Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Graffiti and the Unpopular or Intolerant Sentiment

Gonos, George, Virginia Mulkern, and Nicholas Poushinsky.  “Anonymous Expression:  A Structuralist View of Graffiti.”  The Journal of American Folklore 89.351 (1976):  40-48.  Print.  
This article presents research into the content of bathroom graffiti in a variety of contexts.  The authors collected graffiti examples from universities, high schools and public locations.  They specifically examined the occurrence of these stall scrawls that contained racist or homophobic language.  Their findings suggest that this anonymous form “serves a special expressive need for some of its users” (47). 
They demonstrate that graffiti on these specific topics is more commonly present in contexts wherein the social norm is intolerant of public displays of these offensive types of language.  They explain that during times when racism and homophobia were considered accepted by the majority, there was no need to express these sentiments in an anonymous medium.  
The authors acknowledge that their research provides only a glimpse into the complexity of the issue of these special expressive occasions and only examines the occurrences in select contexts.  They suggest that to create better understanding of this issue they would need to continue this type of study as society values and acceptance continue to evolve.
This article gives a unique look into the exigence of graffiti.  It clearly demonstrates that at least one motive for graffiti writing is to give individuals an avenue to express the unpopular or unheard opinion.  Unfortunately, this article, like many others, focuses on graffiti used for unflattering purposes.  Since one of my interests is in re-imagining how we talk about graffiti work, I chafe at this article’s emphasis upon these graffiti writers with negative messages.  However, it does make me ask an important question:  what types of graffiti occur during times of uniform tolerance of a oppressive concept?  are positive graffiti instances always a sign that something negative is occurring in society at large?  Overall, I think this article gives me a firm starting place from which I can continue to explore the exigences that motivate graffiti writing.  
Recently in one women’s bathroom stall at the college where I teach numerous graffiti scrawlings have appeared over a short period of time.   Their appearance has been the subject of a number of office discussions about graffiti and the need to control it.  What interests me about these discussions (which I have yet not participated in) is that I have not heard anyone address the fact that the expressions are largely of a positive nature, including quotes by Eleanor Roosevelt, for example. I wonder what the exigence for this positive expression might be, but more so, I wonder what is implied in the desire to censor positive messages.  It seems that McLuhan is right in these contexts:  the medium is the message.  The content is overlooked as a result of the form.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Roundtable Presentation Handout

To access my handout for today's English 821 roundtable presentation, click the image below.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Texts in the City--a clever title. See what she did there?

Carrington, Victoria. “I write, Therefore I am: Texts in the City.” Visual Communication 8.4 (2009): 409-425.

The piece explores the means in which graffiti texts are linked to key issues in contemporary urban life as well as how these texts create narratives about communities and places where they reside. To make her argument, Carrington first briefly overviews the history of graffiti. She acknowledges the fact that while graffiti is often seen as a sign of “urban decay and a youth culture spiraling out of control” (411) this form of expression actually dates back to a least the Roman Empire (which is why I think I will order the disks of Rome from Netflix, watch them and call it “research”—thanks, Kevin! ☺). Her point in addressing the roots of graffiti is to indicate the way texts have always been used as an urban message system.

Next, she addresses the multiple genres that fall under the umbrella term. She then explores different types of “tags” (calligraphic vs. “throw ups”) and the more all-encompassing term of “street art,” which includes expressions that are stencil or sticker-based, or include street furniture or other types of urban fixtures.

Drawing on comments from graffiti artists and scholars, she paints a picture of how graffiti operates within the city. Carrington demonstrates how graffiti is unwelcome and contested and how those qualities are what make it useful to study. Through examining graffiti we can raise important questions about private/public space and identity. For example, she quotes an interview with graffiti artist Swoon who addresses the complexity of public versus private space when she says “I want to be a part of the town center that I live in” (417). While she belongs to the space, the space does not belong to her. How can this be? Swoon also points to her work as a response to commercial expressions in the city. She hopes to create something that, unlike advertising, does not ask for something in return (417).

The way in which Carrington constructs graffiti paints it not as urban decay, but rather an artifact “of a DIY narrative” (420). This construction is, in part, a result of the way in which she uses the phrase “I write, therefore I am” to explain how graffitists write themselves into existence.

Thus, her argument demonstrates the cultural value of graffiti—in helping urban citizens to construct identity and navigate the contested spaces they inhabit. One particularly valuable piece of her argument is in the way she constructs graffiti in a positive light. Commentaries that continue to focus on the illegal quality of graffiti are short-sighted in their ability to fully address graffiti as a text. I think it’s important to understanding the role of graffiti in studies of composition and rhetoric to understand graffiti as a text that happens to be illegal, rather than an illegal text that resembles text. When we look at graffiti in the later sense, it seems that it is more difficult to access it as a rhetorical practice.