Graffiti: Culture or Subculture?

"[T]here are some graffiti that could exist in no other form, and the peculiar, anonymous nature of their creation and dissemination is unique. This, to my mind, is the only sense in which graffiti are a kind of 'underground' humor or folk culture," says BBC broadcaster, author, and journalist Nigel Rees in the introduction to his 1981 book Graffiti 3. The message determines the medium; sometimes the medium is the message.

Graffiti 3, one of several of Rees's books collecting the writing on the universal wall, focuses on the message of the ordinary person--the verbal irony, the gritty wit, the insight. Graffiti as illuminated manuscript isn't his interest. Rees the journalist is after the words. Thus he cites the walls:

Forget the notes and play the music. (Edinburgh)
Supposing they gave a war and nobody came. (New Orleans, 1972)
We are the writing on your wall. (144, Piccadilly, London, taken over by squatters)

"The subject of graffiti, like the human functions that give rise to so many of them, is a great leveller," Rees says. "The popularity of Graffiti Lives, OK, and Graffiti 2 has brought me into contact with a wonderful range of people who, if nothing else, have in common the fact that they derive great delight from contemplating the writings on the wall. Some have suggested that what we have here is a sub-culture--but graffiti-writing is so prevalent it has almost become a culture in its own right."

This is the best line in the book. When does a subculture become a culture? Must it reach a certain size? Does its oppositional role simply give way to being other, different and somehow equal--alongside, rather than within or beneath--the dominant culture?

Rees's text suggests that a culture is mature, that it doesn't have to fight the other guy to derive a sense of self and of self-worth. In this way, graffiti is a culture. If a subculture is a group within a group that is organized around a common activity, occupation, age, and so on, then graffiti is also subculture. If it engages that larger culture in a debate about anything at all, then it is a subculture. It's both.

My fascination with graffiti is that it represents unbridled creative thought. It's honest, and it optimisitc. The writer believes in his own ability to create and he simply does so.

Twenty-six years after Graffiti 3 was published, I find myself placing its lines alongside the beautiful stylized letters of the graffiti pieces I admire and seeing one big world, one in which the visual art of graffiti has exceeded the verbal. I bring my daughter to see graffiti and encourage her to imagine the power of language--its meaning--in the colors and shapes created by the graffiti artist.

The lesson: Take letters and words and make of them what you will. Never stop imaging newer, more beautiful worlds.

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  1. while graffiti isn't big here where I am (Malaysia), the small influences I see are indeed usually interesting & often with meaning

    still while not always understood by other than its artist, it would qualify as a unique form of art in itself.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Stev. What forms of public art are big in Malaysia?


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