In Other Words

Revolution in a Can

Graffiti is as American as apple pie, but much easier to export.


The worst moment in the history of graffiti came during what was also its heyday, in the early 1980s in New York. That was when mainstream culture adopted graffiti as something called "art." A counterculture medium that had, at least for a bare moment, been about communication and empowerment became saddled with the oldest high-culture clichés. Graffiti came to be about "personal style," "aesthetic innovation," and "artistic self-expression"; about looking good and catching the eye; about stylistic influence and the creation of a self-conscious visual tradition. That left it perfectly positioned to be co-opted by consumerist culture. You could say that the grand murals of graffiti art, known to their makers as "pieces" — short for "masterpieces," another hoary cliché — were a kind of stand-in for missing advertising billboards, made by artists from neighborhoods that had been left out of Calvin Klein’s underwear ad buy. It was only by chance that those murals had no commodity to sell — until they realized they could sell themselves, as that high-end good called art.

Then, by way of contrast, think about graffiti as it appears to us around the world today, in places where painting on a wall is about speaking truth to power. The Arab Spring was marked by spray-painted taunts to dictators, and Haiti’s chaos led to impassioned scrawls. A crackdown against anti-regime graffiti in the town of Daraa was even the inspiration this year for Syria’s tank-defying protest movement. In many of these cases, the artfulness of the graffiti takes a distant second place to what someone is actually trying to say. "Free doom — Get out Hamad," reads one spray-painted text from Bahrain. During the rebellion in Libya, "Freedom=Aljazeera" written on a wall makes the value of a free press perfectly clear; on another wall, the simple tracing of an AK-47 is enough to invoke an entire ethos of rebellion. In Guatemala City, stenciled portraits of the "disappeared" of Guatemala’s long civil war, with the Spanish words for "Where are they?" written below, stand as eloquent witness to one of the country’s most crucial concerns. (The portrait style is loosely derived from the British street artist Banksy.)

In all these cases, graffiti is being used as a true means of communication rather than as purely aesthetic exchange. These 21st-century scrawls leapfrog back to a prehistory of graffiti, when wall writing was mostly about voicing forbidden thoughts in public. And they take us back to the first years of graffiti in New York, when some members of the underclass declared their incontrovertible presence by "tagging" every square inch of the city as they transgressed the normal boundaries set by class and race. As German scholar Diedrich Diederichsen has written, "graffiti was a form of cultural and artistic production that was illegible from the dominant cultural perspective." When some of those same taggers realized that they could also make "pieces" that would count as something called "art," they began quickly buying into the values of the mainstream they’d once confronted.

By now, grand graffiti gestures are as tired as could be, at least in the context of the Western art world. But across the rest of the planet, the static language of the American "piece" has moved on to a second life as the visual lingua franca of genuine political speech. The most elaborate images from Egypt, Libya, and Haiti today look very much like the 1980s paint jobs on New York subway cars and warehouse facades, and yet their point is not to function as art but to work as carriers of content and opinion. In Managua, the swooping letters developed for New York graffiti spell out the initials of the Sandinista party. In the Palestinian West Bank, a big-eyed figure you’d expect to see decorating a wall in Los Angeles wears a keffiyeh and proclaims a longing for a "free Palestine," as the text beside him says, in English.

It’s not clear whether the use of English in so much of this wall-painting represents a desire to speak to Western eyes or whether English has simply become the standard idiom for political protest, even of the local variety. (It could be that the two are almost the same.) But it does seem clear that the stylistic clichés of graffiti in the West — the huge loopy letters, the exaggerated shadows dropped behind a word — have become an international language that can be read almost transparently, for the content those clichés transmit. Look at New York-style graffiti letters spelling "Free Libya" on a wall in Benghazi or proclaiming "revolution" in Tahrir Square: Rather than aiming at a new aesthetic effect, they take advantage of an old one that’s so well-known it barely registers.

That thing called "art" in the West is essentially an insider’s game, thrilling to play but without much purchase on the larger reality outside. We have to look at societies that are truly in crisis to be reminded that images — even images we have sometimes counted as art — can be used for much more than game-playing. In a strange reversal, the closer graffiti comes to being an empty visual commodity in the West, the better it serves the needs of the rest of the world’s peoples, who eagerly adopt it to speak about their most pressing concerns. It is as though Coca-Cola, as it spread across the globe, turned out to be a great nutritional drink.

Blake Gopnik writes about art for Newsweek and its website,