Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(4) (1995) 98-101
This book provides an update on the practice and social organization of graffiti in the 1980s and early 1990s and offers a model for an "anarchist criminology." Graffiti first came to public attention in the late 1960s, mainly in New York City and largely as an outgrowth of political radicalism and of black and Hispanic empowerment and identity. Graffiti was of interest aesthetically for its fusion of multiple styles drawn from mass culture and from more specific ethnic traditions as well as two innovations specific to New York City graffiti writers: the 'tag,' as stylized logo which identified the otherwise anonymous artist and the use of subway cars as canvases.
Tags, especially in their larger and more elaborate 'throw-up' versions, became the initial focus of stylistic and social organizational innovation. Graffiti writers developed new stylistic techniques to distinguish their tags from the myriad graffiti competing for public space and attention. The tag became the unit of production and the basic measure of a writer's fame. Artistic quality overrode quantity for a minority of graffiti writers, culminating in murals which covered full subway cars and incorporated a variety of styles developed for tags and throw-ups.
The use of subway cars as canvases served to isolate taggers from their neighborhoods, making them dependent upon novice writers whom they recruited and taught as audiences for their graffiti and validators of their fame. Conversely, subways encouraged graffiti muralists to construct writers' corners, a new social organization capable of bringing together graffiti artists from various boroughs to develop collective standards for judging graffiti quality and determining each artist's reputation.
Graffiti attracted both artistic and moral entrepreneurs. The former sought to entice graffiti writers to paint on canvases to be sold in galleries; the latter used graffiti as a sign of urban disorder and argued for its suppression as a first step in reasserting law and order against unrestrained youth and assertive members of minority groups. Most [End page 98] notoriously, Mayor Koch proposed the use of German Shepherds (once favored by Southern sheriffs) to scare off graffiti writers. In an emblematic action, Koch ordered the cars on one subway line painted white (making those cars in fact more vulnerable to graffiti) just so he could hold a press conference and announce that his administration would "keep the subways white."
The contest between graffiti writers and artistic entrepreneurs on the one hand and police and moral entrepreneurs on the other can be viewed as a precursor to the recent 'culture wars.' However, both kinds of entrepreneurship had the effect of disrupting graffiti artists' social organizations. Graffiti's allies and enemies together delegitimated graffiti as an art form and drove it from the subways. Graffiti survives in New York in ghetto venues unseen by and unimportant to the two sets of entrepreneurs.
Graffiti took on a second life thanks to its appropriation (along with break dancing) by New York rap artists. In commodified and depoliticized form, graffiti has become an adjunct to the hip hop style. It is at this point in graffiti's history that Jeff Ferrell takes up the story. Young men (and they are almost all men) inspired by music video, film and magazine depictions of New York graffiti began to reproduce such work, and to make their own modest contributions to a developing art form. Ferrell provides extensive, and often captivating, accounts of how Denver graffiti artists do their work individually and collectively. The sharp division between taggers interested only in quantity and muralists concerned with developing style, which I found in New York in the early 1980s (Lachmann 1988), is not present in Denver. Rather, Ferrell describes a core of graffiti writers who do both tags and murals, mainly in a few downtown neighborhoods. The Denver of this work has the flavor of a small town in which the graffiti writers all know each other, although Ferrell alludes to unnamed graffiti writers out in suburbs who, he believes, work alone inspired by mass culture muses instead of contact with other live graffiti artists.
Denver graffiti artists generally avoid explicit political statements in their work. Their work has only the dimmest connection to the leftist, generational or racial politics of the 60s. Most New York graffiti writers were and are black or Latino, and race was a crucial divide between the writers and the almost exclusively white artistic and moral entrepreneurs who sought to transform or eliminate graffiti. The jejune [End page 99] and derivative nature of Denver graffiti styles attests to their heritage in mass culture rather than actual communities or collectivities. Ferrell shows us graffiti writers in action as artists and hanging out with one another. The writers seem to have a base of support in Denver's art gallery world. Indeed, the city's anti-graffiti campaign provided ample free publicity for graffiti and graffiti artists, inspiring some building owners and art collectors to commission graffiti murals and canvases. Unfortunately, Ferrell does not tell us how large or sustained that commercial market for graffiti became. Nor do we learn how the aesthetic standards of commissioned graffiti differs from that of the street, although the writers did tell Ferrell that they resented the control which patrons exercised over the content of commissioned work.
Ferrell's "anarchistic criminology " celebrates graffiti writers as epitomes of the sort of political and cultural opposition possible in present-day America. Graffiti disrespects private property and official notions of order and aesthetics in the course of appropriating walls for the display of each writer's own expressions of style. Although the graffiti writers themselves eschew politics and decline to find political meanings in their work, the subversive nature of graffiti is apparent to Denver city officials (and to authorities in other cities as well) who seek to suppress it.
Ferrell's interpretation of graffiti as individually-directed anarchism accounts for the greatest strengths and weaknesses of his book. On the debit side, Ferrell mentions the concepts of artistic and deviant careers in passing, but does not analyze the social processes through which Denver graffiti artists are recruited into or exit from their graffiti careers. He assumes that the decision to do graffiti is motivated by individuals' knowledge of hip hop culture. Only after the decision to do graffiti is made, do the writers seek out one another and start to influence each other's styles as well as shape their collective creation of a Denver style. Ferrell should be commended for giving explicit and theoretical expression to the widespread view (held by many graffiti writers and by most of their chroniclers from Norman Mailer to Craig Castleman) of writers as anarchist heroes. However, the process of learning to do graffiti, and even more important of recognizing an audience for one's work, is far more dependent on social ties than the anarchist model would allow. [End page 100]
Ferrell's lack of discussion of recruitment into graffiti and of the contours of careers limits his ability to weigh the explanatory powers of the anarchist or the more socially-grounded views of graffiti careers and ideologies.
The great strength of this book is Ferrell's analysis of the campaign launched by Denver's moral entrepreneurs against graffiti. Ferrell draws together the insights of Howard Becker, British cultural studies, as well as more structurally-oriented work on deviance to show how moral entrepreneurs and graffiti writers remade their social identities through their contacts with each other. Graffiti was demonized and criminalized by downtown property owners, the police and then-Denver Mayor Federico Pena (whose main gift to his city was the white elephant new airport). Ferrell is wonderful at describing the way in which the term "graffiti vandalism" was used by authorities and a cooperative press to construct an ideology of graffiti at odds with the lived experiences of the graffiti writers and with the views many Denver residents had of the graffiti in their neighborhoods.
Ferrell's book, in sum, is a valuable update on the unfolding story of graffiti. It provides a solid foundation for further work in Denver or elsewhere in the United States which would tie the analysis of graffiti's production, repression and meaning with the still-needed analysis of the social formation of individual and collective graffiti careers. Anarchist criminology is most useful in highlighting crucial terrains of resistance and domination in present-day America. It shows how official ideologies and actions are grounded upon, defend and define large-scale structures of authority and ownership. It remains to be seen if anarchist criminology can provide a rubric for joining ideology and social structure with the sort of middle level analysis of social relations necessary for understanding the processes through which ideology and structure are created and recreated by social beings of limited agency.
State University of New York at Albany
Department of Sociology