research “Shouts from the walls” is a celebration of graffiti.
I believe graffiti is a misunderstood art form and a way of visual communicating.
Graffiti is an important factor of self-expression and a medium to better
I will begin by reading you a quote from my research agenda:
“In the smelly underground subway station another train zoomed passed
us. It was rush hour in New York City, another working day had ended and
the people were eager to leave the island behind them. Seven years old,
I stood patiently holding my father’s hand. When our train finally
arrived it was alive. It was a palette spilling from the dark tunnel,
bringing light to the gray surroundings. I savored the beauty of that
train dressed in what I later learned to be graffiti. From that moment
on graffiti has fascinated me.”
Walking on Van Buren I came across a wall filled with graffiti. Like many
other graffiti walls I had seen it spoke to me. It was at this point that
my research project began. As soon as I started doing research and talking
to people about graffiti I realized how much controversy the topic raises.
Is it art? Is it vandalism? Or is it as some call it rebellious art? Is
it a cause of the urban decay or is it a product from it?
One single and clear answer does not exist to these questions. What is
sure is that graffiti, as a form of expression on walls, has been around
since the beginning of human time. It is part of our need to communicate
to others. The term graffiti derives from the Italian verb “graffiare”
which means to scratch.
This was originally referred to marks found on ancient Roman architecture.
Abundant graffiti has been found at sites like Pompeii (79 ad) and the
London Tower (1570). But graffiti as we know it today is usually associated
with 20th century urban environments.
A study done by Alejandro Alonso titled “Urban Graffiti on City
Landscape” classifies the main types of graffiti into 5 categories:
tagging, piecing, existential, political, and gang graffiti. I will now
give you a brief overview of these types.
Tagging is the most wide spread type. It is a stylized signature that
the writer marks on the environment. Tagging traces its roots back to
NYC during the late ’60 when a kid from Greece started to write
Taki 183 all over the city. The purpose of tagging is recognition and
therefore to get up in as many places as possible. Pretty soon new tags
became invisible between so many others so the necessity to start a new
style came along.
It was during the 70s that Piecing started. A piece, which is short for
masterpiece is an artistic expression of a tag. It is much more elaborated
and requires skills and talent to do.
Political graffiti are the most open system, meaning that all who are
confronted with the text can understand the message conveyed. In the book
Political Graffiti Chaffee states, “The presence of political graffiti
are more abundant under authoritarian governments.” A great example
of many political graffiti was found on the Berlin Wall.
Existential Graffiti contain individual personal commentaries. Most existential
graffiti are found in public bathrooms and are also called Latrinalia
(by anthropologist Alan Dundes). Out of all graffiti these are the ones
that receive most attention by social scientists to try to understand
Gang graffiti are done mainly to mark territory. They usually do not have
much of an artistic quality to them and are not considered graffiti by
I feel it is also important to cite the latest trend in graffiti, which
is stickers. Since the police is always on the look out taggers came up
with the fastest way to get up, which is writing their tags on stickers.
In mentioning all types of graffiti murals should also be considered.
Murals are not part of graffiti but like graffiti are made on the environment
as ornamental function for the people. Murals tell stories; they are narrative
of a community. A leading figure in mural paintings is Diego Rivera. He
believed that art should play a role in empowering working people to understand
their own histories.
After this initial research I made an accordion fold book as an applied
project. This is a collection of quotes and images to give a general feel
of graffiti art.
Along with this project I also designed a black book. Black books are
sketch journals graffiti artists keep.
Researching graffiti the one thing that always comes
to surface is the war on graffiti. In phoenix the organization in charge
of cleaning graffiti is called the Graffiti Busters. It was funded in
1990 and their job is to remove all graffiti from private or public property
within 24 hr of when reported.
I interviewed Mr. Hogans, the lead director of Graffiti Busters and he
defined graffiti as any unwanted mark on private or public property. To
the question on why he thinks graffiti are made he answered that graffiti
is made only for the thrill of being caught and in his opinion most writers
that are caught don’t go back to writing anymore.
Most people in the war on graffiti see graffiti as frustration and graffiti
artists as criminals. But not everybody shares this view. Janice Rahn
in her book “Painting without permission” states, “graffiti
is a way of expression, most writers begin as teens seeking some sort
of acceptance or approval. However through their active participation
within a community they become more aware of graffiti as social activism.
Their motivation grows with the realization that they have a public voice
to state their position.
Writers usually write in groups also called crews. Crews take graffiti
from individual expression to collective expression. Writers span across
all ethnic and economics boundaries. For many being part of a crew is
a sense of belonging since crew members form very strong bonds.
Joe Austin in his lecture Urban Youth culture, Public space and graffiti
writing discussed how graffiti might keep youth away from worst things
like gangs and in his book Taking the Train he questions the fact of graffiti
artists being criminals by asking the question “why would someone
paint if one just wanted to be a criminal?”
My initial idea was to have a legal wall put up in the Van Buren neighborhood
on which people could freely express themselves.
Legal walls have been used in other cities for the past 10 years with
some very successful turnouts. In talking about legal walls Mr. Hogans
said he does not believe they are effective because the writers illegally
empty their spray cans on the way home on any available surface.
So what I worked towards is having a graffiti wall painted at the Saint
Vincent De Paul Soup Kitchen in North Phoenix. To me it seems interesting
to bring the art of the street inside to soup kitchen also because I feel
that both homeless people and graffiti art are many times wrongly misunderstood
by society. I talked to some people at the Soup Kitchen and had them write
in one of the black books the topic they would like to be represented
on the wall.
As part of my ethnographic research I had the chance to meet phoenix aerosol
artist Noe Baez also known as SUCH. This was for me very helpful in understanding
graffiti from an insider’s point of view. Noe started out doing
illegal graffiti, like most graffiti artists but for a few years has now
turned to legal graffiti and paints on canvases. He says painting on canvases
takes away from the thrill of painting on the streets but allows him more
time to really focus on the piece.
To document my research I designed a book. After better understanding
graffiti I felt this book had to be a little out of the ordinary. Graffiti
is in your face, it is a very confrontational topic. It operates outside
the system and goes against general laws to form laws of it’s own.
So I made an oversize book, which is 22.5 x. 15 inches. The spreads are
strong visually because that is what graffiti is, a visual statement on
the environment. I used metal and screws for the cover to give the book
a grungy feel and relate it to the urbanism feel of graffiti.
To conclude I would like to leave you with this quote:
"To pour your soul onto a wall and be able to
step back and see your fears, your hopes, your dreams, your weaknesses,
really gives you a deeper understanding of yourself and your own mental