Graffiti in the Wild

Text by Tony Coles

As well as writing about technology and video games, Tony Coles was a part-time graffiti artist from 1987 until he (mostly) retired from the field in 1999. He traces the changing outlines of spraycan art since the 1990s, when graffiti rode the same wave to global ubiquity as hip hop. As photography and social media have made it ever easier to share work, graffiti writers have responded in widely different ways – from more elaborate pieces on “legal” walls to the pared-down anti-aesthetic of Ignorant Style.

Graffiti is one of the most beguiling disciplines to emerge from hip hop culture. Fuelled by adolescent egotism, resistance to authority and competitive drive, graffiti colonised the world alongside the rest of hip hop, even tracking rap’s ongoing commercialisation with its own superstars, literature and purchasable artefacts. It’s a subculture based on transgression, but also on documenting that transgression with photography. What is intriguing is the feedback loop created by graffiti’s obsession with recording itself – in a very real sense, the photographic archive accumulated over the last 40 years has changed the art as much as chronicled it.

It started with a single film and a single book. Style Wars (1983) and its paper companion Subway Art (1984) provided a catalogue that travelled the world, establishing the visual parameters of graffiti for an entire generation. Both were documenting the end of an era for subway trains as rolling galleries. Permanence could no longer be assured, so photography served to preserve the work, in portfolios that included far more pieces than could be found in the streets. A second book, Spraycan Art (1987), explored the global adoption of the New York practices featured in Subway Art and Style Wars. As the phenomenon spread, the community it created also developed a thriving culture of folk photography. This became as integral to the lifestyle as acquiring paint: soon there was an international network of graffiti writers constantly swapping pictures of their work and that of others. With just 24 exposures on the average roll of film, these photographers had to be selective in what they captured.

There has always been a curious tension between graffiti’s two fundamental measures of achievement, style and coverage. While repetition is essential for gaining fame, execution used to be crucial in earning greater respect. To spray something everywhere takes fearless commitment, but to do it in style requires artistry and talent. The tighter curation film photography demands helped keep the two in balance, particularly as small-run print magazines such as Graphotism, 12 Ounce Prophet and On The Run began to emerge in the 1990s. Commercial magazines welcomed submissions to fill their pages, but they also had standards: while every now and then some lesser piece would gain entry for its astonishingly precarious or dangerous location, the main currency was stylistic excellence.

The 1990s were a decade of immense change for graffiti. Along with the rise of magazines came the arrival of widespread CCTV and rapid-response cleaning crews: both had a huge impact on graffiti in the wild. In many city centres, CCTV pushed traditional street graffiti back into murky alleys and secluded doorways. In response, stickering rose to prominence: stickers could be created at home en masse and then stuck to a surface in the time it takes to get a pen or spraycan ready to go. Ardent taggers embarked on an arms race with the authorities: they developed a kind of underground alchemy of ink, using special mixtures designed to stain and resist cleaning methods. At the same time, magazines had helped speed up the commercialisation of graffiti culture. There was now a market for coffee-table books showcasing the most elaborate murals, which were increasingly painted legally on pre-arranged walls. This new, more respectable strain coincided with the appearance of a specialist spray-paint manufacturer from Barcelona. Montana began releasing colours and formulations specifically for graffiti and was the dominant supplier by the end of the century, with several lesser companies following in its wake. Montana spectacularly expanded the palette for graffiti and soon magazines were filled with spectacular (or garish) colour combinations. For the hardcore stylist, this explosion cut both ways; the new equipment served to mask sloppy typography as well as enhancing its best examples. Montana’s legitimate business also legitimised graffiti in some quarters – with funding from the company, Graphotism turned into a large-format book in the 2000s, and thereafter began devoting more and more pages to legal “graffiti jams”, also sponsored by Montana and other paint firms. Near the end of its life, Graphotism was almost entirely dedicated to documenting legal work. This meant giving space to the finest graffiti styles in the world, which, while perfectly within Graphotism’s remit, also tended to intimidate new and aspiring writers.

As rap reached its commercialised peak, graffiti too had developed a thriving supplier industry, with dedicated media channels. The graffiti writers of the late ’90s enjoyed some novel privileges. They could buy specialised paint in bulk. They could study a plethora of magazines, and could in turn gain worldwide recognition in those same publications by documenting their progress in the wild. Still, this generation needed to put its own stamp on the culture and, with European writers now as numerous and influential as their US counterparts, a new style developed – Euro Style. It was brash and colourful, but stylistically naive and nothing like the dynamic, intricate forms Style Wars had introduced to the world. Where classic ’80s pieces evoked convoluted geometrical machinery or predatory teeth and claws, Euro Style was soft and rounded. Where the old school prized skill in replicating chrome metal effects and painterly textures, Euro Style celebrated the abstract and the bold. One thing was clear: the new style was easier to learn. The parameters were broader and the difference between master craftsman and sloppy amateur was accordingly less obvious. Quite why Euro Style developed this way is impossible to discern, but it seems logical that after repeated exposure to the accomplishments of veteran writers who’d been working for a decade, the new artists may have been keen to find an easier route to fame.

Amid the stencils of Banksy and the adoption of street art as a legitimate discipline in the 2000s, Euro Style fed into today’s Ignorant Style. A deliberately anarchic anti-art that refuses to acknowledge any of graffiti’s historical sensibilities, it is steadfastly committed to looking as amateurish as possible. Fans insist there is skill behind the apparent naivete, but compared with the high bar one must clear to gain recognition in classic graffiti, it is debatable whether Ignorant Style has any barriers to entry at all. It seems possible that the general switch from film to digital photography played some role in the shift, as mobile phones made everyone an eyewitness documentarian. Certainly, when the process of photographing things becomes trivial and constraints on the number of images that can be captured vanish, it must have some impact on subcultures that propagate through imagery – and few were more dependent on images than graffiti.

The most infamous graffiti writer in London in the early 2000s was TOX, a hardline “bomber” with a talent for exploration. Style had no bearing on his work – it was purely about repetition. Three letters, everywhere. He became so fluent at navigating the labyrinth of London’s tube network that he could place his name in dark corners where even seasoned staff couldn’t get to it. Above ground, his tag flashed by somewhere on every train journey, cementing an “all city” status that very few writers ever achieve. Even today, TOX tags post-scripted “03” can be found, marking a decade of presence. He didn’t need to document what he’d done. Save an underground train with a line of TOXes stretching its entire length, the sheer volume of his work was record enough. It differs from Ignorant Style in that the naivete isn’t the point. TOX’s minimalism is a means to an end. If anyone documented TOX’s work, it can only have been for his sheer doggedness. Interestingly, Banksy serves as a direct contrast. He had everything to prove creatively, making a few works that were then photographed by many, many people for their style and candour. His fame sparked another revolution: graffiti began to embrace a far broader range of imagery and spraycan art broke free from hip hop’s philosophy of expression as cultural conflict. The new notion of street art as a free visual phenomenon assumed some artistic intent in the act that went beyond the gang-like rivalries and braggadocio of traditional graffiti culture.

With the ubiquity of the internet and the ease of getting photographs onto it, the new street art spread in a matter of months when traditional graffiti had taken years. However, whereas there had once been a small pool of artists to follow, there was now a dizzying multiplicity of possible influences. The gates had been flung open, allowing entry to anyone with the urge to make their mark. Of course, traditional graffiti continued to thrive, and in fact its higher echelons had become more rarefied still: photorealism had become popular and a new 3D look saw typography transcending the flat planes of walls, twisting into depths. However, both techniques were extremely time-consuming, with very little margin for error. It was certainly easier to follow in Banksy’s footsteps than to emulate a high-end writer such as DAIM.

The post-Banksy idea of street art is as much about commodification as expression. Canvas prints sanitised acts of vandalism into acceptable ornaments and becoming a respected street artist with a range of hangable works and spin-off merchandise started to seem a viable career option. URLs and Twitter handles began to appear with graffiti, showing that recognition no longer came from the streets, but from a far wider audience online. These days you can find countless videos of earnest young writers spraying their first tags and pieces on YouTube. They’re mocked on hardcore graffiti forums, but they show how the old barriers have dissolved. The point for them isn’t style or even frequency, just the bravado of the deed itself. Naturally, traditional graffiti still retains an air of transgressive cool that keeps it very much alive and kicking. In recent years, some of the older values have revived, thanks in part to street art’s appropriation of graffiti’s energy and attitude. Perhaps the latest generation of writers are taking advantage of the vast archives of images available to learn from. They are preserving the core respect for stylistic distinction that Style Wars championed – but now that a photograph can travel the world in no time and collect plenty of Facebook likes and retweets in the process, has the essential aim changed?

Style Wars touched on graffiti’s contact with the New York art world by showing a few gallery events where writers exhibited canvases, hoping to sell them. While the enthusiasm for this waned in the ’80s and early ’90s, it returned with a new vigour in the 21st century. This must be due, in part, to the way documentation had changed. A carefully chosen photograph of a beautiful piece was no longer simply a badge of honour to be shared with like-minded compatriots, but also a portfolio item for future investors. Modern writers can effortlessly compile a catalogue of everything they’ve ever painted and commodify each piece via printing services that will place any image on just about any item. Photographing graffiti is still an act of recording transient pieces, bearing witness to a beautiful crime, but it seems that the primary goal is no longer to be the greatest writer in the city. Those digital contact details make the photographs advertisements for a career: graffiti now is as much about building a personal brand as winning a boy’s game. When someone like the Ignorant Style pioneer Fuzi gains the same visibility as any old-school veteran or modern technical cansmith, and makes a career of it, it seems we are being invited to consider the artist and not their work. As Fuzi himself observes: “Ignorant Style is a reaction to the standardisation of graffiti. You write your name how you want, where you want, and fuck the rest. There are no rules.” It’s hard to imagine how the standardisation he’s bucking could have come about without all that photography, so we can probably credit four decades of graffiti eyewitnesses with contributing to the emergence of this anti-style. It’s worth noting that despite his vaunted nihilism, Fuzi’s personal website boasts a shopping basket and an e-payment gateway.

TOX and Fuzi might be viewed as reactions to the mainstream success of high-end graffiti in the 21st century. If you crave the fame but lack the technical talent, you might well focus on subverting accepted standards, particularly when faced with a public that loves a giant, legal mural but despises the insular scrawl of illegal tagging. In TOX, we see hyperbolic repetition to make up for a (presumed) stylistic deficit; with Fuzi, a hyperbolic rejection of tradition in an effort (presumably) to stand out from the crowd. Both are happy to sell their own brands of graffiti to an audience, but their currency is only fluid while there is a body of “good” graffiti to compare it to. To understand what TOX and Fuzi are trying to do, we have to understand what they are reacting against – we have to be familiar with the form’s aesthetic peaks. Evidently, the development of graffiti as a culture is still very much powered by its obsessive self-documentation.  § 

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