Sample Genre Report
Steve Doe
Spring, 2006


America’s New Urban Obsession

Contemporary graffiti art originated in the late 1970's with the arrival of hip-hop music and the expanding culture which surrounded it. Graffiti was closely tied to this new genre of music and the two new art forms, along with break dancing, came to define the culture of the lower economic class, inner-city black population of America. The development of hip-hop music and graffiti coincided for several reasons, but the overriding justification was necessity. Traditional forms of music and art were not, and still are not, accessible to the lower economic classes of the inner city. In response, creative youths worked with what they could. With no access to traditional instruments, the youth created beats with their mouths and bodies, and rhyming words or lyrics were spoken over these beats. The result was the foundation of hip-hop music. Similarly, with no access to traditional art instruments and media, youths used homemade markers and eventually spray cans to create art. Artists used these inexpensive and accessible tools as a medium and the city itself for a canvas. The result was graffiti art.

Graffiti can be considered one of the very few original genres of art and writing to come out of the twentieth century, according to some critics (Smolen). The genre uses a medium and canvas never before explored by previous art forms. It represents a voice never before heard in the art community. Graffiti art consists of several tenants which define the genre. First of all, the art work is illegal. As William Upski Wimsatt, a renowned graffiti artist puts it, "There ain't no such thing as a graffiti t-shirt." By this, Wimsatt means that in order for a work to be true graffiti, it must be done illegally. When we delve more deeply into the issue we see why this aspect is so crucial. Once again, necessity plays the key role. The media of graffiti, spray paint, markers and stencils, are a direct result of the art form’s illegality. The artist must use a medium which is portable, concealable, easy to access, cheap, and most importantly, fast. When the artist picks a location to work, he or she must act quickly and secretively. He must be able to carry the tools easily and must be able to pick up and leave in a moments notice. In fact, the risk involved in any piece, to a large extent, determines its value. As Wimsatt says, the artist’s goal should be to "Maximize public exposure, surprisingness, and daring, while minimizing insult and cost to the people of the city." He goes on to say, "Cleverness and risk are prized." Because of the qualities valued by the graffiti artist community, and the origins of the art form, we can see why the illegality of the genre is so essential to the present and future of the art.

A very unique discourse community exists among graffiti artists. This discourse community is important to understand not only so that one can grasp what a graffiti artist is saying by way of message, but also to understand the rules which exist in the community. Several terms are important to know. The first is “tagging”, which is the act of marking one's name. Tagging is considered a lower ranking form of graffiti as it is quite simple and easily done. A throw up is a more complex version of a tag. It typically consists of the writer's name done in stylistic form. The artist increases complexity by implementing several colors and adding dimension through shading. Some consider a throw-up a mini-masterpiece. A "piece", short for masterpiece, is a highly complex work. Outside of the discourse community, a piece might be called a mural. Finally, "to bomb" is to pack a given space with tags and throw-ups. A structure covered with tags and throw-ups has been "bombed.” Artists separate themselves into two groups defined by the work they perform. These two groups are called “bombers” and “piecers.” Bombers gain recognition in the community from a high quantity of tags and throw-ups in high-risk locations, while piecers gain recognition from a limited number of high quality works.

While many see graffiti to be the Wild West of art, there actually are some strict guidelines which all graffiti artists follow. As Wimsatt says in Bomb the Suburbs, every city has its own rules for graffiti, but some are universal. They are as follows: 1. Never go over any work done by dead artists unless you are a close friend and are doing it to memorialize the work. 2. You may piece over tags and throw-ups, but never tag over a piece 3. Avoid piecing over pieces unless you have asked permission. It is worth noting that the rules revolve around respect. Pieces take a lot of time to create and require great artistic ability. It would be very disrespectful to write your name all over someone else’s piece. On the other hand, tags take only a little time and effort, so piecing over a tag or throw-up is not considered disrespectful. While these rules of conduct have stayed in place for decades, the art form itself has shown itself to be dynamic on several levels. The rules have helped to ensure growth in the genre.

Over the years, graffiti has evolved through the implementation of new techniques to become more and more complex. Today, graffiti is following in the successful footsteps of hip-hop music. While graffiti has evolved into an easily recognizable and mainstream-respected genre, it is only recently that this has been the case. But with this development, some old-school graffiti artists fear that the genre is losing touch with its roots and the aspects which make it authentic to the street life. After all, can an art form which is by definition illegal and performed in the inner-city streets exist in an art gallery? Once an act of subversion has been embraced by the mainstream, is it any longer subversive?

Graffiti's perceived image by those unfamiliar with the genre has changed from one of gang-related violence and inner-city poverty to legitimate art form. But as graffiti has gained acceptance by the mainstream and artists from other genres, many graffiti artists feel that their form is actually losing legitimacy. This stems from the fact that graffiti is inherently connected to the streets. It is inherently illegal. And it has always been owned by the disenfranchised and down-and-out. What graffiti artists are asking is how can an art form which originated in the poverty stricken streets exist in the home of a wealthy art owner or on the walls of an art gallery? Once again a parallel must be drawn to graffiti's counterpart, hip-hop. Since hip-hop gained mainstream acceptance in the late 1980's, it has changed dramatically. Many would argue that it has been watered down so much that it is a shadow of its former self. However, not all hip-hoppers and graffiti artists condemn the mainstream acceptance. After all, mainstream acceptance leads to monetary gains and increased awareness about the plight of the streets. We are witnessing a critical moment in the progress of graffiti. Just as hip-hop went underground in the early nineties to give way to mainstream rap, graffiti may go back underground to make room for a new, related, but mainstream genre. Will graffiti art follow in the footsteps of hip-hop? Graffiti's future is definitely in question, but one thing is for sure, it will continue to adapt and change much like the people who have created it.

Aside from the direction graffiti has taken on the consumer level, the art itself has evolved dramatically. In the early days of graffiti, crude signatures and scribbling defined the process of tagging. Today, this is not the case. Graffiti is by definition confrontational and competitive. Because of these inherent traits, graffiti has progressed rapidly in terms of composition and artistic merit. Currently, graffiti tags and throw-ups resemble the pieces of the last decade, while contemporary pieces are strikingly bold, complex compositions. This rapid progression may stem from the fact that artists want their work to stand out against the works of others. In a sea of tags and throw-ups, only the best will be recognized by the average passer-by. Technology has also played a crucial role in graffiti’s development. Today, spray cans can be adapted with various tips in order to produce a desired effect. For example, some nozzles are used to lay down massive quantities of paint over a large area while others produce fine lines for detail and dimension. With advancements such as these, the genre continues to grow.

When viewing contemporary graffiti, the complexities of the work are clear. Quality pieces employ two or three dimensions and multiple colors. In many cases, 10 or more layers of paint are used to complete a piece. Many artists employ stencils, straight edges, and circle guides in order to enhance their work. Many of today’s artists produce truly beautiful works of art which are appreciated even by traditional artists. This development has allowed graffiti to firmly cement itself in American culture. It has become the genre of art, along with hip-hop, that best defines the inner city life and struggle. And as we have seen over the past two decades, Americans have become obsessed with this demographic.

Graffiti has proven itself to be a legitimate genre of writing and art simultaneously. While the future of graffiti is questioned by many, it is clear that the form will not be disappearing anytime soon. As long as humans have lived on this planet, they have marked their surroundings to establish identity and place. Graffiti is simply a modern example of this fascination. As long as youths strive to materialize their identity and rebel against the rules of a society which has disenfranchised them, graffiti will have a place and a role to play.