Graffiti An Alternative Perspective

Patrick Forenza

Street art and graffiti can be often difficult to differentiate between. Graffiti is typified by tags, bombs, scrawls and pieces, all terms associated with the culture; street art seems to be closely related through murals and legal works by an artist. Yet an underlying association that most tend to make when discussing graffiti and street art is the gang association. Gangs use graffiti as a form of territory marking, but the emergence of an artful subculture surrounded by self-expression, and competition not characterized by violence or rival gangs cannot be diminished; moreover, it should be evaluated as a much richer art form full of pride and drive. Municipal authorities look at graffiti through the lens of criminology, that these criminals are not artists but gang affiliated nuisances, vandals defacing public property. In reality these artists tend to come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and urban areas; they are not gang members, perpetrators of the peace, rather the voice of the masses drowned in stigma, misunderstood and misrepresented.

Graffiti has been apart of our human culture since the earliest societies. Graffiti in the twenty first century can be characterized in three different genres primarily, first, a language of the inner-city youth. Second, is gang graffiti territorial by design and threatening in nature. The third is made of artists whose works are streamed throughout cities and parks, reminiscent of murals. Ferrells study 1995 shows that graffiti is present wherever racial tensions are on high, graffiti a means to make the artists’ views heard or for society to realize the artists existence. A tag says to the world I am here and you do not live outside of me, of us. Eck and Martinelli 1998 indicated that of the total metropolitan areas in the U.S. roughly 50 % were affected by graffiti. Certainly a problem exists surrounding un-authorized artist and their desire to paint on a canvass that is not their own.
The world of graffiti Manco (2002), suggests that, “Graffiti art, as an idea, has always existed alongside other artist endeavors, the difference being that it is a mode of self-expression using methods that are seen as criminal, or outside the conventional art world, rather that specifically sanctioned or commissioned art” (p. 9). While most acclaimed artists have their roots in vandalism, subway car tags, wall bombs, working their way up to the stylized pieces with which the public identifies graffiti. The direction these street artists can take is not limited to the walls and subways cars where they all grow their wings. The Art of graffiti has moved into the galleries and auction floors, it has become a mainstay in the modern art world and is only growing in popularity. The critics cannot deny the appeal and real world message the art delivers. This aesthetic is raw and intricate the connoisseurs of the art world have been eating it up since the late nineties. Why have the municipalities refused to embrace the art and work with the youth instead of throwing them in jail.

Criminals are often categorized together, the person shooting at police officer is the same type of criminal writing with spray paint on subway cars. Criminals are dealt with through punishment, therefore the misunderstood non-violent artist becomes categorized with the gang member and potentially turned violent in prisons. Prisons may make money but they do not move society forward and only change the arena for violent behavior. Couldn’t there be a better alternative for deterring violence in our communities? Perhaps the alternative has been right in front of our eyes as a city council member of Denver points out “Take Denver, It has no activities that overtly aim at the city's 80 gangs, with an estimated 6,000 members.”(Weintraub) The viable solution, create avenues that appeal to the targeted population. Get the youth interested in coming into Centers and parks not for a place to gang bang but a place to feel a sense of community, not gang affiliation. As one young Graffiti artist from Mexico City notes “Chilling with dudes, you get interested little by little, although most guys who are there in middle school are there because it’s the style.”(Valle 2009) The association is what drives these kids onto the walls much like any criminal activity these things are learned by their peers and role models. Instead of these actions being criminal in the eyes of society they need to viewed in their true nature, philanthropic works of art. Graffiti could be taught in youth centers, graffiti could be the language that the artist speaks to the youth, the artist could be the teacher and the gang bangers could be the students. Just as Deka a graffiti artist out of Baltimore claims that the crew in their intensity and appeal made him feel “touched by a fever” so to are the youths of today impressionable and ready for an influential pursuit worth an investment of their time and energy. More and more often in society today this pursuit criminally treated leads to gang association and violence, rather than the creative solution it has the potential to be yet only trough an active redefining is this goal achievable.
Graffiti art and street art are only different from mainstream alternatives such as basketball, music, and other sports because of the vastly misrepresented artists accompanied by a stubborn public view that only sees what it they are our government and media tell us to look at, it is time to take off the blindfold. The cause of misrepresentation of graffiti world might be rooted in the similarities in the vernacular and fashion of the graffiti world and the gang world. Where graffiti writers call a respective team of like minded artists a crew, clearly the allegiance of criminals in the eyes of the municipalities would be labeled a gang. Crews often do act as a gang, fueled by pride for their crew and a passion to be better than the opposition. Rival crews such as Brooklyn’s Ex Vandals spar with opposing crews constantly improving the style, creativity, and placement of the elaborate murals that format the art. Unfortunately the crew was swallowed by gang wars and in the late 1970’s, although they were formed to protect fellow artist from ensuing gang violence they couldn’t not maintain a definitive line and were consequently disbanded. However the Ex Vandals were not the last of graffiti crews on the hip hop scene moreover they were the pioneers of what would become the heart and soul of graffiti writing. The highly exclusive crews composed of the most elite artists. Yet competition, is inherently what drives teams in the sports world to be better athletes to be stronger, and rival graffiti crews to want to paint better, and more elaborate tags. It is the same game just a different venue with different rules.

The artist in some cases do not want their art to go mainstream, where the organic art form could be threatened by the normality and robotics of the contemporary society. Similarly graffiti artists’ thrive on the illegality of their art, a fuel that keeps interest in the art form high and admirable. (Hughes) By allowing this deviant art to become a commonality we may destroy the very essence of the appeal. So the problem remains gang violence is high and getting the juveniles to be interested in activities besides gang life seems difficult at best. Perhaps embracing the art much like music could be a way out of gang life, people ages 14-20 are often entrenched in the urban gang world, graffiti could be a similar path out of the violence and into self-expression. Graffiti artist do not deserve to be put in jail with the violent gang members that only fuels their hatred for the world, they need to be cultivated nurtured for artist they are.

How do we fight this problem? Foremost we need to identify the problem, under stand it, graffiti incites fear because of we don’t understand it, we couple graffiti with gang violence because we are afraid of it since the most primitive society humans have been drawing on the walls time has come to rediscover this archaic form of self expression.

It seems as though pumping tax dollars into clean up efforts only invites more graffiti and scrawls ugly and amateur in nature, 4 billion was spent by municipalities in 1990 alone, but what would happen if we changed the canvas, or moreover, what if the canvas was a painting already? A study released by page publications indicated that on a wall in an urban area, where there has been a history of graffiti, testers painted a mural on that same wall and the new wall received no graffiti over the 17-day study period. Walls adjacent to the one where the mural was received 8 to fifteen new graffito items. What seems to have resulted from the experiment is that the mural was less prone to new graffiti. Perhaps writers identified that the mural belonged to someone, a sort of respect for the artist, which is a principle force in the graffiti world.

What does this tell us about gang graffiti though? Seemingly nothing, but it does indicate that graffiti can be effectively deterred through a relatively inexpensive means and that use of force, or fines, creating criminal career minded individuals can be avoided. Graffiti is not a purposeless action, there lies a message behind all graffiti and it is our responsibility to appreciate these messages, listening to the claims that these pieces of art are simple anarchist destruction would be a terrible injustice to the urban and plighted people of the post industrialized world.

The tragedy emerging here cannot be overlooked and forgotten, we must take back the streets and allow the artist to fill our world with colors and competitive expression, rather than violent digression. The violence that ensues as the youth gets involved with gangs instead of after school activities and cannot be blamed solely on the gang members. Society at large plays a huge role- fining artists that don't have economic means, and labeling them as criminals. The only crime truly evident here are the injustices payed to the artist.

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