Style Wars – The Calligraphy of Graffiti

May 29, 2006

Style Wars was a PBS documentary broadcast in the early 80s about graffiti, hip-hop, breakdancing, rap, and a few other emergent cultural memes of 70-80s New York. 

 I've got to say that the most hilarious part of the documentary is the dumb-ass way Ed Koch went about "solving" the problems caused by bombers and taggers wreaking havoc on the subway system. There are two solutions highlighted in the documentary. The first was a shameless ad campaign with boxers (no doubt that it was a gibe at pandering to the Puerto Rican community) with two slogans: "Take it from the Champs, Graffiti is for Chumps." and with "Make your mark IN Society, not ON Society." At a press conference Koch botches the second slogan. Near the end of the documentary Koch enlightens us on his best idea yet – a pair of razor wire fences, with a guard dog inbetween them, outside the train depot. But to hear how he tells the whole story of how he warred with the idea with the transit commision is just priceless. 

About three years ago I decided to.. uh.. suggest to uh.. to Ravitch that they put a uh.. dog in the yard to keep the graffiti vandals out. The MTA originally rejected it and they said, "No, if you put a dog in the yard he'll touch the third rail." Now I don't happen to think the dogs would touch the third rail but my response to that was, "Well if you think the dogs would touch the third rail then build two fences, and have the dog run between the two fences. And that will keep people out and protect the dog from stepping on the third rail." And the response was, "Well somebody will climb over the fence and the dog will bite them." and I said, "Well I thought that's what the dog was for but if you're afraid of having the dog bite such a vandal" and here I called upon my prodigious memory "what you should do then is instead of using a dog, you should use a wolf and have a wolf run between the two fences. Because there is no recorded case in history where a wolf has ever attacked a human being unless the wolf were rabid – mad." Now, as a result of telling that story innumerable times I embarrassed the MTA into building the fence. … And it was so successful they now claim it as their own idea and they are building 18 more fences. 

It's just brilliant how Koch has a dumb idea to begin, refines it to even greater magnitudes of stupidty, and in the end feels he deserves recognition for this astoundingly retarded idea. He does certainly deserve the recognition. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but I am. The guy starts with a dumb idea and when met with opposition instead of swallowing his pride and thinking up a better idea he backpeddles but never steps down and remedies the opposition by just putting up another fence. Then with a second opposition he does the same thing by calling on his "prodigious memory" about something that is in no way a fact, that of no "recorded case in history" of a non-rabid wolf attack on a human. Hysterical, just hysterical. I couldn't believe it. And his whole idea that he and the MTA spent so much time and effort formulating is torn to shreds by a one sentance made by a bomber: "They got guys out there that are mugging people on the subways, stabbing people, throwing people onto the tracks and all that and they are wasting their bullshit money on trying to get us." 

Richard Ravitch at the time was the intermediary between the higher ups of the New York beauracracy and the artists (and it is an art). He said he met with a group of them, according to him out of "intellectual curiosity", to find a common ground. Obviously they didn't find common ground but most likely because Ravitch wasn't caring enough to find the common ground in the first place. His interview is the most emotionally detached about the issue. Every graffiti bomber/artist interviewed is energetic and informative but every interview with Koch and Ravitch is watching a monotone dead-eyed soulless wonder spew the same stubborn "property rights this" "misguided morals that" crap. I garauntee you if the politicans actually embraced graffiti as a form of city-wide diverse cultural expression the public would have swallowed it whole. 

Graffiti is an art form. End of discussion about that debate. Whether it's a "high" or "fine" art form is debatable and whether or not it is classified as New York cultural "kitsch" is also arguable. Either way, it is art. It's a form of expression and communication which uses textual and symbolic imagery through a chemical medium. It's a modernization of calligraphy and what is most interesting is how the meme became organically powerful. Tagging started in the 60s with "Julio 204" but popularized by "Taki 183". Both of Julio's and Taki's tagging styles were nothing more than a simplstic single line text – no more creative than print-style handwritting. However nowadays the calligraphy of modern day graffiti has three-dimensionality, Picasso-esque abstractions, a myraid of colors, chamoflague, and it's own inner symbology (ex. text-embedded arrows). Secondly it has an interesting characteristic that most art forms don't – mobility. A tag can be broadcasted across an entire city while traveling on a subway train or it can be a static image on the side of a convenience store. The portable images on trains have their important factors and the static images which can use the brick-wall architecture of the convenience store as the images texture. 

The other interesting thing about the graffiti meme is how it reflects absurdism. I've just read a small Camus biography but his ideas on absurdism are quite interesting. Camus' favorite example of absurdism was suicide how it is not only a backlash against the lack of meaning in life but also a product of meaninglessness in life. Graffiti as an absurdist by-product is evidenced by the fact that it was born out of a need to inject meaning into a meaningless culture but also a backlash against the meanings of the predominant culture. Graffiti was here to bomb the lines as one tagger says in the documentary. 


3 Responses to “Style Wars – The Calligraphy of Graffiti”

  1. Not quite up to your usual standard IMHO. While I do agree with the graffiti as art concept, the lack of respect shown to private property by the artists troubles me.

    Also (nit-picking here), the spelling mistakes were somewhat irritating – you’re usually so good!

  2. paintist said

    “# Post Date :
    # Monday, May 29th, 2006 at 2:21 am”

    heh… I should really read these after I’ve posted them. I’ll certainly start doing that – as well as beef up my pathetic excuse for an essay section. ;)

  3. .vdot. said

    Bombing isnt about art, which is partially why nobody cares about damage to property. Pieces are art, but tags and throws are for a different purpose.

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