I have been thinking a lot about graffiti and I've found some company in it. The novel The Fortress of Solitude
by Jonathan Lethem, the film Bomb the System
, and the television documentary NY 77
all explore the practice and the meaning of painting or writing on the property of others.
It has helped me to remember the graffiti of my youth; a time when it seemed all the trains in New York City were covered from top to bottom, inside and out, end to end. It was a time when a debate raged in many cities about whether the stuff could be called art. Some argued that it was white snobbery that refused to admit this new form of expression had merit. Others suggested that to recognize it as art would rob it of it's true mysterious identity as "underground". Others pushed the notion that graffiti was simple cowardly vandalism and to allow it was to support a general sense of lawlessness -- something the urban areas of America did not need more of in the late '70s and early '80s.The Fortress of Solitude
and Bomb the System
present a different part of the story though. They do not spend so much energy debating whether graffiti is art -- as they do exploring the power of the act of making one's mark. To put down your symbol, to tag, is to take possession of that space. The more you do it, the more you own. The tougher the place you tag, the higher your esteem. Graffiti artists of the late '70s in New York vowed to keep coming back every time their work was covered up or wiped away, painting in increasingly dangerous situations, and tagging objects of much higher risk but greater power -- such as police cruisers. This was the tactic taken instead of quitting -- this was bombing the system.
In real life, it took some concessions from both sides of this war for it to simmer down. In many cities, programs would be developed to give space and credit to young urban artists while police focused on cracking down in specific public areas. Interestingly, both of the young men in the novel and film reach a point of loss and frustration. Both reach a place in which the act of tagging no longer thrills them; no longer lights within them a sense of power.
Thinking about graffiti makes me notice it more. I find myself wondering, as I did when I was little: How did they write that way up there? How did they paint that so perfectly when they must have been hanging upside down? How could they create pictures with such amazing color while painting in complete darkness? And why?
It makes me acknowledge someone who cut out the middleman and decided for himself whether his work deserved public exposure. I believe what matters is that I saw it at all.