Eradicating the Stain: Graffitti and Advertising In Our Public Spaces
Issue #20, April 1995
Outside is society, that's where I want to be
Outside is society, it's waiting for me.
— Patti Smith, from 'Rock 'N Roll Nigger'
When we are in an urban environment, our spaces are largely defined by walls, whether they are the inside walls of our private dwellings or the outside walls that delimit and divide our public space. Before they are painted on by grafitti artists or claimed by commercial advertising, these walls are blank canvasses, typically white, ready for images to be created by those who dwell within or around them. Once marked with images and the meanings they suggest, these walls are 'consumed' by a population that interprets them. The craft of interior decorating, for example, is practiced by all of us to an extent when we put posters, photographs, and paintings upon our bedroom and living room walls. We exercise our ability to arrange images and create meanings on the walls of our private dwellings. Outside, however, we are denied this privilege. Although we are as much creatures of the public realm as the private realm, we find ourselves silenced whenever and wherever we might create meaning to share with others.
What is hindering us from participating in public games of meaning? Our public spaces are tightly controlled by the interests of capital and the capitalist state. The stifling of our ability to adorn our surroundings is a prime example of the depravity of our common condition under late capitalism. Unless a person has a lot of money, access to public walls is blocked. And if by some chance someone does have the money required, she or he is usually obligated to produce more capital with the images that adorn those public walls by selling something. In other words, by advertising. Those that rebel against the demands of a capitalism bent on selfreproduction face punishment at the hands of the capitalist state, whether in the form of fines or imprisonment. No matter how vociferously the mainstream media trumpets its 'objectivity', it works in unison with this captialist state, serving to disseminate capitalist ideology. It wins public consent and compliance with the repressive laws that prohibit grafitti and other acts of meaning-creation that fail to conform with the overarching commercial logic that dominates our public space.
Evidence of this complicity on the part of the media is not hard to find. A series of articles on the problem of grafitti that have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle with in the last two years are typical. The underlying assumptions which motivate these articles betray what I will call an exterminationist logic, very much like the one described by philsopher Philipe Lacoue-Labarthe in his recent book Heidegger, Art and Politics. Labarthe claims that Auschwitz and the unspeakable exterminations that took place there revealed the deepest contradictions of the 'civilized' West, manifesting the most brutal functionalism latent in the desire to achieve perfection by eliminating all traces of the undesirable Other. He writes that 'nowhere else in history has the will to clean, to totally eradicate a 'stain' been so compulsively enacted without the least ritual.' The rhetoric of the articles in the San Francisco Chronicle reveals this same 'will-to-clean', though for ends that are admittedly not quite so extreme! Still, the compulsion to eradicate undesirable traces of the Other's presence is clearly related to the compulsion to eradicate the Others themselves (a compulsion recently attested to by the spate of anti-immigration campaigns around the world, including the one that gave California Proposition 187).
An article entitled 'One Man's War on Grafitti,' glorifies citizen Bob Moss to heroic proportions, making his exterminatory quest seem a noble undertaking indeed. The article presents grafitti as something that 'assaults the eye,' as 'a fresh outrage that sprung up over night,' and its perpetrators as 'despoilers.' We are then offered a catalog of the spaces from which Bob removes stains: 'Most of his voluntary Grafitti removal takes place in and around his Barron Park neighborhood, in south Palo Alto between El Camino real and the Gunn High School campus. He has taken on the task of painting over or scrubbing off nearly 2,000 examples of grafitti from fences, mailboxes, telephone booths, storefronts, warehouse walls, windows, poles, and signs.' The tools which he uses to remove the stains are a 'customized clean-up kit of paint remover, mineral oil, sponges, and matching-color spray paints.'
Whereas Nazis found their Others in Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and politicos, Bob Moss finds his in Grafitti and those who inflict it on his otherwise pristine world. The Nazis erased their Others with death; Bob erases his with his 'kit'. The Nazis sought with compulsive urgency to eliminate their Others not only from the present, but from the past — to clean the slate of history. Bob seeks with compulsive urgency to prevent grafitti from ever being seen: 'The key to an effective campaign against the blight,' he advises, 'is to paint over or remove it right away. It takes away the ego satisfaction a kid expects when he drives by and does not see his mark where he left it.' Bob's tactic is to erase an event, a mark, a sign, before it is interpreted, so that it is as though it never existed at all. All this he does in order bring his urban environment closer to perfection: 'Moss is out daily laboring to restore an urban ambience he worries is losing ground to the despoilers.' Of course, this noble goal places him squarely within the epic traditions of the West. Think, for example, of the spotless city that abides at the heart of Christianity, the 'New Jerusalem' where 'nothing unclean will enter' (Rev 21:27). The New Jerusalem is the full actualization of a totalitarian regime in which the Other is banished into oblivion while the chosen few realize a perfection, so purged of the undesirable and ill-fitted that it is sterile — clean, yes, but dead as well. Bob Moss participates in the same sort of banishing act. Indeed, we might suspect that his name his an alias, a cover, that his real name might be Mr. West!
The point of this analogy is that the war on grafitti is a little too much like the other wars the West has been responsible for. To an extent, it's part of the same continuous war. And citizens like Bob Moss are its berserkers. Not only did Bob embark on a personal quest that won him newspaper fame, he also helped convince the Palo Alto City Council to invest $125,000 in a city-wide clean-up program, which includes a grafitti hot-line and distribution to volunteers of anti-grafitti kits similar to the one Bob himself totes. He has also organized 'anti-grafitti patrols and a $100 dollar reward program which led to the arrest of two taggers last year.' Bob has a fellow warrior in San Bruno city councilman Chris Pallas, described in another San Francisco Chronicle article as somebody out to 'catch these people red-handed' — literally. Pallas has suggested the use of infared cameras to be supplied by the military to San Bruno Municipal Cable TV, which would provide feed to the police department in order to catch taggers in action. To accusations that the city would be spying on its residents, Pellas responded that 'when you go to a bank, they're taking your picture and they're allowed to do it, other buildings have cameras all over for surveillance, even hotels, this is not any different.' Rose Urbach, a resident of San Bruno, echoes her councilman: 'I am concerned, and I do think that there should be something to point out the people who are doing it...put cameras on mailboxes, bridges everything. If there is anyway to get rid of it — it's so ugly — they should try some way besides painting over it because that doesn't seem to be helping.'
These visions of a panoptic, anti-grafitti police state contrast in startling ways with the 'visions' inflicted on us by public advertising. Like other 'stains' on purity, grafitti is demonized because it subverts our efforts to achieve the sterile perfection that lies at the end of the West's forward march. Advertising, conversely, confronts us with what already appears 'perfect' in its inaccessible sterility. Let's contrast another San Francisco Chronicle article on public decoration to the ones we already discussed. This one, however, is about the 'wild' posting that is 'the latest rage in the fashion world.' This wild posting 'hits plywood walkways, covered-up windows, walls — any space that is available and highly visible during the day' and gets away with it because 'many cities do not have strict laws against such advertising — as long as its done in non-residential areas.' Notice how when 'quasi-legal advertising transforms urban space into low-budget billboards' no mention is made that this same public space likely bore the stain of grafitti (which was in such desperate need of eradication). This is because the space now attracts a more high-brow crowd: Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Benetton. Praised for high visibility and the aesthetic effects produced by the posters, the fashion designers proclaim, 'It's incredibly visible and not terribly expensive. And we love the look of multiple pictures.' These advertisements, as well as the fully legal ones that bombard us daily, celebrate capitalism and the society it has created in its own image.
But let's take a step back and reconsider the whole question of 'urban blight' from a new perspective. Couldn't we say that advertisements 'assault our eyes,' that they are every bit as much, if not more, a part of this blight than the illegitimate grafitti with which they compete for our attention. If we don't think about it too hard, we can explain public advertisements away as so much 'filler' in our daily routine: we're always just driving by the billboard to get where we really want to be. But if we consider the question more deeply, we will realize that we never just pass anything, that we climb the mountain, not just to be on top, but for the process of climbing itself...and that there are a lot of billboards on the way up this mountain, which, like Tantalus, we are forever scaling. We dwell with these billboards and they subject our senses and intellect to a number of different responses; they engage us without consent and create needs that can only be met through consumption.
So what's really the stain in our everyday lives? The not-for-profit acts of meaning-creation perpetrated by the tagger, or the multi-million dollar advertising campaign that convinces me that the smiling Indonesian peasant women picking leaves for my Tejava Tea leave no residue of their undesirable otherness on the 'purest expression of tea'? It is time we started thinking more carefully and critically about the banal deifications that transform the Bob Mosses and Chris Pellases of this world into epic heroes in miniature. And it wouldn't hurt to turn the distinction between advertising and grafitti on its head. It is up to us as political theorists to occupy spaces with signs and signifiers which are 'other' than those of our larger consumer culture. Whether we do this with T-shirts, bumper-stickers or just stickers of any sort, pins, pamphlets, or even billboard grafitti, we as Bad Subjects readers can all play our part in resisting the tradition which is moving us towards totalitarianism.
Jeremiah Luna is a creative writer. He graduated from UC-Berkeley with a degree in English.