Essays

Occupying the Walls: Graffiti As Political Protest

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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