Reading between the lines: Graffiti’s history, significance

Illustration of three people painting graffiti onto a wall
Margueritte Ross/Staff

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Ever since I was little, when I got bored in class, I would start to doodle. The thing is, I have no artistic talents whatsoever, so I would just practice writing my name in different ways (you know, for when I become famous or whatnot). Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. All over the paper. Annoying, right? Now imagine seeing that everywhere you went — from the BART stations to the walls of the dining halls, so on and so forth. Having to see the name day after day, constantly being exposed to it with no escape no matter where you went, would 1. probably irritate you to no end, but more importantly, 2. eventually ingrain my name in your mind. Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. When someone uttered these two syllables, you would instantly know who they were talking about even if you couldn’t put a face to the name. You wouldn’t know anything else about me, such as who my favorite celebrity is (John Mulaney), my unpopular opinions (I hate cheesecake) or what my goal in life is (haha sike, I don’t know the answer to that one either), but you would know my name and my writing. This is what graffiti writing is all about: fame and notoriety in a way that can’t be replicated by mainstream media.

To the youths cultivating the roots of this street culture in the 20th century, graffiti represented their identities, from the names they used to the artwork that helped them identify with one another and showcase their artistic talents. Growing up in the “invisible generation” in a city whose economic distress was increasingly linked to crime and urban decay, the youths were constantly feeling repressed. With funding for schools and art programs being cut, the youths were losing access to any outlets they had for expressing this distress and their artistic abilities. They did not want to be invisible — they wanted to be seen, a cry that was explicitly echoed by graffiti artist “SEEN,” who made sure to live up to this name by painting it all over the subway trains and stations. Through graffiti, the artists were able to send messages to one another and gain recognition for their abilities. They were able to display their art publicly in a place that made their existences known within a space and system that sought to disenfranchise their voices.

The seemingly simple act of writing their names on a public space may appear insignificant, vandalous or ill-intentioned. However, to these youths, writing their names was a way to resist being erased by a society that was constantly trying to deny their existences, refusing to see them as anything other than criminals who were “less than.” Through their names, graffiti writers protested, expressed themselves and found a way to belong to a community. Graffiti connected writers and artists to one another and to the world. They shared ideas, honed their skills and earned respect by improving their styles. They were creating art and starting a movement at the same time. They were communicating social, political, economic and personal messages in the most unforgiving environments. They were saying, “I am here. We are here.”

Contact Jenny Lee at [email protected].