By Crispin Sartwell

At this point, graffiti is a traditional art, like country music, or like Shaker-style furniture. Generations of writers have moved through the style, rediscovering traditional elements and pushing them ahead. It's possible to have a retro style, or a futuristic style. And at this point too, graffiti has been absorbed and eliminated by the high art world many times: displayed in galleries and museums, then pushed back onto the train. And it has also been appropriated by the advertising world and absorbed into legal urban mural-painting. Surprisingly, though, it retains the power to offend and it continues to be defined in part by its anti-authoritarianism.

I wrote about graffiti a couple of weeks ago for the Los Angeles Times. I defended it in this way. Think about the appearance of advertising in public places. It's everywhere, and though sometimes it's clever or subtle or artistic, more often it's puerile and stupid and it hurts the eye. If you have money, you can put up your tag everywhere, all the time, in all media, from the billboard to the vehicle to the pop-up ad, from buses and buildings to television screens and magazines, from public parks to huge skyscrapers shaped like your logo. Money brings with it an absolute right to convey your message and your name and your image to everyone, to completely dominate space of all kinds. This is an effect, we might say, of capitalism: cash rules everything in this motherfucker; it brings with it an effective control of public discourse. Speech is free in the sense that it is more or less protected by the Constitution; it is not free in the sense that it costs money.

So graffiti is a medium of public expression for people who don't have the money or the proclivity to advertise. It's an equalization of expression in public contexts, a seizure of space for non-corporate, non-governmental messages. It's free speech in every sense of the term. It's also a demonstration as clear as any could be that "public" space: parks, highways, public transportation vehicles, etc etc are in fact state-owned spaces. You can't use them without permission of the authorities, though they are often enough peddled to advertisers.

You would not believe the reaction I got to this piece. People actually dug up my phone number and called me at home. I got dozens of emails. And every single one of them went like this: tell me where you live and I'll come paint all over your house. You don't understand basic property rights. Graffiti is gang-related, sheer vandalism and defacement. It brings a city down to the primal tribal level. It's unhygienic. The people who do it are animals, said one correspondent, while others implied much the same. Don't I understand that I'm condoning criminal activity? That makes me a criminal too. I ought to be arrested, etc. Now I wouldn't have thought that graffiti still had this kind of power to rouse people who identify with the authorities. But it's good that it does.

Really, think for a moment about who are the vandals, the taggers, the lovers of ugliness. Out where I live in rural PA, they've recently added a McDonald's, an Arby's, a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, etc. The corporate logos appear on signs along 83. There are huge signs everywhere. The buildings themselves - cheap, depressing architecture - started with the removal of trees, proceeded to the digging of huge pits, eventuated in rectangular concrete bunkers that dominate the landscape. The idea that the people who do this sort of thing, or even people who tolerate it, would turn around and call real art defacement and vandalism of these same structures is not even ironic. It's sick. All over America, police are protecting concrete abutments, shattered warehouses, and filthy freight trains, not to mention advertising itself, from the original, personal, at times brilliant expression and perfect craft of real artists.

Actually, I hope we're beyond having an argument about whether graffiti is art. That was a reasonable argument twenty years ago or more, when people, including writers themselves, were trying to make a case. But now graffiti is art history as well as a living medium. Obviously art of various kinds has been illegal. Modernism was essentially banned by the Nazis as "decadent" and "Jewish." You could lose your life for it. And there are plenty of examples along those lines from all over the world; various regimes ban various forms of art, and set something official in their place. One might think of socialist realism, for example, and the banning of constructivism in revolutionary Russia. Or one might think more closely of wall posters in China, etc: direct expressions of dissidence. It's always legal, however, to erect huge statues of the dictator of the moment; think of all those huge Saddams. And I daresay if you wanted to make a colossal Bush, you could find funding.

It's worth thinking about how much the art history that we have is the history of the art sanctioned and funded by the authorities. So much of Western art history, for example, is the history of the arts of the Catholic church: art paid for and pre-approved by a priesthood. That, of course, is why if you take an art history survey course you end up with an endless procession of crucifixions and virgins. Many of these are works of genius, from Giotto's Arena chapel to the Sistine ceiling to the sculptures of Bernini, and so on. But it is also true that the strictures that gave rise to these images - the money available for their production and the punishments inflicted on those who made other sorts of things - had an obviously impoverishing effect on the art that emerged out of them. You've got to be satisfied with formal solutions to a set of problems that were produced by dogmas and bureaucracies. As the graff writer Dmitri Wright says, "Many art forms, which are sanctioned, forget their roots. When you go to the museum and look at the masterpieces you have to realize that a lot of people were oppressed in order for that form to take place."

I'm certain that through all this history there ran a little note of subversion. The paintings of Caravaggio are an example; he was always working on the very edge of what the Catholic church could tolerate. But I'm betting that people throughout this history were also producing illegal art. They were defacing the approved forms, or scrawling subversive messages, or secretly in the black of night doing blasphemous easel paintings and selling them illegally. I don't know how much of this history of illegal art could be recovered. Not much, maybe, and that is itself a tribute to the power of authoritarian structures to shape not only the visual environment, but the understanding of themselves by later historians. The history of the arts brought into being by the Vatican and the Inquisition, or by Imperial Rome, have been written over and over; it is maybe now time to try to write the history of the arts that have been painted over, the history of art crimes, though obviously piecing it together would be difficult. It seems obvious that criminal art has always been less finished, less beautifully composed and wrought than official art. But no doubt it has been bolder and more sincere. Maybe we can't write that history. But at least we are writing the history of the arts that are being painted over right now, the arts that aren't funded by state grants, or that end you up in jail.

The term "artistic freedom" is, I think, widely misused these days. There was outrage in the late eighties when a bunch of avant-garde artists got their NEA grants rescinded or got kicked out of mega-museums because of political pressure applied by Jesse Helms and others. But first of all, that sort of thing is just what you ought to expect in the realm of state patronage and the realm of large art institutions. In fact, I could say this: it's actually wrong for taxpayers to be made to pay for art that offends them, and Helms's political pressure was not only something that should be expected; it was right. Why is a North Carolina farmer paying to display images of Robert Mapplethorpe with a whip up his ass? But the artist and a lot of the arts community cried censorship. Well, OK, let's have the argument. But there's all the difference in the world between being disappointed in your expectation of state funding and actually being expunged by state programs. Witholding your grant is one thing; spending millions to eradicate your art is something else. And indeed, being part of the basic avant-garde artworld - even on its cutting or subversive edge is one thing, and actually doing artcrimes is another. The one is a subversion that has been approved by the authorities; the other is a subversion that the authorities still obviously find dangerous. I wonder how your average excellent tagger regards the idea that someone is being repressed because the government isn't paying them. Get out there and find a way to do what you want.

Let me tell you what art is. Art is process. Or, to give you a more official definition, a work of art is the product of a process engaged in for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of the product. Art is immersion in making; a work of art is the product of an immersion in making. The various forms of art are defined by the processes they involve. Painting is the process of applying pigment to a surface, for example, and if you engage in the process with devotion to the process itself, if you are absorbed in the process of applying pigment to a surface, then what you're painting is art. If you want to know whether something is art, and, if so, what sort of art it is, then you have to focus on the process that leads up to what you see.

So if we want to understand graffiti, we have to understand the processes that lead to it. Here are a few of the fundamental features: graffiti is made largely by people without a whole lot of money for supplies. Spraypaint is the medium because it's fairly cheap or shopliftable (which gets harder and harder and hence presents more and more of a challenge). And spraypaint is the medium also because you can create large and visible forms quickly, which is obviously desirable when your point is to be seen and when the cops might be coming. Really, if you want to understand the medium of graffiti, you have to start with its illegality. It's not too much to say that crime is medium of graffiti. Now of course some "graffiti art" is legal, and people hire graffiti artists to do murals or vehicles. Many of the best graffiti artists do legal walls, and get paid for doing them. And I personally don't begrudge this at all. For one thing, kids grow up, and they get married and have children, and they have to make some money. Not only that, but legal walls are better for preserving the styles, since they won't be expunged by anti-vandalism squads. Furthermore, you can spend as much time as you want, and really do something amazing. Fine. But every good writer started by tagging neighborhoods, trains, or walking bus routes in the middle of the night with a backpack full of cans. That's how they learned their trade, and that's how a great majority of writers work today as well.

The process of making art illegally has got to be particularly absorbing. It involves concealment, sneaking around in the dark while avoiding the authorities: in short, the medium is risk, whereas so much art involves no real risk. Graffiti is of necessity an adventure. It involves running, infiltration, escape. To say that such things provide the opportunity for immersion in process is an understatement. They fill your art with shots of adrenalin, and even people calmly looking at your art get a reflection of the rush that must happened when it was made. There's precious little art being made today, after a hundred and fifty years of the relentless avant-garde, that still yields any frisson. Go masturbate in a gallery and people will just yawn. But put up a huge piece over a billboard or in an apparently inaccessible spot on a bridge, and people will react with anger or wonder or amusement or admiration. Street art still retains something like innocence: it's not quite riddled with the decadence and overwhelming self-consciousness of the legit art world.

Now if the medium is spraypaint, the basic form is the signature: lettering and hand writing one's own name, usually a name that one gave oneself, a persona invented specifically for graffiti. So one names oneself and then repeats this name to infinity, everywhere, all the time. It's first of all an act of self-invention through making: you create yourself as the legend that did all these tags and has this name. Then you express and asserts that self in the art; the art is the signature of that self, often taken to almost unbelievable sophistication and elaboration, the letters turned and twisted and run onto each other and inverted and rendered over into pictoricity and so riddled with symbology that they are at once incredibly dense semiotic artifacts and are well-nigh impossible to read. Graffiti has taken the personal signature and made it into a whole series of traditions and innovations, of self-effacements and self-assertions. And, we might add, collaborations, as crews and collectives cover surfaces, or as the living keep alive the tags of the dead, as Smith with his brother Sane, for example. It's hard maybe for someone who has lived a privileged life to understand the centrality of self-assertion that you find in hip hop MCs and in taggers. I include myself in this. I am actually looking for ways to divest myself of authority, not to sink into egomania, to act like a nice low-key guy. But self-assertion of various kinds is obviously one of the wellsprings of the arts, and painting your signature all over everything is a kind of primordial act of expression: basic, fundamental, but also capable of taking on the results of consummate craft.

Because of course what these folks learn to do with spraypaint is really astounding, comparable to the most skilled imaginable work in any of the arts or crafts. So that graffiti, along with its illegality, has the absorbing qualities of any medium: there is no upper limit to the skill that can be cultivated; the medium, like all mediums, keeps beckoning one on toward mastery, and past it. Graffiti first of all shows that there's something fundamental about the artistic impulse: you may be too broke to go to art school, but you can't really be too broke to make art. You may not really be able, or you may not want, to make art that is approved by the authorities, displayed in galleries, worth money etc. But you can still make art, and some people are really driven to. And furthermore, you can still make great art. ESPO says, "Anything that reflects somebody trying to solve a problem with very limited means at their disposal, but they're making it happen . . . that's graffiti in a nutshell. That's the kid with three cans of spray paint trying to make something beautiful happen. That's somebody with no money and a few supplies going out and making art happen."

Graffiti, furthermore, is temporal in a way that is basically contradicted by the practices of preservation in the fine art world. You've got to expect your work to be removed by the authorities or overpainted by other artists, or simply to weather away. The amazing art of Navajo sand painting is a similar case: the painting is destroyed in the ceremony for which it is made. Such practices have the effect of a relentless emphasis on process; you can't be aiming at an eternally available work that can be displayed and absorbed through the generations. The work is a work of and for this moment, a work whose point is that it was made, and how it was made, and why it was made rather than in the arrangement of lines itself. Graffiti, we might say, is its own reward, and that in germ is the ideal condition of all the arts.

And the medium of graffiti, we might point out, does not stand outside the cultures that produce and eradicate it. It is related to all the popular arts of the twentieth century in myriad ways. Obviously, for example, it is influenced by the lettering and lettering effects (KA-BLAM) of comic books, which many graff writers cite as their fundamental influence. As the graffiti writer EZO says, "At the beginning, I looked at art in comic books. I mean everybody from 1950 on...that's how we learned, from comic books and television. That's our art school in this country, because we don't have a formal art school to go to. You've got to be a rich kid from somewhere to have that. If you're not, your art teacher will be Jack Kirby or Hanna-Barbera." Stephen Powers writes about BLADE: "Blade took the concept {piece] and used it not only to bring his imagination to life, but to depict his life and times [on subway trains]. Blade drew extensively from the pop culture that surrounded him. First and foremost the music, from Motown to Black Sabbath. . . . TV shows like Welcome Back Kotter and The Gong Show, kitschy artifacts like the "Pete Pisstolini" doll, or corporate logos like Burger King and Ronald McDonald all came to the party Blade was hosting. . . . The trains Blade painted told the story of the 70s through the eyes of a Black youth."

And the relation of text and image - image as text and text as image - is close to the comics, and close also to many developments in the fine arts in the twentieth century. And of course it has also been absorbed back into these worlds. Fine art lives on popular art as it were vampirically: the blood of the marginal keeps the art world half alive. You can see this with comics in Lichtenstein's art, for example. But this appropriation, though it may be a bit dangerous for the spirits of all concerned, is also understandable and even laudable: the fine arts are plundering living visual culture for everything that has power, and of course their images gain real power by doing so. The last straw of such activity, I guess, is graffiti artists who've migrated into the corporate world and designed logos, etc, but even this is both a tribute to the power of their art and also a way to make a really good logo.

Graffiti is joined to hip hop at the hip and arose with it in New York and Philadelphia. It represents many of the same impulses and techniques visually that hip hop represents in sound. The idea of using pre-recorded tracks and rapping over them (a technique that originates in Jamaica) is a cheap and relatively simple way to make music: analogous to spraypaint. And the rapper repeating his name and bragging on his abilities and threatening his enemies in crews: all of that is analogous to the tag. Graffiti and hip hop both grew out of regional or even neighborhood styles, but as hip hop was disseminated in tapes and vinyl, graffiti has been disseminated through painting trains and now, especially, through the internet (try And so both hip hop and graffiti have become truly international styles, and you can see Bronx or Queens-style graffiti in Barcelona, Amsterdam, Sao Paolo, Mexico City, Tokyo, Ulan Bator, Johannesburg etc etc. Indeed, it is certainly one of the few truly vital aspects of international visual style, as hip hop is of audible style. Both are now multi-racial, multi-cultural, and also connected to their sources.

You can make art that connects with people and that people find relevant to their lives, and just as important, you can make art that pisses people off or that they will repress. Art can still, thank God, be subversive, or unapproved. The squalor of some graffiti is itself a commentary on the squalor of the sites where it appears, though it invariably adds visual interest to its sites. Even a disorganized wall showing the traces of many artists over a period of many years has a certain effect of profusion and the display of the history of styles. Sites that have been painted over or scrubbed and then re-written can also have such an effect, as a display of persistence and a capturing of the illegality and boldness central to the form. The quick though stylized scrawl shows the determination of the artist to "get up," and is often suited to particularly dangerous, vulnerable, or observable sites. Such tags are perhaps the basis of the classical styles of graffiti: the bubble letters, the style of lettering with markers, and so on. And these styles are in turn used in more serious pieces or returned to in a neo-classical quest for purity or the essence of the form.

And then of course there are the real masterpieces of the form: walls on which a crew has lavished all its time and creativity and its best paint. These often combine the image and the signature in ingenious ways, and often display characters, drawn or signed, inhabiting a shattered urban environment. They are always commentaries on the site as well as commentaries on the relation of the writers to the site and to the urban environment they inhabit.

The last thing I want to say is this. There are a lot of ways to make revolution, to attack authority. The arts are not, perhaps the most effective in terms of their actual effects on hierarchies: no tag, no matter how good, is really going to disturb Dick Cheney's grip on political and economic power. But the arts are the most joyful, flowing, and creative sites of revolutionary activity. Graffiti is real; graffiti is enjoyable to make and to see; graffiti is persistent and it changes the world.