I have always wanted to be a graffiti writer. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I never as a young child said that when I grew up I wanted to be a graffiti writer. For one, we didn’t have graffiti in my suburban hometown, and if I’d ever seen a graffito it was probably as the background of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and I didn’t know people could actually do that. I didn’t want to be a graffiti writer in high school, I was too busy being a poet and a jock. I didn’t want to write graffiti in college, I just wanted to write. I don’t think I even really thought about graffiti as a thing in an of itself (as opposed to thinking of it as a plague of city dwelling people and the pointless defacement of public property, especially in a place where the majority if the graffiti leaned toward racist slurs and proclamations) until after college in the Bay Area when I met actual graf writers at a barbeque I went to in El Cerrito. They were all but retired then, old men in their early 30′s talking about the way that San Francisco used to be, the places you could tag, ghost cities that no longer existed or were so hard to find they weren’t worth looking for anymore. I even wrote about it.
But now that I’ve thought about it, now that graffiti has entered my vocabulary and my consciousness not merely as an illegal and often-times dubious urban building décor, but as a subculture containing its own language, its own history and its own heroes, it is hard to dislodge. It is something that a part of me longs to do, longs to be a part of, longs to contribute to and longs to measure myself against. I don’t think I would be immediately good at graffiti and I’m not sure I would ever be good at graffiti, but in some ways that is not the point. The point is to break out of seeing the world through lawful eyes and break in to (no pun intended) seeing the ways in which I can change the world, the ways in which I can have an effect on the world. While graffiti may not be the most positive change I can effect in the world, the process of revisualising the space around me into something I can act on is something I find appealing.
This is one of the unintended changes brought about by the technological innovation of the spray can. My theme in exploring these unintended effects of technology is always William Gibson’s quote from his story ‘Rocket Radio’: The Street finds its own uses for things. Graffiti is an unintended consequence of the aerosol spray can, and with it comes a shift, albeit a small one, in the power and the voice of people who are dominated by large buildings and the people who own them and have little or no say over where they’re built and what the consequences of their building are. I realize that this is nothing more than a romanticized version of what graffiti is. I realize that most graf writers aren’t revolutionaries, nor even close to as witty, playful or talented as Banksy, but I’m not sure how important that is. The very existence of graffiti, especially artistic graffiti, is in itself proof of a culture of dissent that is alive and well, which I find incredibly satisfying.
Reflecting back on my analysis of the effect the technology of skateboarding had on the community, graffiti has rarely been embraced by the community in the same way that skateboarding was, and this is likely because it’s more difficult to make a profit from graffiti. Skateboarding requires a lot of equipment, and encourages a lot more that isn’t required, it promotes a lifestyle that comes with a lot of clothing and shoes. It’s also highly watchable, as the X-Games have proved time and time again. Thus, the providers of this equipment, real and imagined gear for acting or appearing to be a skater, have a vested interest in lobbying their cities and counties to promote and encourage skateboarding since it funnels money into the city through skateshops via taxes. Graffiti has no real vehicle for an influx of cash except for spray cans and spray caps. Stocking up on graf supplies is as romantic as visiting Home Depot and the art store. The mythos, you might have noticed, is lacking.
The only place you can watch people graffiti is on CCTV. That’s not true anymore, and probably never was, but the reality is that networks can’t program and promote graffiti shows or competitions in the way that they can with “extreme” sports, and without a visual narrative to suck kids in it’s difficult to create a mythos around the leading figures of the art, and therefore nearly impossible to sell those same kids cheaply made products to pursue said pastime. I firmly believe that if networks can find a way to promote something, to eke an ounce of drama out of something and then sell us a product based on that drama they will. The same thing happened with poker 5 years ago when ESPN2 began in depth coverage of the World Series of Poker, exploiting a previously untapped market with the simple innovation of the rail camera that allowed viewers to see the players’ cards.
So the fact that Big Content can’t profit from publicizing and promoting graffiti and the fact that grafitti is blatantly illegal (where skateboarding inhabited much more of a gray area) has made a huge in the way that the two pastimes have been dealt with by society. Graf writing still has cultural cache. Its stories are still small, they are still local, it’s very existence is part of being local, using graffiti to define the limits of territory in urban areas. And I like that. The spirit of graffiti is anti-corporate, anti-business and anti-establishment, and its one of the few places left that hasn’t been co-opted by the success of its practitioners into an unseemly orgy of merchandising and promotion.
And at the heart of graffiti is something that lies close to my own heart. The unintended consequences of the spray can, the uses that these artists have created of their own accord without help from a focus group or a team of engineers is what digital rights management (DRM) seeks to prevent and criminalize; DRM and all its threatening legal language, seeks to put an end to the heart of play that I see in graf writing, seeks to put an end to innovation and invention. If we only ever do what we’re told with what we’re sold the world will be a much sadder place. Imagine if everything we were sold came with DRM, or rather RM, since hammers and spray cans aren’t virtual. Imagine having to sign a 26 page legal document to buy a hammer promising that you’ll only use it as the manufacturer intended and that you wouldn’t lend it to anyone else for uses proper or improper since you are the sole recipient of the product. One day your neighbor spies you using your hammer to pry open your rusty shed door and BAM your sued for violation of your hammer rights management. It’s absurd on so many levels that its laughable, but we’ve been led to believe that the hammer we buy from iTunes is a different kind of hammer because it’s art. Except it’s not a different kind of hammer, it’s the same kind of hammer with a more rhetoric and a better legal team.
And look what beautiful things people have made through their illicit use of hammers! I know that all graffiti isn’t beautiful, and even the beautiful stuff isn’t some people’s taste, but what’s at the heart of graffiti is truly creativity. People are (mis)using the tools they have at hand, cheap paint and available urban and copious suburban wallspace to practice and express their creativity. This is art. This is life. This is beautiful. And yes, highly illegal, and it’s likely that it’s all the more tantalizing for its outlaw stature.
This is why I admire graf writers, because I see in them the ability to rebel, to reinvent and repurpose in playful and creative ways that feel vibrant and alive. It does not seem mature to me to like this, it feels infantile and immature, that graf writing is a petty form of self-expression that, writ large, neither improves the communal landscape and hurts small and large businesses alike (and likely hurts small businesses more), and I agree with all of that. But at its heart, in the theoretical space where I keep the spirits of the ideas and realities that excite me graffiti is a form of dissent, of civil disobedience that I was never brave enough to try nor enlightened enough to engage in. In the black and white world that I grew up in, graffiti is a colorful reminder that it’s important to break the rules, and the beauty that can develop if we do.