Saturday, March 3, 2007

Writings on the wall

Graffiti is much more than random scribbling on the walls. From the 1960s onwards, when it started as a socio-political movement, it has evolved into an art form. Shoma Chatterjee looks at the history and evolution of the graffiti culture

We to wonder, O Walls, 
That you’ve borne your burden so bravely,
Under the weight of the words scribbled all over your face. — Allan Dundee

Does graffiti deface the beauty of a city? Or is it an art unto itself? Wall art and wall writing is considered to be a form of art in the West. Graffiti is the act of inscribing or drawing on walls to send out a message to the masses. The term comes from the Greek Graphein, which means ‘to write.’ Graffiti has been around since men first started drawing pictures in caves. Since the root of the word "graffiti" is "to write," graffiti can be interpreted as an instinctual human need for communication.Mark Ferem says that graffiti is the plural of the Italian graffito, which means incised inscription or design, an ancient drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface.

The Berlin Wall was one of the world’s best-known places for graffiti. The creative expressions ranged from art, politics and peace to nostalgia.
The Berlin Wall was one of the world’s best-known places for graffiti. The creative expressions ranged from art, politics and peace to nostalgia. The visual, a kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, parodies the Soviet grip over East Germany. — Photo by A.J. Philip 

"Graffiti dates back to a million years. The first documented evidence of New York City graffiti was in the mid-1960s, when a youth, "Julio 204" began to write his tag in the subway system. By 1968, his name was right across the city. The same year, Demetrius, a Greek boy, began scribbling "TAKI`A0 183." "Taki" was his name and 183 was the street he lived in. He was a foot messenger and would scribble his name in motion tags. This made many people curious and soon everyone was doing it. Each one developed his individual style to gain recognition," says Diya Sarker, a graphic designer, an avid collector of graffiti. A New York Times reporter tracked down and interviewed Taki 183, subsequently publishing an article entitled "Taki 183 Spawns Pen-Pals." The article had a snowballing effect as hundreds of writers turned to the streets to express their feelings on all walls everywhere in the US.

Types of graffiti

Hip-hop graffiti can be roughly broken up into three different types: Tags, throw-ups and pieces. A tag is someone’s name written anywhere. It is usually done in a single colour, many times with pens. Throw-ups are also known as outlines or fill-ins. These are simple ‘pieces’ done with two three colours (black and white mostly, or silver and black). Pieces are multi-coloured pieces of art that everyone loves to see all over the city. They are the highest evolution of hip-hop graffiti.

Art form

Graffiti has never evolved into any kind of art or literature in India. It is considered a scar on the urban landscape where walls are indiscriminately appropriated by one and all for purging their suppressed desires, unfolding their sad souls or, most importantly, for political sloganeering and propaganda by political parties.

Walls in India – building walls, boundary walls, fencing walls along the railway tracks, walls bordering off the airport from the rest of the city, walls of public transport, every public wall define the large, nameless proscenium for the drama of cheap advertisements to unfold. They throw up that magic remedy for infertility or male impotence or a cheap trip abroad. Though vandalism and graffiti derive from very different motives and environments, the line between the two is too fine sometimes to separate them.

In India, graffiti is either only vandalism, or political and commercial propaganda. Restroom walls and classroom walls, desks and benches in schools and colleges, are comparatively private areas where the graffiti artist can let himself go. Though graffiti writers and artists prefer to remain anonymous, some of them sign their names in the hope of recognition. It began and still is, a ‘class’ act, as it was born among the slums and low-income ghettos indulged in by those who could draw and paint and those who could write in style. Those who first began the hip-hop movement were at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. The founders of hip-hop were not born into wealth, but were actually expressing their jealousy towards those who were.

Devon D. Brewer, a sociologist, claims "there are four major values in hip hop graffiti: fame, artistic expression, power and rebellion." The other three values are fairly unique to hip-hop and symbolise the envy of alienated and frustrated youth whose frustration stems from and feeds on isolation from the mainstream and deprivation of material good.

Valeria Appel, in Ghetto Art – Thousand Voices in the City, writes: "The graffiti subculture is a system of action that renegotiates the social significance of public space. The city is a structured space that mirrors social, economic and cultural forces in its organisation and architecture. The city is a place in which markers of identity and collective meaning are displayed and exhibited in a democratic space. `85 The first art form born in the slums responded to the political conditions of the city. Street signs, lights, cinema, theatre billboards and advertising among others made up a permanent display of messages, names and images acknowledging the existence and significance of particular elements in the visual landscape."

But graffiti has since moved out of class borders to step into the mainstream. The explosion of hip-hop style in the 1990s brought graffiti to an entirely new range of artistic and creative people. Sussan Farrell has created a wonderful website dedicated to graffiti.This is an FAQ on graffiti. Tim O’Neil is an artist who is paid to cover up graffiti. Within 24 hours of getting a call about new graffiti, O’Neil covers up the work and replaces it with something he feels is more aesthetically pleasing. Mark Ferem, a freelance writer and photographer based in L.A. runs a website http://www.itsallinthehead.

com. The site, a study of restroom graffiti, is dedicated to Allan Dundee who coined the word Latrinalia in 1966 to refer to graffiti found in restrooms in his essay, Here I Sit: A Study of American Latrinalia.

Kolkata calling

Calcutta perhaps, can easily qualify as the graffiti capital in India both in terms of style and design as well as in terms of the slogans it spouts forth on the city walls. Though most graffiti writers here are anonymous, there is one exception named K.C. Paul. "His graffiti(scribbling) is the only one that amuses me," says Diya who has photographed quite a few graffiti by this prolific graffitist. According to him:

The sun goes around the earth once a year.

There is no life on Mars because Mars is not stationary like the Earth.

All Scientists are fools.

He draws diagrams that show the earth in the centre with all the planets and the sun rotating around it. He draws Mercury and Venus rotating around the sun like moons. Graffiti is random. Its very randomness defines the lack of a pattern or design, or organisation, each graffiti a stand-alone articulation of the writer or artist’s random thoughts. It has nothing to do with any given issue or problem. Graffiti artists can easily be recognised from their individual style. It is a part of human nature to want to have people recognise or hear you out.

France offers the best example of graffiti as beautiful art. Jerome Mesnager is a graffitist who has raised graffiti art to high levels of creative and aesthetic excellence. He creates masterpieces. There is no text to support the artwork but the wall becomes an integral part of the total design, each unfolding its own story.

"Like most developing countries, graffiti in India is used mostly for commercial, political and religious reasons. This kind of graffiti interests me only in the style of writing, colours used and locations chosen to get the message across. But this exists in all developing countries with lenient laws; I feel this is because it is the cheapest form of advertising. I have not yet seen Indians take it to the next level except for a few college students. But no one has taken to the streets like a rebel and left his artwork with his/her style. The regular scribbling and scratching of names can be seen everywhere. I have done a bit of sticker posting myself. This has developed from the American style of graffiti of trying to get a message across. You can use chalk, sketch pens, felt pens, marker pens, stencil, crayons, spray paint and stickers as your tools. Instead of spraying something on walls and buildings, you stick a sticker instead. The sticker might be anything, a funny picture, or the name of some organization. The sticker my friend gave me had "Waste Your Life Be An Artist" written on it," says Diya.

The people of West Bengal are passionate about politics. Graffiti is the heart and soul of this passion. We would love to see cleaner city walls. They will support a ban if the government is successful in implementing one. One would rather see graffiti than walls full of spit marks. If in the future, the main streets and highways in the cities of the state can strip the walls of graffiti, but we will always see graffiti in the poor parts of the city.

In India most people look at it as a nuisance because it ruins the beauty of their surroundings. But people don’t make paintings here. They write names of political leaders, advertise for this and that product, so it is not something that lends itself to any kind of cultural study. But there is a lot of graffiti at the site of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The walls are filled with hate slogans against those considered responsible for having brought such misery to the victims. It is almost a socio-political movement in itself. It needs one person to start it, the rest will follow! We don’t have that one person yet in India.

Sight of sites

These are examples of graffiti found in the walls of restrooms in the US. They are a world apart from the arrows and circles and other porn stuff we Indians encounter at public restrooms. But restrooms are just one channel of expression for graffitists as they are normally called.

Graffiti from a Microsoft bathroom Bill Gates Downloads Here

Governments can make new laws. But churches can’t create new sins! Corridor, Men’s Restroom, Long Wong’s, Mill Avenue District, Temple, Arizona.

We are all in the fetal position, all twisted up, and ready to fall.

And its hard, when I know a criminal is trapped in my mirror and I don’t have the capacity to set him free. Corridor to Men’s Restroom; California Arts Institute, Valencia, California.

Change, on a mass scale, is inevitable in this dawn of the new millennia. But, my friends, it will not be with idle chatter, political hoopla, or coffeehouse philosophy. In the end, I feel, there will be much bloodshed.

– Men’s Restroom, Blue Iguana Club, Houston, Texas.

Sometimes, it feels good to feel so horrible.

– Women’s Restroom, Bates Motel, Austin, Texas.

Fact and relationships are dysfunctional. People cut them out of your life to make room for inspiring souls. – Unisex Restroom, Caf`E9, Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.