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FADE graffiti with AA, WF, City Prez crews, SoHo (photo by author)

Unable to escape the idea of political protest while the shouts from Occupy Wall Street can be heard from my apartment in lower Manhattan, I have recently started thinking about other forms of activism beyond camping out in Zuccotti Park, particularly artistic protest. After happening on several graffiti statements by the writer FADE, I realized that graffiti may be one of the most long-lasting artistic and political protests. Occupying public space and asserting the power of the individual, every tag, throw-up, piece, statement or other form of graffiti is a true demonstration of individual expression.

An anarchic expression, the politics of graffiti art is important, particularly given our situation where much of the regulations in our society are being questioned. Often the messages out in the streets speak to what is happening in society. With more graffiti in New York now than in last couple years, protest, anger and rage is not just in Zuccotti Park but in the streets.

Uninterested in the politics of graffiti, aka whether graffiti is art or vandalism, I want to focus on how graffiti, which is normally outright rejected and commercialized, can express a true political power.

My interest in graffiti and politics started with spotting a sentence in Soho written by the graffiti writer FADE, a part of the AA, WF and TFO crews with legendary members such as MUTZ, JUST, 9 VOLT, TRES and TYKE. Reading “You Will FADE, Look To You,” the statement screamed from the wall to support yourself because everything, including you, will one day disappear. Recalling some of the statements by SAMO, the graffiti collective associated with and mostly attributed to renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, the sentence reads as a forceful and powerful call for self-empowerment.

With some Flickr research, I learned FADE, who I recognized from having an unthinkable, almost annoying amount of tags around every street corner in the city for more than 20 years, has been making similar graffiti statements for years. Not just writing slightly ominous statements, FADE, a graffiti writer through and through, can also be found writing about “smoking crack with my mom,” throw-ups with an “E” that looks like a huge penis and brightly colored pieces. Strongly worded and dangerously long, reflecting the belief in the statement’s meanings and importance to the public, some of the statements had been made with FADE’s graffiti partner ODIN, who recently passed away.

FADE, on Marianne Boesky Gallery, 2005 (via jakedobkin’s flickr)

These long sentences are obviously unusual for most taggers because they are a political, scary and almost iconic statement, which is why they caught my eye. Screaming out from the walls of places such as the Marianne Boesky Gallery and highways at the general public, these graffiti declarations reach passerby who may leave the block with something that will make them think, question, hate or act.

Scrawling political statements on public walls has been occurring for generations. Forty years ago and around the same time that tags were first hitting the streets of Philadelphia and New York, the Situationist International and other French protesters in May 1968 protests were writing political statements on the walls of Paris.

Mai 68 graffiti (via outsiderart.tumblr.com)

Sous les pavés, la plage,” which translates to “under the paving stones, the beach,” is graffiti from the French protesters that reflected the freedom that could be found under the constrictions of French society, which the protesters were attempting to overthrow. This same freedom was found in the act itself of putting that statement on the walls. You can see protests similar to these in all countries and at all times.

Political protests are not the only occasions of graffiti writers responding to their times.  In the 1970s and onward when graffiti was everywhere, graffiti artists often wrote messages, which often were political. From “SANE BLEW KOCH,” on the Marlboro billboard in Queens to long paragraphs on the subway trains, messages about holidays, wars, police and other, graffiti has responded to the times and projected it to the streets.

RD tag

Even the simplest, most visually offensive strain of graffiti, the tag, has an anarchic message. Usually dismissed as pure vandalism, a tag is a political statement against what we consider public property and its restrictive laws and the regulations of a normalizing society. Even though it is the graffiti writer’s name, the identity of the writer placed on a public wall almost inscribes that person’s presence onto that spot, declaring their right to be seen, heard and felt.

United We FADE (photo by author)

Often graffiti reflects the times we live in so then why are some old graffiti writers such as DCEE, RD, DART, PK, Easy and FIB coming back to write? I figure FADE must be in his mid-40s from the earliest tags I’ve seen. From the older graffiti vanguard to younger kids, graffiti has proliferated even with the riot gates being cleaned regularly. So why is this happening?

A political protest that has gone on for at least 50 years, longer if any scrawling on a wall is considered graffiti, graffiti is one of the most enduring acts of protest. Graffiti occupies the space of the walls and the streets. Whether its with messages such as “United We FADE,” or basic tags, graffiti takes back space from regulated society. Looks like along with protests coming back, we are going to see more graffiti in New York.

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Emily Colucci

Emily Colucci is a recently graduated NYU interdisciplinary Master's student with a focus on art history and gender/sexuality studies. Her interests lie in graffiti, street art and New York-based art from...

12 replies on “Occupying the Walls: Graffiti As Political Protest”

  1. I think this argument is getting out of hand on this article that was supposed to be a celebration of the power of graffiti.

    JD, I met a lot of graffiti writers through the Living Installations and I think his points are pretty valid.  These are good guys and he’s standing up for them. He’s not threatening you-he’s just a smart alec and a peaceful guy. We need to get more positive.  If you have a problem with graffiti, maybe we need to have a more useful discussion on it.

     Graffiti is an important art form. Lets talk about the article, my writing, political protest. I’m really proud of this article and I would love a discussion about its content or style.

  2. Note to everyone: all comments that are abusive will be removed. Play nice everyone.

    But I do think someone should be allowed to disagree with the thesis and express their dislike for graffiti if they choose, as long as there are no ad hominem attacks and nasty accusations.

  3. Note to everyone 2.0: Conversations, debates, arguments in the comments that get personal will be removed so we can make everyone comfortable to express their opinions in an open and safe setting.

    I really love debate about graffiti or street art (or any art really) but lets do so in a manner that is about the thesis in my article or in other articles.  Its an important subject that we should talk about and its also important to me as a writer that my writing be discussed rather than a personal argument.

  4. Great article! Graffiti is a useful form of political message. Go to any foreign country and you’ll see graffiti of this type everywhere. Should be an expression of free speech & protected by the first amendment. The message needs to be put out there for people to see and to unite in oneness for the common good of all people. FREEDOM!

  5. Try to view graffiti from the perspective of the innumerable property owners whose homes and businesses have been defaced by tags and then ask yourself if graffiti is really about rectifying society or selfish thrill-seeking.

    Romanticizing “street life” is so stale in light of the current situation in our country.  To fully address graffiti you must include property rights or you’re missing the fundamental issue.

    1. Capital and its state already ‘tries’ (very resolutely) to view graffiti from the perspective of private property owners.  Why is it the responsibility of Emily or any other writer on the topic to supplement or even sympathize with that particular perspective?

      I agree that graffiti needs to be put in the context of property rights, privatization of commons, increasingly austere public policies, etc.

      Marx, in talking at the end of vol I of Capital about a new society, addresses something that seems to be dear to your heart:

      “This is the negation of the negation [not only ending what is, but establishing something totally new in its place].  It does not reestablish private property, but it does indeed establish individual property on the basis of the achievements of the capitalist era: namely, cooperation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labor itself.”

      Until then, I will defend the actions of individuals who spray their discontent (whether finely articulated or totally inchoate) on structures that are claimed by others who amass enough value (unpaid labor) to exchange for the imprimatur of this brutal and suicidal system.

  6. It’s interesting and quite telling to witness the uproar that even conversation about graffiti instigates. As the mother of a convicted felon on graffiti charges, I’m familiar with the many sides of the argument. My son’s probation officer commented to me the frustration she feels when court hearings for violent crimes in our city go unacknowledged by the community, but people show up in numbers to the hearings for graffiti writers – an example of what many citizens’ values truly are; materialism reigns over public safety. Obviously graffiti is wrong – legally. Whether it’s wrong morally is an issue that will never be resolved, but the fact that it excites people to the degree that it does is a testament to its power as social commentary, which is one of the functions of art. Graf artists themselves are comfortable with the fact that their medium is multi-faceted – it is vandalism, it is art; it is ugly, it is beautiful; it is pointless, it is vital. A more interesting conversation than whether the writers are criminals or artists is why do we need to distinguish?And what is it about our society that makes their simple actions so inflammatory?  

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