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Lifestyles: Street Art or Street Vandals?

Underground Inequalities: Graffiti Culture
Rachael D'Cruze

Graffiti culture is a topic on which our society has long been divided. Graffiti is either seen as a new form of urban expression, an art form in its own right or mindless vandalism, labelled as popular amongst delinquents, a product of the unsuccessful lower classes.

Graffiti has been a visible sub-culture since the 70's and has now morphed into a part of modern youth culture. No amount of wall washing, it seems, will ever suppress the spray paint culture, which appears as a brightly coloured rainbow, weaving itself in and out of the grey tower block landscapes. However, Graffiti culture, fuelled by mainstream interference, appears to be moving in two very different directions, which may never meet.

Until very recently, the media'fs portrayal of graffiti was almost solely negative, concentrating on the cost of removal, vandalism and loss of property value. Rather than look at graffiti as a form of urban expression it has generally been seen as a sign of urban decay, the decomposition of middle class values.

This is, of course, until it became a commodity. The influx of graffiti-inspired catwalk collections last season was more than acceptable to mainstream values. We can rest assured that Louis Vuitton was not accused of delinquency. The coffee table books, favoured by high society, featuring hundreds of throw-up's, tags, pieces and murals, may make a quirky conversation point, but lets not forget that the artists would have potentially gone to prison for 'vandalism' or 'criminal damage'. Surely you cannot sell criminal damage?

Sprite Graffiti
About a year ago Sprite employed street artist Temper to design limited edition graffiti cans and bottles, celebrating 'the nation's love affair with all things urban'. This seems to be one way in which graffiti culture is moving forward. Many modern crews, keen to develop the art form, are open to the possibilities of pro-active strategies.

This type of opportunity is incredibly rare and it may actually push artists who don't have legal opportunities open to them into more traditional crews, who focus on street art, concentrating mainly on attacks on the railway system and viewing legal opportunities as a sell-out. It is the more traditional crews that are likely to suffer most from this graffiti divide, as the police try to enforce a 'zero tolerance' approach on street graffiti art, at a time when legal (or money-making) art has been elevated to the extent of inclusion in mainstream culture.

Graffiti culture is rooted in the streets, although this is not to say it should stay there. It appears that mainstream culture is currently adopting half of an already fully developed culture, which simply canÅft be done. How can we justify enforcing a 'zero tolerance' approach on the streets and then pluck a graffiti artist off the streets when they have reached a writing standard high enough to commodify into a drinks can or photo for a coffee book?

A common point of view is that itÅfs the taggers who cause the most damage, in making a 'mess' rather than attempting entire pieces. However, how are artists supposed to progress and improve to a standard high enough for society to begin to appreciate without adequate practice? Those at the top of the ladder in the world of graffiti started at the bottom; all artists begin by tagging and go from there. Talent, practice and style are the things that distinguish graffiti artists from each other. Theirs is a world free of economic discrimination, where you rely on your talent alone. Life is about progression; even capitalism wouldn't disagree with that.

The main problem with this current divide within graffiti culture, between traditional crews, (those only involved with illegal activities) and modernist crews, (those who are more interested in the art form and are eager to participate in legal activities), is the possibility of increased 'tagging wars'. Tagging wars occur when there is rivalry between crews in the same area. With legal opportunities being few and far between, the chance to gain recognition for work may cause enough rivalry to start tagging wars.

It needs to be decided whether as a society, we are to embrace graffiti as an art form, which would mean celebrating its use in advertising, fashion and modern art, but also in its rawest form: street. Tolerance rather than 'zero-tolerance' would have to be employed, especially in the poorer areas where there aren't yet enough community resources to provide writers with the opportunity to participate in legal art, such as community art murals.
It is possible to modify crew behaviour to that of the modernist persuasion. However, for this to work effectively community resources need to be constantly available. The problem of tagging can be addressed by workshops, run by respected top graffiti writers to enhance ability and encourage the attempt of whole pieces and murals rather than a series of messy tags.

Space needs to be allocated for murals, so that the streets are not the only supply of fresh canvass. The provision of community resources invites those in graffiti culture into their local society, from which they usually feel excluded. Community projects, where members of different crews work together can also lead to a decrease in 'tagging wars' as the rivalry is no longer felt.

The next step towards welcoming modern graffiti culture into society needs to be taken. As the song goes 'now you've had the best of me, come on and take the rest of me.'
© Rachael D'Cruze December 2003


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