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Free «Iconographical Examinations of Graffiti Art in a Cross-Cultural Context» Essay Sample

Communication through art is a phenomenon that is common across different cultural setups in the world. Most of the artistic tools used by artists including music, drawings, and paintings, among others have received acceptance in the societies and even accolades on international stages. However, one area that is not well understood and readily acceptable is the art of graffiti which uses almost any plain open spaces to pass messages through writings, drawings , and any other form of communication.  The disdain for graffiti as a form of art emanates primarily from the way the presumed artist vandalize public areas by inscribing what they know best; artwork on open places. However, different cultures view this form of art differently and in some places, it is an offense punishable by law for engaging in graffiti.[1] Many local governments in the cities have enacted laws that prohibit would-be graffiti artists from defacing the walls of the city with graffiti work. There are a couple of other cities which do not have such laws to illegalize the work of graffitis thus begging the question of how cross-cultural attaches varied iconographical examination of graffiti work.[2] This paper will examine ways in which the iconographical approach has been applied to understand the meanings of street art in various cities. Often, it is the cultural and political implications behind the work that differentiates street art as a formal art form, as opposed to a perception of it as mere graffiti, vandalism, or tagging. These understandings have significant political and social implications for each location, but these meanings also evolve with time and take on new representations. The pros, cons, and limitations of this approach will be discussed.



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Despite the important role that graffiti plays in the society as an informative and creative way of expressing opinions, it has been identified as one of the controversial forms of art in many cultures. The graffiti artists view graffiti as a form of art worthy nurturing while governments and property owners view it as vandalism because they use a lot of money to clean up the taggers put on the walls. Each of these antagonistic groups can justify their view of graffiti depending on the interpretation and cultural value that graffiti plays in the society. At the base of the argument by graffiti artists is the argument that graffiti is a way of self expression that depicts different problems existing in the society. However, as noted by Phillips,[3] property owners and government authorities have not fully understood the concepts that inspire graffiti in the first place. As much as graffiti artists view it as a way of expressing their views with regard to particular issues affecting the society, the property owners and police would rather label the activity as a criminal act that results in the huge losses. Phillips, however, does not agree with this observation and notes that, "Graffiti are cross-cultural phenomena common to every literate society. Within the variable contexts of their production, graffiti personalize de-personalize space, construct landscapes of identity, make public space into private space, and act as promoters of ethnic unity as well as diversity”.[4] In early development stages of graffiti as a form of art, it was common for graffiti artists to use pictures as forms of communication instead of spoken words to pass their concerns to the society at large. One of the common features in graffiti arts is the use of contrasting almost ironing pictures to express their views about a society. For instance, it is common for graffiti artists to have pictures that depict both love and hatred or violence. The ultimate purpose is to communicate to the society that its culture is inverted in the sense that people hate one another when love is supposed to be the epitome of social development. The essence of graffiti work according to Phillips is to act as a voice that expresses the feelings and vision for a perverted world, whatever perversion means to the graffiti artist. An outstanding feature is that graffiti works a voice of the common people cuts across cultural and generational priorities highlighting the moral values, needs and wants of a particular society.[5]

The social approach to graffiti works has been evident in the proliferation of street art. As much as graffiti artists are young, almost juvenile people, it is noted that most of them would strategically choose places to tag their graffiti. This has raised the concern from the property owners because some of the targeted places indeed would not qualify as place for graffiti if the artists were majorly concerned with communicating their feelings and opinions to the public. A suggestion by those who oppose graffiti is that graffiti artists are criminals who are out to deface and vandalize mostly private properties with a malicious intention of causing losses to the owners of the property. This argument implies that some section of the society do not really get to appreciate the messages which are expressed through graffiti work so longer as the pictures are painted at a wrong place without the permission of the property owner. Graffiti artist on the other hand tend to think that property owners would love to have the colorful pictures and the complex designs on their walls as attention catching elements to their businesses. Even as the government continues with the crackdown on the graffiti artists, it is agreeable that that form of art is evolving faster than the authorities can catch up. Some graffiti artists are known to have put up complex and colorful pictures on the walls which would take a normal artist a whole year to paint in as short time as overnight.[6]

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Understanding the Meaning of Graffiti

According to Bates & Martin[7] the art of graffiti is as old as civilization itself and in countries like America where different communities with varied cultural practices are found, graffiti has for a long time been used as a tool of communicating to the people in the society. Bates & Martin further argue that the most public medium in the United States and indeed in many cultures around the world is graffiti art which is found in the most unlikely places such as toilets, building walls, street walks, among many other places to communicate the message of love, liberation, human rights, or even territorial awareness. Street art has been used in different cultures to communicate messages in social, economic, and political matters. In a cultural setup that appreciates the work of artist who is communicating constructive messages to the society in which they leave street art is taken as formal practice which is appreciated by the authority and the residents of the city. Nevertheless, crackdown for artists who engage in graffiti has become a common phenomenon in many cities around the world.[8] An explanation to this might be the fact that artists have become more radical in their messages critiquing the functional units in the society such as the local authority or even the national governments on matters that they feel it is not performing well. As a way of silencing them, city authorities contact a crackdown and those who are captured are taken to court and charged with criminal offenses of defacing the city walls. It is evident that the anti-graffiti programs have tremendously reduced the amount of graffitis seen on the walls in some cities to the point of killing the practice. Still, the practice survives in some of the areas where the authority cannot reach and those who are still doing graffiti art have even become more radical in their messages. As noted by Bates & Martin[9], it is almost impossible to have a completely graffiti-free society because the elements that define a culture or a society are themselves inherently founded on the concept of graffiti. In this case, graffiti as a form of art is also evolving to adjust to the new demands and restrictions such as street comedians who are now resorting to spoken words to caricature and satirize the society in which they leave. In a different manner, they are still practicing graffiti through propaganda even though they are not using paints and brushes to do this.[10] Clearly, the society will need to look for ways to incorporate graffiti artists in the society without being seen as people who want to kill the once vibrant art in earlier days. The current efforts directed against street art emanates from the fact that the society does not really understand the important role they play in passing messages and information to the people. This is seen in the often association of graffiti with a group of individuals often labeled as gangs with spray paint cans whose work is to tag street signs and artwork on the walls of city buildings. The focus is thus directed on the walls or open plain places in cities forgetting that street art is also manifested in other forms like comedy, dance and song, and acrobatic events organized in some strategic places in the city.  For instance, in Boston city, a series of stickers is found in the Northern area of the city depicting simple black and white female figure in different poses. The artist infrequently incorporates additional color figures, such as speckle slug-like creatures and flowers.  Notably, the distinguishing features used in the stickers in Boston apart from the graffiti itself are the writings that accompany the drawings dotting many of the walls in the Northern area of the city.[11]

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Street arts and graffiti can be compared with other places where artifacts are kept such as in museums. This comparison does not come out clearly especially with the continued association of graffiti with criminals and a lack of well structured environment where graffiti artists could communicate their messages without defacing the environment. According to Gross & Gross, unlike other form of artistic expression, street Art is a form of popular public art that is not confined into galleries nor easily collected.[12] It is a tool of communication through presenting dissenting views and expression of social, economic, and political concerns. It is also an expression of emotions of love, grief, discontentment, hatred, or disproval that sections of the society especially young people who are not employed have towards their fellow constituents in the city where they leave. Kemp states that unlike many forms of art street art is mostly seen as a form of vandalism as many artists who paint do so without permission.[13] Furthermore, many artists who practice graffiti do not consider themselves as street artists who consider city walls as their working environment. Whereas museums are housed in particular building that are well known and managed by organized institutions such as a governmental institution, graffiti in its very nature is migratory in nature which makes its audience wide and scattered. Notably, graffiti and street art have embraced technological tools in the recent times more than museums as many street artists are now found on the internet thus reaches a wider audience. Kemp states that street art uses current imagery and styles and deals with more current issues than museums. Unlike museums street art collects and circulate materials that are easily recognizable across all culture.  This highlights the deeper connection that graffiti and street art have with the cultural perspectives of the society the art is being practiced. This also explains the reasons why some cities have higher incidences of graffiti compared to others with similar characteristics. Street art act as a major connecting factor for different disciplinary and institutional jurisdictions that rarely interact with the public.

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Additionally, Kemp states that whereas museums have just on the recent past gone out to meet the audience through exhibitions and promotions, graffiti and street art have operated on the philosophy of material confrontation with their audience from wherever they are located while participating in a global and networked culture.[14] Street art is a global movement fuelled by technology. Bojorquez considers street art as a form of art that belong to a contemporary world although itself it has been around since the advent of civilization.[15] It appeals more than museums to youthful and young generation. Artists in street art operate through many media and arenas. Ganz observes that street art is appealable with the youth because of its historical consideration as being a form of rebellion which defies cultures from within.[16] Whereas museums may be dedicated to a certain theme or subject, street art exposes people of all social class and all political opinions. This enables for a clear view point to be expressed in a mainstream way. On the whole Ganz agrees that street art is not necessary a form of educating society but rather a way through which youth are able to express their creativity and art. It is a genre with diversified views and wide-range intentions.

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The cultural connection between graffiti and the artist is an expression of the inherent desires by artists to unconsciously preserve their culture through art. Most of the people who practice street art and graffiti do not benefit financially from their work, yet they find of money to buy expensive paints and tools to accomplish their fascination with street art. Many of them are poor young homeless people who view graffiti as a way of expressing their sentiments to the society while offering an entertaining scene along the streets in their cities. As argued by Epstein[17], graffiti has an in extricate link with the political and social changes that the society yearns for. The connection is always played out on the walls of buildings in streets and public toilet places where people express their opinions without feeling that they are infringing on anyone’s rights. More often, street artist coalesce together to form a street gang which shares common interests and even common predicament and tend to hold a similar affirmation with regard to human rights, social life, and economic and political conditions prevailing in their city of country. It is a way of redefining the social and political views held by people in a given society. As noted by Chaffee, street art and graffiti is simply a cryptic and senseless art to some outsiders.[18] Chaffee notes that graffiti and street art are resourceful and creative solution to the disenfranchisement felt by those who produce them.

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As a form of art, graffiti has a unique role to play in shaping the development of cities especially where residents of such cities want to actively participate in the social and political development. This role encompasses political and cultural development of cities that ate largely cosmopolitan. The symbolic power of museums and street art rest in their ability to shape opinion on issues, provide historical information in an educative and entertaining manner. However there is need for museums to change the old perception that they are simply collections of old religious material. As it been established graffiti and street art plays a unique role because it appeals to the youth besides its use of technology in passing its messages. Furthermore, street art has not yet attained it potential of informing as most street artists are still considered vandals with their unconventional method of communicating.[19]

The continued resentment towards graffiti is caused by the increasing cases of crimes and reduction of property value. Furthermore, graffiti artists have always been associated with criminal gangs who always form groupings around places with graffiti drawings.[20] It is normal for gangs to have names which they use as a sign off after vandalizing the property thus prompting other gangs to embark of vandalism as a way of outperforming the other gang. In the end, it is a process of not much informing the public on the important issues but a rivalry between vandal groups. There is a direct relationship between the increasing number of gangs and the amount of graffiti witnessed on the walls in public and even private places. As noted bySchatz, “left unchecked, graffiti breeds crime, erodes community confidence, and substantially reduces property values”.[21] The situation is even made worse by the fact that tagging of pictures on walls has sometimes resulted in fights between the gangs over spaces especially when one group feels that the other has invaded their territory. The rivalry between gangs is escalated on the ground that each want to be seen as addressing the problems that concerns the society more than the other. In some neighborhoods, graffiti defines the landscape and people no longer feel safe or secure living in the neighborhood. The situation is so bad that it is not possible to walk after dark has set in because groups of people are loitering around looking for spaces to put up their graffiti. The proliferation of graffiti artists in some neighborhood has led to people moving from that area thus helping the graffiteers to have conviction that that area is under their control. Graffiti can also cause much expense to the public authority trying to repaint public places which are normally defaced with vulgar and sometimes offending messages. For instance, the city of San Francisco spends millions of dollar to get rid of the graffiti designs that were put on almost empty places around the city. Generally, graffiti is harmful to the cultural and social development of a city because a lot of time and money is used in controlling the activity which would otherwise go into other activities like providing education and improving the living conditions of the people in the city.


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