By “graffiti” I mean the systematically produced, stylized markings of monikers, images, and symbols produced on infrastructure by self-acknowledged members of a graffiti community with implements such as markers, drippers, and spraypaint. Graffiti adheres to the conventions for style, form, and placement established by the socially cohesive graffiti community. The stylistic conventions of urban graffiti are a contrast to individual, political, or profane writings and markings on public and private spaces. These stylistic conventions for lettering, use of color, and placement are well defined despite a clear progression in technique and typography over the past 40 years.

The systematic placement of graffiti on infrastructure is important to a writer as part of garnering recognition and fame from the graffiti community as well as from the general public. Writing on freeway bridges, high on telephone poles, on frontal rooftops, or on curbs along freeway exits provides mass exposure as well as added recognition for “hitting” daredevil “spots.” On street-level walls and easily accessible infrastructure fame and recognition is gained through producing large-scale, and therefore risky in terms of getting caught, “throw-ups” and “burners.” On legal walls the same recognition can be gained by producing innovative letter styles and characters in addition to producing a “clean” piece. But as with illegal tags and throw-ups, “getting up” is the primary source of fame. The more one’s name or “work” is seen — typically in the form of a “tag” or “throw-up” which are the most basic and most practiced forms of graffiti — the greater the reputation of the writer as a “bomber” or artist

Spatial conventions for how graffiti is framed on telephone poles, curbs, or the back or a freeway signs distinguishes systematic graffiti from spontaneous and sporadic wall writing practiced by sports fans, protestors, kids, homeless men, or gang members. I include legal pieces and sanctioned large-scale wall productions, as well as the so-called “post-graffiti” (Cresswell, 1992; Dickens, 2007, 2008) practices of stenciling, stickering, and wheatpasting as “graffiti” as long as it is placed on infrastructure and the primary motivation is personal fame and/or artistic recognition. “Graffiti” produced on canvas, t-shirts, or in advertising is “graffiti style” or “graffiti art,” but not “graffiti” as I define it.

Graffiti as I define it relies on the acknowledgement of place-specificity in the way that public art writer Lucy Lippard (1997, 263) defines public art: art that exists in the daily environment, outside of the confines of conventional art venues, and reveals “new depths of a place.” Lippard’s writing on public art and place-making pull from landscape theory, memory studies, and cultural geography. For Lippard, public art helps define “the local” and acknowledge the activity of its inhabitants and actors. She writes that public art — like graffiti — is crucial to evoking memory and making place because it is “written in the landscape or place by the people who live or lived there” (emphasis in original, 7).

Finally, in terms of intent, the motivations for doing graffiti vary between a quest for fame and adventure, to a concern for artistic expression, to territorial demarcation and competition. However, the inspiration for graffiti should not blur the boundaries with profit-motivated commercial art or design. For example, some graffiti plays a duel role. Fame as well as profit are the motivations for producing images in public space for artists from, for example, The Seventh Letter Crew — a prolific graffiti crew that owns and produces a clothing brand (Leopold, 2007). Likewise, self-proclaimed “guerria artist” Robbie Conal’s political postering is done both for artistic exposure and political statement (Conal, 1992), and graphic designer Sheppard Fairey’s profitable OBEY GIANT sticker, stencil, and poster campaign is equally part of his “study in phenomenology” and “urban interventionism” as well as tied to his merchandising of OBEY clothing, shoes, posters, books, etc. (Fairey, 2006, 2008

Fairey is also the street artist behind what became president (elect) Barak Obama’s unofficial campaign image which started out as illegally placed wheatpastings showing support for Obama’s candidacy in and around the Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles. In the case of painting graffiti on sanctioned walls in places like the Melrose neighborhood or in Echo Park, payment may be exchanged for the production of graffiti pieces and murals, but the motivation for soliciting permission from store owners or the city must first and foremost be for the sake of producing graffiti, not profit.


Wheatpasting of Obama image early in the presidential primaries.


Sheppard Feirey (OBEY GIANT) wheatpasting of Barak Obama image in Los Angeles.

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