Graffiti: The Perceptions of Graffiti in Canada
For every form of visual culture there exists a writer or artist and reader or audience. What makes street graffiti so different from many forms of visual culture is that the production of the image is unauthorized and in most circumstances unwanted by the viewer. Its location and context are unconventional. Graffiti challenges and crosses the conventional physical boundaries established for individual social expression and aesthetic experience. Individual social commentary is usually confined to personal space while the aesthetic experience has traditionally been reserved for a gallery or museum setting. By relocating these social activities, graffiti puts into question the perceived physical and social order of society.
The origins of contemporary graffiti can be traced back to the isolated emergence of street graffiti in New York City in the 1970s. With increased media attention and the popularisation of hip-hop culture, graffiti became one of the hottest cultural products of cold war America. By the early 1990s, many tags and pieces could be found in cities throughout Europe and the rest of the western world.
>From New York to Amsterdam, Paris to Japan, graffiti has been treated by many as a symptom of the urban experience and as a result, it has been transformed from the street into a variety of institutional frameworks. Academically, graffiti has been deconstructed and theorised with a multitude of disciplines. As a result of its interrogation with multiple disciplines, and in conjunction with its widespread presence around the world, graffiti has become a vernacular term in western contemporary culture. But as sociologist Jane Gadsby explains in her book Looking at the Writing on the Wall, the terminology used to study graffiti is "imprecise" and in particular, the term graffiti has come to mean "all wall writings, pictures, markings on any kind of surface for whatever reasons" (Gadsby 2).
For the purpose of this paper, graffiti is understood as the drawings and markings created in the style associated with illegal spray-can images, which evolved from the New York style of graffiti of the 1970s. This graffiti takes place in the public space of the city street and is generally created by young people who identify themselves as "writers." Let's not focus on other forms of graffiti often referred to as Latrinalia: bathroom graffiti; freight art: freight train graffiti; or political or hate graffiti.
The most importantly to Canadian Studies, studies of graffiti have tended to focus on its American contexts with very little attention directed at Canadian graffiti.
The long-standing image of the city of Ottawa has been aligned with a bureaucratic view of the capital of Canada. Clean, orderly, and safe, the capital is a favourite destination of business travellers and tourists alike and is often seen by the rest of Canada as a orderly, pretty, government town guided by the patriarchal tradition of the federal government.
But while the city of Ottawa identifies with this privileged urban aesthetic of a clean and safe capital of Canada, its visual manifestations of graffiti are clearly not consistent with this aesthetic. Rather, the presence of graffiti is seen as unnatural and threatening to the community of control. The resulting power struggle over what is legitimate for Ottawa"s urban landscape fundamentally revolves around what urban anthropologist John Rennie Short refers to as "the meaning of the city: what it represents, what it could represent and what it should represent" (Short 390). Is graffiti and its associated discourses are sites of political and ideological struggle? As Dick Hebdige writes in Subculture: the Meaning of Style, "the struggle between discourses is a struggle for the possession of a sign"(Hebdige 18). In this case, the sign is the city street: the visual aesthetic of the urban landscape. Both the community of control and the community of creators understand how the aesthetic of the urban landscape is imperative for the identification of a place. However, these two groups conceptualise the value of graffiti in this aesthetic in very different ways.
Consider the community of control whose members believe that graffiti threatens their ideal of the privileged urban aesthetic. Indeed, members of this group have responded by promoting an official discourse that perceives graffiti as a form of pollution and an indicator of danger.
Exploiting western societies known concern with dirt and decay, the community of control has raised the public"s awareness of graffiti through their conceptualisation of it as a form of pollution that is attempting to contaminate the city of Ottawa. However, in her book, Purity and Danger, anthropologist Mary Douglas explains that "there is no such thing as absolute dirt" (Douglas 1) and the dirt and the degree of its existence lies in the "eye of the beholder" (Douglas 1). An association of graffiti with dirt and decay is therefore not necessarily held by all members of a society. In Ottawa, this association is clearly held by members of the community of control for whom graffiti is "dirty" and "disgusting". For them graffiti is a form of pollution that tarnishes their urban aesthetic. The moral implications of contaminating one"s environment including someone else"s private property, links their official discourse on graffiti with a call for a public response.
Therefore, the removal of graffiti from unapproved and inappropriate locations in the city is integral to their privileged urban aesthetic. This is both the physical and ideological removal, a cleaning up, a scouring off of dirt from the city street. For them the elimination of graffiti from the surface of the city is not a negative movement. Rather, the elimination of pollution is in Mary Douglas" words "a positive effort to organise the environment" (Douglas 2). By ordering the environment in a way that removes the pollution that is graffiti, these Ottawa citizens are making the environment of the city "conform to an idea" (Douglas 1). This idea is based on the privileged urban aesthetic of the capital of Canada as it is enforced by the community of control. Doubtfully that this depiction of graffiti as pollution is adopted in an effort to shore up the lines of order and clarify the legitimacy of the urban aesthetic as a reflection of the city versus a counter image of Ottawa as an arena of personal expression for members of a youth subculture.
The second image of graffiti that completes the official discourse held by the community of control is the perception of graffiti as inherently dangerous: an indicator of deviance as it is understood by cultural theorist Howard Becker in his book Outsiders. Like the inscription of graffiti as pollution, this conceptualisation is also manufactured by those in positions of authority who stress the illegal and dangerous nature of graffiti.
They do this by associating graffiti, specifically tagging, with criminally organised gangs. Moreover they assert that two forms of graffiti, namely tags and pieces are created by a disenfranchised youth ready to strike back at society at any time. But graffiti is not always an element of gang warfare or their markings of territorial possession. Through the adoption by the community of control of a language that repeatedly refers to "gangs," "destruction," "senseless," "violent," "angry," "isolated," "youth" it is obvious that what has occurred is a relocation of knowledge and experience from other urban centres, specifically the United States, to Ottawa"s community of control. Through the association of Ottawa graffiti with gangs, the community of control is able to associate graffiti with danger and deviance.
Graffiti writers, like youth subcultures elsewhere, are seen by the community of control as "active agents of social breakdown" (Hall and Jefferson 72). A transformation occurs as a result. Graffiti is no longer only a nuisance to business owners, but also fundamentally effects the order of the city, scaring stay-at-home parents, park users and children coming home from school. As this understanding of graffiti grows within the wider citizenry, it becomes less and less obvious that the origin of this perception lies in the ideologically motivated agenda of the community of control, which is to protect their desired aesthetic of the city of Ottawa.
But graffiti writers struggle to combat this control of public space. And as they do so, the presence of graffiti in Ottawa continues to increase. The graffiti writers understand that the privileged aesthetic of the community of control is sustainable only through the defamation of graffiti and its producers. Not long after Ottawa city-councilmen Alex Cullen announced via every media imaginable that the city was at "war with graffiti," writers from Ottawa responded with a campaign of their own. After many tedious hours of production, hundreds of stickers were affixed to numerous surfaces in the down-town core. The stickers asked "What war?" It would seem that Ottawa"s graffiti writers are contesting the desire and ability of the community of control to sustain the privileged urban aesthetic. The fundamental to the graffiti discourse as expressed by Ottawa"s graffiti writers is the admiration of graffiti for its (inherent) utility. That is for them, graffiti transforms the city into a colourful reflection of the community that serves to unite youth in the city, and allows them to use graffiti to gain a sense of self-awareness and empowerment.
The urban aesthetic that is both desired and advocated by graffiti writers is one in which the citizens of the city can appreciate their ingenuity and artistic creativity; where authority is not threatened by dedicated and organised youth. While the privileged urban aesthetic is one that can be defined using words like "clean," "maintained," "predictable," "private" and "ordered" graffiti writers share a belief that words like "free," "creative," "harmonious," "competitive," and "highly stylised" should inform their own vision of an urban landscape.
The discourse of graffiti writers then, conceives of city streets as public space. Graffiti writers themselves understand their own existence in Ottawa as an inherent element of the urban landscape. Graffiti is meant to be seen on private walls in public spaces. Since fame can only be rewarded through exposure, the city will always be the basis of their style. For them the city is their rightful place; it is the only stage upon which they have roles to play out. Therefore it is the understanding of the writers that an urban aesthetic can only exist with the inclusion of graffiti. Their exclusion from the privileged urban aesthetic is seen as illegitimate. It's arguable that graffiti writers in the city are attempting to address the exclusionary nature of the privileged urban aesthetic and have formed a subculture as a result.
As a subculture, graffiti writers in Ottawa are organised around distinct values and beliefs not generally held by members of the dominant culture. These values and beliefs contribute to their oppositional conceptualisation of an urban aesthetic. In their opinion, the community of control has confused the "breaking of rules with the absence of rules" (Hebdige 92). After interviews with members of the subculture have revealed, graffiti writers do have a system of organized production that is governed by a number of rules of engagement. These rules determine the norms and standards by which an individual writer is judged by his peers; they guide the aesthetic boundaries of production; they demarcate rules of engagement regarding the selection of location and the hierarchical nature of crew organization. The internal structure of the graffiti subculture is characterized by extreme orderliness (Hebdige 113). It is through this ordered structure that the graffiti writers are able to make sense of their world.
Subcultural theory has traditionally argued that a subculture"s expression and resolution of the contradictions in a society is magical or somehow symbolic (Hall and Jefferson, 66). However, the resolution evoked by the production of graffiti in Ottawa is not only symbolic, but also has a material effect on the visual nature of Ottawa's urban landscape. Graffiti writers transform the image of the city in a way that more accurately reflects the alternative visions of its constituent groups. Although the adequacy of this transformation is limited by the length of time graffiti is left up in the city, graffiti has the potential to challenge the taken for granted nature of the privileged urban aesthetic which it attempts to subvert.
What also enables the subculture of graffiti to continue to exist in Ottawa is the material effect that its production has on resolving issues for the youth that create it. Could it be that these issues have remained the same for the new generation of Canadian writers as they were for the "original" subcultural innovators from New York? For graffiti writers in Ottawa, the subcultural style of graffiti has become a tool by which they are able to gain a personal sense of accomplishment, pride, fame and adventure. But more importantly, graffiti has taken on a new meaning and use in the context of the city of Ottawa. The subcultural style of graffiti has become the way through which young, white, men are able to actualise their own presence in a city of their own design.
To conclude, let's turn to sociologist and cultural critic Janet Wolff who states that "to demonstrate the origins of a judgement is not to comment on its truth" (Wolff 17). Through the investigation of the production and management of graffiti in Ottawa were uncovered some of the relations of power and perception that are at work in the public space of the city street.
Graffiti is a physical embodiment of the tensions that arise between differences in perception. By looking at graffiti in this way, we are able to illustrate the idiosyncratic quality of perception as it is played out in the shared environment of an urban landscape.