Nº 254
Graffiti – Symbols, Spaces, Bodies: Inscriptions and Rejections

The arts pages of broadsheet newspapers recently reported, once again, that a new “picture” by “graffiti artist” Banksy had been posted on his website, and that no one knew where the original was located. This time, however, it seemed to be not a graffito (an emblematic scribble) but an actual “picture”. According to the reports, it showed a pair of lovers embracing, not focusing on each other but absorbed and isolated by their own magically glowing smartphones.

This marks the end of what was once understood by graffiti. Traditionally, graffiti are symbols, emblems, logos and abbreviations, internally coded by groups and placed into a specific scene, not expressing an isolated reference or meaning but claiming, contesting or conquering a space, terrain or territory. A behavioural code dictates that certain graffiti with specific emblems that express claims within groups or hierarchies may not be infringed upon (sprayed over, altered or completely erased). This sparing of specific symbols is a mark of respect, and the practice as a whole is defined not only by battle zones, but also characterized by a strong code of honour.

The Conquest of Transformed Urban Spaces

The visual practice of graffiti can also be discussed in terms of subjective forms of speech, so-called idiolects, making it immediately clear that the semiotics of this marking technique is embedded in a complex field of group-related lifestyles and cultural habits. The graffito is part of a concept, born in the 1980s and quickly becoming established, that has to do with lifestyle and idiolect, with specific, inwardlooking languages and forms of expression. Its history has been studied and is well known. In a sense, it has also exhausted itself. Subway and suburban trains were sprayed, used as mobile billboards to transport distinct marginalized, “depraved” ways of life into a public sphere that reigned on the other side of a marked divide and which had previously wanted nothing to do with them.
If they had only been about making a statement, a reference or a claim to significance, then these forms of mobile markmaking could best be compared with the literacy campaigns of experimental avant-garde artists in the early years of the postrevolutionary Soviet Union: El Lissitzky’s Rosta windows and kiosks; Alexander Rodchenko’s pictograms on house walls; or the use of trains as moving newspapers by Vladimir Mayakovsky and others to bring new, as-yet-unheard messages to remote places. Here, too, the aim was to penetrate an unfamiliar, hostile public sphere, which can also be understood as an action of the future intervening in a stubbornly backward present that is felt to be outdated and in need of transformation. Gaining entry to this formerly closed space is thus always linked with a time axis. Graffiti come not only from elsewhere or outside, but also from the future. This makes them futuristic signs that can easily be aestheticized in conceptual terms by avant-garde sectors of the art scene, even if they wish to have nothing to do with their substance.

Drastic Measures, Transfiguration, and the Taming of the Breakaways

Since the early 20th century, many artists drifting away from the academies, craving something new and seeking the fount of creativity, have turned to sources, potentials and fields not previously considered within the realm of art: the forms of expression of “savages”, children, “mental patients” and others were canonized, from Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) to Surrealism and Hans Prinzhorn’s “Artistry of the Mentally Ill” (1926). In less than 20 years, a radical change affected the codes, rhetoric, repertoire, context and interpretation of artistic expressions. This then formed the basis for Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut and the variants of informal art in many countries after World War II. Now, anything that gave access to new, outsider sensibilities became art-worthy.
In the post-war period, formerly proscribed materials, body fluids, mud, dirt – in short: the discarded and the scorned – also became interesting. This tendency continued apace with Pop Art, Land Art and the cultivation and opening up of what had been non-places, non-forms and non-materials for art. This transformation of the ordinary into high art, in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp, is still taking place: an everyday object becomes an artwork whose materiality is grounded not in its physical properties but in its nominalist transfiguration into a fetish.
Back to graffiti: Alongside such claims to art status, the true story of life in the South Bronx has developed and asserted its own iconography and historiography, centring on graffiti and rap, hip-hop and gang rituals. This, too, is an inevitable institutionalization (or even “museumization”). But what has happened to graffiti itself? What has become of its wild, illegal side and its links with tests of courage? Here, too, the trends are clear. The occupation of spaces in a “hostile” public sphere by means of one’s own group markers, motifs and forms of expression, be they emblematic, semiotic/logo-like, or figurative/referential, remains constant. Paradoxically, the stubbornness of graffiti’s marginalization has rendered the transgression harmless, pacifying it and depriving it of its bite by a process of familiarization.

Authentic Provenance, Genuine Imitation – Initiation Rituals

In addition, provincial imitations of the original gesture from the Bronx have (with a certain delay) proved to be an adequate medium for conveying authentic sentiments. What may appear to outsiders as imitation, even if it is sometimes original and distinctive, does not derive its meaning and purpose from the repertoire of aesthetic forms of expression. Instead, its value is as an initiation ritual. Which is why tagging and graffiti are always revolutionary and new for each fresh generation that practices this authentic gesture of occupation. And of course, previously unoccupied, “unwritten” provinces are perfect for this. As such, spraying graffiti is a rite of passage that characterizes sub-, counter- and youth cultures as a whole, everywhere, always.
Although these rites offer nothing new when taken out of context, within individual authentic practices they remain interesting as potential sources of experience. But viewed comparatively as an international phenomenon, nothing new is happening. People have rightly spoken of a cancer-like proliferation of graffiti and tagging. What they don’t mention is that ordinary everyday advertising, company logos, posters, window displays, billboards, the whole non-stop strategic push of advertising into public spaces, especially urban spaces, represent a devastation of symbolically charged spaces, typical of modernity, that leaves no room for attributing any special degree of evil to the wild, lawless defacement of private property on facades and similar surfaces.
Graffiti and tagging are simply part of the modern mediatization of everyday cultures by means of semiotic hierarchies, especially with regard to logos. The everyday life of the public is always a variable in such visual battles, fought to secure some new hierarchy or dominance for specific semiotic strategies and media. Historically, graffiti remains interesting because for a brief period in the mid-1980s, this illegal and illegitimate practice managed to establish itself at the forefront of semiotic strategies and the discussions surrounding them (not least in Jean Baudrillard’s “Kool Killer”, a text he had written in the 1970s).

The Proliferation of Signs in Space and on the Skin: Graffiti and Tattoos

Another question is worth speculating on here: Is there not an obvious link between the occupation of spaces by means of graffiti and today’s massive proliferation of tattooing in all its various forms? Is not the ideal of graffiti to make marks in “enemy” public spheres in order, ideally, to establish a presence everywhere? Is this not related to the ideal of transforming one’s own body (operatively or just semiotically) into a hotch-potch of idiolects, aesthetics, images and styles? Although it is hard to pin down exactly, it seems that there simply must be a connection between: on the one hand, these combative visual practices in which a self constructs and asserts itself as an image that can only be read and understood from within, and on the other, the claim to appropriate public spaces by means of group-specific languages. I would risk the following hypothesis: public space, now occupied by palimpsests to an excessive degree, is shifting onto and into people’s own skins as the last material and place allowing unlimited marking and selfdefinition. Public space is retreating into the body. Conversely, the body must be viewed as a residual space for public stylizations articulated in aesthetic or artistic terms. And this is precisely the message of each such successful claim to maximum autonomy.

From Ritual Image War to Public Spirit

Both of these practices reflect a growing void, which they strive to re-occupy with positively panic-stricken gestures. Both indicate that the resources for such gestures have become extremely scarce. Space and time seem to be shrinking drastically, triggering phobic counter-reactions. In both camps, the pressure to conform that turns dissidence into mainstream are clear indications of this. The link can thus be described as follows: a movement from sub-cultural code used by outcasts, to aggressive semiotic battle for public awareness, to strongly narcissistic self-marking and self-definition. In a parallel development, visual strategies have been elevated to the status of art. Surely, then, once more, it is iconoclasm that paves the way for social establishment. Where there was conflict, consensus is manufactured. The idiolects (private languages) of the body correlate with the idiosyncrasies (displays of self-will) of group-based semiotic articulation and can be similarly understood as culturally established languages of aesthetically neutralized dissidence.
This sequence of contested, captivated and finally secured space reflects the way that dynamic visual codes are confirmed as a cultural aesthetic of neutralized visual battles. This establishes the status of a medium, when the forces between which it mediates are balanced. Although punk has little or nothing in common with hip-hop and graffiti, all are founded on a complete rejection of everything and everyone, marking a shift from intolerable coolness to uncivilized aggressiveness at all costs. Culture and society become random material for this, as do public space and one’s own body. Presence asserts itself as lived action. Context is replaced by the dynamic of distortion and dissolution of boundaries, with no recourse to morals or even common sense. And, very soon, this expression proves to be an aesthetic novelty and thus largely tamed. Action becomes style, bodies become symbols, materiality becomes a symbolic and, increasingly, purely self-referential gesture.


Nº 270
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