Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Writing on the Walls

Graffiti has meant many things to many people. For some, it's taking a Sharpie to a school desk to write a diss to a classmate; it's going down alleys at night to tag garage doors and dumpsters; it's throwing up gang signs on corner stores, painting freight trains, marking up the insides of city buses and trains. For many it's art, for others it's a public nuisance. Infused in graffiti -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly -- is an upheaval of the confines of capitalist property relations, replaced with the creation by regular people of a more democratic forum to express feelings and ideas of all sorts. Not only did graf provide a space where people could speak freely, it made people accountable to what they said. If someone talked shit, they best believe they need to back that up. For the hip-hop generation, graffiti has represented a striving to make free speech an activity, not just a dead symbol.

This takes on many manifestations. Writers bombing the A train in NYC in the 70s and 80s found graffiti an optimal medium for sending shout outs and messages to friends in neighborhoods that segregation, gangs, and poverty wouldn't let them cross into. Taggers hitting the Red line have used graffiti to earn a sense of fame and greatness that is otherwise denied in the day to day alienation of Chicago's southside. Artists in Atlanta find a national platform for their creativity when they paint the old CSX freights that pummel through the city to destinations around the country. No expensive art classes, no easels, no costly paints -- graffiti has been the megaphone for working class youth, and all they need is a can of spray paint and a blank surface (and sometimes not even that).

With time, graffiti has developed into a skilled and specialized art form, finding a captive audience in bourgie art galleries in gentrified neighborhoods. Yet another tendency still exists, still struggles outside the galleries and away from yuppies marveling at the "inner city mind." Graffiti persists as today's soapbox for those who are otherwise told to sit down and shut up.

It's an international soapbox at that, as shown by headlines in the last year about the rise of graffiti among U.S. soldiers in Iraq (with signs from U.S.-based street gangs alongside racist signs from members of neo-Nazi groups). It's also been used by the occupation forces and the Iraqi government, who have commissioned artists for "beautification projects" painting over blast walls that protect military compounds, government buildings, and the likes. As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war passes, we thought this might be a good opportunity to highlight graffiti from a different angle -- looking at graffiti that celebrates the courageous resistance in Iraq, Palestine and around the globe.

While mainstream press outlets would have us believe that Iraqis either support the U.S. occupation or are "terrorists" and "fundamentalists", the writing on the walls of Iraq and throughout the Middle East demonstrates a much larger variety of political debate, opposition and resistance. One reporter discusses a list kept by an older Iraqi man of all the graffiti he came across in Baghdad. Some of the highlights from his list:

"Raise your head, you are an Iraqi!"
"Saddam is a Pimp, Ask your Sister!"
"Turkey and Iran are a split turd"

On an international scale, there have been numerous pieces thrown up as artists and everyday people alike respond to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One site contained a few of the images included above, which are from Gaza City where graf writers created a series of pieces in a gesture of solidarity with the people of Iraq. Banksy, self-dubbed the "art terrorist", adorned the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank with a series of images that sent a poetic message.

There's an interesting story about Banksy's work on the Wall. In an interview on British television, Banksy described how a Palestinian man saw him putting up the stencils on the wall and yelled at him to stop. The old man said, "We hate this wall. You are making it beautiful. Go away!" I suppose the man saw the irony of someone adding a touch of beauty to such a repugnant symbol of apartheid, rather than bulldozing that muthaf***a to the ground.