In the late 1960s’s, another art genre was recognized and developed although its lack of form and other basic aesthetic elements has been once a topic of debates as regard its acceptance in the artistic world. Obviously, it differs from the works of art found in museums and galleries and its kind are not found in those elite locations because its location is specific. The location of graffiti art has been actually a subject of oppositions as well as its bold, unexpected and unconventional presentation. Although still, its location, may it be illegal, does not disqualify it as art.
Thus, graffiti art is a form of art despite criticisms on its legality, coherence and presentation. It is also argued that graffiti art is a form of vandalism, but this is true only if they appeared on private or public property without permission. Graffiti art is indeed another genre of visual masterpiece. Graffiti comes from “grafficar”, an Italian word for drawings, markings, patterns, scribbles, or messages that are painted, written, or carved on a wall or surface. Graffiti is the plural of grafficar. Grafficar also signifies a process meaning “to scratch”.
Examples of which are different wall writings ranging from “cave paintings”, bathroom scribbles, or any message that is scratched on walls. In the ancient Egypt and Rome, in particular, graffiti has been visible in monuments and building walls which are now being explored. It is originally used to term inscriptions, figure drawings, and other carvings found on the walls of ancient sepulchers or ruins. Examples are the Catacombs, or those found at Pompeii. (Whitford, 1992. pp. 137) In the modern era, present day graffiti is also associated to any unsolicited markings on a private or public property, usually considered to be vandalism.
In the early 1970s young New Yorkers has started to adopt tags, signatures and signs using aerosol sprays and markers in public places. The youngsters, belonging to the black and Puerto Rican communities have initiated the tagging which eventually developed and soon covered the city’s walls, buses and obviously in subway trains. Tags even cover the entire train. Some may contain screen names or reflections of the writer, comes in subtle and often cryptic messages. Taki, an artist of Greek-American descent, was the first modern identified tagger in New York.
He signed himself Taki 183, the number probably derived from the number in his apartment block. Some names also made their appearances in some real urban murals painted with spray-paint. Tags such as Futura 2000, Dust and Pink gained fame and recognition in the world of hip-hops. There were also Basquiat and Haring who also started to work in the street and the subway but their works swiftly spread beyond the works of graffiti. Their works attracted the attention of influential dealers which put them in great demand although their works were considered one of the rare forms of graffiti art.
(Graffiti… 2007, p. 1) Tagging and graffiti differs from each other although arguments about this difference still arise. Tagging is associated negatively as gang-motivated and illegal because it is usually meant as vandalism. It is also viewed as too vulgar or controversial to have public value. On the other hand, graffiti can be viewed as creative expression, not to mention its usual link to politics. Main Types of Graffiti Art The main types of graffiti fall into different categories and have their own names which are recognized in cities all over the world. First is “Hip Hop Graffiti”.
This is characterized by ‘pieces’ which hip hop graffitists create by aerosol spray paints. They are large and colorful works, usually including either a complex mix of letters or a cartoon-style picture. This type of graffiti often lacks much thought and planning in design and usually takes an extended period of time. Second is the “Opportunistic Graffiti” which location is selected impulsively, on the basis of low risk and low natural surveillance. Graffitists of this type usually use “tags” or “scrawling” to mark their territory. Third type is the “Gang Graffiti”.
Gang graffiti is not art work but a sophisticated communication to publicize gang power, status, and territory. This type is somehow related to opportunistic graffitists because they also use “tags” or “scrawling” to mark territory. But in addition to this, gangs use graffiti to create notoriety or show off their defiance of the law and society, and as a mode of marking their presence. The fourth, the “Political & Social Graffiti” is obviously of racial or political motivation. This is uncommonly regarded as part of the graffiti subculture, although it is recognized as damaging to property.
The last type is the “Commercial Graffiti” which is an emerging civic problem. This involves huge compensations paid by private organizations to graffitists to spray advertising logos onto walkways and buildings for promotions of their products. This type is an illegal form of advertising that avoids normal planning laws. (Stowers 1997, pp. 1-2) Gang Graffiti: The Most Dangerous Graffiti The gang graffiti is the most controversial not just because of the characters of its writings but because of its social impact in the neighborhood. Gang graffiti is an indication of gang presence in the community.
Gangs use graffiti as their “newspapers,” thus they usually call it “newspaper in the wall” as gangs use them to send messages. This is their way of marking boundaries and warning rival gangs. Graffiti may also be an instrument to advertise drug market or, as a memorial to a killed gang member. Symbols and cryptic writing style is exclusive in each gang. Death warrants and beat downs are known to be posted in graffiti. Upside down or crossed out graffiti generally means a put down or threat to a rival gang or person. (Bland and Read 2000)
According to Michael Carlie (2002), graffiti is the most common method of gang communication and a major symbolism of their gang affiliation. Jonathan Kellerman (1994) as cited by Carlie referred to graffiti as “the hieroglyphics of rage” because of the violence associated with it. On the surface, a person who is not familiar with it might think of graffiti as a simple nonsense painting on the wall or in poles or elsewhere, or just a plain vandal. Carlie adds that among other things, graffiti communicates the “role call” or the roster of gang members, or the hierarchy of gang members.
It also implies who’s around, who’s with who, who’s disrespecting who, which gangs are claiming what territory and which areas are in dispute. It may be an announcement of current gang activities and who’s getting ready to attack who, or who’s already been killed. A familiar language, for example, is the “X” which if marked on a member’s name means he is the likely target for an attack or murder. (Carlie 2002, pp. 2) An important not on gang graffiti is, in many ways, it is a code and codes in general are subjects to analysis.
Deciphering gang graffiti requires the understanding of the symbols, abbreviations, structure, that composes the gang language. In the United States, gang graffiti is usually based on two dominant styles – the L. A. and Chicago styles – which vary greatly and influence to some degree across the country. Some gangs use an exclusive style while others use a combination. For example, the Gangster Disciples originated in south-side of Chicago might combine L. A. style gang lettering with Chicago Folks Nation symbols. In New York, Latin Kings might use Chicago Latin King symbols but with New York tagger style graffiti lettering.
(Graffiti… 2010) These styles and some of the variations are seen throughout the country and a person who understands both styles is more likely to understand most, if not all, gang graffiti. Characters of gang related graffiti has sharp, angular stick letters, or mostly contains religious, even “satanic” imagery, or is done in one color of paint. Most of the times they are very simple and flat-out which make them easy to figure out. But no matter how simple they appear, it still requires some basic code-breaking skills. (Deciphering Gang…2010. p. 1)
Figure 1: “WS 18 St, HGS” – West Side Eighteenth Street (gang), Hoover Gangsters (a clique of 18th Street) Two-digit numbers, especially “13? , “14? , or “18? , signifies graffiti for a hispanic gang while three digits, especially if they are the area code of your neighborhood, it’s almost certainly not a hispanic gang, but a typical prison or street sort. Exception to this is numbers followed by “K” which means a threat from a rival gang. “WS18? (figure 1) is a tag for the (hispanic) West Side 18th Street gang out of California. “WS18K” means a threat towards 18th Street by a local gang.
Note that “K” is short for “Kill”. If there are two digits, see if they’re prefixed by “N”, “S”, “E”, or “W” – (or “NS”, “SS”, “ES”, or “WS”) – which relate to the cardinal directions, and form part of the gang’s identity. Hispanic gangs more often use 13 and 14 – the 13th letter of the alphabet is “M”, which generally stands for “Mexico” or “La Eme”, the Mexican Mafia and the 14th letter “N” generally means “North” that symbolizes which end of California the gang originated from. It is a division as gangstas from the north and south parts of California frequently clash.
Figure 2: “Lil Capone WS VSLC, crossed out BK, Crossed out PBGK” – Lil Capone (name of gang member) West Side Venice Shoreline Crips, Blood Killer, Playboy Gangster Killer (disrespect to rival gangs) Certain patterns appear without the numbers. As always, “K” is a threat to “(K)ill”, as are any crossed-out letters. “A” as in “Almighty” “N”, that virtually stands for “Nation” can be safely ignored. When seen together, which usually occurs, it show up that the gangs used to calling themselves the Almighty Whatever Nation.
Figure 3: “GD around Star of David with number six inside the star, pitchfork extending from the D” – Gangsters Disciples with six point star representing GDs and Folks. Pitchford represents GD’s and Folks Gangs which are known in the country carry a finite code which makes them easy to identify. “GD” is the Gangster Disciples and “VL” are the Vice Lords. “LK” are the Latin Kings, and “LQ” the Latin Queens; sometimes when they’re getting along, they’re the LKQ – Latin Kings and Queens. Crossed-out letters in gang graffiti usually mean a threat.
Letters “B”, “C”, “F”, “P”, or “S” crossed-out in a piece of gang graffiti, it signifies a threat towards a gang whose name, “nation”, or nickname begins with that crossed out letter. In the Vice Lord tag, the letter “C” is not crossed out which tells you the local Vice Lords don’t have complaints with the (C)rips. Gangs should write very carefully because all too often, little slights in graffiti like crossing out letters, or painting over rival gangs’ tags, are a sure warning sign of impending gang war. Figure 4: “CVLN” – Conservative Vice Lords Nation. Cane extending from the “L” is a CVL symbol.
Upside down pitchfork shows disrespect towards Fold Nation gangs. Knowledge in deciphering gang graffiti introduced you to a neighborhood of gangs. In (figure 4) the “C” is short for “Conservative”. The “Conservative Vice Lords” are one of several dozen larger Vice Lord “sets” around United States. Some communities have taken a massive campaign against graffiti and also intensifies gang reduction. In Florida, the Florida Department of Corrections website posts information to help educate the public in reducing gang activities, which imposes threat to the community.
Some gangs, the website says, even use graffiti as ‘Death warrants’ to authorities specifically to police officers. Community awareness program in most part of America uses the 4 R’s of graffiti to intensify campaign against gangs and gang graffiti. The slogan says, “READ IT, RECORD IT, REPORT IT & REMOVE IT”. (Deciphering Gang…2010, p. 1) Thus, citizens should read it and report it to police, and police will record it and then remove it. These steps are important but the removal of the graffiti is the most risky.
Removal of graffiti manifests the neighborhood’s refusal to be dominated or intimidated by gangs which is a language most gang members understand. Neighborhood residents who ignore graffiti and bother not to remove them are viewed as frightened and weak by the gangs who made them. At the worst, there are instances that gang members attack people who attempt to remove or cover their graffiti. Gang graffiti is the most dangerous of all graffiti and can usually be found around community rail stations.
It marks territory and rival gangs usually challenge for territory by crossing out another gang’s graffiti. It imposes real and great danger to the residents. Messages in graffiti are taken seriously by gangsters and the longer graffiti is, the greater the risk that the threats will be acted on. Graffiti is a gateway crime and membership in gangs certainly guarantees a criminal record. Since juvenile of minor age receives more lenience when it comes to punishment, the minors are the usual target of recruitment and the doer of crimes.
Residents Against Graffiti Everywhere (RAGE) is a community group that looks at social issues and works with local councils and Governments towards promoting a zero tolerance policy on graffiti. (Bland and Read 2000, p. 179) By legal definition, graffiti is vandalism. It is the unauthorized application of markings on someone else’s property, especially without permission. Therefore, legality wise it is a crime. The manner that graffiti is regularly produced as illegal detracts it from the concept to be considered an art form.
Very unfortunately that graffiti is responded with outrage over the abuse of someone’s property. This negative connotation may take away the value or impact of the artist’s original message. Perhaps, it would be better to get permission from the owner of the “canvas” to display the art. Yet, graffiti still elicits emotional response even in its illegal state. Furthermore, it is composed of lines, shapes, color, tones, and forms in a display that conveys a certain message and elicits an emotion. Therefore, it is safe to say that graffiti is indeed an art.
As George Stowers (1997) presented four criteria as basis that some forms of graffiti become a work of art. First, the artist’s intention to produce a work of art separates graffiti art from everyday graffiti markings. Second, graffiti art established a history of development in style and technique. Third, the art world has already recognized graffiti as an art form. Fourth is the public response to graffiti art indicates that it is art. Regardless of the message it conveys, the fact that graffiti carry the aesthetic and creative symbolism and expression, public agrees that graffiti is a form of art.
Like other art forms, graffiti art is a definite art when both the artist and the audience agree on the works ability to provide maximal aesthetic satisfaction. Graffiti is presently known as spray can art which is a form indeed recognized as art. It has form, color, and other base properties as any other art pieces. It also has as an arrangement of these elements into structures that qualify it aesthetically as being art. However, something that is done with spray paint might make it graffiti, but not necessarily qualify as art or graffiti art.
Location and presentation still are the factors that hinder the general acceptance of graffiti art. However, the instances that the art world’s acceptance of graffiti art shows that conventional methods of presentation are not all that matters in determining graffiti as an art. Graffiti in the form of spray can art is art like any other work that might be found in a gallery or a museum. References Bland, N. & Read, T. (2000). Policing Anti-social Behaviour. Police Research Series 123, Policing and Reducing Crime, British Home Office, London, UK.
Carlie, Michael. (2002) Graffiti and Other Gang Identifiers. (Into the Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs) Retrieved 23 May 2010 from <http://faculty. missouristate. edu/m/MichaelCarlie/what_I_learned_about/GANGS/graffiti _and_other_identifiers. htm>. Deciphering Gang Graffiti (2008). The Slugsite. com. Retrieved 23 May 2010 from <http://www. slugsite. com/archives/825>. Graffiti. (2007) The Huntfor. com retrieved 23 May 2010 from <http://www. huntfor. com/arthistory/C20th/graffiti. htm>.
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