Issue #52, November 2000
I was walking to the laundromat today when I met an acquaintance, Paulos, on the road. After a few small words about this and that, he said, "We need a writer." I asked why and he told me about Anandan's wall.
Anandan is a mutual friend of ours; he's a 14-year old graffiti artist and burgeoning community organizer. Recently, Anandan approached the owner of a building he lives near on Bank St., with a proposal to paint the side of the building. Anandan sketched out a horizontal graffiti mural, one that would read along the wall boasting the tags of six young artists. The wall has been a popular site for tags, and a full fledged graffiti mural would not only provide young artists a sanctioned forum for their work but was also a practical means of controlling the spread of random hits.
Anandan's wall faces an alley, and it is very Toronto in that it's seen and used by a mixed bag of people: the building's tenants, the shoppers and students on their way to class, the restaurant workers carting waste and produce, and the drivers who use the lane as a shortcut. There's a string of independently run retail fronts: small clothing shops run by elderly Portuguese families; a young designer off-the-rack store opened by the collective dream and vision of three friends; a used CD and book store where you can find Nietschze, The Fall and Klimt on the same counter; family run eateries like the Chinese buffet and the modestly priced cafe favored by the weekend brunch crowd; and the (now-closed but then-central) small bar run by two young women who organized mass off-site parties featuring the likes of Ursula Rucker and Movement. The artists, families, workers and students who live on top of these storefronts know each other by name and face. There are nods all along the strip between regulars, shopkeepers and sidewalk fixtures like the guy in the wheelchair who smokes hardtop Camels.
The neighborhood of Anandan's wall is part of the community of Toronto that I see vanishing all around me. South of his neighborhood is Kensington Market; to the east, the University of Toronto, and west, a non-stop party of fashionistas rubbernecking in synthetics.
Just around the corner, the Comfort Zone hums into the night with underage raves; the Silver Dollar rents out rooms for a bill; and the Salvation Army beds the city's growing homeless population. 14 year olds have to be resourceful to hang onto whatever's left of their youth. They have a lot of choices, some exciting, some scary, and some just boring. From the drug-free arcade to the 5 am rave to the 24-hour coffee shop, the places to hang out in are plenty.
Like a lot of boys his age Anandan has started to really, really dig graffiti. He's almost obsessed with it. He draws constantly, reads the magazines and hangs out with other graffiti writers. This year he was accepted into the Etobicoke School of the Arts, on a portfolio that was largely graffiti-based.
Tagging in the city is and always has been a peripherally dangerous pursuit. It's illegal and graffiti artists are renown for their skulking skills. You'll probably never see them unless you go through the alleys at dawn. With capped heads they tow knapsacks filled with cans, rags, chalk, pencils and paper. Generally they go out in groups, both for the protection and the company. In order to do really serious work you have to be organized: scout your location, take heed of the nearby alarm posts, measure your wall, and keep an eye on the watch.
Anandan took these organizing skills and decided to coordinate a large-scale, publicly supported graffiti mural in his neighborhood. He drafted a contract for the landlady to sign, showed her the design sketches and collected financial support from business owners on the strip, as well as from friends, and family. Last weekend Anandan and five friends emblazoned the wall with their flashy tags, in color and proud bolded edges. They spent the whole day painting, and the neighborhood gathered to watch; it became an impromptu street party. There weren't any cheap give-aways from corporate sponsors, shiny flyers advertising looming sales, rented speakers booming too much bass, or any of the other paraphernalia we've grown accustomed to expect from festive gatherings.
As the young men carefully gleaned their tags onto the crumbling wall, the storekeepers, pedestrians and tenants stood around trading stories, pointing out popular flourishes and commenting on the day's news. The creation of Anandan's wall quietly became a part of the unfolding history of this busy street.
A few days after the mural was up Anandan received a phone call from the landlady. She planned to paint over the mural. She'd received an angry phone call from the building owner down the lane, a photographer. He doesn't live in the neighborhood; he drives into his studio for work and disappears to his suburban enclave when his picture taking is done. I've always noticed his studio because it stands out like a Bauhaus grimace in the middle of an alleyway cobbled by age. The studio is a slate of greys angled by modern architecture. It is a clean, technically efficient space, the kind favored by minimalists with maximum cash flow.
The photographer (we found out later) is a corporate photographer whose clients include IKEA and other major brand names. He angrily calculated the potential damage to his property value and voiced fears that the mural would attract more of the same kind. He wanted the mural gone, to the point that he was ready to organize a community meeting around the issue, threatening to bring in big local law-enforcement names like recently appointed police thug Fantino. Anandan's landlord capitulated to the photographer's rage and agreed to paint over the mural.
Throughout all of this Anandan tried to reason with the photographer: the wall was a traditional target of taggers; the mural kept the area free from tags, the mural was beautiful, and artistic... Anandan pleaded with his landlady: a contract was signed, "You agreed to the sketches and there was a breach of trust." The adults ignored Anandan. After all, he was only a kid.
So now, the graffiti mural is going to be re-painted. The photographer is talking about setting up a surveillance camera outside his studio doors. The landlady is choosing a grey shade of cement to re-paint. And Anandan is biking angrily throughout the city wondering what to do. He organized a petition for supporters to sign and showed this to the photographer. The photographer arrogantly assured Anandan that he could gather a bigger petition against the mural. And he's probably right.
We're living in a funny moment right now. We fear youths and simultaneously talk about saving them. Recently the city of Toronto, with the help of the Mayor's office and the storm troopers we used to call cops, have waged a crack-down on youth culture. Raves, graffiti, squeegee kids and mall rats have all become sources of evil in the eyes of local landlords. Just as zero-tolerance policing is being applied to anything youth create autonomously, youth are being spoon-fed institutional drivel about "democracy" and "freedom" from government sponsored information campaigns. In this climate, the irony bites metallic when you consider how much energy is spent legislating and policing youths; not just through cops on patrol but also through school systems and government-funded 'youth employment schemes.'
The specter of youth violence is wielded as an ominous threat upon the citizenry. The aggregate reaction is the extensive legislation and criminalization of youth activity, however benign such activity may be. The latest schoolyard slayings will hit the headlines with titanic force to reinforce a social policy towards youth that is largely reactive and thus irrelevant. The attention generated by episodes of 'teen violence' spur committees, reports, government funded youth programs and paper towers of 'youth initiatives' which themselves breed an administrative infrastructure to control the spasm.
The reality is that youths socialize in packs; they gather, hang around and 'do much of nothing'; and a congregation of youths on one site is seen as a premonition of violence around the block. One thing not recognized is the intense boredom youth experience when looking out at the world set up for them. It's a commodified world where they're encouraged to accessorize their personalities through vapid culture vultures. We set them up and offer youth nothing. And probably they're too cynical to buy into much of what's set up for them anyhow.
When youths do create a culture of their own, it's immediately legislated, franchised and anthologized - subsumed within the insatiable capitalist economy hungry for ready-made markets and consumable goods. Thus you have hip-hop, graffiti, raves, 'zines and 'alternative' culture re-packaged for the EZ-lifestyle replete with How-To's and Do's and Dont's.
Graffiti is not a new craze. It's not a passing fad or a trend. The art form has been around since the late 50's, which means it has survived longer than hula hoops, the Rubiks Cube, and many other pointless pop culture phenomena that truly deserve the word fad. Its endurance speaks to its importance in youth culture. Graffiti is not a static genre, meaning (like any art form) it's gone through genuine stylistic, technical, and demographic metamorphoses.
Modern urban graffiti was used primarily by political activists to make statements and street gangs to mark territory. Graffiti acted as an important voice of protest up through the 1960s. It was a supplement to the extensive methods of protest concerning the various social and political movements of the time.
It wasn't till the late 1960s that graffiti writing's current identity started to form. The history of this underground art movement begins in Philadelphia, and is rooted in bombing. The writers credited with the first conscious bombing effort are CORNBREAD and COOL EARL. They wrote their names all over the city, gaining attention from the community and local press. It is unclear whether this concept was imported to New York City or spontaneously arose there around the same time.
In 1971, the New York Times published an article on a now infamous writer. TAKI 183 was the alias of a kid from Washington Heights. TAKI was the nickname for his given name, Demetrius. #183 was the number of the street where he lived. He was employed as a foot messenger, so he was on the subway frequently and took advantage of it, doing motion tags. The appearance of this unusual name and numeral sparked public curiosity prompting the 'Times article. He was by no means the first writer or even the first "king". However, TAKI was the first to be recognized outside the newly formed subculture.
To appreciate the meaning of this autonomous subculture created by inner city, working class youth, you have to appreciate the poverty of imagination of the world around them. Nothing they saw in American pop culture reflected their experiences, particularly during the period when tagging began to really take off, during the late seventies and early eighties. Black music - historically appropriated and renamed by white culture - was being stolen again, the term "disco," having been created only when white people started dancing to soul and funk. As for visual art, it took a long time for the Basquiat pique to claim any space in galleries. The Andy Warhols of the world were decidedly interested in investigating their middle-class white, alienated angst, apart from the rest of the consumer debacle that they called American culture.
Graffiti has its roots in a multi-media cultural explosion of creativity, emerging as one of the primary elements of hip-hop culture. It captured a generational zeitgeist that spanned the continental coasts; it was spawned as a highly formulated way of imprinting the urban landscape. Pretty soon kids in LA, New York, Chicago and every other major urban core were spraying trains, listening to hip-hop, and break dancing. It was a culture heavy in language play, in monikers, street rhymes, rap extempore and word duels. It was redolent with inspired fashion and accessories, and defiantly political in its expression of self.
Graffiti makes a lot of sense, when you think about the landscapes writers had in front of them. Not lush, rolling, green pastures but cement and endless underground train systems; grey everywhere you look. These are kids who grew up in tenements, high rises, government housing or row houses. The banality of grey, prison like walls high-rising above their heads was a spite to their very faces. Does it surprise anyone that kids would start covering these walls with color? And with something even better, their names.
In academic-speak, graffiti is "an alternative system of public communication for kids who otherwise have little access to avenues of urban information." Graffiti allows mobility in a number of ways. The work surpasses the normal spatial boundaries of the city; it covers walls citywide and exists in neighborhoods not ordinarily penetrated by working class youth. Graffiti also violates the city's everyday ethnic segregation by incorporating kids of various ethnic backgrounds. Graffiti penetrates the psyche of the society from which it rebels, addressing and questioning social and artistic boundaries. Graffiti resists authority and changes the visual scope of the city, creating complicated urban subcultural preferences.
The key element in graffiti is tagging your initials or nickname. A tag is your identity. Every aspiring graffiti writer spends a lot of time developing the design that will eventually become their tag, their urban calling card - recognized throughout the city as their graffiti signature. It says, "I was here," "I count," and even, "I rule."
Tagging often invokes territoriality; in claiming a site as your own, you're like a dog spraying the corner. It's a very male-oriented pursuit, probably because men are socialized to take over space, to conquer, name, and discover land. Graffiti is what happens when post-colonial kids of color subvert the colonizers' logic and twist it to their own design. They are taking space that has historically been denied them. They are claiming ownership of land that will truly never be theirs in any titular sense of the word. Instead of disappearing into the caricature of shadows of what they are supposed to be, by tagging, graffiti artists are defiantly re-naming themselves.
Before graffiti, young kids of color and working class youths in urban cores had no access to these routes of power. Instead, they created their own avenue towards immortality. Using cheap cans of spray (and every color in the universe), they took over the city at night and laid claim to the concrete, the trains, the walls and the very land that they would systematically be forced to labor on but never hold ownership to.
And the kids could get around. In New York, a special feat was painting the whole subway car - end to end, top to bottom (including the windows). In 1973, Flint 707 painted the first car in its entirety. It was doubly amazing because it was also a 3-D piece, 20 feet long and 12 feet high. Designs would be planned out in advance in writers' "black books" (artists sketch pads; carried everywhere). Because of the vast amount of spray paint needed, the writers would often "rack" (steal) the paint needed to create their artwork.
Writers who did whole cars were well respected among other writers, especially when the whole car had good style. By the mid-1970's whole cars had become graffiti masterpieces, with caricatures, backgrounds, messages (some involving social criticism, such as Lee's piece Stop the Bomb in 1972), scenes and well-known cartoon characters taken from American popular culture. The underground comic artist, Vaughn Bode (1941-1975), was a great influence to many writers who used his characters in their pieces.
"The Freedom Train," painted on July 4th 1976 by Caine, Mad 103, and Flame One, took graffiti to a new level. The first train to be entirely painted, its life was short - it was taken out of regular service and repainted after just one day. Lee, of 'the Fabulous Five' crew suggested that this move by authority was "...stupid. They did something for the United States and somebody 'dropped a dime' (informed) on them. And they busted them."
One reason graffiti seems so threatening is that it's the only art form that seems to depreciate material possessions. Property owners say it devalues their land, storeowners call it vandalism and others see it as part of 'gang' culture. All of these characterizations elaborate on racist and classist concepts of culture and communication.
Historically, art is a thing for the rich, to be enjoyed by the wealthy and a pastime for people whose lives are subsidized by the well off. In an art market driven by million dollar auctions of Van Gogh classics and franchised spin-offs of Bateman prints, art has always commanded respect, because it bestows legitimacy onto its owners by virtue of its market value defining 'taste.' Art galleries and museums are spaces cordoned off from the ruder masses, but heavily subsidized by working people's money through private and government grants.
Corporate Canada supports these artistic spaces because decisively unglamorous businesses like Wal-Mart and Esso need the glamour and prestige of the art-world to rub off on them. After exploiting natural resources and de-populating indigenous populations into involuntary resettlements, companies like Chevron need to buy respectability in the world, and they do this through culture. We have every right to ask, Who is this culture created for? Who is expected to enjoy it? What are the messages this culture conveys? We need to have different ways of seeing art all around us, and we have to ask: "Where am I in this picture?"
When a yuppie corporate-art fuck decides he doesn't like the graffiti in the alley way leading up to his studio because it devalues his property, he is saying people of color who do not belong in this neighborhood have shown evidence of their entry. That means my land is no longer safe and therefore people will not pay as much to purchase it should I decide to sell it. He is also saying people without a lot of education or class, meaning poor people, have had the gall to show evidence of their lives near mine. Their scent makes my land smell bad to others who only want to smell money.
What this corporate art fuck is doing is re-staking the stranglehold corporate culture already has on most of our lives. Youth are a demographic relentlessly targeted by marketing scams engineered by record labels, clothing designers and other major cultural industries. Clothes as status symbols, corporate branding, collectible flash, the whole gamut of consumer frenzy are tailored for youth. Cultures youth create are criminalized, pathologized, shut down, and silenced, and the powers that be start worrying about losing control of the youth. What is preferred is a generation of unquestioning consumers, primed to buy.
Ads swath the city in all their brain-wishy-washy glory, from toilets to highway lawn-sides to subway tunnels. Ads speculate about a world that's never really ours, and make most of us hate our clothes. The minds behind ads are a collective project of some of the hardest working creative minds in our society today, who work feverishly away to design cutting edge campaigns for toothpaste, shoes, and gum.
Advertising is so dominant that we don't really even think about it anymore. This is where ads do their more effective work, when we stop thinking and react emotionally, triggered by subliminal cues. So intimate is our knowledge of ad language and the routine of the sales pitch--such educated consumers we are--that they don't even have to do half the set up work they used to.
Corporate graffiti -- buses wrapped in advertisements, commercials in classrooms and childcare centers sponsored by multinational corporations -- are the real danger. With the tacit approval of our government and the protection of our police force, corporations have re-manufactured public space as controlled sites of incessant commerce. Forget about property. What about our freedom?
Min Sook Lee is a writer, trade unionist, and artist living in Toronto. Her own community art project, a series of environmentally-themed murals on the sides of the city's garbage trucks jointly painted by artists, environmentalists and sanitation workers, was censored by Toronto's City Council when one City Councilor deemed a mural 'offensive'. The censored mural criticized the municipal government's decision to export garbage into landfills.