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Tag Your It: A Brief Look at the Philosophy of Graffiti

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.


This past weekend, I went to a local event known as the Bboy BBQ in Rochester,NY. I am an artist by nature and was interested in seeing if there would be any dancers to take pictures of. When I got there, there were no dancers, but there was plenty of ‘tagging’ going on. Tagging refers to people who select walls to do wall art on, now known as graffiti. Though many people don't refer to it as such, the art work was excellent. However, what surprised me most was the diversity of the artists involved.

For better or for worse, I went in expecting to see Blacks and Latinos doing the work. Once there, I found it wasn't just Blacks and Latinos but Asians, Whites, men, women, children, and even different social classes as well: all coming together to either take part in, or enjoy the graffiti being created. I didn’t expect this because the area of the city this was in was pretty urban and my own experience was that I didn’t see many light-skinned people or those of middle-class or higher, in these areas. That's wasn’t to say that I blamed them or held them responsible for something. It just wasn’t something I saw a great deal of.

So seeing this diverse group brought together by graffiti and by extension, hip hop culture, was both humbling and extremely refreshing. And I found that very ironic considering past conceptions of it, and it made me rethink the philosophy behind graffiti.

From the Smithsonian Magazine.  Roman wall art, or graffiti excavated from the ruins in Pompei.

From the Smithsonian Magazine. Roman wall art, or graffiti excavated from the ruins in Pompei.

Bad Reputation

At an earlier event in a warehouse opening, I was talking with someone about some of the wall work that was there. I referred to it as graffiti, but the person said I should refer to it as ‘murals’ instead. His reasoning being that graffiti was illegal wall painting without the owner's permission. Though graffiti has become an umbrella term for all wall paintings now, it still carried the reputation of defacing public property and it’s creators subsequently becoming outlaws. Labels that have existed since the 1960’s when it was just painting simple words or pictures on subways and walls in American cities.

Some artists saw this as a badge of honor, while others were competing with each other. Some old school artists attributed this to a desire to make a name for themselves. For others, it was an outlet to artistically express the urban lifestyle they lived in. The spray can was their brush and any flat and bland surface, their canvas. Moreover, it was seen as a uniquely, urban activity done by non-White, juvenile delinquents defacing public property. Rising urban crime in the 1980’s and 1990’s didn’t help clean it’s image.

What did help though was that urban culture was starting to come out of the concrete shadows, and into the limelight via the conduits of rap and break dancing. Starting in the late 1970’s and exploding over the next twenty years, the freestyle of beats, sound, and movements drew in many youth from the suburban communities, expanding the exposure of graffiti. So graffiti became both a stigma and the face of hip hop culture. To the point now where forty years on, I could go to an urban event and see multiple groups of people painting walls, celebrating the art rather than protesting it.

"However, while graffiti can be seen romantically as the art of the people as I just described, in reality it is still just a tool."

Global Old School

The art of tagging structures had been around much longer than 1960’s American urban centers. People had been marking buildings with their names and symbols since before ancient Egypt, on rocks and temples. Like today, this ranged from an creator marking his own name on a statue, to blatant vulgarity such as the inscription of Pharaoh Hatshepsut and her vizier, Senenmut having sex near her temple in Egypt. Though this wasn’t specifically referred to as ‘graffiti’ back then and probably given more grace because of its age, seen as more historical in nature. As if the local authorities back then would not have seen it as vandalism then, just as their counterparts today do now.

Despite this, graffiti as it is known today, has now become a worldwide phenomenon, evolving its style and detail rapidly over the last fifty years. From New York to Hungary, to the UAE to Vietnam and Brazil, tagging has taken on the form of its American, Urban roots and evolved from it as well. Even if it hadn’t though, throughout all these times, places, and cultures, they all share one common philosophy: the desire to express themselves through art.

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Voice of Rebellion

One of the appeals of graffiti is that it is an outlet for the inner, human desire to create something, no matter the reasoning behind it, which often varies. Not everyone can afford to do galas at the Met or the Louvre. Not everyone has the money, contacts, or the means to get sponsors, with their very identity or background potentially work against them in that regard. If the feelings trying to get out were socially or politically motivated in nature, one may not have Oprah Winfrey’s number, or be able to call a Senate hearing, much less be taken seriously if they were even able to do so.

Graffiti, right or wrong, was and is the art of the underground, the oppressed, and the people who have no voice and still want to create. It would not surprise me at all that no small number of artists vandalized public property with some sense of sublime glee, as getting back at those whom they believed were holding them down. And it didn’t even involve murder, drug dealing, or theft.

This is something any human being can relate to, no matter the varying circumstances. Because of this, graffiti is culturally adaptable. This I believe is its most important aspect. People have taken ownership of it, while at the same time honoring its roots. There’s a freedom and gratification that is often only experienced by the artists themselves, and as aforementioned, it goes all the way back to the beginning of civilization.

Japanese graffiti rendition of the famous art work, The Great Wave of Kanagawa

Japanese graffiti rendition of the famous art work, The Great Wave of Kanagawa

Voice of Criminality

However, while graffiti can be seen romantically as the art of the people as I just described, in reality it is still just a tool. Oppressed people can use it to voice their displeasure with the world, but so can others with more malicious intentions. Racist and misogynist too have used graffiti to express their attitudes on walls, bathroom stalls, and even to desecrate tombs and grave sites. Violent gangs have also used it to mark out their territories as warnings to other rivals. Even within the communities themselves, one artist may deface another one’s art for no real reason at all but to insult them.

And at the end of the day, if an owner did not sanction the tagging of their property, it is still legally vandalism that can affect their livelihood.

Always Been Here, Always Will Be

As a sign of the times though, many businesses have adapted by setting up specific locations to tag, such as at the BBoy BBQ and even using it as impromptu promoting. Brands have also co-opted graffiti to market urban products and music. While most world governments still view graffiti as vandalism, some like Australia, have tried to accommodate it by setting aside specific locations for artists to tag as well.

Still, graffiti will always be linked to the spirit of rebellion, no matter how legitimate certain aspects of it become. And because its a tool, graffiti will also never have an inherent, moral compass for which to govern its use or by whom is allowed to use it. However it's handled or perceived, as long as someone has something they want to say, graffiti is not going anywhere.

© 2019 Jamal Smith

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