Monday, November 30

Graffiti Art In The 21st Century: The Bronx, 1990’s Nairobi, New York Subway,The White House

Why would some of us consider graffiti, art, while others vehemently opine that graffiti is nothing but vandalism? A personal story and a short history

Is there a link between religion and graffiti art? Why would some of us consider graffiti, art, while others vehemently opine that graffiti is nothing but vandalism? How do we tie all this up in understanding graffiti art’s place in 21st century society? To answer these questions we have to go back to 1990’s Nairobi, ‘New World’ America and into Obama’s and Trump’s White House.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Graffiti Art and Religion: How My Search For Christianity Fed My Love For Graffiti Art

Growing up in early 90’s Nairobi — right about the time evangelical Christianity was taking root in Kenya– meant that one had to at least sit through one Armageddon movie.

The ‘movies’ were short clips, not more than an hour, beamed by projector on white screen but preferably on shop walls. The sinema was timed perfectly: Starting just as evening gave way to night (just as one would serve desert) to wash down the  boisterous preaching and signing that had just gone down.

These public-address-system powered open air crusades were in every corner, open market field and roadside as startup churches going by such brand names like:’ The Devil Is A Liar Ministries’ fought for souls to convert.

Unapologetic expressionism

Not one to miss out on desert, I watched probably two hands counts of these ‘movies’. In fact I would hunt down the ‘showings’. I would read every one of the bland blue ink only posters plastered on electricity poles. Mentally note the days and using gained experience, plan to arrive at the right time. The sweet spot was a brief window when one is early enough to get a front row seat, but late enough to skip the loud, emphatic preaching.

You see, there was no You Tube – we had to contend with state TV only and VCR machines were high-end. Mostly though, it was because I craved more and more for that rare quality that these movies with no star names as actors; unoriginal gone-round-the-block scripts; dodgy sound and forgettable cinematography had in plenty: Shock value.

I am talking about unapologetic liberal expression of the contents/matters  of the soul in manner that with time – after being weaned on apocalyptic tales – I have come to rank only second to graffiti art.  If these apocalyptic movies and graffiti art had a persona, it would be one that entices, enthralls and still impudently instill fear.

Cultural Roots Of Graffiti Art In America- aka- the New World

Save for the forgotten indigenous tribes of the Americas, everyone emigrated there. Across the Atlantic,  the gallant souls from across Europe moved in search opportunity. Some were on the run from persecution in their homelands: religious, social, economic or otherwise.

These adventurous types migrated carrying their culture in their souls alongside their few belongings. On the contrary, others moved to America against their own will. Sold by their tribes men or traded as bounty from inter tribe wars. 12 years a slave begins only to tell their story of breaking backs and the severing their umbilical cords. They too, carried their culture in their hearts, minds and souls.

Even with great economy in words, graffiti art conveys thought provoking messages by utilising, color, imagery and placement to great effect. Here, what the graffiti artist puts as simply 'live life', the poet doesn't achive the same effect with a wordy: "Four great adventures: read,learn, write and travel"
What the graffiti artist says with two words (live life), the poet cannot achieve with eight (four great adventures: read, learn, write and travel) .

Melting pot of cultures

It’s a misnomer labeling the cradle of modern graffiti art, late 20th century inner city New York, a-cultural.  It beats logic how such a tag could suffice considering that the inner cities – Brooklyn and its sisters – were a melting point of cultures:  Hispanic, Afro-American , Afro-Caribbean, Caucasian and Asian.

Though these peoples may be long plucked from their roots; their different cultures remain alive hidden in words used in everyday talk; in idioms subtly hidden in language; stories passed from one generation to the next and I believe, hard-wired in genetic material active and alive.

This tapestry of cultures with a history full of oppression paints a picture of street art in my mind. I imagine a scene where graffiti art is an every day Joe. And just like you and me, it battles with the complexities of 21st century life. Broken, she has sought help at the shrink’s office. I chose therefore to be forgiving and desist from  judging and tagging.

Graffiti Art and vandalism: A  Multi-personality Disorder Best Depicted by The Parable” Which One Came First, The Or Chicken or The Egg “

It is said that all that is needed is a trigger to spur some action. Consider this statement the opposite of the proverb: “Let sleeping dogs lie”. Thus, quite often, the trigger that spurs action is some form of oppression. The nature of action almost always eventually mimics the nature of the trigger. Violence begets violence. Still, part of spectrum of release of oppression of groups also often takes the form of physically harmless creative expression.

Street Art is Expressionism

This reaction to events around the artist that is biased towards expression of feelings rather than physical objects is what gives graffiti art a standing as a form of expressionism.  True art is real and life mimics art. With graffiti art, these sayings could not be more apt. Graffiti art in all it’s glory however vile, was the face of inner city mid to late 20th century New York.

In 1965 as feminism was gaining ground with adoption of Executive Order 11375. This piece of legislation  expanded the affirmative action policy to cover gender based discrimination. Devoid of such assurances from society, a different crusade was incubating in sections of the American urbane. We will attempt to draw a portrait of this crusade in the subsequent sections.

Graffiti Art In The 20th Century: From The Grimy Streets Rose Something So Beautiful That Some Considered It Rude

The roots of modern graffiti art lie in a period of societal angst in mid to late 20th century. As intimated above, there was a distillation in world views into the expansion of civil rights. This by extension included agitation for women rights and the beginning of the end of colonialism in Africa.

In neighborhoods such as the inner cities of New York and Philadelphia, considered devoid of culture – thus bereft of a system to protect the individual from rapid change – the prevailing depraved social conditions must have only added to the angst.

This was because while humanity took care of everyone else, inner city youth felt forgotten and vulnerable. Something that graffiti art (Bombing particularly) and belonging to gangs respectively cured.

Given the complex way that societies evolve, it is hard to make out which of graffiti art and vandalism is the chicken or the egg. Yet despite all the bile from the purists, graffiti has always been at home with power.

Power & Graffiti

One only needs to step back into late 20th century battles for New York to find inner city gangs such as The Bronx River Project gangs (that socialized the likes of The Godfather aka  The Amen Ra of Hip Hop Kulture, gang leader turned peace maker Afrika Bambaataa,) who marked their territory using graffiti art.

Of the hustlers running 20th century New York City streets, Bambaataa stands heads above. His influence in defining Hip Hop culture, defining Rap, Djing, B-boying and graffiti art (Aerosol writin) is unmatched. Who would have envisioned that the hip hop culture will be the most successful of American exports ?

Worse, who would have dared say that one of Hip Hop’s four pillars would find a home in the highest office on earth? As a symbol of mutual respect between two of the most powerful men at the time in the 21st century?

We will delve into the juicy details of the story of graffiti and powerful men in the White House later. But first lets unpack graffiti as art, complete with stylistic elements.

Mainstreaming Of Graffiti Art: The Role Of Pioneer Graffiti Artists

The Hellenic American Union, Hellenic Folklore Research Center of The Academy Of Athens in a 2010 online poster advertising a talk by UNESCO research associate Nikos Papgeorgiou titled From Expressionism To Graffiti  offer :

Until 1912, art theorists were using the term Expressionism to describe Modern Art in Europe during that period. This term inspired many artists, as the movement began as a kind of revolution against Classic Art, in favor of a liberation of the soul. From Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse to contemporary artists who express themselves through multicolored and expressionist graffiti on the city’s walls, the distance is not great.

Graffiti art’s first victory was in 1973 when New York Magazine carried an 8 page essay on the underground subway graffiti movement. An expose which brought the names TAKI 183, JOE 182, PRAY  and STAY HIGH 149 from the train seats, walls, pavements, posts and train carriage bodies of New York to the world .

The legend STAY HIGH 149, was born Wayne Roberts in 1950,  as a young man he made ends meet working as a messenger in Wall Street following his family’s relocation from Emporia, VA to Harlem at age seven.

Legend goes that STAY HIGH 149 would tag his name on over 100 trains during his day job. He would tag another 200 trains when hitting the night shift. As remarkable as his feat was, STAY HIGH  was following in the footsteps of Philadelphia pioneers CORNBREAD and COOLEARL, who in the late sixties are credited with popularizing bombing.

Bombing & Tagging

Bombing involves writing  your name (tag) all over the city using can sprays and permanent makers – unlike in the Roman Empire where art works were produced by scratching a design into a surface.

Graffiti art falls within an iconographic tradition and style is the expression of that tradition

Lisa Gottlieb in Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System and Theoretical Analysis

In New York, the interconnected subway system allowed for inter-borough competitions. Graffiti writers competed among themselves spurring development of this ‘delinquent ‘ art form through style wars. All this came at a great cost to the City Of New York. To rid the trains off the ‘vandalism’ they had to repeatedly repaint the trains.

Consequently, for the taggers, it was dangerous art. They frequently had run-ins with the law. To stay safe, they abandoned the initial tactic of riding the trains round the five boroughs. Instead, the writers would camp at the subway bombing trains with their tags as they stopped to pick passengers. Not to get caught, they had to be highly economical with words thus the eventual incorporation of imagery.

Graffiti Art In The 21st Century

To look at graffiti art through the narrow prism of ‘conservative’ constructs of “graffiti art is vandalism” would be denying ourselves insight. We would be shutting out the world. In effect denying how street art has come to capture aspects of the psyche of humanity. From as far back as cavemen, into the 21st Century .

From college students to presidents of world super powers. To gang members running the streets (some contend that, the difference between the last two is a matter of semantics); the power of graffiti is evident in its traversal of creed, color and socioeconomic status.

Tokyo to Nairobi

From the metro train system of  New York, to the back alleys of Tokyo. To the scattered murals and tags on  Nairobi’s bridges and perimeter walls. The provoking piece of graffiti art Free Palestine at the University of Cape Town, it appears that graffiti continues to walk forward as a form of artistic expression.

Grafitti art by British artist Ben Eine titled "Tweenty First Century City "City that was presented to the Obama's by the Camerons
Graffiti Art In White House: Did Ben Emie’s Twenty First Century City hang on White House walls during Obama’s Presidency?

In 2010, the heads of two world powers meet. Both were new to office. President Obama had just served his first term while his British counterpart David Cameron had been just elected. As is the norm, gifts were exchanged to seal the occasion.

Among the gifts, was a painting by contemporary British graffiti artist Ben Emie: Twenty First Century City.

Fast forward to 2017 and it is ironic that it is hard to imagine graffiti art in Trump’s white house. You’d think that graffiti and Trump would be a natural fit given what the 45th President of the United States is thought to represent.

By all accounts Trumpism is all about an arrogant show of the middle finger to the excesses of liberalism. Just as Trumpism, graffiti art’s in your-face-attitude elevates it to punch beyond it’s weight against all odds. For Trumpism, this amounts to occupying the highest political office on earth. For graffiti, it is to be art. In these two, we toast to the audacity of expression when it’s least politically correct to do so.

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