A visual language of community: Graffiti’s history and significance

File photo of graffiti in Berkeley from 2017
Kayla Brown/File

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It is no surprise to see graffiti in most urban areas. You’ve probably passed by more pieces than you can count on your way to class (pre-COVID-19) and might be surprised to know the Bay Area’s role in hip-hop culture. The city of Berkeley and my hometown of Oakland were integral in the emergence of hip-hop culture on the West Coast. As you are out with your friends unwinding in Downtown Berkeley after a hard week of studying, it may be eye-opening to really look at the graffiti you see on the side of the bar bathroom walls and consider what some of it may mean.

The four recognized pillars of hip-hop culture are emceeing, DJing, B-Boying (break dancing) and graffiti. While graffiti has become ingrained into mainstream culture and legitimized itself as an art form, its history and significance deserve recognition. From a scribble some teenage kid wrote on the back of a chair in English class to a legal graffiti-inspired mural sanctioned by the city, graffiti is not simply an act of youthful rebellion, nor is its meaning relegated to an isolated demographic. Graffiti and urban art are rooted in resisting societal marginalization, reclaiming gentrified territory and contributing to a visual cultural dialogue that is unique to every community. As students, most of us have been educated in power relations, inequity and inequality. When you view graffiti with a critical lens, you may see it in a different light — perhaps outside of the viewpoint that often captures it as simple vandalism.

In my first semester at UC Berkeley, I was using the facilities in Evans Hall and feeling completely overwhelmed. I looked on the stall wall to see a message written in Sharpie with beautiful cursive: “Think about how far you have come since this time last year.” Directly in response to the flowery encouragement was a statement written in a contrasting font of harsh boldness: “I’m f—ng depressed, Karen.” My day was immediately better.

The documented conversation on the bathroom wall meant more to me than the comical exchange between students. It made me feel a connection to my environment. Someone else wanted to rebel against the anonymous person who wrote something that could be seen as trite. A visual language that rebels against the dominant culture and establishes an individual’s unique voice while simultaneously uniting a culture is the essence of graffiti.

The reality is that a substantial portion of graffiti is, in many cases, legally identified as vandalism, and we should be sensitive to the subsequent grievances of those who did not consent to the work of graffiti artists on their property, both financially and otherwise. We at the Clog do not condone illegal activity of any kind. But one must ask themselves: Why have so many public art programs in major global metropolises from San Francisco to Milan approved and funded graffiti-style artworks on larger and larger scales?

Art programs have realized the significance of the shared culture that is represented through graffiti within their communities. There is a shared experience that visual art provides a community that transcends social divisions and instills a sense of belonging. The respondent to the initial message in the Evans bathroom that day knew where I was coming from and what I was feeling. I was not the only one who was overwhelmed and irritated. I was a part of a community.

Education and an open mind might help us all understand graffiti with greater depth. Whether you see it on the plywood walls of downtown Oakland construction sites or around the UC Berkeley campus, there are social and cultural implications to the art form. It is an expression of both the individual and a specific community to state, “I am here. We are here. We won’t be ignored.”

If anyone wants to read more about hip-hop culture, check out this site I created about hip-hop culture for a project.

Contact Morgan Saltz at [email protected].