The Politics of Writing on Walls

Gabriel Soldatenko
Department of History and Philosophy
Kennesaw State University

"People will be together only in a common wretchedness as long as each isolated being refuses to understand that a gesture of liberation, however weak and clumsy it may be, always bears an authentic communication, an adequate personal message." —Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life

"In the city, no one knew for sure where danger truly lurked, maybe that is why you enjoyed dominating yours by choosing a time and place to make a drawing."[1] —Julio Cortázar, "Graffiti"

[1] Walter Benjamin once described his study of the city as a "botany of the asphalt" [2]; under whose umbrella, no doubt, a field of inquiry we could loosely call "graffiti studies" would fall. To wit, if we were to make a short list of those disciplines that could immediately contribute to such an analysis we would, in all likelihood, include art and design, art history, urban studies, sociology, and cultural and ethnic studies. In addition, and as a function of answering the following speculative question, "does graffiti have a political value?" we could also add philosophy. Thus, it is toward tentatively laying out the premises and sketching a conceptual framework for understanding graffiti's politics that this essay focuses on graffiti as a tool for building community. In this respect, I take up the streets of Los Angeles to give a specific example of how solidarity and community are arranged, at least in part, through a kind of public art we know as graffiti. The most obvious social groups in Los Angeles who deploy graffiti in this political sense are the city's barrio gangs[3] and graffiti crews.

[2] As a starting point then, and for the sake of clarity, it would be helpful to schematically organize the different kinds of graffiti into a hierarchy of political efficacy. An efficacy that is not determined by an artist's intentionality, but rather, through the phenomenon of graffiti itself, which takes what is written, drawn, and scrawled on the surfaces of everyday objects as political acts. This latter approach allows us to sidestep the old themes of political consciousness and ideology. Consequently, the difficult task here is to outline the political value of a social phenomenon that does not take itself as political. Meaning, the intention of graffiti at the moment of its creation is rarely intended to be political, and the wall art of barrio gangs and crews in Los Angeles verify this. As a result, the central argument of this essay is that merely because graffiti does not contain an obvious political message in a language we can immediately grasp does not mean it lacks political value. On the contrary, graffiti demands that we "shift our perception"[4] so that we can recognize a political value in graffiti, and perhaps understand politics in a new light, according to different terms, and with new ends.

[3] From this political philosophical point of departure we could make a general distinction between three general types of graffiti. The first, and least political, would be the sort of writing and art one finds in public restrooms (I wonder if one would find the same palimpsest in the women's restroom as one finds in that of men's?)—the utter randomness of phone numbers, racist remarks, off-color jokes, and sexual proclamations, all clustered together without any rhyme or reason. Perhaps Jacques Lacan was right to suggest that the phenomenon of writer's block is analogous to constipation, and that the fear caused by the blank page—with its implied command to fill it with writing—is of the same order as when one looks at that seemingly endless roll of toilet paper. In any event, the political value in this first type of graffiti is hard to discern, and perhaps at best, graffiti of this sort can only function as a kind of reflective mirror for what people express if given complete anonymity and relative privacy.

[4] The second type of graffiti would be that which has taken shape in relation to, and as an extension of, urban gangs and graffiti crews. In relation to the first type, this second kind of graffiti has a more structured sense of style and form, a type of art with a definite audience. Graffiti of this second sort is at once directed inwardly, to those in the same social circle—other gangs and crews—and outwardly, to society in general. Additionally, this form of graffiti also has an object, or purpose. It is a loose project that shifts its emphasis subtly from gangs to graffiti crews, but which generally seeks to forge communities, and combines the use of graffiti in novel ways in order to claim territories, to acquire a sense of dignity, to build a kind of fame, and to earn respect. At the same time, this second type of graffiti occupies a distinct political space since it opens itself up to the world and is not strictly bound by the four walls of the bathroom. Indeed, this graffiti is a form of expression that forces itself into a world that recognizes it neither as a legitimate form of communication, nor as a form of art. As a result, the political value of graffiti is not in the first place found in its art, its images, or messages, but in graffiti's doing, its activity, its praxis.

[5] To make the political philosophical problem here clearer, we can think of a "piece"[5], stunningly creative and artistic, but absent of any explicit political reference its political value must be located somewhere else, and hence necessarily in its practice or creation. In this sense, we can identify the political value of this kind of graffiti in three ways: Firstly, in what it takes to produce on the street as a collective exercise; secondly, in what it takes to keep graffiti alive as a popular art-form in a society that only understands it as criminal vandalism; and thirdly, as part of a process whereby community is forged and social space transformed. In sum, the politics that this type of graffiti puts into play is one organized according to a complex web of everyday social relations and practices that together have created a popular art form native to the social space of the city. Or, as Susan Smith bluntly explains, "The medium itself, implies alienation, discontentment, marginality, repression, resentment, rebellion; no matter what it says, graffiti always implies a 'fuck you' [my emphasis]."[6] In short, the graffiti produced by gangs and crews only provide the most obvious outward sign of a complex social arrangement that has a political value worth taking up as a point of reflection and analysis.

[6] The last type of graffiti would be that of the recent phenomenon of "street art," best represented by the street artist Banksy, which is a type of art that combines the popular practice of the second type of graffiti with the Situationist practice of détournement in interesting and innovative ways. As a result, Banksy, and others like him, invert and subvert the world as it is through a playful deployment of critical art. The point of street art, then, is to upset our understanding of the given and commonplace precisely so we gain a kind of critical distance and see things anew, perhaps as they really are. Consequently, street art is explicitly political in its medium and message in a way that the second type of graffiti is not. However, the point worth emphasizing here is not that street art expresses the fullness of graffiti's potential, but rather, that the graffiti of gangs and crews is also a kind of street art. Thus, if Banksy gives us the example of the solitary artist cunningly trying to pull the wool off from over our eyes, then gangs and crews produce their graffiti precisely to affirm their collective existence, as if to say, "We are here, and fuck your rules." On the one hand, the first kind of street art pushes us to critique what we have come to accept as "normal," while the latter starts from that rejection and attempts to produce, at least in a limited way, a world of its own making, according to its own architecture. To put it in still another way, if Banksy's street art is meant to shake us from our stupor and to recognize the world around us, then that of gangs and graffiti crews' is meant to speak to one another and create a world of their own, even when they know that such a creation is ephemeral and outside the bounds of the acceptable. Seen in this light, the persistence and growth of gangs and graffiti crews in our society also reflects a collective commitment of a significant number of young people to keep these social forms alive. Through this political philosophical perspective then, graffiti becomes an interesting point of departure for broadening our understanding of what political action is, particularly through the social creation of graffiti on our city streets, and through graffiti's development as a popular urban art form. This essay, therefore, focuses on the second type of graffiti in order to enrich how we think of the political, and takes up the doing of graffiti on the streets of Los Angeles as an important locus.

[7] Consequently, this essay only marks a starting point in graffiti, as the loose thread that if pulled, reveals a whole field of social practices. In this sense, the kind of graffiti this paper focuses on verifies its political value precisely because it is part of a more general project of building community. In this way, graffiti functions as the proof that other forms of sociality, like barrio gangs and crews, exist on our city streets. To clarify, in both the case of gangs and graffiti crews, writing and drawing on walls does not exist independent of a wider web of social practices—hanging out, growing up together, and building a sense of community—and relations—friendship, solidarity, and commitment. Graffiti is therefore the window through which to see the complex social arrangement of a much broader field, which also allows us to see the politics that is mobilized by young people who are often dismissed as apathetic, apolitical, and anti social. The politics that this essay outlines are thus of a humble sort and not touted as a universal model, but rather, are meant to highlight the rich social texture that sustains a phenomenon like graffiti. To that end, the following essay is divided into two parts: Firstly, it sets out the general conceptual points through which to think and understand a species of "crime" as political, viz. graffiti. Secondly, and more specifically, this essay takes the kind of graffiti most common in the urban United States, that produced by gangs and graffiti crews, and thinks of them together, not as identical social practices, but as similar and related phenomena. Consequently, Los Angeles offers us a unique site through which to carry out this line of inquiry, because it is in Los Angeles where gangs and graffiti crews have evolved side by side, not just in terms of their art but also in terms of their social arrangement.

[8] Such an approach, however, runs counter to a trend that has typically thought of gangs and graffiti crews as radically distinct, because of the differences in the scale of violence and criminality they are perceived to engage in. What is interesting in such a rigid distinction is that it is grounded on the same categories that the criminal justice system uses to make sense of these social practices in the first place. Thus, in a roundabout way, the analytical distinction that has separated gangs and crews from one another has served to reinforce the logic of law and order, such that, the terms of "violence" and "crime" are what prohibit the possibility of thinking of these two social phenomena as parts of a broader urban way of life. As a result, part of what this essay argues is that by dividing gangs and graffiti crews according to the degree of their "crimes," we muddle rather than illuminate the radical quality of urban youth practices which is found in the autochthonous collective self-organization of kids who spend most of their time on the streets, the humble products of which are an entire social edifice with its own history, slang, and mores. Gangs and graffiti crews, then, highlight the social will and creativity of young people in our cities, who for multiple reasons feel an unease, malaise, or malcontent with the way things are, and therefore pursue a lifestyle outside of the norms set out by parents and society. Under these general conditions we see these urban youths come together to forge an alternative reality, which, even if ephemeral, at least they feel is theirs. It is from this general rebellious social energy that the urban phenomenon of graffiti emerged and created the ground for the later development of street art, and which offers us the starting point through which to trace the political value of writing on walls.

I. Framing a Politics of Crime

[9] At this point, it makes sense to reframe our original question, "Does graffiti have a political value?" to the more general, "Is there a political value in criminality?" On the face of it, this question seems nonsensical. How could antisocial or pathological behavior be socially positive? But framing the question of gangs and graffiti crews in this way is precisely the problem. It is as a result of thinking of gangs and graffiti crews as pathological that we immediately cancel the possibility of seeing any positive value in them. In this respect, Nietzsche's essay "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense" provides the philosophical ground from which we can make a politics of criminality make sense. Nietzsche starts from the premise that truth is a human invention and that knowledge as such is never of things in themselves, but of how we make sense of them, and make them fit within an arrangement of truth that best supports a particular social arrangement. Nietzsche answers the question, "What is truth?" by describing it as "A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms; in short, a sum of human relations which have been practically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding."[7] Thus, for Nietzsche, truth as a system of knowledge only comes into existence and becomes necessary when human beings form society and need an overall system of truth in order to make sense to one another (language); of the world around them (metaphysics and epistemology); and of society (morality and politics). Truth, for Nietzsche, is not only contingent, but invented, or as Nietzsche would put it, willed. Similarly, our own acceptance of a category like "crime" as necessarily antisocial and destructive is only true insofar as that meaning is derived from a specific system of truth, and by extension, from a specific social arrangement. "Crime," then, has never been, and never will be, an objectively true and universal category; it only exists according to the standards of a particular society. To use Nietzsche's language, the law can only exist as a type of truth to the degree that it is "life-preserving,"[8] that is, preserving of a specific social arrangement. Consequently, criminal categories are not violations of a monolithic and a priori concept of "right," but a human construction of those actions that a specific society seeks to prohibit.

[10] It is useful to underscore two points here: Firstly, I am not claiming that all "crime" is in itself resistant or politically valuable. Rather, I am setting the conceptual ground through which the study of criminalized socialities enables us to pose politically critical questions about our society.[9] In other words, if the traditional way of understanding gangs and graffiti crews has been through the lens of a "sociology of deviance,"[10] then I want to urge us to think of forms of collective "crime" as refractions of the society in which they appear; that is, to think of gangs and graffiti crews as symptoms rather than stand-alone causes. In a general way, then, "criminal" forms of socialities—like gangs and graffiti crews—mark those communities most eager for social change, and they tell us this in practice, by what they do on the streets. From this perspective, "crime," in as much as it names particular kinds of illegalities, may also emerge in contexts of social domination, and highlight neither social anomie nor some pathology, but an insurgent and subversive desire, or at the very least, an existential discomfort with immediate social conditions. Put another way, we could think of certain kinds of criminalized socialities, like gangs and graffiti crews, as embodying a kind of Nietzschean critical impulse. That is, if Nietzsche, in the realm of philosophy, attacked the human investment and blinding pride in truth and systems of knowledge, then gangs and crews in their own way force us to take a step back and question the belief that modern Western society is actually democratic, just, and egalitarian. Thus, in both cases, you have a radical critique of truth, first as an abstract philosophical prejudice, and second, as the concrete scaffold of a social arrangement that is not what it claims to be.

[11] Secondly, and specific to our society, we should take note that there is a difference in the scale of "social harm"[11] between blue and white-collar forms of collective "crime." In quantitative terms, whereas white-collar crime can often range in the hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars (the savings and loans scandal of the 1980s, the Enron scandal in 2000, and the more recent financial "collapse"), blue-collar crime in the form of liquor store hold ups, car theft, and street corner drug dealing, are of a vastly different order. To clarify, there is no doubt that selling crack or shooting someone is a social harm, but these harms are of a very different sort and scale than a company polluting the environment, or affecting state and federal legislation through lobbyists and political corruption. Hence, the political direction that white-collar crime takes in the boardroom is of a completely different sort than that of collective blue-collar crime on the streets. The former springs from an individualist sense of capitalist greed, and the latter from a collective sense of social frustration. Similarly, we can think of the following related examples—the disproportionately large number of blacks and Latinos in our bloated prison system (now the largest in the world), the specific differences in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine, and between those crimes that are considered "gang related" and those that are not—as reflections of a particular sense of maintaining order in our society. In these brief examples we get a sense of which "crimes" are understood, framed, and constructed as socially dangerous and which are minimized and brushed under the rug. What Nietzsche's critique of truth offers us, then, is a device through which to clearly see the connections between a specific arrangement of "crime," (through a truth discourse we call "justice") and a society that is grounded in a long history of being stratified along the axes of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The upshot of this line of argumentation is not that criminalized socialities like gangs and graffiti crews are somehow freedom fighters, but rather, that the existence of such social phenomena can be understood as a politically resistant reaction to the existence of social domination. As George Jackson wrote in one of his letters, "I've been in rebellion all my life [and] for a young black growing up in the ghetto, the first rebellion is always crime."[12] It is from this point of departure that we can see the outline of a politics in criminalized socialities. The philosophical consequence of aligning gangs and crews within the same political field is that we can now recognize that on our city streets there is a vibrant and heterogeneous rebellious spirit which is evidenced by their graffiti and the kinds of alternative communities they create. To therefore insist on a categorical separation between gangs and crews is to reassert the epistemological authority of the law, which defines them according to the degree of their criminality and violence,[13] whereas the effort here is to think of their similarity, their critical and political quality; and it is through their graffiti that we see the clearest point of intersection, particularly as these two social forms have developed in Los Angeles.

II. The Praxes of Criminalized Socialities in Los Angeles

[12] If, as already stated, the political value of gangs and graffiti crews lies in their autochthonous self-organization, then it is important to ask, "What is it that holds gangs and crews together? How is it they build community?" Thus, if in the first part of this essay we have built a sense of how gangs and graffiti crews could be thought and understood as political, then in this section I want to reveal, at least in part, what that politics looks like on the ground. In addition, and what makes this politics difficult to see, is the general reality that none of the kids who are in barrio gangs or in graffiti crews join or participate for explicitly political reasons. But, the practices they take up as a result of being in either barrio gangs or crews places them in a political relation with respect to the state insofar as they directly challenge the state's authority. So what are these social practices that constitute a threat to the state, and offer an interesting point of reflection for political philosophy?

[13] A useful and general description of what is at the heart of a politics of writing on walls can be found in Julio Cortázar's short story, "Graffiti," where he draws a connection between three themes: danger, love, and art. With respect to danger, Cortázar places the threat of state violence of the sort common in the repressive military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s in South America, at the center of the story. In this way, "Graffiti" lets one think of both the political danger of art and of the political violence necessary to control art and freedom of expression. In a similar way, and with regards to love, Cortázar also gives us a sketch of both the love of art and how art may lead to love not solely of the romantic kind, but of friendship, solidarity, and community. Furthermore, and to highlight this link between danger, love, and art, the graffiti created in Cortázar's story is not of an obviously political nature. That is, as we have seen, the state may only understand graffiti, or art on walls, in narrow terms as "criminal" and "illegal," but the graffiti Cortázar's characters create is not intentionally political:no anti-government images or slogans, no leftist organizations or acronyms; only images drawn in colored chalk. Cortázar, then, is simply trying to use the joy found in creativity as an alternative perspective through which to understand graffiti as the simple act of expressing a feeling in form and color for all to see. And herein lies its political value, because in a society of the sort Cortázar was familiar with, it is freedom of thought, action, and art, that is foreclosed, and narrowly, indeed constrictively, defined. As Cortázar illustrates in the story, even "if some child had dared to draw a house or a dog [on a wall]"[14] that act would have been understood as identically "criminal" to the protesting student spray painting on a wall. Thus, although the graffiti in Cortázar's story is not explicitly political, it allows us to broaden the field of politics to include graffiti, by framing graffiti as a small expression of freedom in an un-free world, that is, as the simple pleasure of drawing and dreaming. Or, to put it in philosophical terms, and as Situationist Raoul Vaneigem explains, "There are always a few radical thinkers in whom a truthful light shines briefly through the lie of words; and by the same token there are very few alienations which are not shattered every day for an hour, for the space of a dream, by subjective refusal".[15]

[14] It is the love of these simple pleasures that moves the two artists in Cortázar's story, and it is the mutual discovery of each other's graffiti through which the plot turns. Thus, the anonymous graffiti on the wall functions as the proof that there is at least one other person with the same love of art and freedom of expression. The graffiti serves as the proof to one another that they are not alone or crazy for wanting to scribble on a wall and risk punitive violence. Their graffiti, then, brings these two kindred spirits together, as well as bringing the heightened attention of the state, and although they never meet, the graffiti makes them draw in the same places, and they turn their solitary drawings on blank walls into couples calling one to the other, and together calling for more. Here, the political value Cortázar outlines through graffiti becomes clearer; it represents the creative impulse to challenge authority and the status quo, and how such acts encourage, by their very existence, others of like mind to do the same. Thus, the political threat of graffiti lies in the truth it reveals—that all is not well with the world and there are people willing to do something about it. Hence, the constant need on the part of a dominating arrangement of power to be vigilant, emphasize security, continually enforce respect for private property, and in the last instance rely on violence (or is it in the first instance?) in order to paradoxically keep the peace. This is how Cortázar frames an understanding of graffiti—as the cat and mouse game between those with the power to set the boundaries of normal and acceptable behavior, and those only with the power and will to take the risk of expressing their dissatisfaction on a wall. As Cortázar makes clear, such dissatisfaction need not be explicitly political to be of political value, it is the doing that is of value here, and it is the number of people who engage in such activity who have the state's attention; not by virtue of what they draw or write, but by their willingness to challenge authority and break the law. Indeed, this is precisely why gang and crew graffiti are identical criminal actions from the perspective of the state. It is with this general sensibility that we can now turn to the barrio gangs and graffiti crews of Los Angeles.

[15] In the first place, the history of graffiti in Los Angeles is inseparable from the history of barrio gangs, that is, before the phenomenon of subway art arrived from New York to Los Angeles there was already an established tradition of wall art in the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The development of graffiti in Los Angeles is the story of the close link—both in terms of social form and style—between the two main social actors in the production of the city's graffiti: barrio gangs, and crews. In this respect, we can schematically divide the history of graffiti in Los Angeles into two periods. The first begins in the 1930s and 1940s, with the emergence of barrio gangs and the arrival of the spray can in 1948. This early period of Los Angeles graffiti was monopolized by the barrio gangs of the city and largely remained a phenomenon isolated to those areas with a barrio gang presence. It was not until the second period of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the explosion of New York subway art, that we see the formation of Los Angeles' first graffiti crews, and by extension, the explosion of graffiti from a local barrio phenomenon to a city-wide style, such that, today graffiti is just another part of the landscape of Los Angeles. As the Los Angeles graffiti artist "Revok" puts it:

To me, what's always made L.A. graffiti the best...distinctive and unique, is that L.A., before hip-hop [New York style] graffiti, already had a long tradition of cholo graffiti [barrio gang placas]. As kids many of us saw these bold, hard, super-high-contrast letters, just black on white or gray, Old English letters that had a really aggressive, arrogant, dark, intimidating presence...the big gang blocks, the thick hard black lines, and that is in the subconscious of all L.A. graffiti writers. It had a huge impact on Los Angeles aesthetic style. The subliminal message that comes through with the angles, and the shapes, and the colors, and the boldness, has always been unique to Los Angeles graffiti.[16]

[16] More specifically, and with respect to barrio gangs, graffiti has always been a part of a broader set of social practices that we could call "representing." Representing is an extension and a necessary part of being a barrio gang member. Representing, therefore, includes all those practices that produce the barrio gang as such. Thus, the collective manifestation of hanging out, walking down the street, doing graffiti, fighting, and shooting, are all aspects of representing, and taken together, produce the barrio gang as a social reality. As Susan Smith explains, "Representing doesn't just reflect, it creates...The gang is nothing more than the way the gang members represent it through diverse practices."[17] In other words, what creates the barrio gang are the practices that barrio kids collectively enact on the street, and barrio gangs only exist so long as people are willing to represent them. For example, if one thinks of barrio gang territoriality what is immediately apparent is that "gang" territories are not created like those of nation states where conquest and invasion can expand territory. Rather, in the case of barrio "gangs," bodies on the street establish territory, that is, those who live in a given space choose to represent a barrio gang. In this way, territory can only be expanded by reputation and force of will, that is, by making your gang the only viable option in a given locale, by being "the baddest." This can only be achieved, however, by consistently representing in a given area, that is, by saturating a space with the presence of your barrio gang. Consequently, when more than one barrio gang claims a space, or when borders are contiguous and easily blurred, confrontation is inevitable. Barrio gangs can only claim a space as theirs if they are the only ones who hangout and live there. This is reflected in the common occurrence where the name of a barrio, as a social space, is also the name of the local barrio gang. Social space is therefore never taken by barrio gangs. Rather, space is inhabited by youngsters willing to collectively represent the same barrio gang. Hence, a barrio gang's spatial identity verifies its social strength by the amount of people representing on the street, a social effort that is animated by the bonds of lifelong friendships.

[17] In this respect, barrio gang graffiti, or what Jerry and Sally Romotsky in the 1970s called "barrio calligraphy," is only a part of a broader set of practices that constitute representing the barrio gang. In addition, and in the barrio gang context, we can also specify different uses for graffiti, for example, marking walls in order to claim that a given area is part of a gang barrio, challenging other barrio gangs by crossing their graffiti out, or provoking enemies by writing on walls in their barrio. In the first case, graffiti functions as a reminder to the community and as a warning to enemies, insofar as the graffiti not only gives evidence of a barrio gang's presence, but also marks out the boundaries of the space it claims. As a homeboy from South Central Los Angeles put it, "[Graffiti is] a way of marking our territory so people know. See right now we might not be here to represent our neighborhood, but they pass through this, 'oh look this is where so and so kicks back.'"[18] Furthermore, aside from being messages to outsiders, graffiti also serves as a constant reminder that this space, if nothing else, belongs to them precisely because it is on these streets—in some cases only a few blocks—that they live, and all too often die. Thus, "Gang members write their gang names and personal nicknames on walls for their fellow homeboys to see—sometimes in their hangouts, on storefronts, or on particularly visible neighborhood walls. In this way, they create a landscape full of social and historical references that bind them to their neighborhood and give them a sense of place."[19] Through graffiti, then, barrio gang members create a social space in which they see themselves, and this only reinforces their pride of place and sense of collectivity. Here we have a concrete example of how graffiti plays a key part, both in building a sense of community between members of the same barrio gang, and in creating a sense of place for young people who feel they have nothing other than each other and the streets they live on. In terms of a politics, then, what we see here through graffiti is how it can be a useful tool in forging and reinforcing solidarity, and as a tool for changing the environment around you, such that it reflects local interests and projects.

[18] Turning now to graffiti crews in Los Angeles, we can make two general distinctions from their barrio gang counterparts. The first, is that with respect to art, unlike in the case of the barrio gang where graffiti is only a part of representing, for the graffiti crew the art of wall writing is its central organizing principle. That is, art has a centrality to the crew's social organization and function that it does not have in the case of barrio gangs. Thus, in Los Angeles' graffiti crews, the social norms established by barrio gangs in terms of friendship and having grown up together, as well as the crews' overall project of producing wall art, and hence one's artistic talent and willingness to devote oneself to increasing the crew's reputation and fame through the artistic practices of tagging and piecing, are important factors in considering membership. In this way, graffiti crews can be at once more and less exclusive than barrio gangs. This depends on the crew and its reason for being. For example, if a crew is focused on the artistic project of producing "the best" graffiti, then it may be more rigid in terms of who may or may not join. By the same token, a crew may develop more loosely out of a close group of friends who share a creative interest in producing graffiti, and hence take on a crew name to designate the group. Between these two extremes, then, what becomes clear is that crews are much more flexible in terms of organization and purpose than are barrio gangs. To underscore this point, we could think of the common phenomenon of "writers"[20] belonging to more than one crew, leaving and joining crews as they like, which is taboo and extremely rare in the barrio gang context. At the same time, however, the graffiti crew has only one avenue by which to manifest its existence to the outside world, and that is through the activity of producing graffiti; whereas for barrio gangs, graffiti is only one among the many tools they can deploy to sustain themselves as a social collective and as a community. Thus, through crews you find a model of social organization that is centrally about producing art, that is, art as the motor for social organization. In both the case of crews and barrio gangs, then, we find the use of graffiti art, but whereas artistic production is the organizing principle in the former, it is only part of a set of social practices aimed at producing a specific form of urban youth community, for the latter. Put another way, what these differences underscore is the kind of community each represents and how crews and barrio gangs organize themselves: one loosely grounded in the combination of art and friendship, and the other around friendship and a sense of "home-place."[21]

[19] The second distinction between barrio gangs and graffiti crews can be seen in their territoriality. The barrio gang project of claiming space does not appear in the context of graffiti crews. This is not to say, however, that graffiti crews are without a sense of space. Indeed, in the case of Los Angeles crews we could highlight two senses of space: the first, in the desire to be "all-city," and the second in the control and access to the best sites to create pieces. Not coincidentally, these two understandings of space are corollary to the central practices of graffiti crews—"tagging" and "piecing". The first refers to the act of putting one's name, and occasionally the crew's, on as many visible spaces as possible and as widely as possible. This can take different forms through the use of stickers ("Hello my name is"), stencils, markers, glass cutters (to write on windows), and spray paint. Thus, being "all-city," to be "up"[22] seemingly everywhere, is the goal of every ambitious tagger, and in Los Angeles, the choice locations are those where the most number of people will pass by and see your name. In an interesting contrast to New York, where the subway would take pieces and tags from one side of the city to the other, in Los Angeles—the city of the car—the freeway overpasses, street signs, billboards, and buses, become the primary surfaces through which the tagger becomes recognizable. At the same time, however, tagging generally takes a different kind of artistic skill than the creation of a piece. It is typically the tagger who will climb up freeway signs, hang over bridges and overpasses, and in the extreme case of tagging bravado, mark the elevator on the way to court.[23] Tagging, then, is simply about making your name known as far afield as possible, and placing your name where no one else has. In the context of tagging, then, the ultimate object of becoming "all-city" is to acquire a kind of fame, to be known as that person who "got up" everywhere, whose name is recognizable to all.

[20] In contrast to the physical risk, brevity, repetition, and travel involved in being able to produce enough tags to be "all-city," in piecing—the production of large scale works of art—it can take several artists, hours, and even days to produce their work. Moreover, piecing is near impossible to produce on public streets without legal permission, and thus requires locations that are isolated and have plenty of wall space. Such areas are particularly valuable to graffiti crews, and in Los Angeles some of these sites have become famous among graffiti artists, for example, the Venice Pavilion, the Motor Yard, the Belmont Tunnel, the Reseda Yard, and Slauson Tracks. With respect to territoriality, then, we can say two things: Firstly, it was precisely the territoriality of barrio gangs that made it difficult for graffiti crews to develop in parts of Los Angeles, because the walls were already monopolized by other groups. Hence, graffiti there had to find other ways in which to survive, and hence the marking of those objects that barrio gangs left alone. Secondly, in Los Angeles' graffiti crews we see a type of territoriality in terms of determining who can and cannot piece in the choice locations. Thus, it is not uncommon for a particular crew, or set of crews, to run a particular location, and it is through them that one can gain access to paint. Once again, it is in piecing that we see the importance of art for crews, in that, it is the recognition of the graffiti artists' or crew's skill that most easily gets them access to piece.

[21] Furthermore, the creation of pieces is one of the central processes by which a crew clearly constitutes its identity as a collective of artists. In the creation of a piece, the different artists in a crew are assigned tasks; according to their skills some do characters, some do fading or blending, some do detailing, while the "toys"[24] help fill in large single color sections.[25] It is therefore through the collective activity of producing a piece that a crew confirms its reason for being, not just in the production of a piece, but in expanding the possibility and style of what graffiti art can be. Members of crews, as much as they work together to produce pieces, also push one another to become better by sharing technique and style. As a group, then, the crew represents a particular arrangement of artists with specific styles and techniques, and is part of a larger landscape of crews throughout Los Angeles, all of whom are developing and perfecting graffiti art in their own way. It is through piecing that a crew attempts to push the bounds of what graffiti art can be. Graffiti crews are therefore in a playful and artistic tension with each other such that together they produce a "Los Angles style," a style insofar as it is specific to the surfaces available to tag and piece in Los Angeles, and in terms of the use of color, characters, blending, effects, and lettering. The art of graffiti only exists according to the surfaces available and the styles that writers deploy. Jeff Ferrell puts it this way: "Graffiti is not an abstraction driven by the concept of style, or the force of aesthetics; it is a collective activity constructed out of the practical aesthetics of its writers."[26] Thus, if in the case of barrio gangs you have graffiti as part of a set of practices through which to build community, then in crews you find graffiti as the central principle for forging a community of artists.

[22] If Aristotle was correct and man is indeed a social animal, then politics is fundamentally about how we create and sustain community, and in this respect it should be clear how graffiti, or writing on walls, can have an important role in such a process. It is only our own political prejudices and lack of imagination that do not allow us to recognize the phenomenon of graffiti as socially creative. Hopefully, this essay lets us reframe graffiti such that we do not easily accept the notion that graffiti only represents a form of petty "crime." In the end, what graffiti offers is the possibility to see the richness of social struggle, even when it is couched in terms we do not immediately understand. Thus, merely by the fact that graffiti reveals, and is part of a process that creates, the reality that there are alternative forms of community on our city streets, gives it a necessary political value.


Cesaretti, Gusmano. Street Writers: A Guided Tour of Chicano Graffiti. Austin: Acrobat Books, 1975.

Cortázar, Julio. "Graffiti." Cuentos completos 2 (1969-1982). Madrid: Alfaguara, 1995.

Ferrell, Jeff. Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993.

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. New York: The Crossing Press, 1983.

Grody, Steve. Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art. New York: Abrams Books, 2007.

hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990.

Jackson, George. Blood in My Eye. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1990.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: Seminar XI. Translated and Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.

Messerschmidt, James. Capitalism, Patriarchy and Crime: Toward a Socialist and Feminist Criminology. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986.

Moore, Joan. Homeboys: Gangs, Drugs, and Prison in the Barrios of Los Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense". The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Translated and Edited by Ronald Speirs. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Romotsky, Jerry and Sally. Los Angeles Barrio Calligraphy. Los Angeles: Dawson's Bookshop, 1976.

Smith, Susan. Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Taylor, Ian; Walton, Paul; and Young, Jock editors. Critical Criminology. Boston: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1975.

Vaneigem, Raoul. The Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press, 2006.

Vigil, James Diego. Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1988.


[1] My translation.

[2] Walter Benjamin, "The Paris of the Second Empire" in Charles Baudelaire:A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Trans. Harry John (London:Verso, 1973), 36.

[3] The term "barrio gang" refers to the urban and specifically Latino gang arrangements of the southwest, which have a unique and long history in Los Angeles. In this respect, the barrio gangs of Los Angeles are not exhaustive of all the city's gangs, but name a particular gang-form that has a long and rich history of using graffiti as a social tool; what homeys call the placa. With respect to the barrio gang, see James Diego Vigil, Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), and Joan Moore, Homeboys: Gangs, Drugs, and Prisons in the Barrios of Los Angeles (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1978). With respect to the placa, see Gusmano Cesaretti, Street Writers: A Guided Tour of Chicano Graffiti (Austin: Acrobat Books, 1975), and Jerry and Sally Romotsky, Los Angeles Barrio Calligraphy (Los Angeles: Dawson's Bookshop, 1976).

[4] Feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye uses this turn of phrase in order to highlight the cognitive shift necessary to recognize the presence of women's oppression in our society, and similarly, I am suggesting we need a similar shift to appreciate the politics of graffiti. See Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (New York: The Crossing Press: 1983).

[5] "Piece" is part of urban argot and graffiti slang that refers to a "masterpiece," a large scale artful production that usually takes more than one person to create and includes dimension, color variety, complex blending and fading, effects like smoke or sparkling, and characters.

[6] Susan Smith, Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 23.

[7] Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense". The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Translated and Edited by Ronald Speirs. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 147.

[8] Ibid.

[9] This theoretical move is akin to the work of the social historians Georges Lefebvre and George Rude who introduced the turn of phrase "history from below" in their studies of the French revolution, peasant riots, and revolts. Hobsbawm followed in their tradition with his work on bandits and "primitive rebels." Robin Kelley and his effort to think "infra-politics," a term borrowed from the work of anthropologist James C. Scott, is a more recent, American version of this tradition.

[10] A sociology that works hand in hand with the maintenance of social control, which sees in "deviance" a threatening break with social norms and the law; a sociology that cannot think beyond the society it has committed itself to defend and buttress. "The charge must be laid at the door of the sociology of deviance that it fails to recognize that what stands in our [critical criminology's] imagery opposed to order is not chaos, but freedom, and that in this mis-representation of freedom as chaos our freedom is contained: it is something we may 'hanker after', but will under no circumstances want." Ian Taylor, Paul Walton, and Jock Young eds. Critical Criminology (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 162.

[11]See James Messerschmidt, Capitalism, Patriarchy and Crime: Toward a Socialist and Feminist Criminology (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1986), particularly the chapter "Powerful Men and Corporate Crime."

[12] George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (Black Classic Press: Baltimore, 1990), x.

[13] It is worth noting the troublesome stance that both barrio gangs and graffiti crews in Los Angeles take with respect to one another. The general stance is that "we aren't like them," when in fact they are, insofar as they are young people in rebellion, and it is that political spirit that is worth dwelling on and highlighting as having a value.

[14] My translation.

[15] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Rebel Press, 2006), 124.

[16] Steve Grody, Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art (NY: Abrams Books, 2007), 44.

[17] Susan Phillips, Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 8.

[18] Ibid., 135.

[19] Ibid., 120.

[20] A common slang for graffiti artists and crew members.

[21] This is an idea used by bell hooks to describe spaces of resistance and survival that folks of color rely on to find sustenance and support in a fundamentally racist society. Similarly, the forging of home-place is what is at work in the claiming of territory by barrio gangs, the marking out of a space that they feel belongs to them, even if it is only the space they walk on. See bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990).

[22] "To be up" among urban youth simply means to have their graffiti, or tag, "up" on a wall.

[23] This is a reference to the notorious Los Angeles tagger "Chaka."

[24] New or young members who are still learning how to translate their artistic ability from paper to wall.

[25] Jeff Ferrell, Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality (NY: Garland Publishing, 1993), 82.

[26] Ibid., 168.