Digital Graffiti for the Lulz

Bedridden as I’ve been with pain, I’m stuck with a view of my cluttered room to my right and apartment buildings directly in front and to the right.  The buildings to the right, however, have been augmented with graffiti.  Most of it is written in white spray paint: initials, names, the bubble- and jagged-letter signatures of writers who somehow managed to reach these heights or write upside down.  The building owners probably think of it as an eyesore, but I think it’s a gorgeous way .  The writing, the positioning, and the size and style reveal aesthetic and political choices.  Why these buildings?  Why these locations?  Why predominantly names?

Is it enough of an answer to say that my neighborhood has been a prime location for gentrification?  That young people actively resent the closing of local mom-and-pop shops and what they perceive as the irrevocable alteration of quintessential Harlem?  That the chosen placement of the tags heightens their visibility?

tl;dr, ITT I attempt to forge my scattered brain cells into a single unit capable of cogent thought, thereby relate graffiti and graffiti-writing practices as a metaphor for online defacement, and consider the ramifications of such an analogy.

Graffiti, the term preferred by writers instead of damage-oriented labels like “defacement” or “vandalism,” is hotly contested as an art form.  Its practices are variable: it may range from spray-painted messages on subway cars to the inscription of initials or names under the eaves of roofs to sprawling murals in tunnels, on billboards, doorways, dumpsters.  It carries political connotations, whether at the micro-level of street or tagging crews or at the macro-level of global social and political affairs.  The subculture is fairly closed and appears to be dominated by men, and as such can be read as a means of building masculinity, demonstrating independence from familial and social norms, and rising from “nobodyness” to “somebodyness”—obtaining a reputation within the subculture while retaining an unimportant NORP identity outside of it (MacDonald, 2003).  Ultimately, however, the mainstream public largely views graffiti from a capitalistic standpoint: as vandalism or defacement of property, devaluation of that and surrounding properties, and a sign of the corruption of youth.

Inb4 vandalism is bad, defacement is a form of ownership through reclamation.  Most of us are guilty of this dating back to grade school, when we hacked our initials into our desks, drew inside our textbooks, wrote in permanent marker on the paint-slathered brick  walls, or messaged back and forth with unknown participants on the walls of bathroom stalls.  (Incidentally, I once mutually identified and communicated with a /b/tard in the student body at a university where I taught.)  These defacements weren’t about intentionally engaging in criminal activity, though that might have been in the backs of our minds.  I think it was primarily about proving one’s bravery, creating a reputation, and going outside of the carefully regimented social systems we were all crammed into starting in childhood.  Anyone could write on a desk with a pencil, but were you bold enough to carve in your initials?  To use a paint-pen on the classroom wall?  A permanent marker on a dry-erase board?

I’ll confess.  I hacked a hole in my kindergarten desk.  I broke my scissors doing so.  In grade school, a long-ago time when I was still innocent, I modified others’ drawings of penises, transforming balls into eyeballs and adding toothy grins underneath.  I might have known then that I was destined for /b/.  But this was mitigated by the usual stars, hearts, dragons, stick-figure horses that became winged unicorns that then breathed fire, shot rainbows from their eyes, and pooped strings all over the desks.  As a professor, I looked over all the desks in my classrooms at the beginning and end of the semester to see how they evolved.  Usually genitalia emerged, or flowers, sometimes intricate ninjas, cartoon characters, ornamented with expletives and messages to (unknown?) students in other classes.  I carry around a gold paint marker, just in case.  In the class where I served as TA last year, one of the assignments involved carrying around a marker for potential interaction with your environment.  In short: are you willing to cross the line?  If so, what do you write?  Where do you write it?  What is your form of culture jamming?

Ultimately, these defacements coalesced within a collaborative, mostly anonymous art system, a sort of physical precursor to online systems like moot’s latest project Canv.as.  They allowed interaction with and ownership of our environments, as well as subtle resistance to controlling, nomizing systems.  This is not just defacement, vandalism, damage to property.  It is “a subversive act, a conscious artistic expression with a revolutionary purpose: using guerilla tactics to control your own networks of communication” (MacDonald, 2003).

There are exceptions to the “graffiti as defacement” attitude, albeit ones problematic to the subculture.  The “artworld” so reviled by Duchamp has recognized some artistic merit in the art itself while mostly ignoring the artwork’s location.  Artists like Banksy, the pseudonymous British graffiti writer whose work serves as social and political commentary, produces stencil work that fetches thousands of dollars at Sotheby’s and other auctions (where the art is bought on location and the problem of removal is left to the buyer’s discretion).  Banksy himself noted that only morons would buy this shit, and little if any mention is made of how the work would be changed if it were transferred from a London archway to a canvas in a buyer’s living room.

The monetary success of Banksy’s work resulted in “the Banksy effect,” whereby the artworld began to take interest in street artists, hoping for similar successes.  Cafes and bars use graffiti as a form of artwork in their bathrooms or along corridor walls, presenting collages of penciled, penned, and painted names and imagery.  A few years ago, the Brooklyn Museum showcased graffiti artists who deployed their spray paint on canvas as opposed to public and private property.  The work was interesting but lacked the liveliness and depth it might have had on the moving canvas of a subway car, or left stationary on the base of a public art piece or train station pillar.  The day I attended, the spectators were neatly divided between upper-crust gallery-goers and groups of high-schoolers.  Both groups were critical of the show, with the denizens of the artworld decrying, “This isn’t art,” and the high-schoolers proclaiming, “The hell?  This ain’t graffiti.”

It was.  And it wasn’t.

What it comes down to is execution and placement.  Meatspace graffiti, to coin a term, differs in that its forms are specific to its writers, whether done in stencil or free-form.  Anyone can “do” graffiti, so to speak, but not everyone can be a graffiti artist versed in its particular coda of practices.  Graffiti concerns the challenge of placement; the relationship of placement and inscription; the relationship of the spectator to that particular inscription in its particular setting; and the closed-access nature of a given tag, which imbues practitioners with a sense of superiority and community.  These aspects impact the authenticity and value of graffiti writing to practitioners, and as such graffiti resists incorporation into the artworld.  Works by “recognized” artists like Banksy, despite his pseudonymity, are deemed acceptable by property owners due to their elite status.  Works by street crews or graffiti writers/teams are not recognized and therefore eyesores, vandalism, defacement, damage to public property.

The apartment buildings outside my window predominantly display names, whether of individuals or teams, with which I can’t identify.  The same goes for the rooftops near 125th Street, where Columbia bought up property to expand its campus.  Large, sprawling letters that spell out names, often so stylized it requires repeat viewings to correctly parse the words.  According to MacDonald (2003), graffiti writers encourage outsiders’ ignorance, as “the establishment of fixed groupings is based on access to specific knowledge—knowledge not shared by those outside the group in question” (p. 154).  The distance created by this knowledge exclusivizes practitioners and allows them to feel superior and bonded.  They clearly position me as an outsider with no way in, as “graffiti relays a writer’s name, an insignificance to someone who is not involved.  Writers, however, gain a lot” (p. 160).

The “world apart” of digital defacement is perhaps less closed than meatspace graffiti in that knowledge is based on signifier and not practice.  Where graffiti writers bond over execution and tags are often impenetrable to outsiders, online hacktivist groups like LulzSec and Anonymous deface websites with imagery and slogans that are recognizable to non-participating spectators embedded in Internet culture.  BlackBerg Security taunted LulzSec to hack their website, offering $10K reward and a job opportunity.  This was the result:

I argue that online defacement, much like graffiti writing, is premised on self-vocalization, reclamation of a shared environment, and the challenge of placement.  It’s about building a reputation, proving oneself, and constructing community.  In online environments, as in meatspace, the images used in tagging allow for the collectivization of a group.  Unlike meatspace graffiti, however, digital graffiti is less closed to outsiders in that non-participating spectators with insider knowledge may still recognize a given group’s signature—the monocled, top-hatted gentleman above—as well as communal words like “lulz” in “DONE, THAT WAS EASY.  KEEP YOUR MONEY WE DO IT FOR THE LULZ.”  The message to spectators is this: regardless of whether or not you are able to code your freedom, you are still an insider based on access to specific shared knowledge.  You are as much a part of this as the practitioners themselves in that you can screen-capture, preserve, disseminate, re-tweet, and further these guerilla tactics meant to control your networks of communication.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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