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Wednesday, September 30, 2009


I’m always thinking about the graffiti & rap vs. U.S. mainstream culture conundrum.

late night associative madness rant #1:

My good friend, a motion graphics and print designer—blessed with the unnerving pictorial equivalent of a musician’s “perfect pitch”—and I (blessed with perfect ignorance of anything that involves design) have always argued about two subjects: Rap music and Graffiti.

From the beginning, the issues are startlingly similar.

Rap: We don’t need to go back-back-back to Jamaican “Toasters” or urban street-corner insult fests like, “The Dozens”. NWA’ll do.

Graffiti: I’m not time traveling back to petroglyphs scratched into sheer rock face in Joshua Tree or “Kilroy Was Here.” Simple tagging will do. No names, please.

The bone of contention: While sympathetic to the source, he hated rap and tagging because, as he put it, “Rap isn’t musical—it’s hostile bragging and cursing put-downs using boring, simple rhymes. Graffiti is hostile, pissing on other people’s property, spraying cutsie nicknames written in impenetrable fonts.”

I argued that early rap was territorial primal screams. The boasts were, sadly, about the only thing rappers had that was their own, their physical prowess, then their hood (“theirs” cause nobody else would want it) and, admirably, their uncanny ability to turn the English language inside out and shake it like a percussion instrument, making the language of domination (and marketing) cough up new meanings, pounding out the rhythm of the mean streets to shake the frame.

My so-called defense of tagging was understanding. Like, I could dig the inchoate rage against the machine that ignores poor people—keeping them out of the game, turning the young to other structural models of commercial enterprise and social organization, like—ouch!—the Mafia.

(By the way, what up wid all dat? The uber mainstream entertainment industry romanticized the Mafia: The “Family” honor code and all the bullshit rules that go with it. As for the hairier Latino equivalent: Tony Montana is an anti-hero?


For kids who have already been dehumanized, these movies are primers. Like corporate ethics guidebooks, parallel gangster textbooks to the ones the sharkskin suits handed out at Enron. Ghettoized kids are getting spoon fed this shit by the entertainment industry, not by their own sub-culture.)

Tagging is marking your sad chunk of broken turf. Stealing public space, doing street time. Piecers are capable of producing highly inventive designs. (Give them any kind of time, besides jail time, that is, and they can make complex decorative compositions, inventive enough to knock your eyeballs happily sideways.) Decorating the busted bubble, mimicking the angular shapes of the hood’s crumbled infrastructure. We’ve lost a whole generation of talented artists to the cultural dumbing down of our public schools. Afflicting the most talented artists in the hood with a form of pyrotechnical autism. Because there’s nowhere to go. Repeat. Repeat.

One other point, brought to you by M1 of Dead Prez, “Where in our program are the rituals and traditions that should be important in our development? Been totally left out cause we too busy admiring they shit.”

But that was then.

My best line, which I laid on my debating friend way too often, was, “Look at the bright side of elemental rap: it’s only got one way to go. More melodic, instrumentation, expansion from nothing . . . to . . . something.

And sho’nuff!

So too with graffiti: Images. Sentences. Phrases. Piecing.The World.

It’s undeniable.

So, is that a good thing?


But all I’m hearing is, “It’s commercialized. It’s mainstream. It’s over.” So . . . do you want cheese with that whine?

Listen up: You gotta embrace the contradictions. Inventive unstoppable expression—the real shit from the underclass. It’s art. The bubble-up theory of artonomics: how to penetrate the cultural economy of the “high art world”? Maybe there’s an opening the size of an ass crack. These days, what with the (s)Low Art movement gaining a bit of traction, maybe it’s expanded to the size of a little asshole. You can still count the cross-overs on one hand.

But we live in a capitalist society, baby!

Surprisingly, that’s the good news.

WORD (so far . . . ):

Make Shit—Sell Shit—Buy Shit.

How do a piecer commodify they shit?

Get it down offa dat wall, motherfucker. Onto something a body can walk away wid. Like a T shirt. Hoodie. Clothing line. Fashion is HUGE. Everybody knows this now.

(On the other hand, has anyone ever heard of canvas?)

Amir H. Fallah (Beautiful/Decay) would say, “We’ll make a killer designed big phat coffee table book.”

Yeah, you right!

Another way: call Stash Maleski (ICUart), the impresario of LA graffiti. The X-Games need thumpin graf. ESPEN need to stay hip =’s graf $$$.

(As in their target demo-graf-ick: 15-40 year olds.)

How O.G. is Chaz?

O.G. enough to get paid—really well.

TV is (moving) pictures, baby!

YouTUBE iz U.

Is all this gonna make graf lose its critical edge?

Yes . . .

Skulls are the new Happy Faces!

But—I hope this isn’t (as my wife would say) very non sequitur of me—

Graffiti is maturing. Meanwhile, American standards of culture are progressively more and more immature.

So they about to meet in Middle America.

Graffiti is truly flourishing as authentic style, a new category of beauty. Vague rebelliousness becomes an aesthetic.*

*with one little caveat: that is, if the perpetrators don’t die on the street or stick to their day jobs too long or stop rebelling when their teeth fall out.

Ambition in Los Estados Unidos —“making it”—is getting paid and being on TV. You think a tagger in Boyle Heights/South Central/Venice/ wanna stay on the corner all his short life?

If this depresses you—in terms of graffiti not living up to its potential as a major form of cultural critique—here’s an antidote from Medusa that works for images as well as for sounds:

“We’re always gonna find different ways to maneuver to get our soul heard.”

GET (the next thing) UP!

Personally—you know I'm an O.G. too, but in my case it stands for Old Guy)—I’m heading for the double-wide for a nap, then the bingo parlor.