TEXTING AND GRAFFITTI: Understanding the Reader in Contemporary Art
All Graff artists are visual topographers, whether they recognize it or not.
Graffiti and Texting
Imagine that you received a text message from a friend who is at your favorite bar in another state and has text you what is going on there. Imagine now that by accessing the web you can view hundreds of text messages of all the people who are at that bar. What you have received is a tag---a quick signature or identifying symbol that conveys a message. The word "graffiti" derives from the Greek word graphein meaning: to write. In fact, the act of texting (digital writing) is a way of tagging (visual writing). According to researchers, new technology systems such as “digital graffiti” or “Wiffiti” (wireless graffiti) have made this relationship clear as the evolution of graffiti and texting culture have merged and moved into public texting. This public texting allows the once private text messages to be displayed on the sides of public buildings, on screens in coffee shops or on huge digital displays. People speak of this digital writing as an exciting possibility for language to exist in a visual, public space. However, one has to wonder how is this different from reading Graffiti on a wall somewhere?
This question is important because it asks how critical is the social space and context for Graffiti art to exist. Moreover, it questions whether the reader who is able to read a digital graffiti text can read Graffiti on a wall? There is a complexity in the way media profits from street-based art practices such as Graffiti. They portray digital-graffiti as if it was new. Partly, from an economic perspective advertising companies want this to be perceived as new and exciting in order to cash in on the insatiable desire that these systems satisfy for people to be connected. However, looking at Graffiti art, its original practice, its artistic collaboration and construct, one can clearly see that much of this is based on an older practice. One then has to question which has influenced the other, did text-messaging influence Graffiti or did Graffiti influence text messaging?
Redefining graffiti art practice in the digital realm may be a smart way for advertising companies to sell the idea of social engagement. However, there is an ideology that erases the unique identity of individuality and artistic craftsmanship. Graffiti is unlike any other form or art--part of street culture and when one speaks of it one needs to talk about its context and its relationship to the city. As an artistic practice this has not been widely discussed. It is easy to misunderstand graffiti as text messaging lingo. The language involved can often seem ambiguous. As such, in this essay I focus on what I call the visual reader. This reader is trained not only in deciphering meaning in abbreviated text messages and sentences, but also is able to read the coded signs of street culture defined by a personal, unique style, history, social and economic positioning within American popular culture. This essay will focus on the street culture rooted in the city of Los Angeles, filtered through the experience of two local graffiti artists, Spew and Autoe. My intent here is that by analyzing an older and then a younger generation of Graff artists and readers, contextualizing it within the time change of digital culture and cell phone usage, I hope to expose a critical discussion in terms of artistic practice.
“Untitled Tagg” by Autoe
In the movie The Matrix one of the characters sits behind the controls watching the screen with numbers scrolling down at a tremendous speed and is able to read the meaning, send messages and receive them in an out of that world. One can think of that character as what I call the visual reader. This readerhas three essential readership skills. He is a digital reader, a street reader and a contemporary art reader. This visual reader is anyone who uses a computer, a cell phone, or any other technological system. This reader is able to read the complex, multi-layered meaning encoded in text messages. At the same time, this visual reader can understand street culture defined by its unique style and history but more importantly by its local context. This reader is constantly shifting between worlds of official and non-official paradigms, between official institutional practices an underground practices. Finally, the visual reader is a contemporary artist who understands the basic knowledge of art, details, color, size, dimension, and texture.
Older Graffiti Readers: The City, Space and Collaborating
The Older Readers that I refer to are the group of Graffiti artists who grew up before computers. For older readers, the environment and placement of Graff pieces was as an essential part of social critique and commentary. They trained themselves as quick readers using a collaborative way of working. Whether it was making a quick tag or a longer piece of graffiti, they looked at each other’s work and responded to it. This involved a specific kind of readership, one that understood not only the construct of letters and content but also collaboration and the social placement of that piece on a specific wall, train or freeway. The use of physical space for social commentary was once a key part of the Graffiti movement. This is not to say that it no longer exists but that the use of technology has altered the context and its message. Graffiti began with the intent to communicate a message as a response to an economic or social condition. Graff artists felt like they were responding to poverty, inequality and social disempowerment.
In making a piece Graff artists worked collaboratively, found a wall, a train, a bench and any other public object to draw on. They carried their backpacks full of spray cans, sketchbooks, pencils, and markers. In the process of drawing, they checked each other’s work, sometimes responding to each other’s style or imagery—how they made a certain letter, what kind of interesting color or design they were making. In other words, they were trained to read and respond to each other’s work. It was a more direct, hands-on approach. They responded to the city and their surroundings. For instance, often time artists used details of an existing cracked wall and its rough texture to create meaning. Painting around it changed the crack into a symbolic image of a river. Also, Grafitti artists used the metal texture in trains to add dimension and shift perception. And they were always alert, knowing that because Graffiti was (and continues to be illegal) they had to be quick or they could be arrested. The older generation of graffiti artists possessed not only readership skills of contemporary artists but also knowledge of the streets, using space and responding to the environment.
The Young Reader
Young people (ages 16-25) grew up in a generation fully submerged in a digital culture. They account for the highest percentage of text message users in the United States. On average they read up to one hundred text messages a day. They grew up around computers, video games, using the web, downloading digital photos and writing on their cell phones.
My students fit this category. In class they are hovered over, cell phones in hand, typing away in their cell phones, text messaging. Reading text message lingo like: My smmr @ skl wnt ky B4 ugo, kal mee and Brdy 2go. In translation from text messaging shorthand: “My summer at school went okay before you go, call me and be ready to go.” The new generation of Graffiti artists are a part of this generation. They are digital readers, trained to read this type of text messaging language made up of brevity. Cell phones are to people what spray cans are to Graffiti artists. Almost everyone in the world carries one.
This is precisely how anyone can see and experience Graffiti tags without physically being there. Graffiti artists now take pictures on their cell phones and send them to friends. Text culture and the accessibility of phones changed the way Graffiti is now accessed, documented and read. Graffiti that was done on walls and the streets was never documented in this way before. The way most Graffiti artists documented it was through cameras that used film and then they developed the images for documentation. They often had to develop several shots and form a series of collages to get a full view of a piece they did on a long wall. Often, Graff artists compiled photo albums of their pieces and carried it with them to show others their work—a sort of artistic portfolio.
After 1992 and the Los Angeles Riots, there was a lot of empty, demolished businesses and burned lots in the city. Many Graffiti pieces were burned along with those walls and their record of existence. A loss that many Older Graffiti writers still talk about.
This process of recording is now different. Graffiti takes into consideration a visual aesthetic of being read through cell phones and computer screens worldwide. Young Graffiti artists shape their letters based on computer images that imitate Graff letters. The style of letters is a computer mutation of different fonts.
Los Angeles Graffiti artist Autoe showed me how he used two different size fonts for the letter A in his nameto create a new a. This type of letter mutation to create an original one is predominant among Young Graff readers and isbased onthe play of letters needed for text messaging. It’s the same practice as developing a new symbol. In text message lingo, for example, the symbols <3 means friendship. It makes a visual picture of a sideways heart and <33 means love—that is, the more 3s the bigger the heart and the more love-intense the meaning for the relationship. There’s a strong visual correlation between tagging a heart on a wall and texting a sideways heart. The reader who reads both of these is trained digitally and as an artist. However, there is also a real complexity that points to the change of craftsmanship and shift in focus on writing clean, clear letters from a previous generation. In Graffiti pieces there is something beautiful in taking the time to outline a letter with an arrow in a three-dimensional style. Older Graffiti artists took the time to do that, as Autoe says, “All Graffiti artists are visual topographers whether they recognize it or not.” Graffiti artists have begun to contextualize themselves in this way calling themselves “writers’’ instead of “artists.”
Another example of this is Los Angeles-based Graffiti artist, poet, and musician Spew. He appropriates verses of songs, slang, and cultural references to create a hybrid style of Graffiti. He doesn’t have access to a computer at home and most of his knowledge of art has been through music, phone conversations, text messaging and wandering the streets. Unlike other artists, Spew is a reader of cultural consumption and technology is a side effect. Although his work references text messaging and writing culture, the approach is more general, a part of his response to the world. The use of the arrow in letters developed stylistically from Graffiti writers in New York City. Unlike traditional styles, Spew’s Graff letters are characterized by the use of black and white color only and a series of swirling lines. Taking gangster writing characterized by the use of Old English font letters to write, Spew has distorted and stretched out these letters to spell his name. An ambiguity that he purposefully thrives on, as he persists on not making the same letter twice (not a mold) but an improvisational letter each time he writes. For instance, in the slanted style of writing the S in his name, he references the way pop Mexican Spanish album covers use the letter S. Stylistically it remains an S, but mutates an transforms each time.
Meaning and Street Culture
An important question to ask is how did Graffiti influence text writing? To some people Graffiti influenced text messaging mainly by its social practice and the need for people to be immediately connected. Graffiti was a pre-cursor to text messaging. Graffiti came into being in the late 60’s early 70’s with the Hip Hop movement but the first text message did not happen until 1992 via the web. Originally, text messaging was invented for the deaf and blind. Therefore its use for the general public did not become popular until 2000. In some way then Graffiti influenced the growth of a text messaging culture. Its unique approach to socially engaging the viewer to read an abbreviated message, its perhaps the most important way Graffiti influenced text culture. Some people believe Graffiti now is a way of thinking and acting and that it does not have to be from a specific place, practiced by only a specific age group, race, or contain a political message.
To a certain extent this is true. Graffiti has become mainstream and commercial.
However, Graffiti should still be looked at in terms of its context and the politics of being rooted on the streets. This is important because meaning, originality and style will always be invented here. There is a disparity in the way Graffiti is socially perceived and privately practiced. I recently read in an article how an artist used a digital-graffiti system to project blank speech bubbles on to public walls and asked people passing by to text-message something they wanted to see inside the bubbles. He was surprised that two cops asked him if they could type a text-message instead of arresting him. Examples like these show that politics of Graffiti are not the same even though it has become mainstream. The reality is, if a teenager writes on a public wall or a bench he will get arrested and charged. But if it is an artistic practice and digitally re-contextualized, then it is read differently and it is socially accepted. The urge for a new visual reader who understands all this is important to cross and permeate these boundaries.
“The Message” by Autoe
Artists As Visual Readers
We live in a massive digital culture rapidly growing and changing. The merging of Graffiti and digital systems bring attention to the consumer and reader. Artistic practice and training opts for artists to be observers, but it should also urge the practice of readership skills, not only about art but also about technology and the street culture. It means rethinking the approach of reading images and text. This article proposes the rethinking of the existence of a visual reader that essentially shares three different readership qualities including knowing how to read digitally, how to read street culture and read art. From one perspective, Graffiti can be seen as a form of text messaging because it communicates a message immediately. But also looking at what I call the Older Graffiti artists’ original method of art practice which fosters collaboration and is guided by it street context, one can see how Graffiti culture has influenced text messaging. There is a tremendous impact that the young readers have on consuming. Young Graff artists use of letter mutations to create original ones in their pieces based on text messaging lingo. These young artists possess the essential quality of growing up fully emerged in technology. This is not to say that older generations cannot use technology, but that they did not grow up fully emerged in it. The older generation has therefore accessed graffiti and technology in a different way. A closer look at an older and a younger generation of graffiti artists from Los Angeles Autoe and Spew demonstrates how meaning, style and street context are important. Artists as key observers and art makers ultimately will help redefine the impact that text messaging culture has. Clear signs of a new language in students’ papers show a development of a new text-language in existence. A clear understanding and fostering of the new visual reader will help redefine readership and its critical impact on the future of art.