A paper for an Introduction to Metropolitan Studies course, this is a discussion of graffiti as it functions in an urban community - more specifically, 4th Street between Avenues A and D (a region locally known as "Alphabet City")in New York City. As I presented it to my professor, and on a web site which unfortunately could not handle the level of traffic a link in Everything2 would provide, photographs were included. References to figure numbers are left in to provide some context. Enjoy!
The Words on the Street: Graffiti as the Voice of the Urban Underprivileged
The commercial advertisement is the most oft-repeated feature of the modern American city. Above every storefront or painted on their doors, letters and symbols proclaim the use of the space and the services they offer. Taking up the sides of buildings, bus stops, even subway trains and buses themselves, carefully crafted images advertise particular products and services. These messages and symbols are the grease that keeps the wheels of consumer-driven culture spinning as planned. Underneath them, around them, and occasionally over them, graffiti - advertisement's opposite number in urban culture - likewise reinforces the identity of its members and the strength of street community.
Accepted urban culture revolves around products, commercials, and advertisements. Even in so-called "deviant," "street" youth culture, commercialism manifests itself. "To be allowed to hang with certain prestigious crowds, a boy must wear a different set of expensive clothes - sneakers and an athletic suit - every day" (Anderson 88). In this case, "street" youth respond to advertisements in order to buy products that serve as an advertisement of their own, in this case a declaration of status. This occupation is not only tolerated, but encouraged, by pop culture, while a more divergent form of advertising one's social status, graffiti, is subject to widespread scrutiny. Not only does tagging - scrawling one's name in paint in as many places as possible (Graffiti Wars) - serve as a declaration of one's dedication and skill in the field of graffiti, but as it is an illegal act, it also advertises a disregard for the law and as much deviance from the "decent" culture from which street culture rebels as felony crime.
"Even as writers protest that their graffiti are a positive addition to the cityscape and should be legal, they relish the contest to elude police capture"(Lachmann 235). Graffiti is a positive addition to what Elijah Anderson calls "street" culture, the counterculture that refuses "decent" culture as a reaction to its disenfranchisement of poor urban areas; however, by definition, an affirmation of status in street culture requires a rejection of its decent counterpart. Thus graffiti may serve as landmarks commemorating resistance to the status quo.
Graffiti art springs from a desire to achieve the same status earned by tagging, only through quality, not quantity, of work. Graffiti artists responsible for murals which first emerged in New York as illegally painted pieces on the sides of subway trains (Graffiti Wars) competed for one another's attention and respect stylistically, as part of the game of respect inherent in street culture; later, as the social network of graffiti writers was destroyed, they competed for the attention of business, private persons, and galleries who commission murals, either as artwork when the market can accommodate it, as advertisement for the business, or "in the belief that it reduces the likelihood of vandalism against their property"(Lachmann 244). Street culture retains another use of graffiti murals to commemorate its dead; in Manhattan, on 4th Street alone between 1st Avenue and Avenue D, numerous murals bear detailed renderings of the face of the deceased, a brief commemorative message, and the letters, "R.I.P." Thus regardless of their connection to decent culture, those who are acknowledged as followers of the "code of the street" are memorialized by their peers.
The commercial, day-to-day culture which middle and upper-class Americans experience by and large ignores the people it defines as existing within the lower strata of society. Dolores Hayden remarks, "Centuries of neglect of ethnic history have generated a tide of protest - where are the Native American, African American, and Asian American landmarks?"(Hayden 7) Graffiti in every form is part of that protest. It is the voice of what a government study might call the lower social strata, declaring that they will fulfill the need to preserve their history through every means available to them.
Jane Jacobs speaks of "eyes on the street" in her Death and Life of Great American Cities, of people who, by their constant presence on the street, keep it secure and safe; murals and memorial pieces are evidence of their existence and sway in the community. Murals like the memorial pieces in Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 announce the passing of the dead, reminding the community of their face and a little about them, such as the Puerto Rican nationality of "Lilal" indicated in Fig. 4, as well as the year he died - 1997 - and that it is his father who honors his memory.
Lilal probably did not have much of an obituary in the newspaper, and his grave, if he has one, rests far removed from Alphabet City; his community, however, remembers him in a broad artwork on the corner of 4th Street and Avenue C. There, those who knew him as well as those passersby who might not even know anyone of his family's average family income learn or are reminded of facts of life in the community: this neighborhood is home to Puerto Ricans. People there die young, if the image of Lilal painted on the side of that building is any indication. The community cares enough about its members to organize and allow the painting of a memorial to one of its fallen. The block on which the mural exists is united through social bonds: A local business that allows the painting of a mural on its unused wall, with a grieved father who lost his son, with a skilled graffiti artist named "Chico," and, one may infer, Lilal's other friends and relatives.
The mural is a win-win situation for the community, the business, and the artist - a means through which the community can cope with loss, the business demonstrates solidarity with it, and the artist publicizes his skill, earning him the potential for other commissions down the line and vestiges of that "street" credibility which hearkens back to the early days of graffiti as it is now known in New York. Graffiti murals, especially memorial pieces, are more than just pictures - they are signs written for and by the eyes on the street.
Anderson, Elijah. "Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City." American Journal of Sociology 107.6 (2002): 1468-532.
Gonos, George, Virginia Mulkern, and Nicholas Poushinsky. "Anonymous Expression: A Structural View of Graffiti." Journal of American Folklore 89.351 (1976): 40-8. link.
Hayden, Dolores. "Part I." The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995. 3--78.
Jacobs, Jane. "The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety." The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. 40--44.
Lachmann, Richard. "Graffiti as Career and Ideology." American Journal of Sociology 94.2 (1988): 229-50. link.
Graffiti Wars: A Matter of Pride. Dir. Warner, Malcolm-Jamal. Prod. Warner Malcolm-Jamal. Perf. Warner, Malcolm-Jamal. VHS. University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning, 1991.