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.