Often I’ve been engaged in the debate over what distinguishes a city from a metropolis. One of the distinguishing features that gives dense, urban areas their character is the abundance of graffiti.
The city is a yearbook, signed by its residents. Graffiti in Chinatown features dragons and pandas. In the Mission it’s styled around Aztec art. In Berkeley, it’s politically correct and in Oakland it’s revolutionary. The culture of the city is there on the walls, as much as it in the architecture itself.
Mexican graffiti in the Mission, political graffiti in Berkeley, Chinatown graffiti (with Banksy).
Graffiti is like the sand art of the Buddhists. No matter how elaborate the tag, the tagger knows that their creation is temporary. At worst it will be painted over the next day. At best, it will be worn away by weather and eventually covered by other taggers. I suspect that’s what drives the tagger to dizzying heights, clambering unto freeway signs to get that hard-to-erase spot.
But digital photography isn’t ephemeral. Photography captures moments into permanence, like a spider trapped in amber. It takes art that is seen as a nuisance and transforms it into a form that is socially acceptable. The tagger creates a work of art for free and is viewed as a criminal. I steal that art by photographing it and posting the photo, and in that context it is considered OK to admire the artist’s skill.
Most people notice murals that take up a whole building. But the sticker art, wheatpasting, and stencils often go unnoticed. I’ve seen beautiful art drawn on Priority Mail stickers, and I wonder how many people walk by it and don’t realize it’s there. I wonder how many do, but only on a subconscious, graffiti-is-bad level. And I wonder how long it took the artist to make it, and why they put it here of all places, and if this is a series and, if so, how similar it is to the other stickers they’ve made.
The sheer quantity of art on asphalt, street signs and sidewalks in the Bay Area is astounding. I’ve always been interested in it, but until I started photographing it I didn’t really see it. Now I notice when the newspaper stands at the MacArthur BART have new tags. I see the effects of political events, like Occupy Oakland and the Oscar Grant case, as voiced by anonymous taggers.
I love that graffiti is a voice for the voiceless, or anyone daring enough.
I love that graffiti is both named (in tag names) and entirely anonymous.
I love that taggers refuse to acknowledge that art can be a crime.
The graffiti tagger says “Look at me! I refuse to remain quiet! I will take back these empty walls, with or without your permission!” And most people walk on by. I photograph graffiti, to say, “Yes, I see you. Thank you.”