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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

taggers, graff and stencil artists

I've had a long, difficult battle with the ethics of graffiti. Living in a city and being surrounded by the differnent forms has given me a lot of chances to think about it. Before "Breakin'" my experience of graffiti was limited to the local imperative "Valley Go Home". Sure, spelled in all sorts of creative ways, but that hardly elevates the expression to art. Post "Breakin'" graffiti-art and graffiti-artists became a popular, if subversive, perspective. When Michelle Shocked sings about Michael Stewart, NY graff artist who was murdered by cops in custody, I'm torn between my respect for private property and public space vs. my admiration for public expression, art and sub(versive)-culture.
In my daily commute I come across three distinct forms of expression that satisfy the dictionary definition of graffiti.

1. Tagging: like a simple signature, sometimes even done using a pen (marker/texter)
2. Stencil: create a stencil, go around town spraying it on suitable surfaces.
3. Graffiti art: a la NY subways and "Breakin", easily recognizable and distinct from tagging.

I don't consider tagging any sort of art. Tagging is crap. Tagging is the adolescent human equivalent of pissing on a wall or bush to mark territory. There is no value add to the community. There's very little (if any) aesthetic value provided. The political content is roughly at the level of noise (ya sure the young people are angry, what else is new?) Tagging makes me wish we had a baseball bat wielding superhero who could appear at the scene, just in time, to make a blunt point. That's my emotional response to tagging. It's very different to my emotional response to good graff art or stencil. Technically these forms of expression also fall under the definition of vandalism, but I think they give as much (if not more) than they take.

Sure, graffiti art is highly derivative and dated, but in that way it's part of our culture like macramé or quilt making. Graffiti artists would prickle at being compared to quilting or macramé, but I think it's a great image. Where do old graffiti artists go? Personally I don't vibe with the form as much as I do with stencil work, but I think that's a socio-economic thing.

It amazes me that I have such highly developed stereotypes of taggers, graff and stencil artists. But I can always see the perp in my mind's eye when I see what they leave behind. I like to imagine there's a class war going on between the stencil and graff people, but I don't think there is. My (not very informed, but well developed) stereotype has it that stencil and graffiti people never mix. They're totally gentrificationseparate and unknown to each other - and what's more, for some reason, again this is only true in my mind, the graff artists don't pay any attention to the stencil work. But the stencil people are reverent of the graff art. That's because of my Marxist interpretation of the forms. Looked at through the lens of class struggle, the taggers are sleeping masses, the graff artists are the true working class heroes, and the stencil people are the literati agitators.

Stencil art is clinical, usually a bit on the nose, flat footed, didactic. It generally trades on postmodern glib irreverence, culture-jamming and somewhat soviet design. Because the creation time for stencil is front loaded on set-up (cutting the stencil), and application is very quick, stencils show up in places that graff doesn't. Stencils end up playing in spaces shared by taggers, very public places, prime places for exposure.

Graffiti, on the other hand, requires a lot of time on-site. This means that graffiti ends up in less prime, less well patrolled, less public places. It also incurs a lot more risk. Graffiti, in it's NY Subway form, is also a lot warmer than stencil. Colors are used, there's a lot of emotion, bounce, pizzazz, whatever. So while it may be (especially in Australia) derivative, it is authentic.
I think it's the risk and the warmth of graffiti that gets stencil people's admiration. I think it's the lack of those qualities that prevents the graffiti artists from engaging the stencilists similarly. And to think, this whole artist community interaction is only happening in my imagination.

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