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When art is just another commodity, all we have left is vandalism

In our society the stage of life between innocent child and responsible adult can be pretty frustrating. Unless they are trying to get you into their malls to buy their products, those who control the mainstream ignore you. You can either be a consumer, or be ignored. You find that the society you live in is a pretty boring place. Shopping and watching TV really isn't very exciting, never mind work. you also start to realize that the idealistic things you were taught as a child, and are still being taught, don't really hold up to the truth. You find that politicians are liars, the police are jerks, you rarely get rich and famous by working hard, and the world isn't a very fair place.
Many people in this stage of life would love to change things, but the amount of disempowerment thrust upon individuals is astounding. Even joining a radical political group rarely allows actual action against the system. those few times when we are able to run free through the streets usually require such an immense amount of time and planning beforehand that we are lucky to experience more than a handful of those moments.

It makes sense then, that most graffiti writers start vandalizing property at a young age. The disillusionment with and hatred of society exist, while the chains of being a responsible jaded adult do not. Sure, political philosophers may be able to put things more eloquently, but your average graffiti vandal is just as quick to point out the faults and frustrations of our society. When asking writers why they do graffiti, I almost always get a variation of one of three responses, ego, thrill and hatred of society. All three can be linked to dissatisfaction with the society they live in.

Ego. Do you get an ego from writing graffiti? Hell yeah you do. Seeing your name everywhere you go, knowing that every time you put something up that's one more bit of respect you get from your fellow writers. Knowing that every time a stranger sees your name up they must stop and wonder who you are. Knowing that those driving to work see your name more than they do the advertisements for Coke, Pepsi, Nike and McDonalds combined. in a world where you are paid attention to only long enough to be told what to do or buy, graffiti allows us that little bit of fame we were promised when we were told that we could be anything we wanted to be when we grow up. Why wait to see that our dreams become unobtainable in the future when we can become artists today?

You become not only an artist, but someone who gets to feel the adrenalin rush of taking actual risks. Something we almost never get to feel in our controlled, dulled society. When you are a part of the black bloc you know that at any moment the police might rush you, an undercover might try to snatch you, or some vigilante hero might try to stop you. Same thing with graffiti, you always have to be ready to run. For us, living in western society, life is pretty boring. The situationists summed it up with their slogan "commute, work, commute, sleep..." we have so few opportunities to feel actual excitement, actual risk, actual life. We, as a society, want risk, want adventure, and yet are almost never able to attain it. We flock to action movies and video games, hoping, that somehow they can install a feeling of real adventure into our controlled realities. Graffiti allows us to escape the boredom of everyday life and experience a genuine sense or risk and excitement.

The last reason for doing graffiti is my personal favorite, and the main reason I started writing graffiti; a hatred and dissatisfaction with society. There are many reasons for hating western society, and plenty of books have been written on the subject. There are also plenty of forms of resistance, property destruction or vandalism being just one of them. How effective, if at all, graffiti is in challenging or changing society, I don't know. What I do know is that our society places a huge amount of value on image and those in power place a huge amount of value on being able to control the population. Graffiti undermines both. When graffiti appears, no longer can people pretend that everything is perfect and everyone is happy. It is in your face proof that dissatisfaction, boredom and hatred of society exist. The image of the American dream is broken. It is a reminder that the world we live in is an imperfect place. Likewise the myth that those in power are being respected and obeyed is broken. Rebellion and defiance appear right there on the walls and everyone is forced to notice it. If those in power cannot control what their own city looks like, what can they control? graffiti vandalism is like giving a big middle finger to western society, only better, because they are forced to spend money on graffiti removal, the same money that would otherwise go on to expand the capitalist system.

Graffiti can cost hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to clean up. That's money that the city government isn't able to spend on hiring more police or lining the bureaucrat's pockets. That's money that McDonalds isn't spending on buying more rainforest land to clear-cut or building more parking lots. Sure cleaning graffiti from their restaurants isn't going to force McDonalds to declare bankruptcy, but it certainly isn't helping increase their profit margins either. Political demonstrations that actually do something more than parade down the street for a few hours are pretty rare. On the other hand, with graffiti you can cost a corporation or government thousands of dollars and you can do it as often as you want. It's not going create a revolution, but graffiti is an annoying thorn in the side of capitalist society, and at the same time gives voice and empowerment to individuals who are otherwise ignored.

--Mateo Czarny

graffiti 08.Dec.2007 10:48

a writer

You make some good points, graffiti is disruptive to the staus quo and we need more and more effective disruptions to McDonalds, Starbucks and other mega-corporations.
I have a problem with people tagging Portland's murals and public artwork, though.
What's the political point of that?
Destroying a mural (like recently on NE Alberta, or on the Red & Black Cafe's mural) only harms people who are trying to do something nice for the community.