When graffiti artists look at walls and pavements, trains and vans, lamp-posts and railings, what do they see? They see a blank page, a canvas on which to exhibit their art, their writing. “They call themselves writers because that’s what they do. They write their names, among other things, everywhere.” These words open Tony Silver’s cult 1983 documentary film Style Wars, which focuses on the formative years of graffiti in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Calling graffiti artists “writers”, begs the question: how far removed is this form from more conventional, ‘pen-to-paper’ prose?
In a 2011 PBS Newshour interview, graffiti artist and historian Caleb Neelson claimed: “People, by the time they had walls, were writing on them”. This comment was made in reference to the Lascaux cave paintings, estimated to be around 15,000 years old. Graffiti has been found going back millennia. The history of graffiti can be traced far further back than that of the New York subway. From street merchants to brothel owners, writers across the ancient world used it to transmit information, etching words and images on walls to advertise their wares. Admittedly, these primitive drawings are strictly pictorial; nonetheless they express a desire to depict a narrative, and to present it in such a way that it is in the public eye. Now, graffiti usually takes the form of ‘tags’, ‘bombs’ and ‘throw-ups’ in spray paint.
Graffiti is more about means than end product. As a mode of textual production, it is an assertion of identity, the attraction of which, as with more conventional authorship, lies in its proliferation in the public sphere but also its re-appropriation of urban space against civic norms. Juliet Fleming remarks that graffiti is “a form of writing that, exceptionally, is understood to be filling space”, forcing itself upon the reader.
Why, then, do so many look down on graffiti as pure vandalism? While surveys show that most British people think some graffiti is acceptable, 34% still believe “all graffiti is vandalism”.
Following the deaths of three young graffiti artists struck by a train in June, Conservative politician Brian Cooke called the artists involved: “common scum and criminals who cost the railways millions and keep fares high”. Cooke’s grossly insensitive comment here unfortunately exemplifies a large chunk of public opinion on this topic – a view also clearly rooted in classist prejudice.
Is it not possible to also recognise its pervasive mark on the urban environment? Young people have always sought escape in criminality, but this view fails to acknowledge the vast creative outlet which graffiti provides the likes of Trip, Kbag and Lover.
Literary theory is surprisingly applicable to graffiti, a medium which defies the capitalist system and the notion of authorial presence. Writers remain anonymous, known by nicknames or tags, and do not seek financial gain, challenging the notion of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms. An inherently democratic form of writing, graffiti at least deserves greater consideration in the field of literature.