Graffiti creativity

Graffiti is… what?

“Graffiti is a creative art form.”
“Graffiti is destructive vandalism.”
“Graffiti is gang-related.”
“Graffiti is about individual expression.”

Which of these statements is true? The reality is one, some, all or none, depending on which particular graffiti you’re talking about. Yes, there’s a lot that’s just territory marking, but there’s also work that is individual, creative, clever, political, challenging… graffiti is a fascinating social art form, even with the anti-social aspects. And okay yes, there are many examples that are anti-social, that can’t be ignored.

Last June the Guardian wrote about a graffiti artist known as Tox who was convicted of criminal damage thanks to his prolific tagging. He had spent years putting his mark up in as many places as he could, before claiming he was giving it up in 2005. His defence was that other artists started to use his tag, but this summer a court found him guilty on a number of counts of graffiti vandalism. It is hard to make concrete judgements based on such a small and simple mark, but there are definite gesture-based similarities between his tags from before 2005 and many of the later ones – not to mention CCTV pictures apparently of him in action. It seems clear what he did. Mind you, the 27 month sentence he received was pretty stiff. The article is at bit.ly/toxconviction, and there’s a fair bit more that turns up elsewhere with a simple search.

At the other end of the acceptability spectrum the biggest, best-known and possibly the most universally respected graffiti location has to be the Berlin Wall. Much of the wall has been destroyed since the unification, but there are still large stretches standing. On Mühlenstrasse one of the biggest has work by many different well-known artists on one side and a constantly cycling array of everything from large designs to tiny scribbled ‘I was here’-style signatures. What’s particularly impressive about all this is how the major artworks on what used to be the East Berlin side of the wall are left alone. Many of these aren’t really what everyone would consider graffiti, but they’re part of the whole spectrum of this kind of art.

As an art form and graphic technique ‘graffiti style’ is very popular. It clearly isn’t suitable for many things of course; the average wedding invitation, official forms, the Olympic logo… oops, never mind.

There are many different graffiti-style typefaces, and the free selection at bit.ly/fulltimeartists is a great starting point. But remember that there’s more to graffiti than setting some fractured or bubble writing; if you want to be convincing you’ll need to get deeper into the style, or consider commissioning the real deal from someone who does it already.

Most graffiti artists do it for personal satisfaction, but some also make money from their work in various ways. Banksy, of course, is a respected artist whose work sells for astonishing prices. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt once paid more than $400,000 for a handful of Banksy items! Despite its simplicity (and probably largely because of his notoriety) Tox has sold copies of his tag in gilt frames for over £1000, and other graffiti artists use eBay and take custom commissions. I recently bought some graff’ed-up empty spray cans from a full-time graffiti artist known as Hoakser. There’s interesting stuff on his gallery at hoakser.com and a timelapse video of him at work at bit.ly/hoakservideo.

If you want to get a better understanding of graffiti one place to start is the language. Not all the words you’ll find in online guides are really that widely used for real, if at all. For example, ‘giraffiti’ for work done high up is one to view with suspicion, but there are others that are more believable and widespread.

Like most regular graphic designers, serious graffiti artists generally have a sketchbook, often called a ‘black book’, that they use to plan and develop artwork ideas. Obviously, this is a very personal item that could land them in major trouble if found by police, so this is normally guarded carefully. Good planning and execution of complex designs takes creative development, so original work is highly regarded. Conversely, ripping off (or ‘biting’) ideas from another artist is frowned on, and it is seen as the mark of an unskilled, new artist. (These newbies are known as ‘toys’, allegedly short for ‘tag over your shit’, in reference to them often not having respect for others’ work.)

The graffiti art itself has different names according to its level of complexity, with three key levels. At the first level there’s the tag, a basic signing, which is really nothing more than leaving your mark or signature. Sometimes they’re used to identify larger graffiti works, other times they’re just used as ways to mark as many different places as possible. Tags are almost always a single colour, and sometimes they’re ‘one-liners’, done in one continuous, unbroken stroke from start to end.

Throw-ups are a little more complex, often a combination of outlines (bubble, block or otherwise) and a fairly basic fill. Much of the time these are relatively unvarying, another form of identifying stamp for others to see. There’s a graffiti style called dub that’s said to be representative of London, or at least the UK. These are quick throw-ups filled with silver, with black shells and white highlight accents. I’ve no idea how London or even UK-specific these really are, but I have seen this look many, many times here in the capital. Funnily enough, much of Hoakser’s graffiti work on his empty spray cans use this style.

Finally there are pieces, a terms that’s abbreviated from ‘masterpiece’. These are the complex, rich graphics that use colours, gradients, 3D-effect shapes and various other styles and techniques. Pieces will often take significant time and effort, so they’re less likely to be done in very visible locations. Well, not unless they’re officially santioned in some way, which means the artist won’t have to worry about dropping and running part-way through the task.

The careful planning and unsantioned execution of complex designs is said to be less common now, as the artists generally have less time to complete things before security or police arrive. In that Guardian article about Tox, Ben Flynne, once a major graffiti ‘king’, said that, compared with the time he used to spend putting up pieces, today’s artists have so little time to work that ‘they are not going to spend their time in their bedrooms developing intricate graffiti’. If this is true – and it seems likely – it means that the various measures used to cut down on graffiti are reducing the more creative pieces and pushing practitioners towards the uglier, simpler tagging. So how bad is graffiti in general, and how wrong are the more complex and considered pieces? I know it is a biased viewpoint but I’m going to let Banksy have the last word:

“Graffiti writers are not real villains. I am reminded of this by real villains who consider the idea of breaking in some place, not stealing anything and then leaving behind a painting of your name in 4ft-high letters the most retarded thing they ever heard of.”

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