August 13, 2011

Architecture, Graffiti




Moe's has a little display of hipster graffiti books in the arts section with (inevitably) Banksy's "Wall and Piece" as the centerpiece. One of them (focusing on local Bay Area graffiti), has a breathless blurb that celebrates its own in-tuneness with the underground (oh, the subversion!). Phrases like "[the authors] scoured the neighbourhoods for the abandoned buildings, tunnels, and back alleys", "this stunning scene", "illegal but powerful work", "the region's dazzling array of graffiti and street art" just roll off the (back) page.

Not so much breathless as breathtaking, really, if (like me) you actually live in one of the neighborhoods featured in a bunch of the book's celebratory pages. My neighborhood's increasingly infested with graffiti (it's noticeably worse now than even a year ago, with almost every external surface tagged repeatedly). But I'm betting no one connected with the celebration asked the residents of my extended neighbourhood what we thought about it: what do we think about the fact that pretty much every piece of graffiti around here is just a scribbled tag, many of them gang tags (there's none of that lovely middle-class Banksyesque art around here)? What do we think about the kids playground that's tagged every damn week so that nowadays it's such an unpleasant place to be we don't go there any more (especially when the graffiti one week was "Fuck You All!!" repeated across the slides and swings)? What do we think of the graffiti on the local tree trunks (oh, that's powerful work, for sure!)? What do we thing about walking down a street where every non-barred window has gang tags etched into the glass? What do we think about having to try to get graffiti off our cars? What do we think about the fact that pretty much every external surface in our neighbourhood is now covered in the territorial pissings of local and visiting gangs or taggers? What do we think about the fact that around here, graffiti means your neighbourhood is basically inhabited at night by (sometimes armed) people who'll do whatever it takes to mark your window or car or a local street sign as theirs?

The trouble is, yes, graffiti is powerful; and if you think it's confined to abandoned buildings, tunnels, and back alleys, you're as blind as a bat (or you're tone deaf to the lived environment).

Graffiti is like architecture: it helps sets the tone of a street or area just by its presence; it's inescapable; and it's almost always imposed on a neighbourhood without the consent of, or consultation with, its residents. In my neighborhood, nearly all graffiti (like bad architecture) is oppressive and damn-near omnipresent. And it's that oppressiveness these books celebrate, whether they admit it or not. You'd think it'd be a nice gesture for the proceeds of these books to go towards community-led graffiti abatement programs; but that would be, well, subversive, no?

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