Thursday, March 06, 2008

Graffito: Michael Walsh

I feel like I hit the jackpot: I wandered into Dog Eared Books the other day and almost had to hire a shopping cart to wander back out again. They had an entire shelf of graffiti books. I have never seen anything like that, and I have been looking for a long time. I decided which ones to buy based on the following criteria: were they used? (many were), did I own them? (some I did, most I did not) and could I afford them? (some of them- graff books are priced like art books, which is a subject for ironical discussion at a further date). Anyway, I left with five awesome books.

The first one I picked up yesterday- Michael Walsh's "Graffito." I think I may have read this book before, but due to my inept memory, I didn't remember a page of it. Even if I had, I feel like a whole car reference is appropriate here: I was smiling end-to-end. First off, the book was clearly researched in the Bay Area- most of the artists quoted are from SF, Oakland, Berkeley, etc, which of course makes a local girl happy. Even better, many of the pictures are from these local artists, and that makes a local graff hunter even happier! Many of them are before my graff hunting days, but some of the artists were still throwing up some awesome work when I started chasing (Twist comes to mind) so it just warmed my heart and got me all into my newly rediscovered hobby to read this book.

Secondly, this book struck an "intellectual" nerve, too. What? Intellectual discussions of graffiti? Yes. You read that right. The book is divided up into four sections and purports to be a "history" of graff. I wouldn't go that far- if you're looking for that, you need to go elsewhere, but if you're looking for some interesting sociological perspectives on graffiti, this is it. The four sections include the introduction- Walsh's take on the who, what, and why, with some awesome sociological analysis, "The Graffiti Phenomenon"- a continuation of this analysis with discussion with above-mentioned local artists and some insights into what it actually feels like to get out there and paint, the "War on Graffiti" with articles from "the other side" and many conversations with "the Man" and other people involved in fighting the fight to clean up the street, and lastly, some pictures by the artists (and others) who are the book.

Well, I was hooked from page one. I mean, graffiti AND Foucault and discussion of religion on one page? The opener to the Intro is "Graffiti as Ritual Transgression" and my religious scholar side was hooked, line and sinker. I'll let Walsh speak for himself:

"Many of the graffiti writers I interviewed for this documentary were liminal personalities who viewed society from social and psychological thresholds of normative consciousness and social order. They see themselves as 'revolutionaries' outside the established art 'market' of the gallery system and the utilitarian values of capitalist social order. They understand the surreal dream-like images of their art as ideological statements and symbolic transformative instruments for initiating social change." (4)

"The targets of graffiti, the 'public' and private buildings, are symbols of the social body and capitalist identity. Graffiti writers knowingly and willingly 'tag' the most sacred 'things of the normative value hierarchy; the more scared the symbol and taboo, the more 'attractive' and empowering the transgressive ritual act. The recent initiation of more severe laws and penalties for graffiti, and the millions of dollars spent on graffiti abatement, has initiated an equal and opposite surge of graffiti energy." (8)

Read this book, if you're interested in sociology, art, taboos, anything. It's short, it's provocative, it's powerful. It's beautiful.