Expanding Lines: Negotiating Space, Body, and Language Limits in Train Graffiti

Elisa Bordin
University of Padua

"Exclusion should not be defined only in relation to income, work, or civil rights, as it is mainly found in sociological literature; its basic aspect would rather be the exclusion from communication. The diverse social mutilations acquire exemplary and general significance only as long as they entail the loss of the concrete possibility of taking part into communication."
--"exclusion/inclusion," Massimo De Carolis. Post-Fordist Lexicon, 109 [1]

[1] This work aims to analyze train (railroad) graffiti as a performance, understood as a threefold process that involves the circulation of the train, the writer's body, and the visual language on the train. The first two features, that is, the circulation of the train in the city and the atypical use of the graffiti writers' bodies, undermine the construction of what is considered public space, thus collapsing the normalizing effect of contemporary cities as spaces of control (Foucault 1967:2). Train graffiti proposes a different dialogue with the ordering forces of society, as it acts on what is public space in illegal ways and by appropriating language. The analysis of the writer's body movement brings to the fore a further reasoning on the graffiti practice as a performance, which as such dismantles not only the idea of public space, but also the use of written words, understood once again in Michel Foucault's notion of language as a coercive means that is involved in the creation of public and controlled dimensions. The bodily performance of the graffiti writers, together with the type of written letters they use, and the redefinition of what is to be thought of as common space, concur to establish a post-modern practice, which questions how we create and understand meaning in our urban realities. In particular, the beginning of this practice in the 1970s, in New York, links the disruptive force of graffiti to other American movements of those years (think of Chicano literature and the use and recovery of Ebonics), which questioned the existence of a controlled language employed to legitimize a controlled social, spatial, and linguistic arena.

[2] Generally, graffiti refers to spray-made productions encompassing images and writings on more or less public, moving or still, supports. The term "graffiti," therefore, spans a number of different artistic practices, such as street, stencil, and aerosol art. These practices are usually combined under the wide umbrella term "street art," since they share analogous aesthetics and a similar medium (the spray can) through which a work of art is accomplished. However, the interchangeable use of the terms "graffiti" and "street art" is here avoided. For the interest of this study, I will focus only on those productions that arrange the writing of the producer's name on the external wall of a train car, as I suggest that the pictorial support on which train graffiti is done is a leading cue to understand its performative and transitory character. Among the different artistic graffiti practices, train graffiti is by and large not in contradiction with similar aesthetics; nevertheless, this mode stands out for the mobile nature of its pictorial support, a fact that contributes to the understanding of the practice as a performance. In contrast to graffiti produced on canvas and/or packageable bases, and as a consequence of the fact that train graffiti writing is made on a public and moving support, this pictorial practice cannot be easily reproduced and sold. This has a consequence on its disruptive force in comparison to other forms of graffiti that, over the years, have approached art or commercial market. [2]

[3] Train graffiti writing gained momentum in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the broader hip-hop movement.[3] Even though some place the first appearance of urban graffiti in Philadelphia, where tags by Cornbread and Cool Ear appeared in 1968-1969 (Piquer), New York is perceived as the symbolic city in the iconography of the movement. [4] In fact, it is in New York that graffiti has developed its styles and then spread, first in the city's districts in the 1980s, and then, by achieving global dimension in the 1990s. [5] Paradoxically, while graffiti was gaining worldwide sensation and diffusion (from Brazil to Japan, and to Italy, France, Germany, and Europe as a whole in general), in the Big Apple train graffiti progressively decreased as a consequence of the massive and repetitive MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) actions and the introduction of the "buff" system, a chemical cleaning that neutralizes the writers' work. [6] These massive interventions to clean and prevent the spread of graffiti had a big impact on the work of graffiti writers, who, since the 1990s, have been progressively moving into the world of art galleries, looking for more legal and protected spaces to continue their aesthetic research, or have introduced other forms of graffiti interventions, such as street-level bombing, freight train graffiti, scratchitti, and etch bath. [7]

[4] So far, existing studies on graffiti have been mainly muted from sociological, anthropological, and cultural studies, and they have dealt with graffiti as a form of counterculture or urban subculture. [8] Namely, studies using anthropological or sociological approaches have read train graffiti as an identity claiming act for youth and under-represented segments of society, often coming from economically underprivileged and politically non-influential classes. As a consequence of the diffusion of cultural studies, of sociological and Marxist formation, "research into graffiti (and hip hop) culture that has used this approach by and large concentrates on the 'fact' that members of these [...] groups are the poor, ethnic youth who find themselves disenfranchised and ignored in the urban setting" (Scheepers). Indeed, although it has been often addressed as a simple act of vandalism by political administrators, graffiti writing on trains is a phenomenon based on the practice of identity claiming by the obsessive and ad infinitum repetition of the writers' names on a public surface in illegal conditions. [9] Even though "this approach has merit," as Scheepers contends, "its fundamental claims about the primacy of class leave a central hollowness to the research, and can lead to dangerous assumptions of the subculture that may even selectively ignore other factors or contradictory information."

[5] Indeed, it is my opinion that the significance of graffiti writing in contemporary societies goes well beyond the need for representation of indigent young segments of society. Rather, this practice involves central issues of the postmodern reflection on the use and limits of body, space, and language. Despite the centrality of the identitarian claim, this study sees the use of a public panel instead of a private support as something particularly signifying, since the expression of these identities challenges the concepts of private/public sphere as well as the notion of property which is so central in American culture and is often accepted as an undeniable right. The use of the public train for the expression of personal identities becomes, in this light, a political assertion for the redefinition of marginal identities' visibility in American society and culture, in line with other movements of the 1970s. The use of public and moving trains as the pictorial support questions to what extent the public and the personal are two liminal edging concepts, redefining who has the right to exist in the public representative city scenery. This study will follow in this direction, further expanding the analysis of train graffiti, not just as a practice of under-privileged and under-represented youth, but also as a performance that involves the whole community, renegotiating the relation between writers, the city space, and language.

[6] In contrast to other forms of graffiti, train graffiti is a complex act that expands well beyond the final result users are given, and as such, has to be analyzed in order to comprehend how it interrogates the given understanding of the city space and language. This approach, therefore, does not consider the sprayed letters the conclusion of the action, and graffiti only as a visual practice. Rather, train graffiti has to be regarded as a doing, a complex, in-process event that involves different phases before and after the drawing moment. The exploration of train graffiti as a performance considers the various moments of the production of the drawing, and investigates how the graffiti panel moves within the city, how the writers prepare for their communicative effort, and how they document their action after the train moves. These are aspects that have scantly been approached by previous studies, and they call upon a consideration of aspects, such as space, body, and language.

[7] The notion and perception of space is a most visibly discussed one in train graffiti practice, which, as aforementioned, is different from wall graffiti due to the mobile nature of the painting support. While train graffiti writing may seem to be a private matter of identity claiming, the use of a public support that moves within the city but stops in local yards calls for an understanding of graffiti as a social discussion of what relation with the cityscape some city citizens are allowed. The identification with a place has actually always been part of graffiti and links the writer's name, symbol par excellence of identity, with the territory one comes from. In reality, the long history of graffiti has always evidenced a close relation to place as a way to mark territory (as is the case for placas by Mexican immigrants in the Los Angeles area in the 1940s and 1950s, or, the "I was here" or "X from ..." in general writings in toilets, bars, etc.) Even though the contemporary graffiti movement, as we know it today, differs from previous practices, nonetheless it shares with its antecedents an implicit attention to space issues. As a matter of fact, one of the early documents testifying to the contemporary graffiti movement is the article by Robert Goldstein in the New York Times of March 26, 1972. In it, Goldstein publicly recognizes graffiti as a specific practice, and reports Taki 183's tags as its first expression. [10] In these tags, the number "183" beside Taki's name represents the street number where the kid lived, and therefore the relation between graffiti and notions of space is immediately brought to the forefront. The earliest writing styles were identified by the names of the places they come from, as the Bronx or the Brooklyn styles recall the name of those boroughs where these styles were invented (Goldstein).

[8] However, the place of provenance is not to be understood as the only trait that defines the graffiti writer's identity in connection to his/her geographical origin. Indeed, the choice of the train surface as the painting support for this practice is meaningful, as the train's movement within the city implies a motion that troubles the relation between the writer's locality and his/her relation to the whole city. According to the interviews of the first New York writers in the 1970s, the train enabled those confined in a district to make their name or tag circulate in the whole metropolis, thus achieving a space of action and representation much bigger than the physical and social space allowed to them as under-represented teenagers (Dennant). In contrast to country realities, the city has been traditionally thought of as a place of possibility and mobility. However, in the experience of graffiti writers, it is also a place of segmentation and separation along sectors differentiated both geographically and politically. As Foucault has pointed out, the geographical separation of places is an act of control (Foucault 1967). The separation and confinement in boroughs, due, in the writers' case, to economical indigence, constitute a sort of heterotopia that reasserts the social division geographically. In contrast, train graffiti enables a chosen identity to circulate freely in the city, infinitely amplifying in a sort of Whitmanian expansion through the train motion. The work of a writer, therefore, although strictly connected to the locality (place) where it is produced, contends a wider space of action in the cityscape. Consequently, this practice asks for a reconsideration of what the geopolitical city entity implies. As a "rebellious message regarding the control of public space" (Bartolomeo), writing indeed interrogates significant dynamics, such as the distribution of power and movement within an urban setting, which should be, by definition, the fruit of democratic modernity. By appropriating a specific subway line or stop through bombings, tags, and panel pieces, writers, confined in their districts, connect their locality and the wider space of the city. Meanwhile, the circulation of train graffiti continuously touches questions of whose the public space is, who controls it, and who/what can circulate within it. Furthermore, the train is a shared space for many New York train users, who are transformed into involuntary audiences of the graffiti piece. The interaction with a high number of inhabitants, together with the mobility of the train, enlarge a communication act that would otherwise be isolated and unheard, because it gives voice to those who do not have access to the other forms of communication, such as the standard media.

[9] If, on the one hand, the train expands the writer's identity in the whole city, then, on the other, a graffiti action also expands the writer's bodily and personal interaction with the city as a space of body-control, in which just certain physical movements are permitted. As a matter of fact, citizens make use of only a part of the urban area; the city also contains underground passages, rugged areas, tunnels, etc., which the average resident does not come into contact with. We could actually compare the citizen to a spectator who knows the scenography of a theatrical piece but does not go backstage, or, to use a religious image, the citizen can be reminiscent of a worshipper, who attends a religious function but does not know of the stairs or passages leading from the altar to the background. The standard urban residents move on the surface of city spaces and follow established paths, often defined by "Access denied" or "No entry" panels. This is not so for train graffiti writers. As Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, the first photographers who testified the graffiti phenomenon in New York, in the 1980s, write, "graffiti writers have a knowledge of the system which rivals that of any train buff or transit worker. They know the location of all the yards and lay-ups where trains are parked when not in use, and all the means of access, be they holes in the fence or out-of-the-way manhole covers" (20). Actually, if you think of New York or any other city whatsoever, the production of a graffiti piece in the subway requires considerable planning and a careful study of the subway roads, given that, for obvious reasons, you cannot get into the subway by the usual public entries when you are acting illegally. Accesses to the bowels of the city do exist, however, and they are reachable by passing through drains, ladders, or cutting fences. Therefore, the writer does not act only on the external city, where trains transit and graffiti can be seen; the writer also acts from within the city, experiencing spaces denied to average citizens. In this way, the train graffiti writers reclaim rights over the city, and acquire a greater experience of the territory than what ordinary urban citizens can. Graffiti writers challenge what is permitted to citizens and where the citizens' control of the city ends, appropriating entrance to and occupancy of public space. They trouble notions of urban realities as places of possibilities and movement, unmasking the city as a space of control imposed on its inhabitants. Actually, train graffiti action pushes the boundary of what a citizen is bodily allowed, thus questioning once again what is legal/illegal, and why the citizen is not permitted use of the entireness of the urban space, conventionally considered public. Graffiti writers, by using the city differently than the average citizen, triggers questions on the limited accessibility of a space that is considered public and should therefore be fully experienced by each of its inhabitants, but in reality, is highly controlled. The practice therefore calls for a reflection of the city space not as a place of liberty, but of norms which administer the movement and bodies of its inhabitants.

[10] Furthermore, the experience provided by an act of train graffiti writing changes the relation between the writer and his/her body. The action of tracing graffiti on a train requires a physical effort which is usually avoided by city users. Means of transportation, lifts, thematic districts, etc., all contribute to weaken the muscular pain of citizens. The graffiti writer, on the other hand, because of the way in which a graffiti action takes place, is compelled to wait for long hours for the right moment to act, often at night, with his/her body bent in strange angles, maybe among bushes. Train graffiti writers force their bodies into real suffering in tight, dirty, or cold places in order to achieve their goal, while the average citizen tends to avoid such painful experiences. A graffiti action may also end in escape from a selected spot due to the arrival of watchdogs or train workers. Yet, uncontrolled running within the city is forbidden as a clear sign of illegality (you may be a thief, for instance). Rather, running has become a controlled practice, to be done in specific places, such as parks or gyms specifically created for this purpose. Even when the graffiti action is successful, writers have to endure exhausting waits in train stations or at strategic points where they take pictures or video-record their work before the subway operators erase it. The significance of graffiti painting, therefore, expands before, during, and after the action, which requires from its performers the use of their bodies in a new relation with the urban areas. The long hours of waiting, the exposition to weather agents, the knowledge of hidden, dirty, and forbidden places, etc., make train graffiti writers' knowledge of the city comparable to that of the nomad's who experiences urban space in a dilated spatial-temporal manner, with respect to any average citizen.

[11] The reflection on the body implies further consideration on the type of language graffiti uses, because writing on trains and big surfaces requires a different use of their corporality. In order to create two-meter-high precise letters, the body must move in a sort of dance, often working in a small space between the wall, fence, or in between two trains. Since letters will be visually validated only when the train gets out of the deposit, tunnel, or station, writing must trust corporeal rather than visual composition. Actually, in these particular conditions neither the distance from the train panel nor the use of visual perspective can grant a production of letters in line with one's expectations. The train graffiti writer, then, must rely on bodily experience, practice, and memory to reproduce letters. Graffiti writing may be hence considered as a dance, a performance whose significance extends far beyond the limits of the sign of the train panel. Whereas the western way of writing is highly abstract and visual, train graffiti corporeal writing involves body mastery besides intellectual skills.

[12] For this reason, graffiti writing may be compared to non-modern eastern manners of writing, for example, the use of handwriting by Japanese calligraphy masters. The overlapping point between eastern handwriting and graffiti writing are indeed surprisingly many. Among the different kinds of handwriting, big brush calligraphy is particularly interesting for the purposes of this comparison. When they have to produce big ideograms, Japanese calligraphers use some special brushes and create strokes using their entire bodies , making very specific movements. Fluidity is highly required. As the Aikido Journal Online explains, "a 'big brush' magnifies movement, even if the character is the single horizontal line of the word 'ichi.' Use of the 'big brush' on a large sheet of paper requires the ability to move the entire body with the center/hara, in a breath rhythm." [11] In like manner, graffiti writers spray the color, moving the can away from the train surface fluently, sometimes moving both arms and simultaneously bending their legs, in order to produce, say, big letters such as an "O," or, using both hands to color the inside of letters. Calligraphers must rotate their hands in specific ways to let the brush move fluidly (in a different way than normal pens, pencils, or markers), just as the graffiti writer uses the spray can in distinct ways in order to produce the right slant of the line or stroke.

[13] Other aspects typical of calligraphy and graffiti hold up the comparison. Exactly as graffiti takes letters and lines as its elements for artistic development, Japanese calligraphy is "a formative art that takes characters and lines as its raw material" to create a unique visual ensemble charged with meaning deriving from the calligrapher's personality (Judge and Stevens 12). Besides being an aesthetic experience, calligraphy also means mastering a technique which involves how to handle a brush, the knowledge of ink and its reaction on paper, tracing lines in a certain style or form, arranging characters on the space according to a precise order, so as to reproduce the idea in the calligrapher's mind, and performing an inclination. Comparably, train graffiti writers have to reproduce their idea from the sketch on the big surface of the train car in precarious ways because of the quickness required of illegal actions, but at the same time carry out their ideas of letters and lines. The similarities between Japanese calligraphy and graffiti writing can also be seen in little movements and technicalities: the scrubbing of the ink stone on the inkwell before starting the handwriting corresponds to the shaking of cans to liquefy the paint before getting into action; the long preparation before beginning graffiti writing resembles the long process of study required to be a calligrapher; as the calligrapher chooses the brush according to the kind of handwriting to be done, the writer chooses the cap of the spray can and divides the cans according to color and order of use to facilitate fast action.

[14] The value of calligraphy lies in its meditative component and its ephemeral character (Takenami 8); despite this lengthy preparation, calligraphy, as well as graffiti, requires speed and is concluded fast, once started. In calligraphy, there exists only one creation for a piece of paper, and one occasion to produce it. In similar fashion, graffiti writers' works on trains have a transitory character since they are determined by that moment's specific conditions (weather, security of the place, availability of light, bodily and intellectual state of the writer, etc.). In this sense, graffiti letters and calligraphic ideograms expand the limits of the written signs, connecting them to the complexity of human life and conditions. They are indeed closely dependent on their practitioners, in contrast to common western calligraphy, which is "supposed to suppress eccentricities in style" (Earnshaw 3). Chinese and Japanese handwriting "attempt to bring words to life, to actually endow with 'character.' Styles of handwriting are highly individualistic and differ from person to person" (Earnshaw 3). Graffiti writing, similarly, privileges personal style for the elaboration of given symbols (letters). The comparison between writers and Japanese calligraphers is even more appropriate if you think of how graffiti letters are deformed and become a sort of image when perceived by those who do not know graffiti styles and cannot codify graffiti names. [12]

[15] This distinctive use of signs and letters leads to a further consideration on the innovating and challenging manipulation of language in graffiti, whose plasticity contrasts the abstract tendency of our society, its linearism and literalism. The deformation, color, and form of graffiti letters actually expand the normal use of written words, and these artists' reflection on the use of written signs calls for a re-appropriation of language. From a commonly accepted abstract means of communication for facilitating intra-personal communication, written language becomes a property of each and every writer who can modify, enlarge, or deform written words, using them in troubling and personal ways, grabbing the right to modify alphabet and language in new codes that are not understandable by everyone. As Noble remarks in his article "City Space: A Semiotic and Visual Exploration of Graffiti and Public Space in Vancouver," Broadway, Bronx Style, Gothic Futurism, Iconoclastic Panzerism, Computer, and Wild Style are styles that deform the Roman alphabet we are used to. Accordingly, Noble describes writers as linguistic warriors who understand language as a performance visually based on diverse applications such as letters, outline, background coloring, and also pure images, as when characters are introduced in a piece of graffiti. Indeed, while the words used by graffiti writers are devoid of much complexity, being actually, mainly names, they are charged with a pictorial value. In this way, graffiti tags live within a visual ambiguity that corrodes the established use of the alphabet and, in general, questions what language is, how it is used, and who has authority over it. Starting from a shared linguistic practice (our alphabet), language is altered, appropriated, and the movement of letters, which may even become tridimensional, has an alienating force for those who have not been initiated to that semiotic code. Overall, graffiti writing can be said to be halfway between decoration and meaning, image and words, blurring the limits of images and letters.

[16] As is the case with the use of the public train surface, graffiti writers appropriate a collective practice to modify it individually. In this sense it is anarchic as it does not respect the power of institutions that over the centuries have guarded the western use of written language. Instead of an established conventional link between signs and sounds, graffiti asks for new analytical categories to understand their writings which involve color, new shapes, and images together with letters. This mix of letters and image, colors and signs resists easy reading from the viewers; in this way, they create intellectual discomfort in those who are exposed to this practice, since they negotiate the right to intervene in language modifying its long-established code of understanding and reproduction. Graffiti writing creates a sense of alienation in the viewers who are partly excluded from the codes of the practice or implicitly asked to question their reading capabilities and their understanding of what that particular language stands for. Even when letters are partly codified and understood, graffiti is always in the making, and the evolution of the styles—because of personal aesthetic research, to obtain fame within the crew or among crews, and for practical reasons such as avoiding schedule by anti-graffiti task forces—demands constant redefinition and efforts. New styles of the written word expose viewers to a laborious work of reading, while graffiti's colorful system of letters challenges the boundary between what is accepted and what is not, what is written and what is painted.

[17] The fact that graffiti writing challenges easy reading calls into question the written system in which we are educated and makes us reconsider who has the right to modify signifying signs. Challenging easy codification, the new letters, suspended between coded signs and artistic expression, dismantle the authority of the system that has approved them for centuries, namely, the alphabet and the education system that alphabetizes us. Graffiti writers move, therefore, outside the one code we are educated into, blending art and literacy and claiming the right to change what was established long ago. Instead of as a shared code permitting communication, the written alphabet we are taught is suspected as one of the means by which communication is controlled: how much is the alphabet and the letters contained in it the result of a useful pact? Or is it enforced on us? Can we, as its users, change the rules? Where is the limit between enforcement and free joining in a system? Can the alphabet be used personally? Can anyone freely participate in the definition of signs (that is, in matters of communication, establishing and choosing a language and a code)? Why is the attempt of moving the limits of written language perceived as a danger instead of a possibility? Is anyone admitted to communication? Can we participate in the creation of what is given to us as our property, or are we excluded from what is established and maintained by authorities?

[18] Crispin Sartwell provides a seminal reflection on the matter in his article "Graffiti and Language," in which he talks about the education of kids (and we should not forget graffiti writers are often teenagers):

Much of their "socialization" consists, first, of learning to read, and, second, of what they read and what we say about what they read and what they write: topic sentence, body, conclusion: rigid as possible....It's the repeatability, the reinscriptive or reprintable or cutandpasteable incessant power of the type: the true presence and authority of the Platonic form....If the basic functions with regard to authority of the text are performed by its rigidity—its repeatability from context to context, apparently without alteration of information—the prestige of the text is essentially a function of its ontological status as an abstraction.

In contrast, the language used in graffiti practices is difficult to define and understand, non-reproducible. Instead of an ordered reproduction of a given code, graffiti is a performance that exists temporarily, is constantly in flux, linked to a body practice, and always unpredictable despite all planning. It is connected to the place where it is done, which determines the style used, and to the weather conditions, because the spray color reacts on the painting surface in different manners depending on the atmospheric situation. The writer does not have complete control over its practice, for which reason graffiti writing cannot be reproduced but exists only on the train where it has been drawn as long as it is not erased, and can at best be photographed.

[19] The visual impact of these new signs, which are moving, intrusive, colorful, varied in their forms, ungrammatical sometimes, reaches citizens in a post-verbal way, rooted in an existing language but operating beyond it, according to uncivilized and pre-modern patterns. The performative use of language, the ambiguity of graffiti letters, and the personal use of public space and public language is read as contrary to urban properness, as it breaks the symbolic and visual hegemonic order. While we can read the commercial film on the external panels of trains, because we are used to its code (we know why it is used and what it wants from us), graffiti, on that same support, uses a code that modifies the common form of language and does not tell us the reason why it has been done. As a free expression of color and forms, graffiti writers' way of communicating results in something incomprehensible, and thus uncontrollable. Graffiti language thus troubles the conventional framework by means of which we make sense of communication in the modern world. Instead of linear and useable, as writing should be according to the codes we have learned to decipher through education, graffiti writing is a creative practice that demands participation in a new set of rules. In order to better understand the significance of such a practice, it is useful to keep in mind Foucault's understanding of language (and education) as one of the controlling practices of modern societies. Foucault has demonstrated that writing is part of those practices for the control and exercises of power, and is accordingly institutionalized (Foucault 1981:64). However, graffiti writers appropriate the right to use written language in anarchic ways against its academic rules, and the absence of a shared code for understanding such a visual linguistic code is what creates a sense of confusion and disorder in the viewer. Actually, graffiti letters represent a disjuncture from the linguistic and communicative pact upon which a great part of our society is based; they do disrupt the linguistic code that is usually black and white and plain, not baroque as the Wild or Computer styles, for example, are. For this reason, graffiti has often been considered a form of defacement which needs to be sanctioned.

[20] In the wake of other contesting movements, graffiti writings can therefore be thought of as a post-modern practice that deconstructs the habitual confidence in the written (and printed) word understood as an extension of authority. The practice shakes the rational confidence in an understandable and controlled written language, which can be reproduced and thus used as an expression of controlling power. In this sense, graffiti practice is at the same time pre- and post-modern. It is post-modern as it is the fruit of the modern exclusion of part of the population from acts of communication and it fosters a struggle for the power to take decision in communicative processes. It mixes written and visual word, deconstructing codes and altering, through its visual impact, the modern linear writing, as other post-modern practices such as hyper-textuality do. At the same time, it is pre-modern, as it brings the written world to a pre-Gutenberg period, advancing an artisanal and bodily writing similar to calligraphic techniques. If the invention of the print set forever modified the use of the written word, graffiti writers are more similar to an amanuensis whose work on the written word is personal and aesthetic. In actuality, graffiti letters have been compared to miniatures and graffiti writers to neo-amanuensis, as in the case for Rammellzee. In his style, called "Iconoclast Panzerism," the letters are "armed," so transformed that they become totally deformed, and in certain cases, unrecognizable. In his Iconoclast Panzerism, Rammellzee's letters are distorted and conceived as weapons meant to attack other letters or defend themselves in the graffiti warfare through and against language and the alphabet. [13] It may not be a coincidence that likewise, Miyamoto Mushashi, a 17th-century Japanese calligrapher, considered calligraphy to be a "battle of the brush" in which lines are like sword cuts in much the same way as contemporary spray-canned lines can be considered an attack against written authority and language property. [14]

Works Cited

Bradley, Bartolomeo. "Cement or Canvas: Aerosol Art & The Changing Face of Graffiti in the 21st Century." Honors Thesis. Union College. Web. 18 April 2010. «http://www.graffiti.org/faq/graffiti-is-part-of-us.html».

Chalfant, Henry and Martha Cooper. Subway Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995. Print.

Style Wars. Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver. Public Art Films, 1983. DVD.

Dennant, Pamela. "Urban Expression... Urban Assault... Urban Wildstyle... New York City Graffiti." Web. 18 April 2010. «http://www.graffiti.org/faq/pamdennant.html».

Earnshaw, Christopher. Sho: Japanese Calligraphy. Singapore: Tuttle, 1997. Print.

Felisbret, Eric. Graffiti New York. New York: Abrams, 2008. Print.

Foucault, Michael. "The order of the discourse." In R. Young (ed), Untying the Text, 1981. Boston: Routledge, 48-78. Print.

Foucault, Michel. "Other Places: Utopias and Heteropias." 1967. Web, 13 January 2013. «http://www.vizkult.org/propositions/alineinnature/pdfs/Foucault-OfOtherSpaces1967.pdf».

Ohama, Gary. "Pure Movement, Aikido, and Big Brush Calligraphy." Aikido Journal. Aikido Journal, 31 July. Web. 18 April 2010. «http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2010/07/31/pure-movement-aikido-and-big-brush-calligraphy-by-gary-ohama/».

Noble, C. "City Space: A Semiotic and Visual Exploration of Graffiti and Public Space in Vancouver." Web. 18 April 2010. «http://www.graffiti.org/faq/noble_semiotic_warfare2004.html».

Piquer, Isabel. "El nacimiento de las pintadas." Web. 25 March 2010. 18 April 2010. «http://www.publico.es/culturas/293175/nacimiento».

Rammelzzee. "Ionic Treatise Gothic Futurism Assassin Knowledges of the Remanipulated Square Point's One to 720° to 1440°." Gothic Futurism. Web. April 6, 2012. «http://www.gothicfuturism.com/rammellzee/01.html»

Scheepers, Ilse. "Graffiti and Urban Space." Web. April 18, 2010. «http://www.graffiti.org/faq/scheepers_graf_urban_space.html».

Sartwell, Crispin. "Graffiti and Language." Web. 3 June. 2010. «http://www.crispinsartwell.com/grafflang.html».

Takenami, Yoko. The Simple Art of Japanese Calligraphy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Create Japanese Characters. New York: Cico Books, 2009. Print.

Terayama, Tanchu. Zen Brushwork: Focusing the Mind with Calligraphy and Painting. Trans. Thomas Judge and John Stevens. New York: Kodansha International, 2003. Print.

Zadini, Ubaldo and Adelino Zanini. Lessico postfordista. Milano: Feltrinelli Editore, 2001. Print.


[1] My translation from Italian of Ubaldo Zadini and Adelino Zanini's Lessico postfordista (2001).

[2] I do not enter here in the controversy on how graffiti has sold out its subverting energy by accommodating into the art market. Bradley Bartolomeo explicitly lambasts such a practice, writing that "it becomes possible for symbols of a subculture to lose their intended purpose and meaning as they become 'commodities' of a more commercial, dominant culture" (Bartolomeo).

[3] In 1982, in New York, Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver shot the documentary film Style Wars, which was awarded the Grand Prize for Documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival the following year. Since its release, Style Wars has become a visual account of great import of the moment considered as the beginning of the hip-hop movement. The movement embraces four so-called pillars: break dance, graffiti, DJ-ing, and MC-ing, the latter two forming what is commonly named "rap". Of these four pillars, the bulk of this study will ponder over graffiti, or, more exactly, train graffiti writing.

[4] Cornbread and Cool Earl are the first two nametags that appeared in Philadelphia. These are not real colored graffiti, but simple marker tags quoting the name of the two men. The real identities of Cornbread and Cool Earl are still unknown.

[5] Many studies already exist on the techniques, styles, and specific terminology used in the graffiti subculture. See Pamela Dennant's "Urban Expression...Urban Assault...Urban Wildstyle...New York City Graffiti," or Eric Felisbret's Graffiti New York (2008).

[6] In particular, the 1974 and 1988 MTA campaign against graffiti were exceptionally violent, as well as the measures taken by Mayor Koch, in 1981, to stop graffiti diffusion. Despite the economic difficulties of the city in those years, Mayor Koch spent 1.5 million dollars to introduce barbered wire and watchdogs in every metropolitan station.

[7] For a study of graffiti at the beginning of the new millennium, see Bartolomeo's article "Cement or Canvas: Aerosol Art & The Changing Face of Graffiti in the 21st Century."

[8] "Graffiti can be seen as an artistic form of resistance to authority and at the same time a means of expression and connectedness to its own subculture" (Dennant).

[9] The names used by graffiti writers may be chosen by writers themselves, or given by older members of the graffiti community as a sort of apprentice-level rite of passage. For example, in New York, Sen2, Sen3, and Sen4 are named after Sen1, a more experienced practitioner of the area. In Style Wars, Duster also explains how others may challenge a writer through naming.

[10] Despite Goldstein's article, the origin of modern graffiti is unknown, and it is hardly believable that Taki 183 began the movement. Nevertheless, the fame the young man enjoyed after the New York Times article was a booster for the spread of the practice in New York.

[11] See «http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2010/07/31/pure-movement-aikido-and-big-brush-calligraphy-by-gary-ohama/».

[12] While this is a trend, there have also been styles that try to emulate or copy typeface. The shared and highly codified nature of these letters makes these styles legible. This may be due to the writer's willingness to use graffiti to convey a message (rather than reflecting on the politics of writing), which thus need a clear style in order to be understood. Alternatively, the use of computer-style letters may be an answer to an increasingly mechanical writing, showing that the writer's artisanal skill can match or even supersede computer fonts.

[13] Rammellzee's ideas on Iconoclast Panzerism are a part of his theories on Gothic Futurism, conceived as an action against standardization of the mind in «http://www.gothicfuturism.com/rammellzee/01.html».

[14] See «http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2010/07/31/pure-movement-aikido-and-big-brush-calligraphy-by-gary-ohama/».