Graffiti Art In The 21st Century: The Bronx, 1990’s Nairobi, New York Subway,The White House
Last updated on March 29th, 2017 at 11:30 am
Is there a link between religion and graffiti art?
Why would some of us consider graffiti, art, while others vehemently opine that graffiti is nothing but vandalism?
How do we tie all this up in understanding graffiti art’s place in 21st century society?
To answer these questions we have to go back to 1990’s Nairobi, ‘New World’ America and into Obama’s and Trump’s White House.
Graffiti Art and Religion: How My Search For Christianity Fed My Love For Graffiti Art
Growing up in early 90’s Nairobi — right about the time evangelical Christianity was taking root in Kenya– meant that one had to at least sit through one Armageddon movie.
The ‘movies’ were short clips, not more than an hour, beamed by projector on white screen but preferably on shop walls. The sinema was timed perfectly: Starting just as evening gave way to night (just as one would serve desert) to wash down the boisterous preaching and signing that had just gone down.
These public-address-system powered open air crusades were in every corner, open market field and roadside as start up churches going by such brand names like:’ The Devil Is A Liar Ministries’ fought for souls to convert.
Not one to miss out on desert, I watched probably two hands counts of these ‘movies’ and got ‘saved’ less than a hand’s count as a bonus. In fact I would hunt down the ‘showings’ reading the bland blue ink only posters plastered on electricity poles; mentally noting the days and using gained experience to arrive at the right time- early enough to get a front row seat but late enough to skip the loud, emphatic preaching.
You see, there was no You Tube–we had to contend with state TV only and VCR machines were high end. Mostly though, it was because I craved more and more for that rare quality that these movies with no star names as actors; unoriginal gone-round-the-block scripts; dodgy sound and forgettable cinematography had in plenty: Shock value.
I am talking about unapologetic liberal expression of the contents/matters of the soul in manner that with time – – after being weaned on apocalyptic tales- -I have come to rank only second to graffiti art. If these apocalyptic movies and graffiti art had a persona, it would be one that entices, enthralls and still impudently instill fear while at it.
Cultural Roots Of Graffiti Art In America- aka- the New World
Save for the forgotten indigenous tribes of the Americas, almost everyone else migrated there. Across the Atlantic, the gallant souls from across Europe moved in search opportunity. Some were on the run from persecution in their homelands: Religious, social, economic or otherwise.
These adventurous types migrated carrying their culture in their souls alongside their few belongings. On the contrary, as Ben Carson was recently flogged online for ill informed attempt at rewriting history, others moved to America against their own will: Sold by their tribes men or traded as bounty from inter tribe wars, to break both their backs and the land. They too, carried their culture in their hearts, minds and souls.
It therefore comes as a surprise when the cradle of modern graffiti art, late 20th century inner city New York, can be labeled as a-cultural. It beats logic how such a tag could suffice considering that the inner cities- Brooklyn and its sisters- represent a melting point of different peoples and cultures: Hispanics, Afro-American , Afro-Caribbeans, Caucasian and Asian.
Though these peoples may be long plucked from their roots; their different cultures remain alive hidden in words used in everyday talk; in idioms subtly hidden in language; stories passed from one generation to the next and I believe, hard-wired in genetic material active and alive.
This tapestry of cultures with a history full of oppression tempts one to imagine graffiti art as an every day Joe, just like you and me, battling the complexities of 21st century life, broken and seeking help at the shrink’s office while at it. We therefore shouldn’t be quick to judge and tag.
Graffiti Art and Vandalisim: A Multi-personality Disorder Best Depicted by The Parable” Which One Came First, The Or Chicken or The Egg “
It is said that all that is needed is a trigger to spur some action. Consider this statement the opposite of the proverb: “Let sleeping dogs lie”.
Be reminded that sleeping dogs don’t bite- -This article is in no way a propaganda piece as the Nazi narrative of undue environmental influence on the actions of an individual that attempted to sanitize the inhumane actions of Nazi doctors during the Nuremberg Trials which heralded the start of protection of human subjects in health research– – But be reminded all the same as we unpack graffiti arts’ dalliance with vandalism.
Quite often, this trigger that spurs action is some form of oppression. Whilst the action almost always eventually mimic the nature of the trigger, part of spectrum of release of societal tension is usually some form of physically harmless creative expression.
This reaction to events around the artist that is biased towards expression of feelings rather than physical objects is what gives graffiti art a standing as a form of expressionism. True art is real and life mimics art. With graffiti art, these sayings could not be more apt. Graffiti art in all it’s glory however vile, was the face of inner city mid to late 20th century New York.
In 1965 as feminism was gaining ground with adoption of Executive Order 11375, which expanded the affirmative action policy to cover gender based discrimination; a different form of crusade was incubating in sections of the American Urbane.
We will attempt to draw a portrait of this crusade in the subsequent sections.
Graffiti Art In The 20th Century: From The Grimy Streets Rose Something So Beautiful That Some Considered It Rude
The roots of modern graffiti art lie in a period of societal angst in mid to late 20th century. As intimated above, there was a distillation in world views into the expansion of civil rights that by extension included women rights and the beginning of the end of colonialism in Africa.
In neighborhoods such as the inner cities of New York and Philadelphia, considered devoid of culture- – -thus bereft of a system to protect the individual from rapid change- – – the prevailing depraved social conditions must have only added to the angst.
This was because while humanity appeared to be taking care of everyone, the inner city youth must have felt forgotten and vulnerable. Something that graffiti art (Bombing particularly) and belonging to gangs respectively cured.
Given the complex way that societies evolve, it is hard to make out which of graffiti art and vandalism is the chicken or the egg. Yet despite all the bile from the purists, it is a known fact that graffiti has always been at home with power.
One only needs to step back into late 20th century battles for New York to find inner city gangs such as The Bronx River Project gangs (that socialized the likes of “The Godfather” aka The “Amen Ra of Hip Hop Kulture”, gang leader turned peace maker Afrika Bambaataa,) who marked their territory using graffiti art.
Of the hustlers running 20th century New York City streets, Bambaataa stands heads above thanks to his influence in defining Hip Hop Kulture by coining the terms Rap, Djing, B-boying and graffiti art (Aerosol writin).
Who at the time of it’s infancy, would have envisioned that the hip hop Kulture will one day turn out to be one of the most successful American exports ?
Worse still, who would have dared say that one of Hip Hop Kulture’s four pillars – – graffiti art- – would find itself as a symbol of mutual respect between two of the most powerful men at the time in the 21st century?
Before we delve into the juicy details of the story of graffiti and powerful men in the White House, we look at graffiti as an art, highlighting stylistic elements.
Mainstreaming Of Graffiti Art: A look at Pioneer Graffiti Artists
The Hellenic American Union, Hellenic Folklore Research Center of The Academy Of Athens in a 2010 online poster advertising a talk by UNESCO research associate Nikos Papgeorgiou titled From Expressionism To Graffiti offer :
Until 1912, art theorists were using the term Expressionism to describe Modern Art in Europe during that period. This term inspired many artists, as the movement began as a kind of revolution against Classic Art, in favor of a liberation of the soul.
From Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse to contemporary artists who express themselves through multicolored and expressionist graffiti on the city’s walls, the distance is not great.
Graffiti art’s first victory was in 1973 when New York Magazine carried an 8 page essay on the underground subway graffiti movement. An expose which brought the names TAKI 183, JOE 182 , PRAY and STAY HIGH 149 from the train seats, walls, pavements, posts and train carriage bodies of New York to the world .
The legend STAY HIGH 149, was born Wayne Roberts in 1950, as a young man he made ends meet working as a messenger in Wall Street following his family’s relocation from Emporia, VA to Harlem at age seven.
Legend goes that STAY HIGH 149 would tag his name on over 100 trains during his day job and 200 trains when hitting the night shift. As remarkable as his feat was, STAY HIGH was following in the footsteps of Philadelphia pioneers CORNBREAD and COOLEARL, who in the late sixties are credited with popularizing bombing.
Bombing involves writing your name (tag) all over the city using can sprays and permanent makers- unlike in the Roman Empire where art works were produced by scratching a design into a surface.
Graffiti art falls within an iconographic tradition and style is the expression of that tradition ~ Lisa Gottlieb in Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System and Theoretical Analysis
In New York, the interconnected subway system allowed for inter- borough competitions, as graffiti writers competed among themselves leading to development of this ‘delinquent ‘ art form through style wars. All this came at a great cost to the City Of New York as it severally had to repaint the trains.
Consequently, for the taggers, it was dangerous art as they frequently had run-ins with the law. To stay safe, instead of riding the trains round the five boroughs, the writers would camp at the subway bombing trains with their tags as they stopped to pick passengers. The highly economical use of words to convey
Graffiti Art In The 21st Century
To look at graffiti art through the narrow prism of ‘conservative’ constructs of “graffiti art is vandalism” would be denying ourselves insight into how ‘the new art’ has come to capture aspects of the psyche of humanity from as far back as caveman era all the way into the 21st Century .
From college students to presidents of world super powers and gang members running the streets (some contend that in the 21st century, the difference between the last two is a matter of semantics); the power of graffiti as a form of art is evident in its traversal of creed, color and socioeconomic status.
From the metro train system of New York to the back alleys of Tokyo to the scattered murals and tags on Nairobi’s bridges and perimeter walls, it appears that graffiti art continues to walk forward as a form of artistic expression.
In 2010, the heads of two world powers meet. Both were new to office. President Obama had just served his first term in office while his British counterpart David Cameron had been just elected to office.
As is the norm, gifts were exchanged to seal the occasion.
Among the gifts, was a painting by contemporary British graffiti artist Ben Eiine: Twenty First Century City.
Fast forward to 2017 and it is ironic that it is hard to imagine graffiti art in Trump’s white house.
You’d think that graffiti and Trump would be a natural fit given what the 45th President of the United States is thought to represent.
By all accounts Trumpism is all about an arrogant show of the middle finger to the excesses of liberalism.
Just as Trumpism, graffiti art’s in your-face-attitude elevates it to punch beyond it’s weight against all odds.
For Trumpism, this amounts to occupying the highest political office on earth. For graffiti, it is to be art. In these two, we toast to the audacity of expression when it’s least politically correct to do so.