Droppin’ Knowledge: The Politics of Rebellion
When we try and dive into the history of graffiti, most research and writing tells us that even from its very roots, graffiti is a form of communication. I’d even go as far as calling it a language. Inherently hard to read and decipher for those who aren’t constantly consumed by it, graffiti has its very own codes and encryptions that span countries and continents – and has for a very long time. But in the larger scheme of things, these codes become symbols that resonate within communities. As major urban cities faced economic crisis, political failings, war, societal backlash, anarchism and ever-changing cultural needs; graffiti has been seen in the streets. It has always been a cathartic means of expression for its artists, but when thrown in the public eye as response to conflict, graffiti can have major impact.
I remember walking through Kensington Market in Toronto a few summers ago and catching a SPUD1 stencil of our media famous ex-mayor Rob Ford with “SPUD for Mayor” written beneath. Beyond a quick laugh and internal shout out to SPUD1, I felt a connection to that work. It struck a chord with me, it reminded me that my opinions, worries, questions and concerns about my city’s political structure were not just my own. This stencil quickly spread throughout the city, and every time I saw it I remember that feeling of an off-the-grid, underground language. A symbol, even small, even satirical, can connect people. At the end of the day visibility is a matter of visuality, what is seen is seen, but who it connects with is a whole other story.
There are of course larger, heavier examples of this symbolic connection. I could list hundreds of examples of graffiti used in connection to major socio-political movements – I’d like to focus on a few that may have flown under our immediate radar.
In an attempt to change social convention, The Situationist International and Letterists stomped through New York City in the late 1960’s. They weren’t the first to involve themselves in a political artistic uprising, but they did reference and pay a lot of respect to their Dadaist roots, think Guy DeBord, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Hoch etc these artists were fearless and they needed you to know it. The Situationists & Letterists understood that modern life was boring, and therefor wrong. They had every intention to seek out alienation and domination and confront it head on. The 1960’s were a radical time and they chose to be radical in the opposite direction. They claimed they spoke what everyone was afraid to say, naming themselves “avant-garde revolutionaries, linked as clearly to Dada as to Marx”. This collaborative technique of mass thought versus mass consumption is expanded by Claire Bishop in a lot of her writing, most notably “The mixed panorama of socially collaborative work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialized, anti-market, politically engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life”.
In Beijing, a different example emerges. The same urban cultures we see in North America weren’t equally instated within the youth, hence the lack of response to Zhang Dali’s particular brand of graffiti. Zhang’s self-portrait was repeated over 2000 times in 1998 throughout the city as a project called “Dialogue”, usually disregarded as Westernized-vandalism, Zhang’s efforts to speak with his city were relatively ignored or dismissed. According to Wu Hung in Zhang Dali’s Dialogue: Conversation with a City, “Although each of the graffiti portraits is a deliberate repetition, its meaning and effect as the locus of an intended dialogue with the city is generally and largely beyond the artist’s control”. Zhang did not know what the outcome of his work would be, much like the graffiti writers we know, the work is left to defend itself at the end of the day. Though graffiti may have been much more popular in the west, the intent behind graffiti is known internationally as communication and artistic expression, which relies on public space as its canvas. This brings me to conclude with my all-time favourite quote that surrounds this idea, “When there is no quick fix for our most pressing social problems, there may be only our ability to feel and witness the reality taking place around us. This empathy is a service that artists offer to the world” (worded masterfully by relational aesthetics expert Suzanne Lacy). Without the writing on the wall, the subtle or sometimes boisterous commentary provided by graffiti and street art, the urban city would not have the same political value and dialogue that it does. Even the smallest, the seemingly random, the sometimes purely conceptual, or entirely straight-forward connects us.