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AnotherAbby's picture

It looked a like a bunch of noodles from alphabet soup that had been left overnight in the broth, so they absorbed too much water and became bloated before someone pushed them all together and slapped them on the building.

I honestly couldn’t even tell if I was looking at letters, or if I was just looking at abstract shapes that someone had painstakingly spray-painted onto the wall.

It was a tag, and it’s just one of the many I’d seen around Philly. The walls and bridges I saw on the train ride in were lousy with them. Some pieces looked like they’d been there as long as the walls, while others looked like they could have been put up this morning.

The parts of the city we explored were not as graffiti-rich as I’m sure others are, because they’re tourist destinations, and are most likely scrubbed clean every month or so. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any to be seen, but at the time, I didn’t even pay the small tags much attention.

Graffiti comes in many forms, from hasty scrawls on bathroom walls to premade stickers on trashcans and lampposts. It can take up entire buildings or something as small as the side of a fire hydrant. When I was younger, I always thought graffiti was a needlessly destructive way to show off all the different ways someone could spray paint a penis onto a wall. As I got older, I learned that there was fervent debate over graffiti’s acceptance in the art world, because many graffiti artists were pushing the boundaries of the idea of what graffiti could be. They were experimenting with new styles and creating more aesthetic-oriented work out of a medium that had traditionally been driven more by what someone had to say rather than how it looked when they said it.

Graffiti and Zagar’s mosaics share many of the same elements, like the repetition of colors and patterns within certain zones to create a cohesive piece. Zagar himself was also seen as an outsider in the art world for a good deal of his career, much in the same way graffiti artists are treated today.

The welcome video at the Magic Gardens shows Isaiah Zagar happily inviting paying customers into his work, and talking about how he created as a place for adults and children alike to come and play. Yet, Isaiah Zagar’s work is full of nudes, both male and female, many with full genitalia. During my trip to the gardens, I saw several young families laugh as Little Jimmy or Karen crawled around the gardens in exploration, right over a piece of overt sexual imagery, without a second thought.


One of the main sticking points in the debate over whether or not graffiti is a legitimate form of art is its inclination towards obscene imagery. Families will gladly pay ten bucks a head to wander around over ceramics covered in paintings of penises and vaginas, but were art like that to be displayed on a wall near them by a random “vandal”, those same families would likely be leading the charge to recover the wall in the name of saving their children’s innocence.

Another one of the reasons for the frequent suppression of graffiti is its inherently critical nature. Graffiti is how the city speaks. It’s and outlet for citizens of the city to speak out against injustice within their city or even on a global scale. It carries a certain degree of anonymity to those outside of the Graffiti World, which in turn allows the artist more freedom to express him- or herself without fear of being derided for the message they were trying to send. The visibility of the medium also allows the artist’s message to reach anyone simply passing by, not just those looking for it.

Graffiti’s rejection by the mainstream speaks to its effectiveness as a tool for social critique. It doesn’t dance around issues by veiling them in layers of symbolism and metaphors, unlike some fine arts. It has the unique ability to cut to the heart of an issue by virtue of being a direct extension of the people and their opinions. Even well known graffiti artists, like the infamous Banksy, don’t bury their messages under needless imagery. They decide what they’re trying to say and create the image to say it; they don’t create an image and post-justify the social implications. The message shapes the art, and the art shapes the city.


playcity23's picture


I already gave you what I thought of your essay, but since I'm terrified of disappointing Anne, I thought I'd write it up again tonight.

Varied, engaging sentence structure. I like. The introduction is very effective at drawing the reader in. I wish I had come up with the line "graffiti is how the city speaks. As I said in class, I had two small suggestions on where to expand. I think the point you made on where the genitalia is drawn/sculpted depends on how people percieve it could be opened up to the argument about "is it art if it's only in a museum?" In addition, the point you made about the anonymity of graffiti could be supplemented with an example. 

Anne Dalke's picture

Graffiti as Critical Play?

You're missing your second reader--wonder where she is?

Graffiti is a great topic—extending beyond yet linked to your assigned trip--and also needing much more research. How do you know (for instance) that graffiti artists are driven by “more by what someone had to say rather than how it looked when they said it”? What is your authority for saying that “graffiti has an inclination towards obscene imagery”? What do you know about the history of graffiti (starting with the meaning of the word…?) in the world and in Philadelphia particularly? How about you do some research about the Philadelphia-specific evolution of the form (look up the Anti-Graffiti Network, and learn about how it evolved into the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Maybe make a mural tour into your upcoming trip for this weekend? Pay attention to how the guides discuss the graffiti you pass, in contrast to the murals—what do you make of the contrast, and their description of it?

The final paragraph of your paper is filled w/ all sorts of possibilities—and questions I’d like to hear answered: How does “rejection” = “effectiveness”? How legible is graffiti to most viewers? How literate are they/we in reading it? (Could you give us a lesson in reading it?) How does Banksy’s work compare to Zagar’s? Are there any graffiti artists in Philadelphia who do work comparable to his?  Watch, always, for the intentional fallacy (“they decide what they’re trying to say”—how do you know that’s how the process starts?) And be sure, next time, to give me page #s and a Works Cited list.

tflurry's picture

Interesting Argument

I really liked your comparison of mosaics to graffiti, because I can easily see both why you say that, and why someone might disagree. The hypocrisy you noted between nudes in graffiti and nudes on tiles made me think; it seems true in this instance, although perhaps one should consider how this relates to various fine European sculptures which where sculpted nude, and have since had various commissioned clothes added to them or taken from them. How much does the fineness of the materials make a difference in the acceptance of the art? Or is it a function of the attention people pay it, rather then when, were or how? 

I really liked the lines "Graffiti is how the city speaks" and "Graffiti's rejection by the mainstream speaks to its effectiveness as a tool for social critique"; my only regret is that I can not see the image posted in the middle of the paper.