Spray It, Don't Say It: Graff at 40

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Until graffiti as we know it turned 30 (around 2000 or so), it seemed to evolve as fast as the kids in the streets would let it. Inner-city 10-year-olds writing their names on abandoned buildings after school begat whole subway cars begat an even higher succession of bridges, ledges, and billboards. Clumsy tags turned into bubble-lettered throw-ups and colorful pieces turned into flawless 3-D fonts turned into elaborately deconstructed letters. Spraypaint became spraypaint with fat caps and skinny caps, became rollers, scribers, mops, etch, and a hundred other inexpensive solutions for causing major damage. A small world watched writers move from ingénues (a.k.a. "toys") copying what they'd seen in Style Wars or on the streets or in 'zines to masters of their own individual styles–or at least masters of getting away with murder (itself an expression of style).

But in the last 10 years graffiti appears to have slowed down. Not the volume of graffiti–if anything, the fact that it's all over magazines, TV, clothing, and the legal wall of your favorite liquor store makes it more inescapable than ever. But to anyone other than the hardcore graffiti writer, it's hard to see much changing. Are writers now stuck in a feedback loop, endlessly perfecting and refining lettering styles that came of age in the '80s and '90s? Is innovation in materials limited to just developing ever more damaging ink or crazier colors of paint? And if every fifth 18-year-old in the U.S. is tagging, then why does so much of it look the same... and so shitty at that?

Um, maybe that's the point. "Things have separated so much between legal-and-pretty graffiti and ugly, street graffiti," says Dan Murphy, who chronicles the infancy of Philly graffiti in Public Wall Writing in Philadelphia, his new book with Tony Smyrski. "Now people are trying to make their graffiti look scrappy and rushed. There's this look that looks like vandalism and there's a look that looks like friendly graffiti. People now are way more about vandalism than they were, so maybe that's forward progress."

Since it's no longer uncommon for a casual tagger to become an artist with a gallery show–and as cities buff graffiti almost as soon as the paint's dry–graffiti purists are ever on the hunt for ways to make hard-won destruction obvious, and lasting. "The things Europeans do are totally insane," cites Murphy. "People are all into bringing their own ladders and night-vision goggles. These Germans are making spraypaint in silver and black designed to cover large areas really quickly; the black is made out of some tar stuff so it's hard to remove and it's obviously for covering a train quickly. And of course there's un-buffable, un-fadeable inks that work on nonporous surfaces like fiberglass or sheet metal."

Communication technology like texting and GPS has no doubt helped plot new spots, and there have been early suggestions that computer technology may one day abet street graffiti (Hektor, a graffiti robot created by Swiss programmers Jurg Lehni and Uli Franke comes to mind). Younger people also have more access to travel, making it ever more likely to see a graffiti writer from Copenhagen in San Francisco or a New Yorker in London. According to some, the availability of graffiti info in the mass media and on the internet makes kids get technically better faster, though they may lack points in essential departments like paying dues, racking [stealing], and humility.

"To me, the last great inventions were fire extinguisher tags, [which people started doing] like seven or eight years ago, and acid bath or etch. But I personally have not seen any great inventions in the last five years of graffiti," says Roger Gastman, one of the culture's most avid historians. "I like seeing people doing higher spots and more intricate stuff. I like seeing places where before someone might have been afraid to do a hollow throw-up on it, and now they're doing a whole full-color piece–stuff that's really in your face and it's baffling how it was pulled off."

As Gastman hints, even without access to high-tech materials, graffiti can always innovate in terms of risk. Now that penalties for getting caught include jail time more often than not, you could argue that continuing to do anything larger than a quick marker tag is a statement in and of itself (I won't.) Then there's London's Banksy, who takes the graffiti writer's traditional palette of skills and applies it to even grander expressions of "Fuck you." Ditto Barry "Twist" McGee, who's gotten the "art establishment" to pay to install overturned, tagged-up delivery trucks outside his shows and fund stories-high graffiti pieces on the sides of museum buildings in Cincinnati and Detroit.

It's a heated debate over whether graffiti in art galleries, books, and magazines is doing any good for a culture that has almost always been based around gaining fame, yet maintaining a certain anonymity. What is certain is that graffiti's widespread presence is inspiring more people to do it. There are so many kids doing graffiti that it's impossible to ever stop them all, and that number only increases each year. (Though graff writers have to go to greater lengths and break even their own rules to get noticed now.) Some say that street art (poster campaigns, stencils, stickers, wheatpastes)–"show-your-parents vandalism," as Murphy calls it–is evolving the culture. For graffiti's sake, I'll stay out of that argument.

At the end of the day, graffiti is a bit like skateboarding. It's so big, there are so many different people involved, and it's meaning is so individual, that it might be impossible to say what is innovative or lasting.

"It's for the youth to decide what it is and where it's going," concurs graffiti legend-turned-gallery legend Stephen "Espo" Powers. "The way I painted graf and the way I saw graffiti painted solved specific problems that were presented by surfaces and conditions; what they're doing today is meant to meet surfaces and conditions today. Right now, there's so much graffiti I hate but I think that's so natural. It's like my parents hating the music I'm into. But there are so many more innovations to be made. And for me graffiti is always the same. It's like rock 'n' roll–there's only three chords but there's always something new."

Thanks to Roger Gastman, Steve Grody, Sasha Jenkins, Dan Murphy, Jon Naar, and Steve Powers for providing insight for this piece.

Photos taken from Public Wall Writing in Philadelphia (softcover; Free News Projects, $20), The Birth of Graffiti (softcover; Prestel, $24.95), and Graffiti LA (hardcover; Abrams, $35).