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Graffiti: Writers Tell

Writers Tell
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.
We call graffiti painters "writers" as not all graffiti is done with paint. In the early years, especially, graffiti was done with all kinds of things: at its roots, modern graffiti is still about words and writing words on surfaces.

A toy is an inexperienced writer. It is usually used to describe a writer who does not have a genuine interest in the art. Defining "genuine interest" is not easy, but someone who is "really" into the art will take the time to learn not only the ethics of graffiti but also the skills involved. Graffiti is an art, and just like any other art, it requires tons of practice and work.

Is graffiti really illegal?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There are many legal yards in all major cities. Some cities tolerate it more than others.
By and large, yes. In the United States, graffiti is an illegal act but there are still "legal walls" -- places where writers can go to do murals without fear of being arrested. The limited number of legal walls leads to writers constantly having to go over one another for space. This drives the better writers away because they do not want to see their time-consuming works trashed in only a matter of days.

Laws vary in other countries. In general, it is illegal most everywhere, although in Australia, graffiti is seen as a sport, of sorts, and there are competitions sponsored by big-name companies. Please note that without the permission of the wall's owner, it is illegal in Australia as well.

Illegal in most places, heavy fines, jail time etc... Especially in major cities that think they have a graffiti problem.

Is it all done with spray paint?

In general, yes. There are artists who combine paint markers and brushes, but with very few exceptions it is all done with spray paint.

Markers and enamel paint are used. Rollered throw-ups aren't uncommon. But tradition is a big part of graffiti. If you don't respect the roots of graffiti you are looked down upon. That's why the spray can has remained the tool to use in writing.

How do they do that with spray paint?

Practice, more than anything else, practice. There are specialized tips to put on the cans for wide or narrow spray that help. Writers get to know the brands of spray paint very well, which helps them determine what kind will work better in different situations.

In essence, it is a combination of experience, tools and skill.

Most artists have a large array of nozzles to use which give a wide variety of different line widths at an assortment of paint pressures. Acquiring these nozzles is a long and arduous task and is an art in itself. (No self-respecting artist would ever use the disgusting "black death" nozzle that comes native to a standard Krylon can!) Beyond that, acquiring long-since-discontinued colors and mixing colors are all tangible techniques artists use to differentiate themselves from the casual "wanna-be-hardcore" tagbangers who run rampant through the city streets. Like any art, there is no substitute for experience.. spray-painting takes incredibly good hand-eye coordination and fast decision making; one delay can cause a drip that can screw up hours of hard work.

What about paint fumes? Is that why they work outdoors?

Many writers wear masks when they paint indoors. Paint fumes are always a problem. While there are no major studies that have been done linking paint fumes to any serious illnesses, it is obvious that anything breathed repeatedly into the lungs, especially paint particles, should be avoided. Most artists do not spend enough time around paint for prolonged periods of time for this to really be a problem, but in situations where it is wear masks (which can be purchased at most any hardware store). It is important to note that a lot of artists work indoors (either in their basements or inside abandoned buildings), but since it is unseen it is also unknown.

And funny noses isn't all you can get from paint fumes. It's BRAIN DAMAGE you have to worry about. Respiratory conditions are also common among spray-paint artists of all kinds. Paint is often made of toxic or poisonous ingredients like heavy metals and dangerous solvents. Smart writers wear masks.

Do writers use stencils?

This would be about the worst thing one could do. Once again tradition plays a big part in graffiti. Although one could get perfectly straight lines using a stencil, that writer would never gain any respect from the community as a whole for using one.

In general, no. Stencils in graffiti art are analogous to tracing paper in pad+pen art, that is, if the artist is not good enough to make it on his own then he should practice some more before trying to impress. However, some artists certainly do use some aids like tape to keep lines neat and tight.

If someone gets caught using stencils and it gets around, that writer loses a lot of respect in the graf community. It's like cheating.

How big are the paintings?

It varies. Usually about as big as space and time permits. Most pieces will range in size from around 10 x 10 feet to 60 x 60 feet. Larger pieces tend to be commissioned by the city.

Most pieces are probably between 6 and 15 feet wide and as tall as the writer can reach or as the wall allows. Ladders are used on bigger pieces, which are as big as any mural that has been done.

How much paint does it take to do a big piece?

Well, it really depends on what kind of piece is being done. Think of it this way: how many pieces of wood does it take to make a big chair? It depends how ornate its design is, how many possibilities there are for mistakes, the conditions when making it, and the tools available to the creator. In general, a standard piece (about 15 x 8 feet) will take 15-20 colors, so artists must get at least that many cans of paint, whether or not they're all used up when done. Also, basic colors like black and white tend to run out quickly, so most artists will bring 3-4 cans of each.

For a big piece, it can take 20-30 cans of spray paint. Supposedly it takes about 30 cans to do a top-to-bottom whole car on a New York subway line.

How much time does it take to do a big piece?

Once again, it depends on the situation. In general, somewhere between 5-10 hours, although it's not rare for it to take days (nights) of work.

Some of the larger pieces that are done take days to complete. If it is an illegal piece that means sneaking back to the same spot night after night, which adds even more danger of being caught. Many large pieces take hours. Throw-ups take minutes, tags take seconds.

A normal piece can be done by one person with a little help in about 3 hours. Most of the big pieces are done by more than one person, so it's a combined effort that cuts down on time.

Do graffiti artists paint alone or in groups?

Often, artists who are going to piece bring 1-3 people with them to keep them company and paint as well. Sometimes the other people will be brought along just to watch out for law enforcement or gang activity.

It depends. Most of the time you paint with one person or a couple of people, when bombing. The more people you bring, the more likely it is that someone will get caught. Most writers go with one or 2 trusted people to help look out or fill in the piece.

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