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When Walls Talk: An Exploration of Graffiti Through The Queer Lense (Queering Graffiti), Part I: The Beginning

“Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a fucking sharp knife to it.”

Inciting Social Change, One Wall At a Time; BANKSY NYC

Internationally acclaimed graffiti artist known as “Banksy” described the graffiti counterculture in terms of the restricted boxes manifested in hegemonic societal structures.  Graffiti is a form of expression that itself can be seen as queer; it does not have a regulated set of rules and is an art-form that strays from mainstream culture and challenges the socially prescribed notions of acceptable aesthetic form.  Not only is graffiti an aesthetic expression, it can be utilized as a vehicle for political, social, and queer messages.

An examination of the history of graffiti (its origins, urban reincarnation, and international proliferation) through various sociological, psychological, and aesthetic lenses divulges how queer culture is intertwined in the counterculture of graffiti.  This investigation elucidates how queer culture is liberated through this unconventional aesthetic medium.  Graffiti can be seen as a queer art form because it defies normative modes of expression and challenges social, political, and aesthetic concepts as designated by hegemonic social narratives.

Graffiti is a multifaceted form of expression that has been interpreted through many critical lenses.  There are some who consider graffiti to be immoral, destructive criminal vandalism executed by hoodlums; there are some who are inspired by existent street art and begin to create and distribute graffiti of their own; others who advocate the aesthetic value of graffiti art are willing to shell out thousands of dollars to own a single piece.

Banksy paiting woman frisking military officerThe varying perspectives and opinions concerning graffiti can be paralleled to the way in which society interprets queer culture; the nature of rejecting both queer and graffiti cultures illuminates the ways in which they relate and why some queers have chosen this method of expression to make statements about the hetero-centric nature of society.  Graffiti is an art form that has historically been used to comment on society, often as an indictment of hegemonic structures, capitalism, or oppression.

The majority of society is misled by the common belief that graffiti art is born out of rebellious minorities in New York City’s urban jungle during the socially turbulent 1960s.  However, the evolution of graffiti is one that spans human existence, and has been a surviving form of expression since cave-dwelling humans drew on walls.  While examining the existence of graffiti through history, it is important to maintain an awareness of the drawbacks of an epistemological approach.

The contemporary definition of graffiti has been transformed by the framework through which current understandings, definitions, and judgments of modern-day graffiti are seen.  An analysis of the many definitions graffiti represents is reminiscent of the various ways that ‘queer’ can be defined, understood, and accepted or rejected.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides the root word “graffito” as the basis of the word “graffiti.”  “Graffito” is defined as:

 “Hist. and Art. A drawing or writing scratched on a wall or other surface; a scribbling on an ancient wall,
as those at Pomepeii and Rome.  Also, a method of decoration in which designs are produced by scratches through a superficial layer of plaster, glazing, etc., revealing a ground of different colour; chiefly attrib., as in graffito-decoration, -pottery, -ware.(OED)

Banksy art one nation under CCTV mural

One Nation Under CCTV

The etymology OED provides identifies the root Italian word graffito, which means “a scratch.”  Graffiti is the plural version of graffito, and is expressed as “trans. To cover (a surface with graffiti, apply graffiti to; also, to write as graffiti.”   The categorization of “graffito” as historical and artistic compounded with the identification of its presence in Rome expatiates its existence since early human civilization; this reference is significant because it identifies graffiti as a universal mode of expression prevalent in humanity throughout the centuries.

This is similar to the existence of homosexuality, or sexualities that deviated from the heterosexual “normative” we know today; many critical analysts have investigated historical accounts of individuals who may have embodied non-hetero sexualities to find out when homosexuality began to present itself in society.  Rictor Norton identifies the expression of non-hetero sexualities in the graffiti of Pompeii:

“Most of the graffiti on the ruined walls of Pompeii are homosexual and bisexual; most of this graffiti are to the effect ‘I want to fuck a boy’ and sometimes even ‘I love a boy.’  The common graffito volo piidicarii is often mistranslated as ‘I want to fuck someone’ …but in fact it means ‘I want to fuck a male.’ …Pedico is usually mistranslated as ‘sodomize’ but it was never used for anal intercourse with women: it is a specifically queer verb.  The writers of this graffiti were active (penetrative) men.  This seems to me to provide evidence that a homosexual ‘role’ and in particular a homosexual ‘identity’ was not limited to passive homosexuals.  In this graffiti it seems to me that self-conscious queers are expressing themselves as self-conscious queers.” (Norton, p.2)

Norton’s identification of certain queer terms used in the graffiti of Pompeii elucidates the way in which graffiti is an ideal form of expression for queer culture.  This graffiti is especially important because it shows some of the first blatant, publicized expressions of homosexuality in some of the first instances of graffiti art.

Graffiti dates back to Prehistoric Art of the primitive man, who used natural mediums (such as rocks, coal, clay, grass juices) to scratch or paint cave walls depicting important images and symbols relative to the world they lived in.  Many times this cave art (cave graffiti) depicted fights with animals, identified burial areas, and proclaimed possession of territory.  These prehistoric drawings represent the first forms of communication, and it is noteworthy that the first form of communication was through art scribbled on walls.  This simple representation of graffiti evolves to become as complex as the human civilization that carries it…

Part II: Social Analysis of Graffiti

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About Kasey

To laugh often and much,
to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children,
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends,
to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others,
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch

… to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded!
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

When you’ve seen beyond yourself
then you may find peace of mind is waiting there
&& the time will come when you see
we’re all one, && life flows on within you && without you.
– The Beatles

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