Updated: Apr 6, 2019
Graffiti artists and taggers are a discerning lot. They consciously look at the landscape for opportunities to mark their territory, express angst, personal or socio-political statements, or self-promote their work. Selected sites are primarily out in public for the world to see, but others choose very private locations. “I was here.” Abandoned New York City subway lines or rarely visited rail tunnels deep in the California Sierras remind one of ancient predecessors, cave painters. Greeks and Romans also come to mind. Both past and present painters have something to say.
My bias towards all things landscape makes me oddly appreciative of this form of expressionism. Public landscapes can be dreary without an explosion of color from the balloon font of an artist’s statement. What better way to sit at a railroad crossing waiting for a fully loaded freight train to pass than to enjoy the art gallery rhythmically unfold before our windshields? A freeway sound wall or bridge, a neglected building, or an underutilized bench are vulnerable as blank canvases ready for the hiss of a spray can. Unexpected, even whimsical, for those artists that choose humor located in unexpected places, such as an alleyway, a manhole cover, or a fire hydrant. If the work is good, viewers will react beyond an initial rebuff, and it becomes a part of the landscape.
A recent trip to Barcelona confirmed my view that graffiti artists have a strong appreciation for sense of place, of art, and of history. Much of my time was spent in the oldest parts of the city that dates to when everything was built out of local materials: stone, iron more functional than decorative, and wood only used for thick, solid doors and louvered shutters. Here, graffiti is measured, found only on doors and other elements of the landscape deemed ugly, temporary, or fixable. Metal roll down doors are particularly vulnerable; when closed they are intentionally framed in stone or stucco...perfect for a work of art. It is rare to see on more permanent structures, such as ancient fortress walls. Even well-made doors and gates are spared.
Yet when we hopped a train to a little seaside community, it provided an opportunity to see another side of Barcelona, the outskirts. As we passed at an exceedingly faster rate, the architecture became drab, the landscape less maintained, and the graffiti exploded on seemingly every possible surface. With their senses diluted in mass produced housing and freeway boundaries, artists and taggers took it upon themselves to colorize the colorless, stake personal claim, and create place.
The California landscape experiences a similar pattern. The better the design aesthetic of one’s surroundings, the less likely is tagging. One example I have noticed is the City of San Jose’s branch libraries and community centers. Due to recent funding opportunities, most have been built or rebuilt, employing attractive styles and state of the art services. Thus far, no apparent graffiti, suggesting perhaps a pride in community architecture…or at least a proactive approach toward tagging.
Mediocre architecture, train cars, ratty fences, and freeway walls are our state’s vulnerabilities. Of course, I am completely avoiding subjects like environmental justice, disadvantaged communities, and social/racial inequalities by simplifying the matter down to physical appearances. If I can muster the umpf, I will tackle such subjects in other observations. For now, what I see remains in the superficial, relishing how graffiti artists have empowered themselves by taking on dirty, perhaps forgotten, spaces.