Most forms of writing on walls or marking pieces of either public or private infrastructure are “graffiti” in the traditional sense. However, I distinguish between different types of graffiti. These are:

1. What I call “personalized, stylistic, adventurous, and spatially-conscious graffiti” produced by an acknowledged graffiti writer/artist/tagger who adheres to A). the stylistic forms of evolving graffiti aesthetics, B). norms and techniques concerning placement on infrastructure, C). use of particular implements such as specialize spray paint tips, specially made markers, particular uses of paint rollers, pens and other everyday writing and marking utensils, scribers (glass etchers), and even the use of fingers to write in dust or oxidized metal infrastructure like crosswalk signs or gas meters, and D). identifies to some degree with the graffiti community at large. There are varying forms of such graffiti (some graffiti writers being better or more adept than others in one or more of these categories). Also, gang graffiti fits some of these criteria, but I will not address the marked differences at this point.

2. Graffiti that is produced to make an explicit political or social statement.

3. Written declarations of love or affiliation (college name, sports team, race, religion, nationality).

4. Personalized messages and non-stylistic “I was here” graffiti

"No RNC" graffiti over "BEBOP" tag. Minneapolis (2008). Photo by Stefano Bloch.

As pictured here, different graffiti sometimes competes for wall space. In this photo of anti-Republican National Convention (RNC) political graffiti it is clear that the person who wrote the statement is not a graffiti writer in my use of the term for a few reasons. First, there is a lack of basic can control (ability to properly use a particular spray tip and maneuver a spray can while writing) as evident in the heavy over-spray and misting effect of the paint; second, the statement does not refer to a name or crew which would provide a graffiti writer with the necessary and desired fame through recognition; and last, the RNC has been written over an existing stylistic and personalized graffiti tag (“BEBOP”). The socio-spatial rules of the graffiti community in terms of wall space and respect for others’ tags or pieces are violated here by RNC. Most likely this disregard for the graffiti writer’s tag was done out of ignorance or oversight than angst or purposeful and personal “disrespect.”

In many cases though, those who write political graffiti or consider themselves piecers or “street artists” (those who produce elaborate, multi-color, and multi-dimensional graffiti art pieces; stencil artists; wheat-pasters; (sticker) slap-taggers; muralists, etc.) do in fact show disdain for graffiti writers and taggers. Writing and tagging is sometimes viewed as self-centered, ugly, or of a lower grade of graffiti even by members of other sub-cultures who engage in wall writing like, in the RNC case perhaps, anarchists.

In my research I have found that in addition to home owners and other self-proclaimed “law abiding” mainstream members of society, some of those who are the most anti-illegal street graffiti are gang members who attempt to exhibit complete control over territory, as well as graffiti “artist” who are looking to legitimize graffiti as a pure art-form devoid of legal controversy. I have also found that street artists and even political radicals (from racist right wing skin head groups to leftist anarchists) express feelings of ethical and political superiority over “simple taggers.” Often it seems these anti-graffiti sentiments come from a place of perceived class, racial, and socio-political superiority over “taggers” as well.

Since urban graffiti — as I define it above — began during the early 1970s, those who produced elaborate pieces have most often been the same graffiti writers catching tags and doing throw-ups (quick, two or three color bubble or block letters) at other times. For this reason it has always struck me as dangerously uninformed that people would at once romanticize the “artists” who do “beautiful,” and legal graffiti “art,” while demonizing and criminalizing “those taggers who just scribble everywhere.” Nowadays, given the universality of graffiti and the dynamism of contemporary sub-cultures, it is often the same people producing tags, pieces, street art of various media and mediums, and writing political messages at different times of the day and night, given their mood, opportunities, or inspiration.


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