asking them if they’d ever considered tagging their own homes. (“Why would you want to fuck up your own area?” one replies. “That’s why you go out and mess up other people’s cities.”) She notes the platitudes street artists often utter about resisting capitalism and reclaiming public space from corporate overlords while simultaneously plotting their next brand licensing deals. She marvels that a show that romanticizes illegal behavior has so little to say about the economic costs of graffiti and the other negative effects it can have on communities.
But if it’s true that “Art in the Streets” paints a phenomenon as charged and multidimensional as graffiti in the standard monochromatic hue of rebel deification, it’s also true that graffiti is a phenomenon major institutions like MOCA ought to be taking on. After all, if graffiti really were nothing more than vandalism, it would neither be so attractive nor so objectionable to so many people. Nike hasn’t sponsored any exhibitions devoted to the art of smashing mailboxes. MOCA has yet to show any interest in celebrating the cultural achievements of people who let their dogs shit on your lawn. For 40 years now, graffiti has been delighting its adherents, enraging its foes, and most of all, persisting, foreshadowing other aspects of our culture, expanding its scope.
In The History of American Graffiti, a comprehensive and entertaining look at how scribbling one’s nickname on forbidden territory has evolved into a vibrant worldwide subculture, authors Roger Gastman (who also helped curate the “Art in the Streets” show) and Caleb Neelon place the beginning of the contemporary in the late 1960s.
Graffiti, of course, already existed for thousands of years before that—the stuff at Pompeii reads a little like a Twitter feed—and in the 20th century, various forms were flourishing well before a Philadelphia teen named Cornbread and a New York kid who called himself Taki 183 began marking up the walls of their respective cities. A 1934 issue of The New Yorker noted one early exercise in self-promotion on a bridge near the Metropolitan Museum. “Millie the best kid in town,” her inscription read. By mid-century, communist-inspired graffiti was so common in Paris that chemists there had devised a “detergent that whisks paint off stone walls in a jiffy” and “specially trained acrobatic teams with ropes, ladders, and alpine equipment” were already being deployed to remove messages like “U.S. Go Home” from hard-to-reach spots around the city. In 1961, photographer Larence Shustak exhibited a show of graffiti-related photographs at the Village Camera Club in Greenwich Village. A few years later, advertisers began referencing the common practice of defacing ads in their campaigns. A 1966 Winston ad, for example, depicts a man leaning out a bus window and amending Winston’s standard slogan with a paintbrush. In 1968, graffiti had apparently become so widespread in Sweden that the city of Stockholm erected a giant chalkboard in an underground shopping concourse to “provide all-weather opportunities for self-expression.” In 1970, graffiti-resistant paints and coatings with names like Vand-L-Shield began to appear on the market.
While graffiti had grown popular amongst dissident college kids—Parisian students involved in the revolt of 1968 created so much of it that an anthology, The Walls Speak, was eventually published—Cornbread and Taki 183 weren’t interested in expressing political opinions or crafting bon mots like those collected in Robert Reisner’s 1967 anthology, Great Wall Writing. They simply signed their names, as often as possible, in as many different parts of their cities as they could cover.
Graffiti had always been a terse, populist medium. Anticipating our eventual migration from magazines to blogs to Twitter, kids like Cornbread and Taki 183 made graffiti even terser and more populist: Anyone with a nickname and a pen could enter the conversation. In The History of American Graffiti, Taki 183 echoes sentiments he originally expressed in a New York Times profile 40 years ago. Part of his inspiration came from the campaign stickers, posters, and placards that politicians used to saturate the subway with. “They’re putting it everywhere. So why shouldn’t I? That was my sixteen-year-old rationale.”
In other words, contemporary graffiti emerged not as an opposition or alternative to advertising, but rather as an emulation of it. And DIY advertising could be just as effective as the professional stuff, maybe even more so. By 1971 Taki 183 had forced his brand name into the consciousness of New York so effectively he’d spawned hundreds of imitators and attracted the attention of the Times. By 1972, his imitators had spawned so many imitators of their own that Transit Authority officials dolefully announced that every one of the subway system’s cars had been marked with graffiti. The scourge was so extensive that even some gang members had grown disgusted by the spectacle. “I like a clean New York,” the president of the Savage Skulls told a Times reporter on a day when he and dozens of other South Bronx gang members had volunteered to clean the trains. “I guess I’m just a clean outlaw.”
Part of graffiti’s remarkable proliferation was due to technological breakthroughs rather than cultural breakdowns. In that 1966 ad for Winston cigarettes, the graffiti writer is altering the ad with a paintbrush. Magic Markers and spray paint made it possible to write faster, more legibly, on more surfaces. When Taki 183 showed that you could tag endlessly, openly, without getting caught, graffiti went viral.
The subsequent competition for space and attention prompted rapid innovation. Writers began to work on a larger, more ambitious scale, with the intent of creating pieces so dazzling they could not be lost in the deluge. They started making their letterforms more stylized, adding colors, modifying their tools. “The kids of New York….quickly realized that the factory-issue nozzles that came on spray paint were not optimal,” The History of American Graffiti explains. To improve their artwork, they harvested nozzles from other kinds of aerosol products. The nozzle from a brand of oven cleaner allowed to achieve broader paint coverage. The nozzle from a brand of clear coating provided finer control when doing detail work.
Pretty soon, writers were covering entire subway cars, inside and out. Their audacity was amazing, their compositions increasingly sophisticated. Or at least some of them were. In the 1970s and 1980s, most kinds of cultural expression were still tightly monitored by vigilant gatekeepers. With graffiti, there were literal gates to crash, fences to scale, dangers to avoid. In 1974, at least four writers died in New York’s subway tunnels and yards. One was decapitated by a moving train. Another burned to death after his spray can exploded. Two more were electrocuted.
But at least there were no editors, no label executives, no gallery owners saying, “Sorry, kid, your work’s not fit for public consumption, maybe think about a career in sales.” If you managed to get your work up on a train, in a stairwell, on a mailbox, people would eventually see it. In this respect, graffiti offered us an early glimpse at how the Internet would work, only it was actually more powerful. Sites like Youtube and Twitter offer access to anyone who wants it, but they can’t guarantee an audience.
Graffiti can. It’s as coercive as traditional billboards and other forms of deliberately obtrusive outdoor advertising, and frequently more persistent. Indeed, billboards get rented by the month, but a piece on a hard-to-reach overpass might last for years. This, of course, is why, even though the opportunities for cultural expression have expanded a great deal since the 1970s, and even though the penalties that are meted out for drawing pictures on other people’s property can be fairly harsh now, graffiti continues to proliferate. It compels viewer attention at a time when viewer attention is the scarcest resource in the world. When it’s rare, it can be surprising, instructive, challenging, a pleasure. When it’s everywhere, it’s oppressive, mundane, a blight. Take it off the streets and put it into the museums! At least that way, people have the choice to engage with it or not.