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Graffiti: Graffiti as an Educator of Urban Teenagers

Graffiti as an Educator of Urban Teenagers
Graffiti writing is as ancient as human communication, but in the United States, it gained widespread attention only with its proliferation in urban neighborhoods in the late 1960s and 1970s.  Most Americans have come to associate this graffiti explosion with urban gangs, regarding its markings and murals as visible, invasive challenges to middle class and elite aesthetics, property concepts, and sense of security. Although gangs have produced a portion of urban graffiti during the last three decades, most is more accurately linked to hip hop, a mix of cultural practices that appeared in the neighborhoods of New York and other U.S. cities during the mid-1970s Anthropologist Susan Phillips and other scholars argue that hip hop graffiti has actually functioned as an alternative to gangs, with "writers" organizing themselves in crews that spar with each other "through style and production as opposed to violence." Over the years, graffiti crews have focused urban adolescents on putting their art up around the city, inventing new styles, organizing nocturnal visits to the subway yards, and other experiences that, although often illicit, are far less destructive than most gang activities. The writer expression "graffiti saved my life" is no exaggeration; without it, many more urban kids would have become entangled in violence and crime.

Although seldom recognized as such, graffiti crews are also educational organizations that promote valuable learning among their members. This paper will examine the ways in which crews and other graffiti groups have educated urban youth since the early 1970s, comparing their pedagogy to that of more acknowledged learning institutions such as schools and art societies. Using the comments of graffiti writers from a range of time periods and places to reconstruct this experience, it will argue that graffiti education both parallels and diverges from the teaching of these traditional institutions, functioning paradoxically as both a status quo and transgressive organization. Graffiti provides poor and disadvantaged adolescents with knowledge, skills, and values important for success in the mainstream. At the same time, it bonds young people to their urban neighborhoods, empowering them to challenge the dominant society and to transform rather than escape their communities.

Hip hop graffiti has become an international phenomenon over the last three decades, expanding from its New York roots to other cities in the U.S. and across the world. Despite massive eradication efforts by public agencies, it remains a persistent, visible characteristic of modern urban life. In New York, for example, the Metropolitan Transit Association has greatly reduced the amount of graffiti in and on the subways since the mid-1980s, but writers have responded by "taking the streets," blanketing buildings, highway walls, freight trains, and other conspicuous sites with throw-ups. Meanwhile, the painting of "pieces" has gravitated toward "invisible" spaces under highway bridges, around abandoned buildings, and in isolated warehouse and industrial areas, where writers can paint with less fear of arrest. Located in areas where most of the city's middle and affluent classes seldom travel, many assume that these elaborate murals have largely disappeared. The proliferation of graffiti "zines," videos, and websites over the last 10-15 years demonstrates otherwise. These alternative media have assumed functions previously performed by the subways, connecting writers across the U.S. and world into a common culture and making their work available to a wider public.

The Attraction of Graffiti

Propelled by new media forms and the expanding popularity of hip hop music, graffiti is suddenly reappearing in art galleries and commercial settings and captivating a new generation adolescents from all races, social classes, and nations. But while graffiti's public visibility has waxed and waned over the last three decades, its attraction to urban youth has remained relatively consistent, especially among the poor Black and Latino teens, predominately male, who continue to constitute its core constituency in the U.S.20 How does one account for this appeal? What has drawn thousands of adolescents to graffiti over the years? The general public perceives writers as "just a bunch of little bastards who want to deface property," and many certainly use graffiti as a way to rebel, to lash out, and to destroy. But graffiti writing satisfies a complex set of needs, functioning for most participants as a furious but relatively benign antidote to adolescent isolation, boredom, powerless, and anonymity-the same experiences that draw many urban kids to gangs. Writers often cite their desire to bond with siblings or to "keep occupied." Pioneering writer Flint 707 saw graffiti as a challenge, growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1970s as "a pure daredevil" who sought "experiences that could heel [sic] the social scars and wounds found deep within the city's clusters of ethnic neighborhoods." He involved himself in neighborhood games and salsa dancing to keep out of trouble, but "there was always an urge to do more, to dare mighty things and to achieve great conquests." His peer Vulcan recalls similar motives: "I did it for the thrill. You like to be able to say, I can do this and you can't catch me."

Graffiti also offers adolescents a cherished opportunity to proclaim themselves to the world. Ernest Abel and Barbara Buckley contend that graffiti markings have historically been "announcements of one's identity, a kind of personal testimonial to one's existence . . . scratched, carved, or painted onto some surface seemingly for the purpose of leaving one's mark." Such imprints, they point out, have traditionally been the preoccupation of adolescents from lower socio-economic backgrounds, those with the least power and voice within society and the group most attracted to graffiti. The early writers support these assertions. Tagging, Phase 2 insists, was for many disadvantaged urban teens "the only significant vehicle to represent their 'existence.'" A tag filled the "expression void" encountered by urban teens, according to Tasar. "In its simplest form, a name on a vacant building signifies that 'yes, I am here. I do interact with society and I do matter.'" For II Crusher, graffiti was simply "the ultimate self-expression." A graffiti declaration often brings respect and fame as well as a sense of identity. Kaves describes how "the recognition for a kid coming up was crazy. Everybody in the neighborhood knew who I was." In the end, however it is approval of other writers that most matters to the writers. Phase 2 insists that they put their name up in the most visible, public sites, not out of a desire to vandalize, but "to please each other, with the ultimate gratification being the accolades from those other writers who, more than anyone else, knew what was appreciated and considered the ultimate."

Graffiti as Transformational

The observations of Maxwell and others are correct to a degree. Graffiti crews teach competitiveness, the ability to work both independently and in collaboration, a sense of responsibility, and citi/enship skills - all types of learning that blend with the dominant culture and potentially open doors to conventional success. But graffiti is also inherently transgressive, a public defiance of traditional property concepts and hierarchies. "If I'm competing against anything, it's more against the system," Deka trumpets, "cuz the system is a fraud and its fucking everybody." Old school writers formed their attitudes toward authority in the era of Vietnam, the Black Panthers, and race riots, according to Lee. "You can't be unaffected by all of that," he recalls. "Once you see things clearly and understand the 'real picture,' at some point it's gonna help mold your mentality and it's not gonna be singing 'My Country Tis of Thee. '" Similarly, Prophetic the Alphabetic insists that writers "have grown to loathe and have contempt for [authority], for all the conceivably right reasons. We're not DREAMIN... our resolve may be awkward, but you know our vision is 20-20." For these writers, graffiti is clearly a way to resist the status quo, a tool, not for escaping the ghetto, but for challenging the power of those responsible for its oppression. Most graffiti messages are not overtly political, but the act of writing is. According to Daim, adolescents worldwide use graffiti "to fight against laws and prejudice [and] to lead a self-determined and creative life [and] show society that they're unhappy with what it has to offer."

Perhaps graffiti's most significant educational contribution is that, unlike most schools, it introduces writers to a critical understanding of these power structures and involves them in the construction of alternatives. Henry Giroux points out that not all oppositional behaviors effectively challenge an oppressive status quo. Some offer little insight into the nature of domination and, like the school behaviors of the lads in Paul Willis' Learning to Labour, might actually reinforce existing hierarchies. True resistance, Giroux argues, has a "revealing function" that fosters a critique of power and opportunities for self-reflection and struggle for emancipation. The actions and statements of most beginning graffiti writers bear little resemblance to Giroux's resistance; they crave voice, respect, and justice, but lack an understanding of the roots of these needs or the actions needed to address them. Over time, however, writers engage in a reform process that teaches and to some extent gives them elements of power needed to transform their individual and collective lives.

Control over communication is the first component of this transformative praxis. As a communication form, graffiti works on two levels. First, it allows writers to talk to each other, "an underground means of communication for those who are excluded from the public sphere." Through graffiti, the writers proclaim themselves and their talents to those they have not actually met, assembling a broad community without physical interaction. Drax marvels that "even without the physical contact of networking with people, interaction is constantly being made between writers that don't even know each other." Graffiti is also the writers' primary tool for communication with the dominant society. For Coco 144, writing was "a cry, a scream from [New York's] streets. In doing this, we got to say something that was a statement. This was a way of saying, 'Hey, I'm Coco. This is where I'm from, and this is what I'm doing." Like "shouting all over a wall," graffiti forces the wider world to finally pay attention to Coco and other writers, making as Ivan Miller puts it, "Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man' visible." Paradoxically, the ambiguity of graffiti to non-writers magnifies the power of this message. Just as Herb Kohl felt "like a voyeur, peering into the lives of strangers" when he viewed graffiti, outsiders generally find this communication puzzling. Writers revel in this confusion because it reverses the normal power relationships, giving them knowledge that eludes those typically in control. Many writers gain special satisfaction when the viewer's reaction is apprehension, fear, or bewilderment. When "people say, 'Oh it's threatening sitting on a train full of graffiti'... we like it," Stylo admits. "We don't want everyone to feel comfortable with graffiti, we'd rather they didn't." For Zaki, "it's quite a wonderful feeling to be misunderstood by the rest of society ... I'm glad they don't know, it's something they will never understand and if they did understand, would you really want them to in the first place." The implications of these remarks are clear: these writers understand that the control of a communication form is a powerful and essential reform tool, one that stitches individuals together and equips them with recognition and power in their interactions within the wider society.

Graffiti writers also build and learn the value of inclusive communities. As we have seen, Shok l's crew defined biting or the borrowing of another writer's styles in a way that promoted a expansive membership, one including both innovators and imitators. Crews, in contrast to the constrictions of gangs, also commonly reach beyond neighborhood, race, and class boundaries. For Coco 144, the crews "broke a lot of barriers. I'm talking about racial barriers-people from different neighborhoods, different boroughs. It wasn't a color thing." LA writers Ser and Tribe admire how in graffiti one "can get down with another race without even bugging out" and "have a conversation with someone that's a different race and age and have so much in common with them." They allowed, according to Prophetic the Alphabetic, "That kid on the other side of the tracks, [to] be out there side by side with you." Crews also exhorted young writers to embrace past graffiti masters. "Take time to the know the history!!!," Brooklyn writer Deathos 149 advises, for all new ideas are "dependent on having a full understanding of where styles were derived." Deal recalls how his mentor Dondi "took inspiration from prior generation . . . [and] openly passed on knowledge and style to new writers." This linking of generations fueled the advancement of writing, according to Deal, for "if writers have an understanding of where they came from, they will know where they need to go." Vulcan agrees, condemning young writers who "ride their own egos" and give "no thoughts to and try to ignore their forefathers."

Despite this inclusiveness, crews have often succumbed to petty bickering, cross-out wars, and fighting. But many writers believe that for the most part they have successfully fused disparate individuals into groups with common interests, experiences, and values. "We all had the same attitude," Ski 168 recalls, "we weren't out to get on the next brother, most of us knew each other and were down together. Utmost respect. Respect to the utmost. We wouldn't allow disunity, no matter what clique you were in." For writers like the Australian Atome, graffiti has evolved into much more than a fun way of "getting together with writers from all over the city."

The fun is and always will be there . . . [but now] we are like family. We have respect for each other as people. It goes much deeper than painting associates, you know. Mentally we're on the same levels. The painting might have originally brought us together but over the years you experience a lot of what life dishes out and you're there for each other.

Chicago writer-rapper Raven sees such "families" such as indispensable to his vision of "creatively, politically, racially, socio-economically, using the differences between us . . . to create a new thing."

The third transformative lesson learned and practiced in the graffiti crews is that real power lies within rather than outside of their communities. Richard Lachmann reports that graffiti muralists in the 1970s and 1980s generally painted in their own neighborhoods, due in part to the police's lack of interest in the ghetto, but also because local building owners, businessmen, school officials, and peers appreciated their efforts. Some craved broader recognition and wealth according to Lachmann, and abandoned writing in frustration when the gallery, filmmaker, or journalist didn't call. But local ties and audiences supplied the primary encouragement for the vast majority of those who continued to write for an extended period of time. Today, most writers show little interest in joining the mainstream and retain close ties to the communities in which they grow up. Even many of the more successful writers choose to weave themselves more tightly into their neighborhood fabric rather than to "move to the suburbs," as Wimsatt puts it. Oakland writer Zore writes grant proposals and represents an international spray paint company to fund projects with local kids, and Raven teaches in a south Chicago public high school and runs various hip-hop youth programs.

Zore, Raven, and many other writers recognize the importance of reconstructing rather than abandoning or destroying neglected structures. The recombination of unwanted, ignored pieces into new forms, or as Tricia Rose writes, "stray technological parts intended for the industrial trash heap into sources of pleasure and power" is the dominant graffiti and hip hop method. The DJ fashions fragments of old recordings into new dance tracks. The break dancer weaves traditional African and Brazilian moves into movements for the American streets. And graffiti writers "both tapped into and transcended their environment," transforming old trains, bridges, and buildings into sites of beauty and cultural pride." As Brim puts it, "You look around the neighborhood and you've got all this rubble & shit, and yet you come out of there with the attitude toward life that you can create something positive." The theme of "making things look better that looked ugly" permeates the artists' interviews: "The spirit of writing is making the world a beautiful place," according to Lady Pink; Zephyr dreams of making "New York's grey and dirty subways the most exciting moving art spectacle the world's ever seen"; and Ace envisions transforming an empty concrete wall at his Montreal school into something more humane. "Beautification not gentrification," writers have cried over the years, and efforts such as these are potent symbols for the belief that much good exists within supposedly barren urban communities, that they should be protected from the bulldozers of urban development, that the neighborhood can be saved without being destroyed.
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