Staying Up: Resistance in Graffiti

In a male-dominated society, it is difficult for issues of women to be heard and discussed on the forefront of social politics. Part of this reason has to do with the continued conditioning of women to be silent about the injustices done to them, as pointed out by a recent Huffington Post article. The silence of women issues is further enhanced by the media by failing to cover major stories concerning women’s issues such as the upcoming trial of an Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting and raping 13 women. The fact that all of these women were African-American still does not seem enough for the media to cover this trial in great detail, even after the fact that the accused officer is being tried in front of an all white jury. This instance is not the first time the mass media has failed to report current problems going on within marginalized populations. At this point, one might ask oneself, “Why does this matter?” It matters because proper or improper documentation in mediums that inform the mass public has an impact on history. Consider how the media treated early graffiti writers in 1970’s New York and beyond. The negative effect of graffiti’s reputation is due to the media’s overpowering voice ostracizing the voice of the graffiti writers themselves. Not only that, but the history books that document this art movement vastly overlook the experience of its female writers and prioritizes the experience of its male writers. It is my contention that the voice of graffiti’s female writers ought to be heard as a prime example of resistance against historical invisibility.

First, I must address what I mean by historical invisibility and its implications. Invisibility here is meant in terms of social relevance, or how important a subject matter is to mainstream society. Marginalized populations are then by this definition considered as part of the socially invisible, maintaining a lower priority status in comparison to its larger, privileged population. Damon Sajnani analyzes this concept in his critique of the coveted “American Dream” expressing that it is the denial of the reality of socioeconomic stratification in the United States. It is

the denial that social identities such as gender, race, and class play a role in the allocation of rights opportunities and resources. The American dream serves as the ideological obfuscation of America’s leading role in the perpetuation of local and global inequality through capitalism and neocolonialism. (2015)

He further argues that “races are colonial subjectivities naturalized as inherent identities…legacies of the European slave trade and colonialism” (2015). In essence, current American institutions are in place to largely benefit and oppress specific communities similar to American society’s status quo during slavery and colonialism. From this we can conclude that the issues and concerns of white, affluent, heterosexual males take precedence over people of color, people living in poverty, those of the LGBT community, and women. The latter groups are set aside and given no power and little resources to better themselves. In many cases they are completely silenced and not even acknowledged by the mainstream, thereby becoming socially invisible.

It is in this condition in which graffiti and Hip Hop were born. The mutual exclusivity of graffiti and Hip Hop is always a topic of discussion among graffiti writers. Some writers acknowledge their parallels while others simply deny that Hip Hop has anything to do with graffiti. Determining which side is right or wrong is another topic of discussion, but the general consensus is that there is at the very least an undeniable intertwining of the two cultures. Most of this viewpoint is due to the both cultures sprung up from the same New York neighborhoods around the same time for the same reasons. Having realized that America is not a post-racism society and that the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement have yet to be fulfilled, many New York youth took to Hip Hop to express their disenfranchisement. B-boys and b-girls battled out their aggression in a new form of dance, MC’s or rappers told their stories of the streets over new music DJ’s created using vinyl records, and graffiti writers signed their name as a stamp of existence in the public sphere. As Martin Lamotte put it, Hip Hop was a significant means to challenge “American democracy by creating an autonomous space in which to practice citizenship” (686). He goes on to explain that this “’urban citizenship’ is not opposed to classic national citizenship; it is rather juxtaposed” (689) and that “the notion of citizenship is thus dynamic, allowing one to think of the ‘act of being present’…as an act of citizenship” (688). TAKI 183 explains his justification of graffiti and urban citizenship to a degree when he was interviewed by the New York Times.

Denoted as the first historical document of modern day graffiti, the New York Times article “TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals” examines the growing trend of graffiti in the streets of New York in which TAKI 183 claims his right as a taxpayer to exist in public space. The same article illustrates the general blasé attitude of the Transit Authority police adding that the “actual offense…is classed as a violation because it is barred only by Transit Authority rules, not by law” (“Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals” 21 July 1971). It is imperative to note that last part of the article that underlines the lack of city laws against graffiti because what the media does afterward changes that. Maggie Dickinson points out that the New York Times article was also “virtually the last time that any graffiti writer would be given the opportunity to explain their practice on their own terms and at length in the media for at least two decades” (28). The following “War on Graffiti” by Mayor Lindsay and continued later by Mayor Koch became easily adopted by the public opinion due to the media’s

adoption of certain specific representations an rhetorical strategies that circulated among [the city government] members, and by way of their routine and official access to the mass-mediated public sphere…[and] educated the public about what it saw on the walls by framing the new writing as a dangerous problem. (Austin 85)

The media essentially told the public what to think. Once manipulation of public opinion is achieved, it becomes easier to pass laws like anti-graffiti legislation that not only destroys the public artwork of the marginalized youth attempting to reclaim public space, but also punishes them with jail time or regular harassment and beatings by the police.

Conflicts between city policy and the graffiti world have constantly been a problem for both sexes since anti-graffiti policies began to take shape, but what makes it more complex is the fact that there are also conflicts between the sexes in the graffiti world as well. Men and women in graffiti rarely intermingle at an equal ratio. Many easily claim this is due to the precarious ways in which graffiti is executed. Roaming the streets at night, climbing walls, fences, and ladders, hanging over the edge of buildings and overpasses were dangerous for all writers; male or female. Preconceived notions of gender roles designate these types of activities for males and not females, with ill enforced logic that men are stronger than women and can therefore take care of themselves while women need the help from other men. Female capability of graffiti is also challenged with common rumors that spread of other male artists assisting with female pieces or doing the pieces entirely and allowing for the female to take credit. Other rumors spread by men and women of sexual promiscuity of female writers were also an issue. LADY PINK recalls, “As a female writer your sexual reputation is run through the dirt. Boys will not tell each other that a girl said no to them” (Dennant). Stories unfold which show the blatant sexism in graffiti such as STONEY’s short-lived membership with United Graffiti Artists, or UGA. BAMA, another former UGA member, believes that STONEY’s gender played a role in pushing her out of the crew. He says, “she was about painting, and she was about being serious. Hugo [head of UGA] kind of saw her as a threat to the other guys’ egos because she kind of painted very very well” (Castleman 121). What does call for concern is that in his research, Joe Austin reveals that while “several [female writers] gained citywide fame during the early 1970s…After the mid-1970s, famous female writers were very rare. It is difficult to retrace this loss with precision, but sever bits of evidence are suggestive” (59).

What is alarming here—from the perspective of an art historian—is the continued lack of documentation of female graffiti artists. Not only has graffiti grown and thrived even after the anti-graffiti legislation passed in metropolitans worldwide, but women in graffiti continue to grow and contribute to the graffiti community despite the biased semiotics of gender. So much so that there are books published dedicated to the artwork of these female writers. Nicholas Ganz is among the few who have taken this subject in stride by publishing Graffiti Women: Street Art from Five Continents. Following his lead, SYRUP and CYRIS went on to publish the much anticipated All City Queens. Publications as big as these deserve a nod of respect for spotlighting the work female graffiti writers, but there are undeniable flaws in these efforts. Ganz’s Graffiti Women mixes works of graffiti artists with street artists and adds to the fading distinction between graffiti and street art. The confusion between the two is understandable; both art forms take an anti-social stance against the status quo and do so in a very public manner. To be rightfully called a graffiti writer, however, is generally an earned process as outlined in the “economy of prestige” that Joe Austin mentions in his book Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. Beyond the misnomer of graffiti and street art, both aforementioned publications are image-based and not text-based. For an artist, being able to see the works of other artists is valuable for studying. For an academic, the information and analysis of female writers remains insufficient. The world still has little to no information with regards to the female experience of graffiti writers, but that’s not to stop the writers themselves from doing what they are doing.

At this point it would be easy to assume that graffiti has totally discouraged the production of female writers from the present day to the future, but actually that is far from the truth. Female writers like MERLOT from Seattle were among those featured in the recent art show “Tiny Giants” which happened in KGB Gallery last month. Also featured in that show were PETAL and BLOSM, two women who are still active in the graffiti world and make the effort to educate the general public about graffiti with their involvement in both “The Getty Graffiti Black Book” backed by the Getty Research Institute and “Las Amazonas” backed by the El Segundo Museum of Art. Current female graffiti writers roster goes on to include MEME from Northern California who is a part of the prestigious CBS crew as well as a co-founder of Few and Far—an all-female graffiti and skateboarding crew. MEME also curated the all-female “We Love Letters” graffiti show at the Oakland Terminal Art Gallery that opened this passed October. Women are out there, and they continue to paint. Not only that, but they are getting their names up while bringing something new to offer to the graffiti community.

Of course, the journey of a successful female graffiti writer is not an easy one. As mentioned before, one has to earn their right to call oneself a full-fledged writer. They have to go out and get their name up by any means necessary and the baptism of fire is one that all graffiti writers must take despite their gender. Climbing billboards, hanging over freeway overpasses, and avoiding both the police and gangs are some of the few obstacles writers face when they paint. This is where the benefit of a graffiti crew comes in, since people are generally safer in numbers and assistance with piecing can get the job done faster. This is also where female writers generally break away from the norm. Due to the numerous rumors that tend to spread regarding the authenticity of a female writer’s work or her sexual reputation, many female writers whom I’ve met choose to work alone rather than in groups. Jules Muck is an artist who enforces this standard. Although she now identifies herself and her current work as following Pop art, her tutelage under LADY PINK gives legitimacy to her early graffiti background. In a mural tour hosted by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles of the new Gabba Arts District, Jules Muck emphasizes that she does not allow for assistants with any of her projects in order to assure that all of her work is done by her alone. The reason for that is simply because of the same rumors spread among graffiti writers that a female artist did not actually paint her own work. Since then, Muck has carried that burden with her as an act of defiance against these unsupported claims. JERK also does her best to avoid the spotlight of graffiti writers in terms of her work and her gender. She chose the name JERK for its gender neutrality and slight aggressiveness (Pabon). By keeping to herself, JERK can create work to be analyzed without the critique of her gender having an impact. Adding to the complicated layers of the gender issue in graffiti, the lack of support from their peers that most female writers face spawns ideas of having a all-female crews as MEME did with Few and Far.

Again, why does this matter? It matters because every facet of a marginalized population should be analyzed and understood by the public before passing policies that affect them. Under the California Penal code, unauthorized paint on a wall could get a graffiti writer “a year in county or a $10,000 fine” (Lemons). I repeat: a potential year in county for getting paint on a wall. Disregard the fact that the wall is in a public space subject to worse conditions such as the sun and weather that can equally damage property. Also disregard the fact that paint on a wall does not inflict any bodily harm on anyone else besides the writer himself or herself. Also disregard the fact that $400 in damages could lead to a $10,000 fine (and where does this extra $9,600 go after the damages are repaired?). It’s paint on a wall that can imprison a person in the same building as actual menaces to society like murderers and thieves. This type suspicious punishment in which two vastly different offenders face the same imprisonment is what calls people’s attention to what is now known as the prison industrial complex “introduced by activists and scholars to contest prevailing beliefs that increased levels of crime were the root cause of mounting prison populations” (Davis 84). The perilous implications of anti-graffiti laws are linked with the disproportionate sentencing of certain drugs like crack cocaine since public officials choose to target these types of activities during their term. In example, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani “took a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to ‘quality of life’ crimes” (Bogazianos 19) as “part of the larger project of city government deflecting responsibility for the well-being of its citizens away from economic and social policy and into poor minority communities as the cause of their own problems” (Dickinson 37). This reiterates Damon Sajnani’s discaccreditation of the “American Dream”: it is a dream reserved mostly for affluent white males.

Studying women in graffiti may not have an obvious foreseeable impact on public policy, but that should not be a reason to belittle the efforts to do so. Analyzing a subculture within a subculture is a job within itself because one is trying to learn about an ambiguous subject within the context of yet another ambiguous subject. It requires extra scrutiny to get every detail right. Not only that, but the subculture’s subculture is evolving and changing as we speak. Who knows if anyone can successfully culminate enough research and documentation to confidently say that they understand graffiti and female writers. The point is that this art form is alive and happening–whether the public pays attention or not–even under intense scrutiny of negative public opinion and policy. Despite all the efforts starting with Mayor Lindsay in 1970’s New York City, graffiti and female participation has grown worldwide over the passed 40 plus years. The longevity of this culture makes a great statement for the Hip Hop generation by the Hip Hop generation: Can’t stop, won’t stop.

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