Graffiti Research by All Weather Artist Rik Cheetham



"When people tell me they like graffiti, I like to ask

 What does graffiti look like?"


Graffiti is a public format in which art can be presented. As we might say “to paint on glass”, or “work on a stretched cotton canvas”; the word graffiti refers only to the surface on which the work is created and is not a descriptive definition of art upon it.


Graffiti is a way in which an artist can open a channel of communication which would not otherwise be achieved by a ‘non public’ format.


To answer ‘what does graffiti look like?’ would be as difficult as answering what does art look like? Graffiti is continually adapting in form and content.  As graffiti is often the voice of the people, the best response might be to ask ‘where do you come from?’. The content of graffiti would then be representative of the people, culture, society, and language.


Throughout history, people have made their mark on their surroundings with graffiti, before there was possession or ownership within the environment there was no such thing as graffiti. These markings would then have  claimed possession of a territory within the environment, served as a way of reflecting culture, letting others know your views or allegiances, otherwise they may let others know who you are, or where you had been. Historically graffiti would have been largely pictorial, writing is a fairly recent privilege granted to the non-ruling classes.


By looking at writing as a visual form of communication we can understand why it is so commonly applied as graffiti. The fact writing can convey direct, very precise information, makes it perfect to communicate abstract concepts such as personality, feelings , and emotions with a simple visual representation. Making it the most effective form to apply in the public format. The relationship between Graffiti and writing is the communicative values of both application and form. Graffiti is a way to communicate in public, its function is to be seen, writing is a direct method of precise visual communication, it is written to be read.


Written language projects precise information. The simplest function writing has is that it is created for the viewer to read. By separating the content conveyed by the written words, an individual piece of writing can also carry many physical features identifying the writer. The intent or manner in which that piece was created (emotion). The process is undertaken in regards to the direction of stroke and pressure applied. Its aesthetic characteristics are all enhanced via placement and under the conditions which being unpermitted imparts onto the act of production and the message within.


However, in the second half of the twentieth century, written graffiti changed. Identity became more prevalent in Graffiti. The communicative aim of a statement took second place to a name, no longer political views or open social commentary.


The concept of writing names in public places is seen historically with phrases such as “Kilroy was here” spread by the GIs in the second World war (Ref); “Bird Lives” after the death of Saxophonist, Charlie Parker. But these are not the identities of the individual writing the name but are representative of a ‘fan base’ who all write that name. Writing names is also seen in gang culture, where members claim a territory by writing the name of the gang in key locations. Its function is simply marking territories just as tribes might have done. The cultural influence of the art involved in gangs would be that which exists in the gang members or communities in which they live and operate. The general application of gang graffiti is demonstrating power. It says this is our street, block, neighborhood or city. There is little advantage for gangs to engage in graffiti. Graffiti does not make money alone, it only secures a public space and recognition in which to make money and tells others who dominates that area.


For an individual applying an identity as graffiti, it is simply making your mark within the environment; it is a way of taking possession or personalizing a space in which you are interacting each day. Comparable to being in a room or a cell, it is human nature to want to decorate that space, have a feeling of some personal input or even to label it as your own. By using an  identity, pseudonym or an alter-ego -the name chosen and the style applied projects character and personality becoming a representation of the artist and their individual cultural influences.


A graffiti writer has pride in the name they choose to write in public. When style, artistic content or expressive values are applied to writing it steps into the realms of art; calligraphy, lettering or typographic arts.


The most modern cultural movement to embrace and further calligraphic and letter based art was Hip Hop, which used a new tool with which to communicate through stylised writing; location, the public eye. Graffiti.


Modern change  in security and surveillance means the more complex and elaborate artistic forms of lettering which developed as graffiti in the late Seventies and early Eighties, are now generally only seen in secluded locations away from open public view. Those which are commissioned or permitted as public art in a modern sense are no longer graffiti, but the culture of writing your name with style is still alive and well.


The circumstances of graffiti being an unpermitted format means as modern security technology has developed, the artistic properties of the writing applied as graffiti have needed to adapt to suit quick production and restricted opportunity.


As such graffiti writers have manipulated calligraphic forms of letters, which are exclusive to the modern graffiti format. By making full use of the continuous, uninterrupted stroke, created by aerosol paint or marker pen, without the need to refresh a brush it is possible to form a large letter (or sequence of letters), with an enclosed surface area, like that of rounded, bubble lettering, in a single, dense stroke. The development of a consistent style and the repetitive movements required to produce a large, closed form in a matter of seconds is often unrecognized as being a sophisticated discipline requiring skill and practice. Similar arts have been practiced for many centuries by calligraphers using a variety of tools without the condition of being unpermitted to influence the form. The modern written arts which have adapted in form and media solely to meet the aims of graffiti are not often appreciated  for their calligraphic skill  and as such not catered for within public or private spaces as art.


From the simplest scrawl to the most decorative or sophisticated lettering, graffiti as a format and writing as a form of art, share the purpose of direct communication.


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