When Walls Talk: An Exploration of Graffiti Through The Queer Lense (Queering Graffiti), Part II: Social Analysis of Graffiti
July 13, 2012 1 Comment
Draft additions inserted into the OED definition of “graffiti” in 1993 and 2007 reveal the dynamic nature of the art and the difficulty to posit it with one meaning or definition:
“orig. U.S. …Words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.” The following quotes OED provides display a more contemporary understanding of graffiti art; the Chicago Tribune mentions the existence of underground graffiti culture in San Francisco (a city often seen as a mecca for LGBTQ individuals) and Montreal, while the New England Monthly asserts that “Graffiti is a destructive eyesore.” (OED)
Keeping in mind the influence of perspective (an urban city of Chicago vs. the rural community of New England) is essential to understand the diverse attitudes towards and interpretations of graffiti.
The various ways graffiti can be defined and the ancient nature of its origin (dating back to the cave-dwelling humanoids) reveal the universality of human experience; graffiti has been a form of human expression and communication before the nature of these concepts were recognized or understood. Rock art and paintings from the cave-dwelling era are only the beginning; graffiti art continued to flourish in ancient civilizations such as Egypt (hieroglyphics), Mexico (Mayan calendars, images on walls of memorials and temples), India (dry-painted walls depicting Buddhist tales), and Rome (aforementioned homosexual graffiti in Pompeii).
Similar themes found in each early civilization’s graffiti can be connected to current graffiti expression; these themes include spiritual, existential, social, and emotional expression, as well as a way to document history.
The art produced in these civilizations reflects social structure, spiritual belief and important events that occurred during those times. In a Social Analysis of Graffiti, Terrance Stocker, Linda Dutcher, Stephen Hargrove, and Edwin Cook evaluate graffiti through a sociological lens. Stocker asserts that graffiti is an aspect of culture that can be used as “an unobtrusive measure to reveal patterns of customs and attitudes of a society. Observing graffiti will reveal changes in customs and attitudes.” They confirm that extensive research on the graffiti in Pompeii to be indicative of social narratives accepting homosexuality during ancient times (Cook, p.35-6).
Graffiti art of the 20th century is similar in that it typically comments on aspects of society and existence; the difference is the era we live in, one simultaneously shaped and polluted by commercialization, materialism, consumerism, and oppression. The thematic content of graffiti reflects societal structures, conventions, and attitudes; in 1966 a cross-sectional study of graffiti in urban L.A. concluded that graffiti “reflected shared attitudes and values as well as ethnocentric variations on main cultural themes.”
Sociologists Sechrest and Flores chose public restroom graffiti as an understated gauge of attitudes toward homosexuality in the U.S. and the Philippines. Public restroom graffiti with homosexual content was almost non-existent in the Philippines, coinciding with the considerably open-minded societal attitude toward homosexuality. Homosexual graffiti was found more throughout the U.S., where homosexuality has been historically condemned by social narratives defining it as inferior, deviant, and immoral. In 1953, Alfred Kinsey presented data indicating 75% of graffiti was homosexual in content based on recurring illustrations of male genitalia; he believed that the individuals producing offensive homosexual graffiti may have been unconsciously conveying their own suppressed homosexuality. The homophobia expressed in homosexual graffiti can be seen as resultant of societal denunciation of homosexual behavior; these degrading social narratives enable homosexual graffiti to be used as an insulting social weapon (Cook, p.357-60).
Homophobic graffiti is offensive expression devoid of integrity, intellect, or value. Unfortunately the bigots hastily scribbling away at the toilet stall are greater in numbers than true graffiti artists, and choose an area people face intimately on a daily basis. However, graffiti artists recognize that quality outweighs quantity, and possess more aesthetic virtue than the provincial to decorate a mere toilet stall. Graffiti artists conceptualize graffiti on a higher scale that is typically bigger and always better.
Graffiti art is not merely a hobby or spontaneous scribble, but a lifestyle; graffiti artists collaborate in tight-knit groups (known as “crews”) forming friendships, relationships, and reputations in an underground community. Graffiti art in public view reflects a surreptitious underground culture characterized by artistic ambition, creativity, and skill. However, it is not entirely devoid of the oppressive social structures prevalent in mainstream society.
Graffiti culture challenges and reinforces normative hegemonic structures. At the Brooklyn Museum, a panel of female graffiti artists was invited to honor their works published in a new book entitled Graffiti Woman.
They discussed their experiences in graffiti and how they became involved in street art; it quickly becomes clear that their lives are engrossed in graffiti. When the panel was asked what challenges they had faced as women graffiti artists, most of them said men treated them somewhat equally, and a young artist known as TOOFLY said she was invited to join a crew because they wanted female representation. K FEVER, an artist from Canada, identified the Canadian attitude towards women, and stated that rebellion against male oppression was her first experience with graffiti—using it as a weapon to instigate social change and reject oppressive patriarchal dominance.
K FEVER was a skate-boarder who rode with girlfriends at the skate park; the girls were constantly being harassed to leave by male skate-boarders for “taking up space in the skate park”. One night they covered the skate park in spray-painted messages, making their mark and announcing the skate park a public space open to the city.
The ability to publicize views using graffiti inspired K FEVER to bring together a crew known as the Riot Girls; her graffiti became a mode of personal expression as well as personal experimentation. K FEVER makes note that her first tag, Galaxy Girl, was constantly buffed out or lined (written over or being struck through by a line).
She began writing two tags, both in the same paint and letter styling, but only one with gender identification. K FEVER says that no matter what, Galaxy Girl was always destroyed while the sexually ambiguous title of K FEVER was left untouched. These occurrences were mostly in Canada in the 1990s when K FEVER assumed she was the only female graffiti writer; since then she has come into contact with female artists in NYC and uses LADY K FEVER in many of her tags.
The graffiti subculture in NYC provided her with a community of like-minded female artists, as well as an environment devoid of patriarchal expression of dominance.