Invocation of “vandalism” has been at the crux of arguments against graffiti and serves as the foundation for arguments in favor of municipal anti-graffiti campaigns. My Urban Pieces project puts “graffiti masterpieces” (as opposed to rushed “tags” and “throwups”) on a pedestal along with hand-painted murals commissioned by someone (either privately or publicly) or otherwise sanctioned nonetheless. The same stands true of the graffiti that I capture in my documentary series. There are legal graffiti areas of many cities, and in other cities there are areas where the colorful masterpieces are accepted and welcome and building owners forbid municipal blasting crews from altering their private property. These are the graffiti masterpieces that I incorporate into my photographs.
My Urban Pieces project started as a rant against the homogeneity and banality of a modern architecture and urban design momentum that more often than not caricatured or completely neglected cultural and personal expressiveness and reference. Instead of answering questions about who we are and where we’ve come from or what makes the location and people of say, Dallas, unique from the location and people of say, Cleveland, modernity solved problems of producing efficient floor-space for living and commerce in a sleek aesthetic. And the look of modern design from one city to the next looks very similar. A sense of place gets lost. But I’m not easily given to ranting and after a photography trip to Chicago in 2009, my project took on more of the appreciation that the modern exists and moves forward under its own momentum and for good reasons (economies and aesthetics), but in the urban mix are traces of individual and cultural expressiveness. These I find for my project in hand-painted murals and graffiti masterpieces.
I recently came across this excellent essay by Amos Klausner for the design website CORE77, Bombing Modernism: Graffiti and its relationship to the (built) environment. In my view this article aptly describes the rise of graffiti in the second half of the 20th Century as a reaction to post-WWII modernism and specifically modernism’s impact on high-density urban architecture and planning. The article further posits that the baroque tendencies of wild-style graffiti writing not only served as a counterpoint to underscore the failings of modernism as it used rational thought and minimalist design principles as the agents to reach a new utopian social order. But also that graffiti may have been a catalyst - or at least an outward expression – of the ideals embodied in post-modernism and what appears to be the pinnacle of post-modernism in deconstructivism. Throughout the article, Amos Klausner, reminds us that words and language (mostly names) are the basis for graffiti. And while the progression of graffiti has often rendered the reading of it difficult if not impossible to many, it still maintained a power to convey a message and cultural reference for all viewers. Perhaps a devisive message.
Klausner ends his essay by showing how technologically-based manipulation and incorporation of words into design leads to a result that doesn’t resonate very deeply with cultural reference. And thus raises the possibility that graffiti has served it’s purposes in questioning modernism and helping shape post-modernism. However, a recent trip to San Francisco reminded me that beautiful writing is still alive and very well at the urban street level (as is the sample above taken in Dallas, Texas). I raise that not so much to counter the idea that graffiti has served its purpose as a shaper and conduit of art of the last 60 years.But maybe to raise the question of whether or not the domino-like reactions of post-modernism and deconstructivism have sufficiently responded to the inadequacies of modernism to make our urban environments more culturally expressive. Or as most movements tend to build upon what has come before, has post-modernism simply been a prettying up of modernism?