By Andrew Clarke/ Western Sound System Fed.
Look at any freight train that passes through town, walk through any alley, and you will see evidence of one of the most widespread and maligned, forms of creative expression present today. Whether thrown up under the cover of darkness by clandestine crews or hanging under bright lights in the most contemporary galleries, the one certainty is that graffiti is an indelible part of our cultural landscape.
Graffiti, a blanket term used to describe all kinds of highly stylized, spray-paint produced writing and drawing, is seen concurrently as one of the most potent forms of urban youth expression and also as a criminally destructive act of vandalism.
The term graffiti comes from the Italian word “graffiare,” meaning to scratch. Many contemporary taggers, or “writers,” find the term slightly offensive— more of a scholarly, looking-down-the-nose definition than a true description of the “Aerosol Culture.”
Although debate is hot about the actual genesis of graffiti art, it is commonly accepted that the culture of writers began in the late ‘60s in the inner city of New York City and Philadelphia. While much of the writing then—and today— served as gangland territory marking or personal self-advertisement, as the culture matured, so did what some would consider the artistic content of the writing.
Of course, any talk of “artistic content” brings up questions of cultural appropriation, and the watering down of a once potent form of self-expression. For many writers, the most important part of writing was its anti-authoritarianism— the vigilantism of throwing up your tag as big as possible, right where those in charge don’t want it. All it takes to understand that is a look at the recent history of the New York subway system, which for years has been caught in a costly cycle of tagging, painting over, guard dogs, and lots of wasted money.
Because of the vandalism inherent in graffiti, writers have become pariahs in much of our society. Some label them as anti-social, saying that graffiti art lowers the quality of life in areas where it is found, and fosters a general sense of decay and crime.
While property owners do have a legitimate concern about having their homes or businesses painted, it is this kind of thinking that has kept graffiti art in the books as a crime. Any serious or critical look at graffiti writing will show that it is a viable and important part of our life and culture.
At this year’s High Street Arts & Music Festival, a group of artists from California, Nevada, and Washington will be painting a 120 foot long mural using graffiti elements in an attempt to express the positive aspects of this urban art form.
The twelve writers, led by Yale Johnson, will be painting throughout the day, using their skills and experience to create a piece whose size and scope is rarely seen. Together, they will show that graffiti writing, far from being a destructive act and godparent to serious crime, is a potent form of expression and is possessed of the ability to bring people together under the banner of true art.