Gray Matter And Graffiti: What Does It Say About Us?

Is it art, or is it a crime? When the topic of graffiti comes up at dinner parties these days, that question might be at the center of the discussion. But this was certainly not always the case. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, no one would have dreamed of calling graffiti “art.” It was vandalism, plain and simple. Graffiti has always been around — examples still exist dating back to ancient Egypt — but its specific meaning and purpose seems to be as diverse as the cultures and people that produce it. But one thing has always been true — graffiti exists as a record of voices that might otherwise have been lost.

For some, the word “graffiti” conjures up images of punks with cans of spray paint, “tagging” names on cinder-block walls, and for others, the definition of the word includes critically lauded street artists like Banksy, known for his clever social commentary stenciled on walls in public spaces. Either way, there is always something, by definition, illicit about graffiti. A commissioned mural, even if in the style of graffiti artists, is not graffiti. Banksy’s art is graffiti, however, because it is technically illegal, even if it is welcomed and praised by many. Every city in the developed world has specific laws against graffiti, defining it as a form of vandalism, yet it persists as a mode of expression in every culture. Its forms are numerous and familiar: names scratched in school desks, rude jokes inked on bathroom stalls, declarations of love carved in trees, and, of course, colorful words and images spray painted on walls and commuter trains. Anywhere there are flat, blank surfaces in public spaces, someone somewhere has probably written or drawn something to fill in that void — even when they know they shouldn’t.

So what motivates people to do this? The costs for doing so can be steep. In New York City, a person can be fined $500 just for carrying a can of spray paint if suspected of doing graffiti, and faces $1,500 along with possible jail time if caught in the act. Heavy-handed laws like these seem to fail as a true deterrent, though, and they might actually make the activity more attractive, since defiance of authority is really what graffiti is all about.

Graffiti tends to appear wherever an individual’s personal power is low and the influence of authority is high or in conflict with the subject’s individuality. By far, the most common form of graffiti is simply a declaration of being — such as “John was here” or simply a person’s name. When a child carves her name in a desk while the teacher’s back is turned, it may be simply a way of saying “I matter” in a world where the power structure leaves her powerless and voiceless. The same seems to be true when gang members tag their names and symbols. They are exerting their power in an environment that otherwise offers them little legitimate authority.

Bathroom graffiti is a good example of how this process of repression and expression works. So ubiquitous has this graffiti become throughout history, that it is now considered an artistic and literary genre in its own right, called “latrinalia.” There are examples of it in every culture, dating all the way back to the days of the Roman empire. Psychologists believe this happens because public bathrooms present an odd contrast between intimate behaviors and the rules guiding our behavior among strangers. Human behavior among strangers is naturally the most guarded, so the unspoken rules of bathroom behavior are clear: keep your eyes directed appropriately, don’t talk to strangers, don’t make rude commentary about smells and sounds, and, above all, respect people’s privacy. Yet, this is also a place where we must relax enough to let nature take its course in the most basic ways.

When people get behind those stall doors, there is a kind of explosion of the repressed individual, and not just from the bowel or bladder. The scribblings on stall walls — while they may sometimes include a Bible verse or Shakespearean quote — most often represent the crudest of human impulses. According to a survey of these marks, women’s restrooms are most often filled with women’s intentions to degrade the sexual reputations of other women, while men’s restrooms are inscribed with sexual boasts and exaggerated depictions of male genitalia. But where does this leave the less crude forms of graffiti that we see today, like the colorful Krylon illustrations that seem a shame to remove from otherwise boring and rundown parts of town, and the creations of talented “street artists” like Banksy?

Until the 1960s, graffiti was much simpler — mostly short statements and rudimentary stick-figure drawings. After that time, graffiti blossomed artistically, perhaps as an outgrowth of countercultural youth movements, who directly challenged authority to demand cultural change. Since that time, graffiti artists began producing full-scale murals and the art form developed a signature style that continues to this day. Now, graffiti artists are no longer seen as mere thugs and dropouts desperate to express themselves.

As the quality of the artistry and the effectiveness of the expression have increased, more people have recognized it as a legitimate art form. Commercial graffiti — the practice of paying street artists to create images for advertising or business purposes — is now commonplace, and pieces by famous street artists like Banksy are even welcomed by building owners, as they can fetch upward of $500,000.

Ultimately, as the trend continues, we are watching graffiti art lose its intended message. Sociologists have long noticed that cultural elements that are symbolically rebellious usually make their way, slowly but surely, into the mainstream. Long hair on men, tattoos, leather jackets, body piercings — all of these things were intimidating signs of rebellion against the establishment at one time, but steadily gained wider social acceptance.

Interestingly, most of the critically recognized street artists, including the iconic Banksy, come from a group that could hardly be defined as “oppressed” — being white, upper middle-class men. These are men who maintain white-collar jobs in the daytime and take on their spray can-toting alter egos in the nighttime. Yet, they are, in fact, still challenging authority through their activities. The subject matter is often critical of contemporary culture and politics, and their activities remain every bit as illegal as that of any vandal. Famed artist Kristian Holmes was jailed for three-and-a-half years in Great Britain for these activities. He was a father of two, an account manager by day, and a prolific street artist by night. This seems like a subversion of the original intent of graffiti art. Or, could it be that white males working 9-to-5 experience their own kind of creative repression? Do they also have the need to express themselves outside of establishment norms? In a way, it has become a matter of the establishment reacting against itself, which may be a sign of great cultural shifts ahead.

Currently, graffiti stands on the border of cultural acceptability — one foot in and one foot out. Ultimately, it can never be completely within that border, because at that point, graffiti simply ceases to be graffiti. It becomes art for art’s sake, not art for the sake of defying the rules. So, is it art, or is it a crime? For a while at least, it seems destined to remain uncomfortably both.

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