What do skateboarders, graffiti artists and French post-structuralists have in common?
Let’s start with the skateboarder. The sport that essentially began as a land-based substitute for surfing in the late 1940s has moved from empty pools and the sidewalks of Venice Beach, to enclosed parks built by cities, to huge stadiums where corporations plaster their names on every fun box, half-pipe and hand-rail available.
Chaz Bojorquez has been called the O.G. Godfather of Cholo graffiti. He started writing graffiti in Los Angeles in the early 1960s-- his first letters were that of his own name, but soon he moved on to writing placas, or roll-calls, of Latino gangs that were prominent at the time.
Since the early 1990s, the hyper-anonymous street artist Banksy has been upending our collective notion of art, vandalism and politics with both formal and informal exhibitions across the world.
The mystique that surrounds Banksy certainly adds to the hype—only a few people have actually seen him—but it’s his artistic lexicon that has carried him from a graffiti writer from Bristol to the force of art that he is today.
If you ask someone what they think about graffiti, the possible responses are fairly easy to predict. They’ll either like graffiti, or they won’t, or they’ll like it with certain caveats or some other variation. Pretty simple. More interesting is the question “what do you feel when you see graffiti?” Your response to this can tell you a lot about the kind of city that you think you live in.
It’s really difficult to pin down what you might call a manifesto of graffiti writers. Graffiti is always a political act, insofar as it questions and confronts some of our most basic ideologies, like our concept of property. Still, in America, writers are mostly not overtly political.
A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles-based graffiti collective known as The Seventh Letter put together a gallery exhibition themed around Muppets. Forty artists, including the internationally-known Revok, produced more than 100 pieces depicting the iconic citizens of Sesame Street.
More than 40 years have passed since the beginning of the modern graffiti movement, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Heightened security in train yards, and technological innovations such as graffiti-proof paints and metals, have moved the scene from subways to the streets. The first writers have either disappeared, or moved their craft from the streets to the art gallery. And an entire generation has grown up in a world that has always had graffiti showing up somewhere in their cities.
Or, more specifically, The Great Wall has a graffiti problem.
It’s not really surprising that people have visited the Great Wall for centuries and left their names etched into the bricks—it’s what people do. The Chinese approach to managing this graffiti may be more clever than functional, but it does suggest that we don’t always need buckets of grey paint.
America has had a fascination with hobos and hobo culture for nearly as long as these folks have been hitching rides on trains.
The myth of the hobo, like so many other myths, is far more romantic than the reality, but the idealization of the hobo as an essential American character is nonetheless solidly entrenched in much of our music, film and art.