CULTURE: Graffiti As Mass Communication

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Sampleface’s woman of culture Bee looks at graffiti and its use as a form of mass communication.

Hip hop as an identity is articulated in several ways. It is of course expressed musically and lyrically through the production of beats and rap music and expressed physically by breakdancers. For the visual artists there is graffiti, which remains one of the central tenants of hip hop culture. Like other media of expression, there are several motivations for the production of graffiti including artistic expression, commercialisation and marking of territory. However, I want to focus on one of the original drivers behind graffiti (and indeed hip hop itself) as a form of communication, especially for those who otherwise did not hold an equal voice in society.

Modern graffiti can be traced back to the mid-60’s in New York City. At the time, NYC was degenerating as the population peaked during its industrial decline. Crime rates were high and the affluent classes began to move out of the city. The working classes were caught in poverty cycles as the urban youth saw their choices restricted to the menial job market. When understood from this perspective, tagging walls becomes not just a petulant act of vandalism, but a socio-political statement. The bombers were letting the world know that they were not just one of the worker ants but individuals in their own right, making the world conscious of their presence, a world that otherwise devalued them to mere commodities.

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Graffiti can also be seen as a way of reclaiming public spaces for the community. The philosophy for this is that walls are public property – the messages displayed on them should be created and produced by the community who have to live there, yet this is rarely the case. Corporate entities can afford to buy ad space for large billboards and these ads are protected by law from being taken down. Graffiti artists driven by motives to reclaim the public space feel they are exposing the unfairness of the ideology that only those who can afford to, can mass communicate to the world. – Indeed there is a subculture of graffiti art which tackles this issue directly known as ‘cultural jamming’. Cultural jammers sabotage large scale advertising in one of two ways- either by renting out billboard space and satirizing large scale corporations, or by writing over existing corporate adverts with graffiti to change the message. The street art works of Ron English are probably the most famous examples of cultural jamming.

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Graffiti has spread beyond socio-economic classifications – I know many writers who were raised in the suburbs and are degree holders – however, whilst the artists may have increased in number and diversified, I think graffiti as an art form still remains a form of communication to highlight social injustices. This is perhaps best exemplified by Wall of Separation between the West Bank and Israel which is peppered with a number of socio-political commentaries pieces. It is no coincidence that this wall has the most prolific, creative and original political works that currently exist. Perhaps Banksy’s work is the best known to us; the images make the viewer question the purpose of the barrier and its impact on the perceptions of the people living on both sides about each other.

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Graffiti, like the other tenants of Hip Hop still serves as artistic communication to the masses against social injustices. It is therefore in the graffiti artist’s interest to make his or her work eye catching- using creative techniques and forms, as well as originality in composition, which demands respect for workmanship and aesthetic value. Graffiti is an art form that serves as mass communication. This can disrupt societal conventions in ways which may be socially uncomfortable, but is also an effective tool for illustrating the views of those who remain the most marginalised and unheard.

You can find a great variety of graffiti from across the globe at graffiti.org.