Graffiti, Art, Culture, Commerce

A screening of Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence – 24/4/217

UK #HipHopEd, Mindspray, UCLU Hip-Hop & RnB Society & The Centre for Philosophy of Education at UCL Institute of Education – hosted by PoetCurious – an ongoing series of events continuing an international conversation between academics, artists and educators.

Putting a fresh face on the origins of street art, the documentary, Wall Writers: Graffiti In Its Innocence, shows that before the ubiquity of Banksy, or even Jean-Michel Basquiat, the grassroots (sub)culture of tagging, graffiti, what was to become “street art”, was first happening in late 60s America.

The story jumps straight into the Washington Heights neighbourhood of New York City and a small group of teenagers, later to become close friends, who started to “tag” street signs, boarded-up buildings, subway stations, and their trains. This is contrasted with a Philadelphia scene, divided between the North and West sides of the city – sparking a debate about which city started tagging first which many of the graffiti writers later disown as secondary to a common sense of being taggers.

Comments in the film and from audience members highlighted the tough backgrounds of poverty and violence faced by the writers, and that this lack of opportunities and disenfranchisement from society at large was perhaps the main cause for their interest in tagging the cities they were born in, as a way of being noticed – what Errol Donald (aka PRIDE) from the panel referred to as: “taking ownership of their own voice”. The assumed goal was to become visible, if not famous, at street level. And as the layers of tags grew thicker and denser – one reporter notes: “it’s hard to read the graffiti for the graffiti” – the removal of graffiti became a political issue and the taggers, notorious.  

“it’s hard to read the graffiti for the graffiti”

A Police Commissioner being interviewed estimates the annual direct cost of cleaning the surfaces of the city at $1m per year, figures such as this added to graffiti’s “social cost” and deepened the preconception that it was both symptom and cause of crime, which brought further media scrutiny. So fierce was the city-wide fame of some writers, that when the distinctive Philadelphia tagger, Cornbread, was announced to have been shot dead in case of mistaken identity, he keenly reasserted his presence on the street by climbing into the elephant pen of the city zoo and tagging one of the unfortunate beasts. He was subsequently arrested, only to be swamped by visiting police officers looking for his autograph.

Such anecdotes have the spirit of legend, and highlight some of the powerful mystique that the taggers could wield in their anonymity, in an era before surveillance, smart phone cameras and the internet.

Wall Writers is refreshing for its naturalism and lack of pretension, employing both archive footage and current interviews with the surviving taggers. The documentary tells their story clean and straight; where it’s all too easy to over-analyse and create false intellectuality around a spontaneous, organic action/spectacle – and label it a movement, rather than a series of circumstances that brought free-thinking individuals together. from responding to the first tags of Julio 204, on to media notoriety and ending in a sharp stop as the writers (back then the taggers did not refer to themselves as “artists”) get burned by the false promise of selling their work on canvas for profit – money which most of them never see. This was the formation of United Graffiti Artists (UGA) a form of social-contract experiment carried out by sociology student, Hugo Martinez, bringing together the top 20 taggers in New York. In return for “free” materials, the writers agreed to commit their work to canvas only, subsequently producing sets for a ballet company and decorating high-end Park Avenue apartments with the “street” aesthetic.

Contrast this first commodification of tagging/graffiti/street art, the watershed point at which many of the artists feel the practice lost it soul, with the modern day homogenous lumping together of “street art” style, branding and writing materials, that are sold back to us but still omnipresent  in our streets. This shows how far the original scene has shifted, and been co-opted, into a multi-million dollar, global industry, and become absorbed, blanded-out even, into popular culture. The original writers, now middle-aged, don’t seem to mind much; money was never their goal. But consider that, as kids, many of them were often so poor they had to steal many of their materials: various forms of permanent marker, shoe polish, and cans of spray paint, and the street was their (free and accessible) canvas.

Is this tagging/graffiti/street art - a tribute to all of the above?

Is this tagging/graffiti/street art - a tribute to all of the above?

The screening finished with a panel discussion and open Q&A between Errol Donald (aka PRIDE), Sophy Robson (aka SOFLY), Patrick Turner (Author and Lecturer) and Tizer (Graffiti Writer). A lot of questions were raised about the challenge of accessibility to the scene and authenticity in street art and tagging culture, with similar levels of healthy competition as in hip-hop; and how, if at all, graffiti could remain pure when diverted into educational settings, let alone be taught. The key argument seemed to be that graffiti as a sub-culture is about individuals representing themselves through the their tags, and so sharing approaches and ideas might be counterproductive to developing a style and putting work out there in contrast to other writers’ words. Speakers differed on how common teaching or sharing of technique is on the street, especially when it comes to equal representation of  female writers and artists . It was interesting to hear the number of community and socially-focused projects street art and graffiti are applied to, with artists and educators working in a range of educational and therapeutic environments, including young children, prison inmates and people with disabilities, as well as several artists and writers collaborating alongside one other in group exhibitions.

For me, there’s something about the juvenile spirit and joie de vivre of the first taggers in Wall Writers gradually losing their drive and desire to “act-out” and make art that breaks the law. This is not to label the taggers’ actions as necessarily anti-social, or to claim that their actions were/are morally wrong, but many of them seemed to tire of “doing” graffiti as enjoyable hobby, and settled into regular day-to-day shit that we all have to deal with – in short – it stopped being fun.

But as one of the writers says towards the end of the documentary, he was a part of something interesting and original that had gone on to influence future generations, the street artists, to create larger, more elaborate murals and the widescreen technicolour tags we have come to expect – maybe the pioneering writers of 1967-73 had simply said everything they had to say.

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