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Graffiti Theory

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When art historians gather, they discourse on old schools and new schools, critics and canons, originality and plagiarism, purity and commercialism. Such academic concerns are usually out of place at an alternative space like the Randolph Street Gallery. But the recent assembly there of historians, artists, and apprentices was not typical.

"The Hip Hop Phenomenon in Chicago" was a panel discussion tied to the gallery's current exhibit, "The Graffiti Show: A Hip Hop Phenomenon." Considering that this underground art movement faces legal persecution on a daily basis, there was a surprising preoccupation among the panelists with legitimacy and tradition.

Stylistic differences from city to city and decade to decade were traced and debated at length. The Beastie Boys were both resented and revered. Masters and "toys" (beginners) bonded. A black man wearing a cap with a Krylon paint logo swapped cop-evasion tips with a white teenager who wore his baseball hat backwards. Uttered manifestos urged hip-hoppers to jump ship from the mainstream and return to underground roots. There was shoptalk on copyrights and contracts.

One rapper and tagger in a white painter's cap repeatedly announced his readiness to sign a new recording deal while denouncing CTA ploys to domesticate graffiti writers with art-school scholarships and legal spray zones. "Sounds like the CTA and graffiti writers chilling together," he said, shaking his head. "What is this? I'm not going to kick back with a conductor--'How do ya like my piece.'"

Rapper Ang 13, one of the panelists, was obsessed with who did what first and best, and did it for real and not for cash or fashion. And who got credit for it. "When Ronald McDonald starts rapping, I want to quit," she said.

The deconstruction of the baggypants fad was simplified by the revelation that incompetent shoplifters have been gauging sizes incorrectly.

A panelist named DJ 33 1/3 said little except, "More than half the records I play at a party I can't stand." In the spirit of Jerry Brown and Ross Perot, though, he gave out his phone number in case anyone had a gig.

Although most people refer to the Chicago Transit Authority by its initials, external-affairs officer Constance Mortell personalized the agency--which has more than 13,000 employees--as "Bob and I." She explained that she and CTA boss Robert Belcaster worked together in real estate development until last year.

"Bob and I" are determined to keep graffiti off trains and buses, she said, and she announced plans to sponsor graffiti contests on legal walls. "Bob and I are both interested in art." She admitted, though, that in her tastes she's "certainly as middle-aged as anyone my age."

"Obviously my experience is in the 60s," she said, mentioning antiwar marches and looking for a link between her experiences and theirs. Ang 13, who could find no tie between hippies and hip hop, mocked Mortell about "burning your bra and putting flowers in your hair."

"One of the things we are oppressed by is structuralism," reported a kid in the front row with a rainbow dyed in his hair. "We can learn from history. The hippies lost."

"If most of the culture only sees you as a problem, how is that going to convey the spiritual energy of your movement? " asked Mortell, before excusing herself--"If I don't get home my husband will kill me."

Another woman said she used to distribute Black Panther newspapers on the CTA in 1968. She showed up to try to figure out her teenage nephew's infatuation with hip-hop culture.

Graffiti's visual and formal qualities concerned another woman. She worried that the writer's impulse to break the law "disrespects the art." But although graffiti is an act of iconoclasm, there are some artists who specialize in "fill-ins"--careful coloring within black outlines, as in a coloring book.

One woman in the audience found graffiti "fascinating" but couldn't figure it out, admitting she was "a middle-class person." Another audience member asked her if she understood abstract art. She said she did, adding, "I've taken art history courses."

"I went to the Art Institute of Chicago because they sent some free tickets to our school," recalled one artist in the audience. "And we're walking past this 16th- or 17th-century stuff and I saw this Pablo Picasso painting there"--he struck a pose to illustrate his point--"a piece of cardboard with his dick hanging out! You guys understand that and you can't understand words? A burner? A scratch across the window?

Someone else tried an archaeological analogy "Hieroglyphics are tags and tags are hieroglyphics."

It's the schools' fault, argued one participant. "People on trains don't understand tags because they didn't have good art-appreciation classes....They were not taught to respect that form of expression."

Panelist L.P. Raven said the schools are already playing their part, turning doodlers ("bored out of their minds') into taggers.

One youth mouthed a line of liberal sociology, claiming he's no vandal--he's a victim of depersonalizing social forces. "That's just the way we're brought up in our society," he said. Scratching his name on bus windows and marking up el cars is how he achieves "fame" in his circle. "Fame is a form of respect, instead of respect being respect."

Taggers see the CTA as a channel for circulating their names to millions. But the average rider is seldom in the mood to acknowledge a plea for a seat, let alone a cryptic cry for respect from a kid with a paint can.

Traditionalists in the audience were nostalgic for the mid-80s, when artists worked on "pieces" instead of just leaving unreadably stylized initials or nicknames. Pieces could be signed as works of art, while tags are nothing but signatures. They signify an identity, not an ideology.

Of course, the only audience capable of decoding the markings are other mark makers--making them an insular, avant-garde subculture. So like a lot of abstract art, graffiti is appreciated by insiders and antagonizes outsiders. Like expressionism, graffiti is impulsive, its practitioners no less articulate than Jackson Pollock.

"The dominant value of society is property," said L.P. Raven.

"Property causes the problem that causes graffitti." Kids who own nothing stake a claim by signing windows and walls, seats and stations. These "resistance writers" don't subscribe to the go-to-jail school of civil disobedience; their petty crimes are anonymous.

The problem of property is everywhere. The back room of the gallery, set aside for graffitists to add their own art to the Graffiti Show, is filled from floor to ceiling. One unsigned message reads: "'RAFA' STOP STEELIN STYLES BY YOU KNOW WHO!!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.

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