Graffiti as Oppression
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. – Martin Luther King Jr.
In times of social upheaval, vandalism has been a way to spread ideas undermining the current state’s control. Minorities have always been degraded to be seen as inferior to the majority. In order to keep individuals oppressed, tyrants used violent methods to instil fear. Since these individuals did not have the right to have their voice heard they used vandalism as a method of communicating their message. Why use vandalism? Ideas were spread anonymously without the fear of persecution or getting caught. With graffiti, messages are presented that can be viewed by anyone and is easily accessible. Furthermore, vandalism was displayed in public so it reached a larger audience with a more powerful message.
For example this can be illustrated in the current dictatorship taking place in North Korea. The following video portrays an individual acting out in response to the government. This was a monumental event because North Korea is considered the most secretive country in the world and any opposition against the government can lead to execution. When watching this video it is important to take into consideration that this man risked his life to record this moment.
For further information visit the link below.
Graffiti as a Political Movement
Bill 101 – Quebec, Canada
Bill 101 would make French the official language of the state and courts in the province of Quebec. It would further expand into the educational system as French would be the dominant language. The Bill caused great controversy because those in favour felt the Bill was very important for the preservation of the French language. However, the large Anglophone community and immigrant population were not in favour because it would strain their language rights. Montreal contains a large Anglophone population; therefore, uproar against the Bill was produced. A strategic method, which was exceptional for the political movement, was to vandalize stop signs. The red octagon that read ‘STOP’ was spray painted (with an identical red to the original paint) so that the ‘S’, top sides of the ‘T’ and the curve of the ‘P’ had been sprayed out so the sign read ‘101’. Peirce’s theory on signs and meaning claims that meanings do not reside in the initial perception of a sign, but rather the interpretation of perception and the action that follows based on this perception. Signs do not have any meaning until a thought allows for interpretation. For example, a red octagon sign with the letters STOP has no meaning until there is an interpretation of the sign and a subsequent action (you stop). The cunning aspect of this movement was displayed with our understandings of stop signs and to appropriate their meanings to create a new designation. We know that the meaning of a stop sign is for us to stop. Now by painting 101 onto this red octagon we step away from the denotative meaning which expects us to physically stop. The connotative meaning is what the political message becomes and the sign that is painted 101 means ‘Stop Bill 101’ from passing. A simple form of vandalism became a brilliant political message.
Graffiti as Art
If you’re good enough, it’s not graffiti!
The French Government finally sees the light! One of the most revered buildings in France recently accepted graffiti artists with open arms as they were allowed to “express their ideas” in a graffiti museum without any repercussions. Giving graffiti artists an acceptable location for their renditions undermines the whole concept of graffiti.
Have you ever decided to doodle on your desk and admired your own work? Maybe the graffiti business is for you. Renowned artists have become more accepted in their works of graffiti and have even been hired to provide displays in public areas. 3-D graffiti that can be seen on the corners of streets interpellates viewers fixing their gaze on something that appears to be real. Edgar Mueller and Julian Beever are two of the most famous “street artists”.
Their graffiti is accepted to be displayed in many different areas. Their drawings are not seen as graffiti, but rather as displays of high art, even though they are done in public spaces. This creates a contradiction; if someone was to vandalize the street, it would be seen as graffiti, but when one of these “artists” are asked to draw something it can be viewed upon as art. This can be most easily identified in the works of Banksy, a famous British graffiti artist without an identity. Banksy has works ranging from social and political issues to comical parodies. Furthermore, Banksy’s work has even been seen as high art as auctioneers have attempted to sell his street art. However, upon this attempt the authenticity of these works was questioned, which is ironic since works by famous artists have faced the same problem.
The question of distinguishing between graffiti and art is raised by situations such as these. Graffiti, which was once considered “low culture” has climbed up the ladder to be recognized as “high culture”. Bourdieu’s idea that “categories of taste and distinction trickle down from the upper, educated to the lower, less educated classes does not account for the dynamics of taste and judgment in the evaluation of those valued cultural for that began as the expression of a marginalized group”, such as graffiti.
Graffiti as a Eulogy
When researching for this assignment we found many different forms of vandalism, from graffiti to broken glass to social capital. We decided to grab a camera and look at the city of Edmonton to find some vandalism on our own. Our little extravaganza led us to J Percy Page High School where we found a skate park. From far away we could see the park was full of bright colors and we knew we had hit the jackpot for vandalism! We didn’t know what to expect, spray cans + teenage minds, who knew what would be painted? Surprisingly, the whole skate park was painted with graffiti in dedication to the death of a student, Skyler Lockwood. We searched his name on Google upon arriving at home and found that he had just recently passed away in a tragic accident during a school ski field trip.
Visit the following link for more information: http://www.edmontonsun.com/news/edmonton/2010/03/16/13250526.html#/news/edmonton/2010/03/15/pf-13239696.html
The Edmonton Sun described this form of vandalism as a “creative way for the students to remember their friend”. The school, students, and community no longer saw this graffiti as vandalism, but rather a form of expression. Though the property belonged to the city of Edmonton, the students reproduced it as if it their own. The vandal watch website states, “Graffiti is not art. It is a criminal offence when put on property without permission and, when left unchecked, creates many more problems”. The skate park became a memorial, but does that justify the fact that it broke the law? The vandal watch website clearly points out that Eulogy’s in the form of graffiti are still considered vandalism and thus, against the law.
The following is directly from the City of Edmonton website under the section, ‘What is Graffiti?’:
Graffiti is a major concern for many citizens, organizations and businesses. Regardless of the style, size or colour, graffiti is vandalism and a criminal offence when placed on public or private property without the owner's consent. If not removed, it can lead to more acts of graffiti and create an environment in which crime can thrive. It also sends the wrong message that it's okay to put graffiti on your property.
Graffiti affects everyone:
• Property owners are faced with the cost and task of cleaning up graffiti
• Individuals and identifiable groups are hurt by discriminatory or hateful messages
• Graffiti ruins the natural and architectural beauty of a city
• Acts of vandalism decrease the city's attractiveness as a place to visit, conduct business, and invest in
• Affects all Edmontonians sense of security and pride in our city
Graffiti is a form of vandalism because it is always seen as breaking the law, regardless of its meaning. The City of Edmonton’s explanations for who graffiti affects displays graffiti in a negative way. In this case, graffiti is not an obstruction of property, but an art as an expression of something meaningful.
Teenagers on twitter even had a discussion whether this was considered art or vandalism (yes we cyber stalked). Here are some of the posts from Twitter:
#ripskyler: you were a good kid...its sad to see you go...:'(
SaraAshleyxox: i am really proud of all my friends at the skate park it is an amazing thing that is how we get people together...R.I.P Skyler love you budd
Savannah Hazlett: Yes, that’s how we do things. Someone dies and then vandalism is okay...
SaraAshleyxox to trevwoh: she said that just cuz someone died vandalism is okay but we did to as a memorial cuz he was our friend
Vandalism is a controversial topic because it is depicted as a crime by law, even though it is still widely participated in. Obstruction of property, gang symbols, etc., can be seen as real concerns in terms of graffiti. However, teenagers spray painting a memorial for the death of a friend should not be seen as a crime. If the skate park was created for the children, they have truly made it their own. Furthermore, the city of Edmonton could have easily cleaned up this graffiti, but allowing it to remain at the skate park exemplifies its acceptance as a form of art, rather than simply graffiti.
Advertisements are one of the most important cultural artifacts affecting life today, and have an immense influence on society. The images posted over our surroundings are inescapable, as we can be required to look and fix our gaze upon them. Therefore, it can be suggested that gangs use graffiti not just to mark their “turf”, but also to advertise themselves. Graffiti is probably the most visible activity of gangs. It can be seen in neighborhood parks, the backs and sidewalls of stores, fences, retaining walls, and any other accessible structures that are paintable. Rival gang’s challenge one another for certain turfs by vandalizing each other’s graffiti. Graffiti often displays the local gangs' name as a warning to other gangs that they are the dominant gang in that area.
Graffiti used by gangs is similar to the concept of branding, in which the graffiti has a meaning attached to it. “187″ is a reference to a section of the penal code – specifically a code for homicide. In this case, what you’re seeing is a publicly accessible and serious death threat towards a gang member known as Dreamer.
The concept of branding applies to gang graffiti because the look of the graffiti, the content, and language all influence the type graffiti representing the gang. Marcel Danesi states, “Brands are one of the most important modes of communication in the modern media environment” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 290). Therefore gang graffiti is a type of brand that is being advertised to members in the community, whether or not we choose to look at it.
Furthermore, gangs’ advertising themselves using graffiti can lead to Louis Althusser, ideology of advertising discourse. This ideology functions through “the interpellation of the viewers” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 50). According to Louis Althusser, “advertising, as an ideological practice, interpellates individuals as subjects” (Pajnik and Lesjak-TuSek 2002, 279). Images of gang graffiti call out or “hail” the viewer’s attention, causing us to gaze upon the graffiti as if the messages were specifically targeting us.
In order for an image to be effective, the viewer must implicitly understand himself/herself as being a member of a social group that shares the codes and conventions through which the image becomes meaningful. As a result you do not have to like or appreciate the dominant message of the image (here it would be the graffiti of the gang) to be interpellated by it or to understand that message.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual
Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Graffiti as Social Capital
In the past graffiti may have been used as a method to fight oppressive governments or to give a voice to marginalized people who couldn´t be heard. This can be illustrated in examples of slavery or the current dictatorship in North Korea. Today, people use graffiti to advertise themselves on social networking sites: such as Nexopia or Facebook. Our current society values popularity, thus, the more friends one has on these websites, the more “popular” they seem. Pierre Bourdieu defined social capital as whom you know, your social networks, and the opportunities they provide you (Sturken and Cartwright 275). In the past individuals relied on institutions in order to gain any form of capital. However, with the advancement of technology we have witnessed a shift in this process. Instead of having to go to the shop to sell something, one can simply post it on the Facebook market. With a larger network, people gain access to a greater marketplace and the likelihood of producing a sale is increased. Furthermore, social institutions such as school, church, etc., were places for people to meet and network. Today, making friends has been simplified to an icon reading: “send friend request”. Thus, in order to gain social capital and popularity, one must create a network by having a lot of friends on these websites. Furthermore, with social capital, the connections one makes can further progress them in life, as they are presented with more opportunities.
The main issue with individuals advertising themselves is a reinforcement of the Western ideals of fame and popularity. Campbell (1988) noted that “young people seek to be known, to have name and fame, without any concept of having to give oneself for others” (134). In the past when children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the responses were career focused, such as: astronaut, teacher, doctor, etc. However, capitalism has led to very individualistic ideals in Western society. When children are asked the same question today the common responses are to be rich or famous. Moreover, we have seen a transition from children playing on the streets to being occupied by television or computers. Social networking sites are created to target all age groups, from children to adults, and the race for popularity has affected everyone.
Social networking sites have become a dominant form of media and the attainment of fame can be measured simply by how many people you know, as in how many friends do you have on Facebook. One of the simplest judgements we make upon visiting a Facebook page is checking to see how many friends that person has. Somebody with over 600 friends may be seen as popular or cool, while someone with very few friends can be seen as an introvert or a loner. However, in reality, the individual may not truly know the people on their list, but has sent more friend requests to increase their number of friends. An individual can use these networking sites to create an image of themselves, which may not realistic. Nexopia in particular was popularized for this very reason since individuals would create their accounts on an alias and only disclose certain information. People could alter their age or pretend to be from another city allowing them to talk to strangers without any fear of having their identity revealed. Furthermore, the popularity of Nexopia has skyrocketed amongst youth due to the fact that it is almost virtually exclusive to them. Many adults have joined the Facebook phenomena, and teenagers would be rather reluctant to post explicit information with the knowledge that their parents may view it.
Additionally, politicians have taken advantage of social networks to further promote themselves and their ideas, which gives them recognition in society. Instead of having to go door to door to talk about their policies, politicians find an easier and more effective medium by using these social networking websites. By creating facebook groups, individuals who support the individual or cause can encourage their friends to also join and support. Majority of advertising today is done on the internet and individuals in particular use this to advertise themselves. This social capital creates a network of acknowledgment, which provide the individual with a well-respected reputation.
Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual
Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Not as much Graffiti on buses today
The city of Edmonton decided to harden its stance on graffiti taking place on buses. New incentives were implemented to prevent young adults from vandalizing and the promotion of B.O.B (behaviour on the bus) is widely accessible to all passengers on the bus. Behaviour on the bus (http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/ets/whats-new-with-bob.aspx) has a guideline of rules to be followed by all those riding the bus. This is exemplified by statements such as “Vandalising the bus is wrong. Always has been, always will be.” However, the problem still exists since youth cultures know several kinds of actions are opposed, but they still are carried through. In my experience of riding the bus, which occurred heavily about 3 years ago, these rules were still in place, yet the bus was still vandalized. This time on our inspection of buses, it was perplexing that there were no out right displays of graffiti noticeable. Other than small marks, which existed everywhere, the bus was relatively well kept. We concluded that this could not just be the government’s improvement in cleaning methods because individuals would continue to vandalize the bus and it could not be the kept clean. We continued our search periodically, but to no avail. Upon one of our routine searches for graffiti, we found another advertisement for B.O.B (we were starting to hate that guy), when Harjot (one of the group members) examined it more thoroughly, he found that there was actually a camera hidden inside. We realized that if one person was able to distinguish it, word would spread like wildfire among the youth that a camera is monitoring them while they are on the bus. With this knowledge, individuals would be less likely to take out a pen and vandalize. We have witnessed how Western societies have begun a movement toward surveillance (UK). However, in Edmonton we would expect surveillance in problematic areas, such as Whyte Ave but not on a bus. Mathieson stated, “it is the normalizing gaze of panopticism, which produces the subjectivity, the self-control, which disciplines people to fit into a democratic capitalist society” (218). Upon witnessing surveillance devices, individuals react by fitting into the standard norms of the particular situation. The situation of panopticism forces viewers to alter their behavior. Cameras force individuals to reconsider the environment and act in the acceptable manner, as Wright et al. noted “those who are high in criminal propensity and impulsivity are capable of some foresight and are, therefore, somewhat attuned to the situational contingencies of their behaviour” (183). Surveillance is a potent mechanism to deter individuals from committing acts of deviance such as vandalism. Yesel Blige mentioned that with surveillance “individuals-regardless of whether they are doing anything wrong or not-start paying attention to their own behaviours, and follow the parameters, of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour established by the authorities” (409). The use of surveillance conducts people to follow the behaviours that are established by society.
Blige, Yesel. (2006). Watching Ourselves: Video Surveillance, Urban Space and Self-Responsibilization. Cultural Studies 20(4-5): 400-416
Mathieson, Thomas. (1997). The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s “Panopticon” Revisited. Theoretical Criminology 1(2): 215-234
Wright, Bradley, Caspi, Avshalom, Moffitt, Terrie, and Paternoster, Ray. (2004). Does the Perceived Risk of Punishment Deter Criminally Prone Individuals? Rational Choice, Self-Control, and Crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41(2): 180-213
Herman Jhangri, Samandeep Brar, Harjot Mehta
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