Student Journal

Post-Site Contemporary Graffiti and Documentation

One of contemporary graffiti’s most problematic situations is its dependency on documentation. While many of the culture’s participants would denounce photography and film as the primary sites for their work, often making such predications based on the apparent authenticity of the urban environment, this discussion considers the reverse, positing that the ideologies and methodologies of the counterculture are best served through these modes of reproduction. In order to examine this claim, several different occurrences of these post-sites are considered here, analyzed from both the graffiti writer’s and the documenter’s perspectives.

Part One: Two Stories

The more they talked, the more I wrote; they talked, the more I wrote. 
-Darryl McCray ‘Cornbread’

Stating that “all roads lead back to me” (Reiss) when explaining his role within the now globally manifested contemporary graffiti phenomena, Darryl McCray is explicit in his desire to claim the title of originator for the genre. Most accounts giving credence to this stature progress similar narratives: that during the mid 1960s, Darryl served a stint at a juvenile correctional facility located in Philadelphia where he became dissatisfied with the cafeteria’s selections. Frustrated with the white bread served routinely at every meal, he repeatedly insisted that the kitchen change the menu to include cornbread. Eventually, he incensed one of the cooks to the point that “he grabbed me by the shirt, walked me out to my counselor and said ‘keep this cornbread out my kitchen, he’s a pain in my ass’” (Cane) . While his culinary request was denied:

The name Cornbread had a certain ring to it. I got the name written on the back of my shirt, and I started writing it all over the halls of the juvenile institution. Everybody talked about my name all over the jail, so I figured if they talked about my name all over the jail, they would talk about my name all over the street. And that’s exactly what happened. The more they talked, the more I wrote; the more they talked, the more I wrote  (Reiss) .

And in 1967, after his release from the detention center, Daryl’s nom de guerre began a continued prevalent growth on the streets of Philadelphia.

As prior, Daryl’s actions were compelled by the attention of others. However initially, instead of a disagreeing chef, or his fellow inmates, it was a girl named Cynthia.

When I got out I met this girl in school named Cynthia. I used to like Cynthia a lot. I would walk her home from school every day ’cause I was trying to be her boyfriend. I started writing “Cornbread loves Cynthia” all over the neighborhood. She didn’t know Cornbread and I were the same person, she just knew me as Darryl. It played on my mind ’cause Cornbread seemed to get more attention from her than I did  (Cane) .

Yet Daryl and Cynthia never came to fruition, and after sometime he discontinued his romantic declarations. However, he did not desist from including other personal antidotes appended to his tag. [1] One such example appeared on the signs located at the Philadelphia International Airport that read: “Cornbread welcomes you to Philadelphia”  (Cybriwsky 493) .

Over the next several years, Daryl persisted in tagging throughout the city so extensively that, as his brother explains, “his name just seemed to grow and grow and grow, and he just became a household name more or less”  (Reiss) . Targets for his widespread penmanship included walls, busses, trollies, trains, the top floor of a skyscraper that was under construction, and even the side of the Jackson 5’s personal jet. Also, it was during this time that he gained the notice of local media networks in and around Philadelphia. Significant to this attention was the furthering of his notoriety, as mention of the writer, and photos of his tag, began appearing in both newspapers, and on radio broadcasts. The resulting impact of these acknowledgments on both Daryl, and the Cornbread name, was the subsequent achievement of a heightened fame manifested at a level not yet attained by any other graffiti writer. This position was authenticated when on March 2, 1971 the Philadelphia Tribune ran an erroneous front-page headline announcing that: Cornbread was dead. The subsequent article offered slight information as to who he was, or what he was known for. The reason for this lacking of fastidiousness was predicated on the pre-existent familiarity of Cornbread’s name to the people of Philadelphia. “If you were from Philly, you already knew how to order a cheesesteak, how to pronounce Schuylkill, and that CORNBREAD has his name all over the city” (Neelon) . Yet Cornbread was not deceased, and the newspaper had wrongly attributed his tag with another man: Cornelius ‘Corn’ Hosey, who had in fact been killed by the Philadelphia police. Daryl’s response came with his scaling the fence of the Philadelphia zoo one night, and writing CORNBREAD LIVES on every possible surface including the flank of an elephant. As he explains: “I got locked up for that”  (Reiss) . 


Ninety-five miles to the north in New York City, another graffiti writer was also working extensively, capitalizing on the medium’s ubiquitous capabilities. Materializing at locations including subway stations, subway cars, and the walls of buildings across the five boroughs, Kennedy International Airport, upstate New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and even rumored on the side of a Secret Service car, the tag Taki 183 became synonymous with pervasiveness, setting a precedent that is still idealized today by many contemporary graffiti cultures. “Modern day vandals still look to old photos of Taki 183’s tags and artwork and spoken memories of his outlawed crusades. Both young artists and seasoned veterans hold this lauded and mysterious man in high regard”  (FIREISIS) . “He made it clear what writing was about: fame”  (Snyder 23) .

Comparable to the notice Cornbread acquired, these incidents solicited media attention; and on July 21, 1971 the New York Times ran‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals  (Charles) . Differentiated by intent from the Tribune’s report, the article presented a more comprehensive exposé about the writer, and the subsequent incipient counterculture, entailing a testimony to Demetrius’s (Taki 183) influence. “Other teen-agers who live on his block are proud of him. ‘He’s the king,’ a youth lounging on a doorstoop said. ‘It’s got everybody doing it,’ added Raymond Vargas, a 16-year old with Afro-style hair”  (Charles) . Albeit, these responses were not entirety acclamatory, noted by the citation of both the financial and labor costs of cleaning graffiti at 80,000 man-hours, and 300,000.00 in price.

As for Taki 183, he is described as “a Manhattan teenager who writes his name and his street number everywhere he goes” (Charles) , and purportedly was not intent on cultivating, or capitalizing, on the attention he received. “You don’t do it for the girls; they don’t seem to care. You do it for yourself. You don’t go after it to be elected President”  (Charles) . Further, he denounced any position of being the genre’s originator, explaining that he “took the form [of graffiti writing] from Julio 204, but he was doing it for a couple of years then” (Charles) . Proclamations such as this denote qualities and motivations situating him in difference to Darryl (as well most graffiti writers). Whereas the latter’s motivation was compelled by public attention, the former explains that his incentive for writing came about as a way to simply pass the time. Further, another noteworthy dissimilarity between these two is observable when considering the way in which Taki 183 originated his nom de guerre. Instead of acquiring it from a cantankerous cook, the article elucidates that the writer himself authored Taki; and that it is a traditional Greek diminutive for Demetrius, the writer’s legal first name. And finally, while giving prominence to a marginal culture, and subsequently initiating a cascade of new writers and styles, the impact of the article on Demetrius was apparently nil, and in time “he put aside his Magic Marker and went off dutifully to college” (Kennedy) .


Critically demonstrated within the narratives of both Cornbread, and Taki 183, is a symbiotic relationship between the graffiti culture and the media culture wherein a variety of mutually beneficial occurrences materialize in the employment of, and in response to, achieving recognition. For Cornbread, this is discernable throughout the sequence of events surrounding the Tribune’s article. One needs to consider that central for both the graffiti writer and the newspaper was the motivation to gain public notice. Darryl demonstrates this aspiration though his personal statements about his work, and the labor he put into establishing the pervasiveness of the Cornbread tag throughout Philadelphia. The result of these deeds gained him the status of a local folk hero, a position authenticated by the Tribune’s article in so far as the minimal report operated on the fact that its reading public was already familiar with him, and his writing exploits. Further, in focusing on, and making such a claim about, such an infamous person, the headline would solicit public notice, and create an increase in sales, subsequently reinforcing the newspaper’s position as a contemporary forum for the local Black Community. And finally, there is the concluding impact that the article had on Darryl himself, manifested in his being motivated to mount his most ambitious exploit yet, and thus furthering his status as a pioneering graffiti writer.

As for the case of Taki 183, the mutual impact and influence of The New York Times article was far more substantial to contemporary graffiti practices in general than the Tribune’s report. From the outset, and due in part to a more thorough approach, imbedded within the review are several pertinent topics absent from the Tribune such as personal information about the writer, his impact on the counterculture, and the legal ramifications. Categories such as these come to establish criteria for, as well as define, the majority of areas considered when examining contemporary graffiti cultures. Further, for the emerging writer, the article demonstrated “that writing could give you a voice, and everybody [could know] knew his [your] name,” (Snyder 24) compelling not just an increase in the amount of writers, but also captivating them to design larger and more aesthetically complex works as fodder for their pursuits of recognition. As for the critics, the article confirmed the potential of reviewing, and documenting, the culture, as it was presented as a materializing field worthy of demanding space on the pages of established publications. Thus, while graffiti writers began breaking into the subway train yards at night with modified caps on their cans of spray paint in order to paint larger and more exotic pieces, the critics, employing both art historical, and socio-cultural ideologies, began analyzing the culture and its exploits through a range of publications includingEsquire and Print magazine to large format books such as Subway Art. [2] Although written in response to what had already been occurring throughout the city, the title of the article unknowingly predicts these developments: ‘Taki 183’ Spawns Pen Pals.

Part Two: The Needed Supplement

But what can be made of these pen pals? Testimonials to the achievement of a writer’s gaining recognition, they become further deployed in the service of acquiring even more acclaim and subsequently infer a self-replicating structure that expands exponentially into society. Thus, for the tag, they carry, and extend it beyond the boundaries of the wall, or train car, it initially occupied; and over the passing of time, due to the ephemeral nature of graffiti works, become the primary site of the work. Staying with the examples of Taki 183 and Cornbread, one cannot dispute that their initial tags have long since vanished from the city walls; a point both visually, and narratively, reinforced in Jon Reiss’s Bomb It when Cornbread, gesturing to a chain link fence states “this used to be a wall of the electric company, this was the first wall I wrote on”  (Reiss) . However, within the new site of the film, the absent tag re-appears and continues an existence even in its non-materialized state. Albeit while the physical medium of the work has decreased from paint on a wall to recollections and gestures, the theoretical medium has not. And it is the position of this examination that it has in fact increased via a dissemination initiated by the film, allowing it to perpetuate itself, and the legacy of the writer, in the service of the founding motivation behind its original formation: recognition, or as the graffiti writers call it: fame.

Fame, as a significant principle of modern graffiti, warrants a close examination due to its contingent nature. Achieved by pervasive exposure to the general public, the question for the graffiti writer becomes what method best realizes this outcome? As a practice initiated in the urban environment, there is a subsequent awareness, and exploitation, of the public site for these ends.

Graffiti writers write in order to get respect for their deeds, and therefore they write in places where their work is more likely to be seen by their intended demographic. It is not the amount of disorder that determines a good spot to write graffiti, but the number of potential viewers and the unlikelihood that the graffiti will be painted over  (Snyder 49).

But, as it is well established, acting merely along these lines is insufficient due to contemporary graffiti’s inherent temporality and ephemerality. Yet, it is not so much the physical components of the works themselves (the permanence of aerosol paint cannot be disputed) that contribute to the genre’s evanescent existence; it is its environment. Comprehended as a site that’s “present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future” (Certeau 91) , the city appears as a collection of designations perpetually under revision, where both infrastructures, and class structures, reside in flux. Working from an ideology such as this, modern graffiti, more than just being part of the urban fabric, offers a correlating paradigm. Even to a causal observer, this issue is apparent, as one needs no more than to visualize a wall tagged by writers. Their works appear overnight and vanish within a few days beneath the blocky gray paint of anti-graffiti crews. Consequently, as illustrated by the overlapping letters, images and paint, such a site becomes a “texturology in which extremes coincide” (Certeau 91) unfolding across the surface horizontally, vertically, as well as temporally.

However, such an existence proves detrimental for any attempt at acquiring lasting fame due to the latter’s reliance on audience recognition. If the work is perpetually contested and erased, its capacity for reaching an abundant number of viewers is reduced, and its desired outcome becomes more difficult to attain. Therefore, graffiti writers are disposed towards two options. One is the exploitation of quantity.

Style, form, and methodology, major concerns of most writers, are secondary in significance to the prime directive in graffiti: “getting up.” The term has been used by writers since the mid-1970s. Before that time other terms, including getting aroundgetting over, and getting the name out, were used to signify the same idea. Regardless of the term used, however, since the beginning writers have understood that recognition and acceptance of their work by other writers (and possibly the public in general) is dependent on their writing their names prolifically  (Castlemen 19).

As a process of seriality, actualized across public surfaces, the repetitious act of graffiti writing displays a characteristic of mass production. However, their environments perpetually subvert these manifestations. Due to this inherent temporality, this question of quantity becomes founded by a question of quality. What medium possesses the best quality for the achieving of mass quantity? Examples of strategies developed in response to such concerns appear running throughout the methodologies of many contemporary graffiti writers. One such example is the use of stencils, particularly exploited in the stylistically and satirically iconic works of Banksy. Banksy describes his assimilation of this technique as necessitated by the temporal constraints entailed within the actual performance of graffiti writing.

When I was eighteen I spent one night trying to paint ‘LATE AGAIN’ in big silver bubble letters on the side of a passenger train. British transport police showed up and I got ripped to shreds running away through a thorny bush. The rest of my mates made it to the car and disappeared so I spent over an hour hidden under a dumper truck with engine oil leaking all over me. As I lay there listening to the cops of the tracks I realized I had to cut my painting time in half or give up altogether. I was staring straight up a the stencilled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank when I realised I could just copy that style and make each letter three feet high (Banksy, Wall and Piece 13) .

While for Banksy the stencil offered a solution to his lack of rapidity, as this technique is also encompassed within the genealogies of printmaking, it is further disposed towards repetition, facilitating both “a premeditated quality to the work as well as rapid dissemination”  (Wacławek 36) . 

Another strategy marked with qualities of premeditation and rapid dissemination is the sub-genre of contemporary graffiti known as adhesive art. Offering an alternative option for achieving mass viewership, its methodology introduces printed media such as single and multi-panel posters, as well as stickers, into the writers’ repertoires. A significant part of its contribution comes in response to problems associated with the more traditional use of paint. Aerosol painting is executed on site, in the moment, often late at night, placing the writer at a heightened personal risk from the environment, gang violence, and the police. As explained in Bomb It:

Most artists don’t risk their life dangling from an eight-inch ledge, ya know, six stories up above the freeway with semis going underneath their feet just to do their paintings. Most artists don’t sit there doing a painting and get shot in the fucking back of the head for it  (Reiss). 

While some contemporary writers claim hindrances such as these constitute a unique and symbolic mark of authenticity for modern graffiti, given the increase in alternative options offered by legally sanctioned walls, as well as potential gallery, and mainstream media production opportunities, there is also an ostensible motivation to avoid such detriments. While adhesive works are still installed on site, they are obvious manifestations of such desires. Reducing the time its takes to place the work within the urban environment down to a matter of minutes, posters and stickers enable a rapid dissemination while narrowing the potentially harmful exposure the writer is subjected to while at work. Further, as the pieces are finished prior to the moment of installation, this production method increases in the amount of time allocated for design, and allows for a variety of text and image making techniques facilitated by contemporary studio and print making practices. Through exploiting the low cost of popular media devices such as home computers, printers, and copy-machines, adhesive art not only replicates, and disseminates, the same image in far greater quantities than techniques used in free hand aerosol work; it also maintains the ability to capitalize on appropriated images taken from multiple sources. For writers such as Blek Le Rat, this enables a capacity for commentary to be made on current geo-political issues (see figure 1). [3]

Blek Le Rat. Check point Charlie Berlin

Fig. 1. Blek Le Rat. Check point Charlie Berlin on the first January 2003. c. 2003 Sybille Metze prou. Blek Le Rat /Original Stencil Pioneer. Web. 4 May 2013. 

Yet any account of these techniques that would limit their range to only the works manifested within the urban environment falls short of realizing their profounder significance as responsive to the central motive of graffiti writing: fame. As demonstrated, the worth of any graffiti piece is predicated on its possibility to reach large audiences by way of mass productions. Thus, one of its aesthetic criteria is founded on multiplicities (both of the audience and the work’s manifestations). While techniques such as stenciling and wheat pasting lend themselves to meeting such requirements, in the contemporary, due to the rise of social media, such agendas are better accomplished by mass disseminations through the networks of the latter. Taken from this perspective, the medium that possesses the best quality for quantity is all of them. Such a consideration re-positions the work into its disseminations, positing that its constitution is in its reproducibility and that “the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility”  (Benjamin 224) . From this premise that affords significance to a perpetual recontextualization, an area of study to investigate becomes how the work is being reproduced, how is the mass audience achieved? The obvious response to this is the photograph, and the practice of photography. “The documentation of graffiti is also important for graffiti writers…Due to its transitory nature, graffiti must be photographed as soon as its finished”  (Lewisohn 46) .  

The graffiti photograph, first appearing during the early 1970s in publications such as Print and the aforementioned New York Times, yields a catalogue of examples constructing a history as expansive as the works they document. Yet, it is a history that, unlike the one of quantity, was not initially necessitated by graffiti cultures. Instead, it was progressed by the mainstream media, and thus the photographs produced lend themselves to the practice of journalism more than the practice of establishing the individual notoriety of a singular writer. Consider for example Marshal Swerman’s photography (see figure 2) in Patricia Conway’s article: Subway Graffiti: The Message from Underground.  (Conway)

Swerman, Marshall

Fig. 2. Swerman, Marshall. Photograph of a station wall originally published as an illustration in Patricia Conway’s article: “Subway Art: The Message from Underground.” 1973. First published in Print May/June 1973. Fine Art America. Photograph. Web. 16 Mar. 2013. 

Instead of focusing on a singular tag and its stylistic traits (things that contribute to the notoriety of a writer), the image presents a multiplicity of tags manifested in a dialogic exchange giving both a literal, and metaphoric, window into a common scene of the culture.[4] Yet this is not to imply that such photographs were not of importance to promoting the status of a single writer. Having one’s work documented, and subsequently disseminated, by different media awarded fame, and subsequently “[w]riters constantly scan[ed] newspapers, hoping to find a photograph of a subway train in which one of their pieces ‘comes out.’…[Also] [w]riters whose work appears[ed] in the newspapers [kept] the clippings in scrapbooks or carry them with them to show to other writers”  (Castlemen 79) . However, during this time, writers thought little about taking the photographs themselves due in part to the MTA’s lax position regarding graffiti writing. “The actual offense, the Transit Authority police said is classed as a violation because it is barred only by the Transit Authority rules, not by law”  (Charles) . As a result, many pieces existed for several years if not painted over. Yet, this situation changed in 1974 when the transit system began cleaning trains. “As pieces ran for shorter and shorter durations, flicks became the only way to record (and boast of) one’s feats” (Snyder 149) . [5]

This marks a significant alteration to the role of the photograph within graffiti cultures. Prior to what would develop into the Clean Train Movement, New York City’s most comprehensive assault on modern graffiti during the 1980s, photographs were by in large unnecessary. Writers could simply frequent popular graffiti hangouts such as the culturally iconic Writer’s Bench in the subway station at 149th street, or stand along the train lines to boast about his or her exploits, and to see which works were on the forward edge of style and technique. Once the initiative to keep public surfaces clean of graffiti began to gain momentum, photographs became essential for these agendas. Yet the journalistic one was not sufficient. A grainy black and white image of multiple tags covering and wall or train car, often published as an illustration for an article, lacks both the color and the composition conducive to elevating a writer’s status by showcasing his or her artistic abilities. Therefore, the photograph’s modality changed, adopting a practice explicitly for the service of documentation. Compositions began to focus solely on a tag or piece, isolating it from its surroundings, and the employment of color film such as Kodachrome became essential so that the photographed work could be assessed by the same aesthetic criteria it would be subjected to in its original state. However, the subsequent issue of capability arose from these necessities, and as such, the provenance of graffiti cultures’ reliance on secondary participants (in particular: professional photographers) become manifest.

While in the contemporary, documentation of the work is commonly practiced by the writers due to the prevalence of photography equipment and the low cost of image processing (significantly notable with the advent of digital media), during the mid 1970s through the 1980s most writers lacked the resources needed to construct such a visual archive. Therefore, the solicitation of outside aid became needed. Martha Cooper explains her initial involvement resulting from such requests.

The kids had always tried to take photos of their trains, but they did not have professional camera equipment. They usually had cardboard cameras, and could only get a little fuzzy shot. But the pictures were what they showed around to their friends. The pictures were the evidence. So the photos were always important. I was able to tap into the fact that they wanted pictures and because my pictures were better, they wanted me to take them  (Lewisohn 37).

While Cooper’s use of the term “evidence” indicates broader concerns of legality and illegality, it also demonstrates an awareness of certain capabilities inherent to the physical photograph itself. As evidence, or proof, of an event, there is the idea that an image lifts its subject out of temporal succession, allowing it to be preserved and brought into the contemporary. For the photograph’s role within modern graffiti cultures, this issue is often one of unanimous agreement among most critics and writers; however, the question of whether it is a positive contribution becomes a point of dissension. In response to a question initialing these issues, Cooper speaks out in support of the photograph explaining:

I would ask whether if the pictures weren’t available, would a lot of what has happened now have happened? Because the photos, both Henry’s and mine, enabled people to view details in ways that you simply couldn’t see before. The only way to view these pieces and study the details, is by looking at the photographs. That’s why Subway Art struck this immediate chord with kids all over the world, because they were able to study what these pieces looked like. So you can’t underestimate the importance of photography in the movement  (Lewisohn 37).

Before progressing to consider the yields of the photograph in the culture at large, it serves to consider two examples that address these aforementioned concerns regarding the change in its modality. The first image taken in 1980 by Cooper, is of Dondi’s train piece:Children of the Grave Again, Part 3, and was first published in Subway Art  (Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant) . (See figure 3). The second, also originally published in Subway Art, was taken by Henry Chalfant in 1978, and documents one of Lee’s train pieces (See figure 4).

Cooper, Martha. Photograph of Children of the Grave Again, Part 3 by Dondi

Fig. 3. Cooper, Martha. Photograph of Children of the Grave Again, Part 3 by Dondi. 1980. First published in Subway ArtThe Street Art Blog. Photograph. Web. 26 March 2013.


Chalfant, Henry

Fig. 4. Chalfant, Henry. Photograph of a train piece by Lee. 1978. First published in Subway ArtSubsolo Art. Photograph. Web. 23 March, 2013.

By compositionally isolating one piece in a high resolution, color image that retains the qualities and details of the original work, both images exemplify this alteration in the role of the photograph by enabling a study of the works’ aesthetics that can transpire away from the physicality of the actual piece. For a writer, his or her audience now expands beyond just the subway riding public to whomever views the image. And subsequently, his or her chance of attaining fame is augmented significantly. However, while both programs are furthered by the manner through which these works became manifested (a large format, photograph based, catalogue, professionally published and disseminated into popular culture), the issue that the pieces are somehow displaced outside their local and temporal location comes under consideration. This arises by way of those very attributes the professional images were sought for: clarity and details. Both are undeniably of New York subway trains, yet such a scene has not been observable since the late 1980’s when city officials finally succeeded in hampering writers to such an extent that they forwent the practice of train painting all together. [6] Also, Cooper’s image further displays its age predicated on what appears in the background: the models of the cars and the dress of the pedestrians. Observances such as these counter the popular position that “[p]hotographs made ephemeral graffiti pieces permanent, allowing writers to view the work of others without attachment to a specific place or time”  (Snyder 148) .

Yet this is not to discredit the significance of these images, nor their production. Beyond intentions of preservation in order to circumvent the original works’ deterioration, announced by Cooper in her stating that she “shot in the spirit of historic preservation” because she “was always aware that the photos would last longer than the pieces,” (Lewisohn 37) such practices illustrate a broader acknowledgment of graffiti cultures in general by people outside them. This is exemplified by Cooper and Chalfant turning their cameras towards the trains and the writers, making explicit both their acclaim for the culture, as well as the issue that it could no longer be ignored, or simply denounced as a collection of petty vandals. Subsequently, for the modern graffiti culture, if achieving fame is a central motive, then recognitions such as these from Chalfant and Cooper support the claim that it in fact had begun to accomplished this desire in an entirely new way, as writer’s pieces began to migrate from New York City throughout popular media, to reach larger audiences.

This migration, initiated with the acts of documentation, and materialized within these modes of dissemination, in turn activated, and established, alternate modes of distribution that constructed different physicalities of the original graffiti pieces. In the contemporary, these re-presentations yield a vast array of media that have yet to be considered in their own right. Consider that now most bookstores sell a wide range of texts dedicated to modern graffiti running the breadth between large catalogues filled with documentations of the work to more academically grounded books attempting to situate, and problematize, graffiti cultures by way of theoretical hypotheses often in the service of what is known as cultural studies. Further, magazines and periodicals such as Juxtapoz and Clout are serially dedicated to representing the society’s current developments, and providing them exposure alongside other publications such asArtforum and Time. Then, there is the popular medium of film that offers works such as Wildstlye and the more contemporary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which move graffiti cultures from the gray wall of the building to the white wall of the screen through documentary, and fictional narratives. Finally; and perhaps most significantly, the overly saturated medium of the Internet transports graffiti society into the virtual expanses of the world-wide-web. Any search engine now yields a comprehensive listing of websites focused on the documentation, critical response, and production of, modern graffiti. The relevance of this medium is cast in its very name: world-wide-web, and is indicative of an interconnected global community that is naively comprehended as a setting absent of the socio-political hierarchies and ordering of the newsstands, bookstores, and movie theaters. This omission is founded on the belief that, by in large, the internet is an open-source venue where modern graffiti writers connect with a maximum audience void of geographical boundaries; and the critics find an infinite catalogue of images to reconcile and situate in social and aesthetic histories and theories that further writers’ exposure. In this way, it is the unsurpassed primary site for exposure, and subsequent fame.

Part Three: Archives and Eras

While it is a fact that a documented work of modern graffiti’s provenance is often a public space within an urban context, due to the work’s ephemerality within that environment, as well as the underlying intention of the writer, an argument that would denounce the locations in popular media as secondary is tenuous. Instead, they are primary. Through their capacity for preservation, and re-presentation, they afford the autographic mark of the writer an entry into mass global culture that could not be achieved otherwise. Further, due to their physical re-location of the works, the documents bolster the transitory status of the graffiti piece by reassigning the location of the work into the photograph. And finally, they enable a consideration of temporal succession not dependent on the original pieces. The argument progressed here reverses Walter Benjamin’s criticisms of the mechanical reproduction of the work, to argue that for contemporary graffiti, its reproducibility is its aura. [7]

The inherent ephemerality of modern urban environments often suggests that the work, or moment, documented by the camera, is no longer manifest at its time of critical review (one knows that the trains of New York are now absent of illegal paint). Through the reproduction however, one is able to re-visit these works, and scrutinize the stylistic attributes as well as compare them to other eras, works, and styles in order to “bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens” (Benjamin 220) . Thus, while the catalogue puts into question the very physicality of the work it catalogues, it more significantly provides the space for the juxtaposition of different genealogies of works that can further be used in the service of examining the history of modern graffiti and its ideological and methodological practices across different geographic regions. While in this sense, “the document constitutes the work itself,” it does not blur “the lines between event and account, between object and experience,” (Wacławek 179) in so far as it becomes the event and the account, the object and the experience of modern graffiti. And in this way “it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.”  (Benjamin 236)  

Theoretically at work here are the same functions and practices operating in the devices of the art book as assessed by Malraux and hisMuseum without Walls, wherein the space of exhibition not only democratizes the experience of art, surmounting the gallery or museum wall through the dissemination founded by reproduction, but also transforms these reproductions into recoded meanings.

[I]s a semiotic machine then, and the photograph is what gives it leverage. For the photograph is the great facilitator ofcomparison, of moving past the contemplation of a work in isolation to the differential experience of it, its meaning emerging—as linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had assured us it would—in relation to what it is not (Foster, Krauss and Bois 298).

Thus the graffiti text demonstrates the logic of Derrida’s différance in is perpetuated differing and deferring to other codings and texts.[8] Extensive work has been progressed along these lines in most of the contemporary works dedicated to this subject. One such example is the demarcation of regional styles, a practice explicitly afforded by the comparison that documentation enables. It is commonplace when opening a book or magazine to find such genres explained and legitimized through citing their references to their cultural heritage, as well as developing a comparative exchange to other styles and working methods now historically and globally manifest.

Resulting from the combination of regional motifs with the early hip-hop tagging that emerged from New York in the mid 1980s, Brazilian graffiti is regarded as a unique style, comprised of both original imagery and typography (Pichação), within the contemporary global graffiti culture. Initially, Pichação materialized in the 1940s and 1950s as anti-political statements, often written in tar, across preexisting political advertisements. While becoming obsolete during the 1970s, it resurfaced in the 1980s in response to the New York hip-hop culture’s introduction into Brazil. It was during this period that Pichação writers developed the genre’s unique font consisting of angular letters, evenly spaced, that some critics consider “an extremely harsh visual language”  (Lewisohn 55) (See figure 5). Distinct from the Wild Style lettering endemic throughout most graffiti cultures, the writers of Brazil are explicit in their desire to construct an aesthetic unique to their own experience. “Pichação is one of the best things that exists in Săo Paulo and in Brazil, because the style is something completely original to Brazil. It is something that was created in Săo Paulo”  (Lewisohn 55) .

Example of Pichação style graffiti

Fig. 5. Example of Pichação style graffiti. Web. 23 January 2014. 

Nunca is a writer who emerged from this practice, and has since established a reputation, and visual aesthetic, correlating to certain methodologies akin to those of the Mexican Muralists, in particular the citation of pre-colonial motifs that could be disposed towards realizing a unique history and identity, and an implicit concern to be inclusive to the larger population of Săo Paulo and Brazil(See figure 6). [9] As he explains: “when I got out to paint on the street, I’m picturing the people that live there—it’s for them”  (Wacławek 83) . While often rendered in acrylic paint, his works’ use of contour line references pre-colonial woodcuts from South America, and their characteristic red ochre palette cites the native Indian cultures’ ritualistic use of urucum. [10] Politically, his work demonstrates an inclusivity through its juxtaposition of a cultural past and present, subsequently affording an approachability not readily apparent with Pichação.

Nunca. Life in the Fast Lane.

Fig. 6. Nunca. Life in the Fast Lane. Web. 15 June 2013. 

While indisputably a regionally grounded aesthetic, it cannot be dismissed that Brazilian style graffiti’s elite status is indebted in part to the disseminations of contemporary graffiti. When Otávio Pandolfo (one of the twin brothers who constitute the now globally recognized graffiti crew Os Gêmos) declares that “[w]e wanted to try to break from tradition and make it different from graffiti that can be seen in Europe or the U.S.” (Lewisohn 55) , he is only able to do so being conscious of the aesthetics’ developments in the United States and Europe, information acquired through graffiti texts. While both he and his brother Gustavo, credit their inauguration into graffiti writing as motivated by American films such as Beat Street and Wild Style, along with Martha Cooper’s and Henry Chalfant’s book Subway Art, it was their meeting with the street artist Barry McGee, aka: Twist, that compelled the brothers to investigate their cultural heritage as a place for inspiration. Ultimately for Os Gêmos this directed them to survey Western graffiti not for what to do, but for what not to do. The reproductions of Lee’s and Dondi’s subway train pieces became recoded by Otávio to symbolize not graffiti, but American graffiti, and subsequently, their imagery could not be adopted, because he is not American. [11]

As for the graffiti texts (magazines, films, books, websites, or otherwise) that present a catalogue of different writers, styles, and eras regardless of whether it is a broad survey of the culture, or more socio-anthropologically inclined, its interpretations also recodes the different works according to comparisons and differentiations. Even the images employed throughout this discussion exemplify this issue: the New York subway art of the 1980s is not the European stencil art of the 2000s that is also not Brazilian style Pichação. Thus the reproductions, beyond distributing the works to larger audiences, perform a semantic operation arising from Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic model of differences wherein it becomes coded by the reader, influenced by surrounding contexts, and establishes its value “by the relationships between the sign and other signs within the system as a whole”  (Chandler 20).

This system as a whole progresses infinitely as signs are continually manifested in perpetuating chains of signification that are motivated by their very context. Therefore, for this discussion, it becomes necessary to demarcate part of such a chain in order to bring to light the metaphysical field upon which an examination of modern graffiti becomes possible. Comprised of both the works produced as well as the responses they solicited, this field becomes organized into three separate eras termed: The Train Era, The Wall Era, and The Commercial Era. However, such designation warrants pause in so far as the fabrication of any category is both arbitrary and contingent, often possessing the very transgression that would deconstruct it. [12] And while there are probable inconsistencies within the framework administered here, its intention is to trace this aesthetics’ relation with its documentation elucidating how the latter significantly affects the former. To only state that modern graffiti is reliant on documentation falls short of realizing the complexity of this relationship.

The Train Era, 1971-1989

Often hailed as the “golden age” (Lewisohn 45) of graffiti, and frequently lamented in its loss, the years spanning between the early 1970s to 1989 witnessed the meteoric rise of graffiti writing, as works evolved in complexity from simple tags to full scale pieces, as well as increases in the sociopolitical reactions the counterculture spurned. Perhaps the most significant reaction was the interest taken in the culture by certain institutionalized art circles of New York between 1980 and 1983. Promoted as the next avant-garde movement, graffiti writing became transformed into a marketable commodity with its assimilation into commercial galleries. While there had been small attempts throughout the 1970s to accomplish this transfiguration through the efforts of the United Graffiti Artists and The Nation of Graffiti Artists, it was the Fun Gallery and Fashion Moda that positioned the genre at the forefront of fad-ism. Opened in 1981 in the East Village, the Fun Gallery’s credits entail being the first gallery to allow exhibition space for graffiti writers to mount solo shows. This allocation simultaneously legitimized the practice of the work as well as bolstered the writer’s fame through the re-contextualization it performed by repositioning the work off of the moving subway train and onto the sellable canvas. As for Fashion Moda, which became a causal setting for many writers from the south Bronx to meet and exchange ideas, it collaborated with the artist’s collective Colab to mount the iconic Times Square Show.

Held in an abandoned dilapidating massage parlor near Manhattan’s pornographic district, and kept open to the public twenty-four hours a day continually during the entirety of its one month run, the exhibition contested any conventional standards of availability, or potential audience viewership. Further, described as an “art funhouse”  (Deitch 59) , the show coalesced a divergent body of aesthetic practices ranging from conceptual works such as Andrea Callard’s Second Hand Only Wall Clock to crudely painted neo-expressionist paintings. “It was as if a class at the Art Students League got gang drunk and decided to have a painting party”  (Deitch 59) . However, tag based graffiti writing comprised only a small percentage of the works displayed, particularly Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painted wall described as “a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray-paint scribbles”  (Deitch 61) , and, as such, the habitual understanding that the exhibition served as an official introduction of contemporary graffiti to the fine art establishment is slightly tenuous. Why this accreditation maintains itself can be discerned when considering a point of consensus most critical reviews of the exhibition share: that the significance of the Times Square Show was not predicated on what it exhibited, but how it exhibited it. Hung in a chaotic salon fashion:

[t]he “Times Square Show” was a challenge to dealers and curators of advanced art who continue to feel that the discreet display of a few pieces in an elegant gallery is enough. But it was even more of a challenge to artists who think than their work stops when a piece leaves the studio, and who leave its presentation to others. Art must come to be marketed with the kind of imagination displayed by this exhibition’s organizers—not simply in order to reach the general public, but to cut through the glut of mediocre material and touch the art audience itself  (Deitch 63) .

         As a rebellious gesture against the curatorial status quo of “discreet display”  (Deitch 63) , this exhibition demonstrates an ideology akin to those assigned both to, and self-reflexively by, contemporary graffiti writers. Still considered “at war with the urban developers, the architects, and all the other faceless decision makers,” some writers maintain that they are “the voice of the unelected, fighting back against systems [of ownership and authority] that are imposed on them”  (Lewisohn 87) . For John Ahearn and Tom Otterness (the curators of The Times Square Show), as well as the other participants in the exhibition, their works contest the perceived authority of the gallery institution through the choice of location and technique of installation. While this approach subsequently connects the show to a theoretical territory similar to ones inhabited by Fluxes practices, or Happenings, it also reminds the artist of a component of his or her agency that had apparently been forgotten. [13] This is further articulated in the successive challenge for artists to remember that their works do not stop “when a piece leaves the studio”  (Deitch 63) , but instead, that its presentation demands consideration as an intricate component of the overall design for the conveyance of intention. 

This methodology of the anti-established gallery exhibition was adopted again when, several months after the closing of the Times Square Show, the PS1 Gallery (now MoMA PS1) mounted the New York/New Wave exhibition in a dilapidated schoolhouse. Vital in solidifying modern graffiti as a unique movement, this show displayed graffiti pieces painted on canvas paring them with the works of institutionalized artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol. Similar to The Times Square Show, this exhibition merged the work and the gallery space (a dilapidated school house) to the point that at times they were indistinguishable.

This approach to installation followed by both exhibitions contributed to fabricating modern graffiti’s identity as an outsider culture by literally and figuratively bringing the outside inside. New York during the early 1980s was not the New York that it is today. Beyond the neon signs in Time Square that advertised nude dance shows and pornographic paraphernalia, rampant poverty left other areas of the city completely destitute. Exhibiting graffiti in derelict gallery spaces, installed in a disorganized manner, infers a reference to this surrounding context. When considering the anonymous chalk graffiti wall on the 4th floor of the Times Square Show, it becomes difficult to differentiate that as a gallery wall and not the wall of a subway station (See figure 7). Yet, being a gallery wall, it also celebrates this decay positing it as spectacle, and subsequently trivializing the severity of the city’s problems. Mediated through the institution of the art gallery, modern graffiti becomes situated as a simultaneous threat to the white wall gallery aesthetic through its funhouse approach, and a curiosity that cheapens its worth within this very context.

Kahane, Lisa

Fig. 7. Kahane, Lisa. Photograph of the anonymous chalk graffiti wall and Tom Otterness’s Punching Bag. 1980. Thesolofoundation’s Blog. Web. 20 June 2013. 

Perhaps aware of this impoverishment administered by the gallery context most graffiti writers continued to paint subway trains bolstering the culture’s initial methodology and ideologies. In Wild Style’s pseudo-fictional account of the culture during this era Lady Pink explains that while writers are starting to gain notoriety, and even permission, to work legally, she doesn’t “think there could really be an end to subway graffiti”  (Ahearn) .

However, it was this continued facet of the community, seen as a direct transgression against the city; that ultimately prompted sharp denouncements and its evitable demise. In 1984, Philadelphia initiated the Philadelphia Ant-Graffiti Network, and throughout to 1980s, New York’s mayor Ed Koch continually implemented new legal injunctions against the writers in order to deter them. Yet, these attacks targeted not the conditions of the counter culture, but instead its appearance. Advanced by Wilson’s and Kelling’s Broken Window Theory, modern graffiti was seen as a quality of life crime. To summarize: the argument claims that petty crimes such as vandalism and vagrancy increase the propensity for more serious criminal activity. Thus, modern graffiti became regarded as constituting a visual invitation to commit further crime. In Joe Austin’s book Taking the Train: How Graffiti Became an Urban Crisis in New York City he demonstrates how modern graffiti was simultaneously constructed and presented as an urban crisis. “The new significance attributed to writing by the Times and some of the social control intelligentsia demanded that a new war on graffiti be undertaken to save the city from itself. This new framework represented the writing on the subways as a sign that the city was out of control, and that centralized authorities did not care”  (Austin) .

These aversions accumulated with Koch’s Clean Train Movement in 1989. This ordinance restricted the running of any subway car that had been painted on. In their capacity to display pieces throughout the entirety of the city, they had been the chief exhibition space for writers during this time. Now that no car bearing graffiti of any kind was allowed to leave the train yard, writers were finally deterred from painting on them, and began looking elsewhere to achieve fame. 

The Wall Era, 1999-2000

No longer the latest art commodity combined with the host of legislative and political condemnations, the economic opportunities that had motivated the culture during the 1980s were waning. Faced with these circumstances, many of the writers who had gained admissions to art schools during the 1990s turned their attention to studying fine art, photography, graphic design, and film production. These proficiencies enabled them to produce magazines, films, and websites dedicated to modern graffiti that served as new sites for proliferating the culture. Unique to these disseminations was their being designed explicitly by the writers. Subsequently, they bare a certain mark of authenticity as a response to the backlash the culture was subjected to. Two significant examples are the out of print magazine On the Go, and the website Artcrimes. Through their re-contextualization of graffiti pieces, these publications undermined the illegal status the culture had been assigned, as well as expanding its audience.

Influenced by how The International Graffiti Times distributed graffiti works, as well as providing a forum for intellectualism to enter the culture, Steven Powers, aka ESPO, founded On the Go in 1989. While initially the magazine was a low budget zine, published for the group of writers who contributed to it, it eventually evolved into a commercial publication when, in 1993, it incorporated the rising Hip Hop culture. With this addition, the magazine began publishing reviews of rap albums, interviews with graffiti writers, photographs of graffiti pieces, political and social commentary, and a section titled: Neighborhood Watch, which informed writers about various police activity and tactics. This diversification of material was owed to finical necessity and produced mutually beneficial results for both cultures. Without commercial items to sell, graffiti magazines lacked the revenue to sustain the high cost of color printing necessary for properly displaying graffiti works. The inclusion of the music industry resolved this issue and subsequently On the Go expanded to encompass international audiences. However, due to the efficiency and low cost of the Internet, the magazine ultimately succumbed to finical pressures as was discontinued in 1999.

Unique to On the Go was its conflation of legality and illegality in the way it publicized itself. While printed and sold legally, the magazine utilized the illegal tactic of unauthorized wheat pasting of magazine covers across the urban environment to generate its notoriety. By embracing the already pre-existing negative perceptions of modern graffiti by mainstream culture, On the Go propelled itself into the latter by those very methods that generated those opinions. Thus, legal revenue was solicited illegally, and through this act of subversion, the magazine maintained a certain illegal status associated with the larger graffiti culture. Further, in it’s juxtaposing its adverts next to adverts for mainstream consumer products it prompted questions about the very legality of the practice of public advertising.

The other significant development that occurred during this era responds to these aforementioned issues regarding public advertising with the solidification of the sub graffiti genre: Street Art. Different to traditional tag based form graffiti, street art seeks to reach the general public by employing accessible imagery and lettering. Often seen as an intersection between popular culture and graffiti culture, it operates in the space between the two, using consumer market advertising strategies and techniques. Through such practices, street art instigates its own implicit response to the mainstream by simultaneously infiltrating it (by its accessibility) and critiquing it (by its subversive messages). 

In the case of Shepard Fairey’s infamous Obey campaign, the subversive message resides in the fact that there is no message at all. Graphically juxtaposing a stylized rendering of the late American wrestler Andre the Giant with the word: obey, in a black, white, and red color scheme Fairey’s posters imply an Orwellian 1984 big brother authoritarianism that at times has been confused with Fascist propaganda (See figure 8). However, the motivation for the project was “a Dadaist nonsensical joke” (Lewisohn 101) , as their highly suggestive imagery offers not messages as to whom or what one is to obey.

Fairey, Shepard. Obey

Fig. 8. Fairey, Shepard. ObeyUNILD: Music, Lifestlye, Movies and More. Web, 27 June 2013

Further, Fairey took the innovative step of employing a network of collaborators around the world to continue disseminating his pieces by selling them through his website. One can visit and order sticker and poster packs that he or she can install at his or her discretion. By destabilizing the position of the artist as the sole instigator of the work, and by implying a manifold of references, Obey complicates the pre-established roles that institutionalized consumerism operates on: there is no product being sold other than the product that does the selling, and the buyer is as much the seller in his or her re-contextualization of the works. Thus, through how these pieces demonstrate the ease with which signs and roles can be transgressed, refuted, and re-inscribed, they perform a direct intervention into mainstream consumerism.

Building on the successes of Obey, Fairey developed his practice to include graphic design, magazine publications and fashion design. Such practices demonstrate not only how street art operates in the space between legality and illegality, but also how that space can be capitalized on for both finical gain and fame. This approach of more market based methods for distribution serves as a critical underlying condition for the current Commercial Era that contemporary graffiti finds itself in.    

The Commercial Era, 2001-Contemporary

The institutionalization of modern graffiti into a commercial industry did not transpire overnight, however in the contemporary, it undeniably warrants such a title. Commanding high sale prices at auction houses, and turning up in suburban homes in coffee table books and video games, the culture’s migration beyond the urban slums of its providence seems all but complete. [14] However, elucidated by this dissemination is a certain flexibility operating within the methodologies and ideologies of the culture. It is this trait that ultimately exposes an underlying problem within modern graffiti that unsettles a fair amount of writers. Demonstrated in a variety of examples ranging from interviews to exhibitions and productions there is a discernible question of authenticity. In the contemporary, the traditionalist view that a graffiti writer earns his or her status by first working extensively in the urban environment weakens as the commercial industry comes to administer the standards necessary for achieving fame.


Yet, this situation did not arise from mainstream media’s assimilation of modern graffiti, but from within the culture itself as it began to disassociate with the Hip Hop culture it was tethered to throughout the 1990s in order to demarcate its autonomy as an aesthetic genre. Albeit galleries and artist collectives existed prior to 2001 that dedicated themselves to such agendas, it required the correct alignment of work, place, time, and luck to designate modern graffiti as its own institution. This combination was reliant on three specific entities. The first was the low cost of self-publishing, the second was the maturation of street art, and the third was the active graffiti writing culture of Bristol U.K. Since the 1980s Bristol was home to an innovative group of writers that some accounts compare to the New York writers of The Train Era. Seen as pioneers of a style of graffiti that juxtaposed wild style lettering with stylized cartoon characters and readable letters, correlations do exist between the two groups. However, the Bristol writers also incorporated more explicit social commentary through satirical imagery demonstrating debt to street art practices as well.

It was from this environment that the now iconic graffiti writer Banksy emerged, rising to a level of notoriety not yet achieved at this time. Unique to Banksy’s imagery is an overt simplicity employed to convey a lucid message to the public. Reduced to easily comprehendible black and white stencils, and often commenting on current social issues, his pieces are the opposite of the esoteric wild style graffiti writing in both form and content. The purpose of such stylistic choices demonstrates a want for inclusiveness. By rendering imagery to be comprehended at a glance, and in that same instant, deliver a provocative editorial statement, the works not only reach the public, but also solicit a response.  


Another approach Bansky took to accomplish this agenda was the self-publication of his: little black books between 2001 and 2004. “[O]riginally cost[ing] less than a fiver” (Wright 90) the books disseminated his works and name, demonstrating a shrewd business sense often not understood as a necessary trait required for achieving fame in the contemporary.

The books were a piece of genius, because they were so accessible…The best way for him to influence people was to get them reading those books, understanding for themselves what he’s about, making them feel they have a stake in the whole Banksy phenomenon….[T]he books are a hugely important part of who they are and how they are known – suddenly they’re in your homes, you can spend time thinking about them, fell you’ve got to know them better  (Wright 90) .

Elucidated here is a fundamental premise of The Commercial Era: phenomenon. And it is this premise that comes to unsettle the methodologies and ideologies of the culture with the sudden success of Mr. Brainwash. If phenomenon had become the underlying purpose of modern graffiti, he managed to capitalize on it through what many writers perceive as explicit exploitation and appropriation.

Beginning as an obsessive documentary filmmaker, Thierry Guetta (aka: Mr. Brainwash) spent several years compiling perhaps the most extensive video catalogue of the contemporary culture to date. Comprised of interviews and footage of writers at work, his films appear to offer a unique vantage into modern graffiti. However, the full extent of this vantage is not realized as he, at the encouraging on Banksy, set his camera down after producing “an hour and a half of unwatchable nightmare trailers” (Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop)to try his creativity and producing street art. [15] Banksy’s suggestion was motivated by his realization that a documentary of modern graffiti needed to be made, and Guetta had collected more than enough raw footage to accomplish this, however he lacked the capacity. “I thought…maybe I could have a go at it. I mean, I don’t know how to make a film but obviously that hadn’t stopped Thierry, but I needed him out of the way in order to do it so I said why don’t you go put up some of your posters and make some art, you know, have a little show”  (Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop).

Guetta’s switch from esoteric film maker to street artist and that little show perturbed the entire culture in its monumental success which left many writers wondering if the entire thing had been an elaborate hoax. Blatantly copying the styles of Shepard Faiery and Banksy, and hiring a team of prop builders and designers to manufacture his work, Guetta’s actions came across as direct transgressions against the culture that welcomed him into some of its most secretive circles. As explained in the film, writers take considerable time honing their craft and developing their personal style. Guetta’s short-circuiting of this, and mounting a large exhibition founded on generating a media frenzy owed to endorsements made by both Faiery and Banksy demonstrate how the commercialization of modern graffiti ultimately subjects it to the very corporative market practices it claims to work against. Guetta’s show would not have reached its level of success had it not been for those endorsements (which only held any sway because of the writers’ reputation). However they, just like the styles of the pieces, where not authentically produced. In fact Guetta solicited them directly from the writers, and as the film illustrates, Banksy and Fairey offered them out of kindness, not entirely realizing what they were agreeing to.

Yet, just as the argument can be posited that Guetta exploited modern graffiti, the position can also be suggested that the culture exploited him. Due to graffiti work’s ephemerality, many of the writers welcomed his camera just as the writers of The Train Era welcomed the cameras of Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. And further, one needs to remember that this film is a documentary as much about Guetta as it is about the culture. Regardless of which side earns the sympathy of the viewer, he or she cannot ignore the unresolved issues regarding what constitutes the authenticity of modern graffiti in the contemporary: originality and style, or theft and commercial media exploitation. 

Specific to all eras is the function of the document in its extension and alteration of the culture. Therefore, considering the substance of these post-wall sites, while they are comprised of a variety of materials within the register of print media (a register that in the contemporary also includes digital media), the discernable singularity, found in all, is a system of simultaneous organization and presentation: a certain logic of an archive. [16]

And what would such a logic of the archive of modern graffiti entail? Again, it serves to actualize a correlation with the urban environment. Just as a city is “a universe that is constantly exploding,” so to is the archive perpetually cataloguing.  (Certeau 91) Neither resides in stasis. Instead, both maintain an operation employing a perpetual rearrangement, re-fabrication, and re-animation, exhibiting a quality of constant revisionism founded on the processes of figuring forth the work through a matrix of citations and juxtapositions. Further, this modality is demanded by the criteria of those very things within the scopes of these sites: by his or her nature, the pedestrian is always coming and/or going, always on the way to/or just coming from. Similarly, the work of modern graffiti is always appearing on one wall, being displaced by another work, or monotonous gray anti-graffiti paint, only to reappear on another wall. The resulting system assembles along these following relationships: the objects of the site are in flux, and hence, the site is in an incessant state of response to their perpetuality. This renders the site as continually unstable and incomplete.

Further, as the site is unceasingly destabilized, those things appearing on, or within, it, are also undermined, owing to the nature of their environment. However, neither component (site or site object) precedes the other. Instead, it is a simultaneous authorization materialized in tandem. Therefore, just as the physicality of the referent which is catalogued is put into question by the archive of modern graffiti, so to is the physicality of the archive itself (it is a book sitting on the shelf, a photograph tapped the bedroom wall of an inspiring writer, or a webpage aglow on a digital tablet), and such instability is mandated by the methodological operations of the practice of the archive, all of which is akin to the urban environment to which it is largely dedicated. Further, as demonstrated, the ephemerality pervasive in both modern graffiti and modern urban society often suggests that the referents that the archives re-present through an alteration of their medium are often no longer manifest at all. For the author of the perpetual modern graffiti archive then, there is a certain urgency here, akin to the compulsiveness of Foucault’s aphasiacs, as they realize the difficulties of “the very site on which their [the items listed in the catalogue] propinquity would be possible”  (Foucault xviii) . It is akin to tracing a shadow in the sand along the edge of the ocean during sunset. 

Such prospects compel significant implications for the future of both the practice of graffiti writing as well as the practice of critically engaging with it. In particular, it necessitates a significant readdressing and revising of methodologies deployed in the service of establishing the different types of graffiti within the broader aesthetic genre. Categories such as adhesive art and aerosol painting are destabilized, as they cannot claim an authenticity assured by a specific medium or context. In the dissemination of a graffiti piece, such components change. The adhesive pieces found in Sticker City, Paper art Graffiti are no more adhesive than Cornbread’s tags are aerosol paint, and the urban environment (that context which many authors and graffiti writers claim as the fundamental component for legitimacy) is only inferred, as its experience is mediated by the documentation and subsequent re-presentation. Therefore, as classifications such as these become tenuous to maintain, there is the further undermining of the broader registers of the aesthetic such as Street Art and Graffiti. One instance of this is demonstrated by way of a subtle contradiction revealed in claims such as:

Street art is more about interacting with the audience on the street and the people, the masses. Graffiti isn’t so much about connecting with the masses: it’s about connecting with different crews, it’s an internal language, it’s a secret language. Most graffiti you can’t even read, so it’s really contained within the culture that understands it and does it. Street art is much more open. It’s an open society  (Lewisohn 15) . 

While accuracies can be delimited by such elitisms when the work is met in its original state, they become significantly unsustainable when the work is disseminated in popular media. A tag reproduced on the cover of a book or a website, does not stay “contained within the culture that understands and does it,” nor can that culture reject “connecting with the masses” (Lewisohn 15) when it claims fame as a central ideology. Instead, it is the masses that allocate fame, either through reinforcing graffiti’s outsider or counterculture label, or, by drawing it further into the mainstream through different commercial appropriations.

[W]ith the growth of mass media and the internet, graffiti writers can now achieve ‘fame’ more easily and more effectively than ever before, and the concept of fame has changed within the world of graffiti. Now that the audience is potentially global, a graffiti writer might feature on the cover of a specialist magazine or publication, or be commissioned by a sports company to design a pair of trainers  (Lewisohn 44) .

Albeit, any writer begins his or her career often on the street, in the contemporary achieving fame is complicated beyond a correlational response to the amount of walls or train cars a writer bombs. Instead, it is ensured through being selected by the magazine editor or the design team working for the shoe company.

However, implicit in these re-presentations is the possibility of a certain co-option of intention. Beyond the physicality of the work transforming from paint on a wall to a glossy photograph in a book, each new site (book, magazine, website) subjects the initial work to a specific demarcation prescribed by the former. Such action can often result in the fastening of the work to ulterior motives not included within the work’s original charter. Subsequently, issues of agency and the structures and dynamics of power come to be predicated on the fundamental heterogeneity of popular media and its intention of achieving mass viewership. It is from these different manifestations that society gains access to modern graffiti’s at times esoteric markings, the writer’s achievement of fame, and from which different historizations are composed. 

While such dependencies on the mainstream may unsettle writers who claim indifference or distain for it, echoing attitudes similar to ‘Skeeme’ when he explains: “It’s for me, it’s not for nobody else to see. I don’t care ‘bout nobody else seeing it…All the other people who don’t write, they’re excluded, I don’t care about them…It’s for us” (Silver and Chalfant) ; it cannot be dismissed that Skeeme makes this declaration through a popular media (film), and that his status rose due to Silver’s and Chalfant’s interest in him and the surrounding New York graffiti scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nor can it be overlooked that the modern graffiti movement instigated such interest. As Martha Cooper recounts when she was working as a fledgling photographer for the New York Post in 1977 she began driving through the lower east side looking for supplemental photo opportunities in order to finish the roll of film she was shooting. It was during one such trip that a boy she had photographed earlier approached her and asked: “‘why don’t you photograph graffiti?’ He explained he was sketching his nickname “HE3,” and showed me how he had painted it on a wall”  (Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant 6) . 

Examples such as these serve to highlight discrepancies pervasive throughout the relationships existing between modern graffiti and popular media cultures in order to demonstrate a neglected need for the former to either reevaluate its ideologies and methodologies directed toward the latter and the urban environment, or to embrace these disseminations as the primary sites for their intentions. However, this second option warrants caution owing to the document’s established disposal towards repositioning the work into registers of commercialized objects subjecting it to consumerism, potential fetishisation, and a variety of power dynamics. And it is in such practices that the document demonstrates a pervasive agency over the work. One such instance is noted in its proliferation of certain styles and techniques. While publications such as books, magazines, and websites serve to achieve maximum exposure for the featured writer, they also catalogue the types of works that are gaining recognition. This produces an almost prescriptive influence over aspiring writers in his or her pursuit of the same. Such a trend is notable in the exponential use of both the technique of stenciling and the type of imagery it yields correlating with the rise in notoriety of Banksy’s who is now considered one of the premiere stencil writers. Then there are the underlying implications regarding the legal or illegal status of the work. “[S]uch magazines and websites document illegal activity—but the documents of that activity are themselves not illegal. Magazines and websites take graffiti out of its physical context, and in so doing serve to decriminalize it”  (Snyder 153) . While these are only two examples of an extensive list, they announce that regardless of where the work reappears there is little doubt as to the significance of how it reappears and as such, perhaps all roads to lead back to the document itself.

Works Cited

Austin, Joe. Taking the Train: How Graffiti Became an Urban Crisis in New York City. New York: Columbia Univeristy Press, 2001.

Banksy. Wall and Piece. London: Century, 2006.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 217-251.

Bomb It. Dir. Jon Reiss. 2008.

Cane, David. Cornbread-The 1st Graffiti Writer. 24 2 2013 <>.

Castlemen, Craig. Getting up, Subway Graffiti in New York. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1982.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Chalfant, Henry. "Foreword." Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art, The Graffiti Revolution. New York: Abrams, n.d.

Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics, The Basics. New Yourk: Routledge, 2007.

Charles, Don Hogan. "'Taki 183' Spawns Pen Pals." The New York Times 21 July 1971: 37.

Conway, Patricia. "Subway Graffiti: The Message from Underground." Print (1973): 25-32.

Cybriwsky, David Ley and Roman. "Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers." Annals of the Association of American Geographers 64.4 (1974): 491-505.

Deitch, Jeffrey. "Report from Times Square." Art in America (1980): 58-63.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dir. Banksy. 2010.

FIREISIS. TAKI 183: Celebrating the Greatest. 27 July 2011. 02 March 2013 <>.

Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real, The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996.

Foster, Hal, et al. Art Since 1900. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Routledge Classics, 2007.

Kennedy, Randy. Celebrating Forefather of Graffiti,Taki 183. 22 July 2011. 9th March 2013 <>.

Klausner, Amos. "Bombing Modernism: Graffiti and its relationship to the (built) environment." Corr77. 2012 <>.

Lewisohn, Cedar. Street Art, The Graffiti Revolution. New York: Abrams, 2008.

Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. Subway Art. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, 1984.

Neelon, Roger Gastman and Caleb. <>.

Snyder, Gregory J. Graffiti Lives, Beyond the Tag in New York's Urban Underground. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

Style Wars. Dirs. Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. 1983.

Swerman, Marshall. "Untitled." Untitled. Print , May/June 1973. 26.

Tate. 25 Jan 2013 <>.

Tschumi, Bernard. "Bombing Modernism: Graffiti and its relationship to the (built) environment." 2012. Corr77. 2012 <>.

Wacławek, Anna. Graffiti and Street Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

Wild Style. Dir. Charlie Ahearn. 1983.

Wright, Steve, ed. Banksy's Bristol, Home Sweet Home. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2007.


[1] A graffiti writer’s Tag is his or her adopted signature, often difficult to read and employing calligraphic lines and symbols such as arrows and crowns.

[2] A ‘piece’ is short for ‘masterpiece,’ and is a larger graffiti mural employing letters and imagery.

[3] For more on this see the short documentary film Guerilla Art, directed and produced by Sebastian Peiter.

[4] For more on “dialogic,” see Mikhail Bakhtin Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

[5] ‘Flicks,’ or ‘flick,’ is graffiti slang for photograph.

[6] In 1989, New York launched the “The Clean Train Movement,” which was an initiative to keep subway trains clean of graffiti. Methods employed where the refusal to put any train that had been written on into service until it had been cleaned, and increased security in and around train yards. This made the practice of train painting increasingly difficult for many graffiti writers, and the culture began to seek out other surfaces (such as billboards) to paint on.

[7] See Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

[8] For more on this see Jacques Derrida’s article Différance.

[9] Historically, public art has been understood differently in Latin America. One notable example is The Mexican Mural Movement that emerged at the end of the Agrarian Revolution. Publicly found and ideologically oriented, it was initiated by the Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos to bolster support for the new government and to educate the general public with the goal of emboldening them to contribute to the development of Mexico and the creation of a new cultural in national identity. Therefore, the works the mural painters such as José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfonso Siqueiros created were focused towards achieving this end portraying nationalists socialists themes linked with pre-Colonial Hispanic motifs. As such, it was a style of art for the people and this idea, along with the political and cultural motivations initiated practices and strategies influential on the Brazilian graffiti scene.

[10] Urucum: a red pigment used my South American Indian tribes for religious ceremonies.

[11] See Chapter 3 for Dondi and Lee.

[12] This idea has been extensively examined by post-modern theory and is employed here as a cautionary reminder to the reader of the guised instability of this entire undertaking.

[13] The connecting of contemporary graffiti to these avant-garde practices can be found in many current texts on the subject. For example: Cedar Lewisohn’sStreet Art, The Graffiti Revolution or Ethel Seno’s Trespass, A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art.

[14] Several examples to consider here are Banksy’s The Rude Lord selling at auction at Sotheby’s London for £322,900.00 in 2007, two recent exhibitions mounted at MoMA and Tate Modern, the sharp since 2005 in the publications of large format books dedicated to the culture, and finally video games such as Jet Set Radio.

[15] For this see the film Exit Through the Gift Shop

[16] This is an explicit reference to the programs articulated by writers such as Foucault, Malraux, Benjamin, and Foster.