The World Kicked Back
Most folklorists are driven to document “wild style”, a form associated with the syncretic aerosol art of the ‘80s, replete with highly stylized “electric boogie” lettering, splashy, vibrant colors, and even Disney, comic book, or album art images. Others are drawn to gangland tags: territorial markings, off-the-cuff and hurried, in which utility (telling viewers “this is my turf”) is more important than aesthetic.
I study street art that utilizes prefabricated materials. For instance, a sticker reading “End Racism” might be posted on a bus stop sign, replete with basic bus information and graphics as a stagnant backdrop, which might suggest that bus routes enforce the borders of a racially divided city; soft plastic stickers of a dinosaur might be placed on yellow street signs and standard gray metal light poles, almost too small to be noticed. The playfulness seems at cross-purposes with the dangerous high voltage containers, or is it?
Down the street from my office at the University of Oregon a few years ago, the panels of a house were transformed into a small tableaux featuring a bright orange soft square, beige backdrop, some smudges of gray, and stencils of a ‘70s-looking skinhead with the tag “The World Kicked Back”; a blurry stencil of the classical composer Bach with the pun tag “I’ll Be Bach”; and a star (that may be associated with Converse shoes) with the slogan “Alder Street Allstars”. This represented just one single panel among many.
The art signifies a purpose beyond mere tagging. Folklorists explore how these community members personalized or reclaimed space in a relatively nondescript neighborhood that lacks vernacular touches. As such, they contest, question, and fissure domestic, industrial, and municipal sites/spaces.
To be honest, neighbors often do not welcome such art, even when the art embodies a clever sense of play, inter-textuality, political deconstruction, and pop sensibility. Yet, graffiti has been studied by all ranges of academic disciplines, including linguists attempting to reconstruct the everyday language of the city of Athens, which can be read in graffiti on temples and other sites. Folklorists studied the markings left on park benches during the ‘20s to grasp the era’s issues. To discuss graffiti is to enter into a discourse involving the politics of space, and the language and symbol systems of the ‘folk’, not just to catalog, appreciate, or debate the style or merit of aerosol art.
An analogy may be made to the Internet, actually. According to Prof. Henry Jenkins, the Internet is the new public commons (Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NY Univ. Press, 2006). Individuals jungle agency and expression online while increasingly being placed under pressure by the forces of business and government regulation (also construed as surveillance). Still, democracy feels much more participatory on-line. These net citizens express hybrid ideologies that are not confined to old, static, and enclosed ideologies. They cross borders, and their identity is likely more rooted in lifestyles rather than precinct politics.
Some see the public commons as decentralized and unevenly dispersed, fulfilling a promise of reciprocity (the metaphor of a two-way street). The net is allegorized as a libertarian electronic frontier. Others feel that it is an information superhighway—federalized, controlled, and deeply mediated, catalyzing a generation of renegades, hackers, culture jammers, and open source grassroots activists. In this light, Wiki Spaces has been deployed as a truth drone, blasting away the layers of misinformation and self-serving diplomacy, legalese, and real politick.
Graffiti, stickering, and stencils act much in the same way, though immersed in the physical world. Youth contest the space of cities (the public commons), jamming official (say, by sticking, stenciling, or putting graffiti over municipal utility boxes, light poles, highway overpasses and signage), commercial (business buildings, parking garages, sites under construction etc), or domestic sites, such as homes.
The entire city can often become a “site of contestation” documenting the struggles between hegemony and freedom seekers. Such spaces may reveal a “ludic recombination”, since the spaces becomes inverted, metamorphosed, and given a new identity by the art. Zealously stylish artists often exhibit a sense of communitas, too: they bond via a subculture-shared knowledge about paints, style, and urban topography that reveals alternative narratives of a city.
John Keat’s poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn, offers the lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” For me, the truth of street art lives within its unsanctioned freedom of expression. Such short-lived empowering gestures might invoke crude, unstable, and impure forms, but the beauty of these forms, or their merits, lies not within the final product as much as the process – the reclaiming, poaching, and cultural jamming, which reveal the dynamism of democracy.
Both profound and profoundly distressing, street art nourishes and taints city space, witnesses and wounds.