The Writing on the Wall: Graffiti as a form of societal resistance

In their book Subway Art (1984), Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper described a graffiti artist as a “writer”—a term graffitists often use themselves. The iconic graffiti documentarians’ definition recognizes that twentieth-century graffiti has increasingly become associated with the writing of letters and words on the walls of trains, buildings, or other public sites. However, it is my contention that other kinds of non-sanctioned public inscription should also be classified as graffiti. 

Like the French revolutionaries who posted their political thoughts and slogans on the city walls of Nantes and Paris, American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer (b. 1945) began wheat-pasting black and white, text-based posters in a series called Truisms (1977-79) (fig. 1) with alphabetical lists of aphorisms because she “wanted to make her feelings about society and culture known.” [1] Prior to her work with graffiti, Holzer was an abstract artist who worked with painting and printmaking. She discovered the potential for public posters when she moved to New York City in 1977 to participate in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Curator, Diane Waldman observed some twenty years later that Holzer’s “primary medium was language.” [2] In doing so, Waldman’s assertion failed to account for the illegality of the works and their public inscription. Although Holzer manipulates language, the everyday media that she was working with in the late 1970s (paper, wheat-paste, and silkscreen,) like the text she wrote or appropriated, is central to her work’s message. 

Likewise, though the content of graffiti has long been stereotyped as simply names written on walls for the benefit of personal glorification [3], the words and images from infamous graffitists in the early stages of graffiti’s contemporary development however, contradict such a simple explanation. Graffiti legend LEE (b. 1960), for example, sprayed trains with such social commentary as “stop the bomb,” and “peace not war,” and “man is almost extinct” next to his name (fig. 2) in the late 1970s. SKEME (birth date unknown) also wrote inspirational aphorisms similar to that of American conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, e.g., “Stop, look, and listen! We are the sons of the ghetto and we will survive” (fig. 3) [4].

New York graffiti artists reacted to the oppression of anti-graffiti campaigns [5] with slogans like SPIN’s (birth date unknown), “Dump Koch,” 1982 (fig. 4), which was a reference to then-mayor of New York City, Ed Koch. They insisted that their work had a legitimate place in art with messages like LEE’s “this is what graffiti art is, not the other way around”(fig. 5) [6].

Similarly, the graffiti alias’ corresponding text operates like the ubiquitous/anonymous WWII slogan, “Kilroy WAS HERE”.  Inscribed along the European front in order to inspire and lift the spirits of American soldiers fighting along the battlefront, both Holzer’s text and that of her contemporary graffitists were subversive and political in content—the work’s placement within a public space and its inspirational message emphasized over the signature of the artist.

Often socially progressive, many graffitists in New York City were typically the children of immigrants or lower-class minorities and the streets afforded them an important forum (perhaps for many, their only space,) for social commentary [7]. Like Holzer, their use of text was anarchic [8]. Thus, as art critic Hal Foster argued, in Holzer’s work “we see not only how language subjects us, but also how we may disarm it.” [9] With their use of subversive slogans, New York graffiti artists used language to react against domineering authorities, and to empower themselves by laying claim to the site of production—the streets themselves. 

Fig. 4: SPIN, Dump Koch, c. 1980
Fig. 5: LEE, This is what graffiti art is, c. 1980

Independent graffiti researcher and animator James Walmesley stated in his essay for the street art-celebratory exhibition “Beautiful Losers” in 2004

“The writing of graffiti [during the era of anti-graffiti squads] had become an inherently political act. Even if it was just a piece incorporating a stylized 3-D tag and a cartoon character… The crime itself is not the actual writing of the graffiti, but having the audacity to think that your concerns or problems, or what you see as being wrong in your society, are important enough to warrant complaining about. The crime is reacting against those who have power over you, those who make the rules. The crime is insubordination.” [10]

While I concede that not all graffiti was performed as an act of politically conscious resistance, during the time when Holzer put her work in the streets, the mere action of “getting up” in New York City was, for Holzer, both risky and indicative of her artistic intentions [11].

Art historian Rosalind Krauss had a similar view of graffiti when discussing the art form’s impact on artists such as Cy Twombly (b. 1928). Even the title of her article, “Cy was here; Cy’s up,” resonates with both “Kilroy,” Holzer, and her fellow graffitists [12]. Krauss argued that graffiti has three defining characteristics: it is performative (i.e., it prioritizes action over representation), it is violent because it “takes illegitimate advantage of the surface of inscription,” and “it is the trace of an event.” [13] While I believe Krauss’ definition of graffiti as violent warrants qualification, I agree that it is—like writing—both performative and indexical. Owing to the fact that graffiti is an anarchistic performance demonstrating not just a resistance to accepted art venues but a willing subversion of the law, it should come as no surprise that even art historians like Foster would want to distance Holzer during her defining years from such work [15]. However, the voices Holzer conjured in her poster series, like the voices invoked by her contemporaneous aerosol artists, spoke for a disenfranchised population in a uniquely unrestricted forum. 

The argument could be made that Holzer, as a white middle-aged middle-class woman, was incapable of speaking on behalf of New York City’s disenfranchised. However, I believe the anarchic nature of Holzer’s medium and text hint at her subversive intentions. Her work on the streets of New York was anarchic because it waged an attack on language, institutions, and structures of meaning, expectation and reception. Sociologist Jeff Ferrell argued, “As with more violent forms of anarchist resistance, graffiti is notable for the sudden and mysterious manner in which it appears.” [16] Truisms, Survival, and Essays were unsigned and Holzer posted at night, “skulk[ing] about” in order to not be caught. Therefore, her work suits Ferrell’s description of graffiti’s distinctive anonymous defiance. 

We may interpret Truisms as an indictment of those in power regardless of Holzer’s race, age, or class. Criticisms such as “People who don’t work with their hands are parasites” and “Class structure is as artificial as plastic” demonstrate Holzer’s leftist politics and her critique of power structures. These social critiques echo the common insistence by graffiti artists that their work is involved in a dialogue with their urban environment [17]. Holzer was performing a politically rebellious act, and both the content of her posters and the medium she employed makes her work analogous to that of graffitists [18]. Truisms elicited strong responses. Likewise, when graffiti legend LEE recounted the day he finished the first complete painting of a full ten-car subway train and rode it around New York City, his description of the event underscores the surprise and intense reactions that people tend to have to graffiti: “I’m looking out from between the cars and everybody’s going ‘Look at that,’ and I see all these hands pointing. You could see people blocks away going, ‘Look at that!’ People were going crazy.” [19]

In the same way, Truisms drew emotional responses from crowds on the streets of New York by generating heated debates over each phrase’s accuracy or lack thereof. Richard Armstrong, Associate Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, stated that Holzer’s series elicited a “chaotic” response from her viewers [20]. In fact, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles Mary Jane Jacob posited in 1988 that Truisms was popular, “because it jars you and makes you think and this gives you hope that emptiness can be overcome.” [21] Holzer herself eavesdropped on her audiences and said that the reactions ranged from “This is great” to, “Whoever did this ought to be shot,” paralleling common public reception of graffiti [22].

Graffiti has developed over its long history, and the overarching concept of a public inscription has resulted in diverse manifestations. The need for a public forum has led many graffitists to practice a form of social commentary in their work in addition to addressing principles of aesthetics. Holzer’s work is no exception. While critics have situated her graffiti as merely site-specific conceptual feminist art, they have overlooked Holzer’s status as graffitist and in doing so, limited our understanding of her work and that of graffiti. Holzer’s work was a result of her exposure to graffiti in New York City during the late 1970s early 1980s, wherein graffiti was demonstrated to be a voice for those who lacked one. Her politicization of language had historic precursors, to which she added her own unique style. 

[1] Diane Waldman, “The Language of Signs,” 18.
[2] Ibid.
[3] For example, Leonard Kriegel, “Graffiti: Tunnel Notes of a New Yorker” in American Scholar (Summer 1993) vol.62, Issue 3, p. 431; and Clyde Haberman, “Graffiti ‘Art’? Issue Deserves a Sharp Stake” New York Times, (22 October 1996): sec. B, p. 1.
[4]  Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, Subway Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), 94-95.
[5] Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff, Spraycan Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 11. The anti-graffiti task force waged warfare against not only illegal graffiti but to the graffiti style as well. They forbade the use of graffiti lettering and characters even on task-force-sponsored murals, thereby engaging in a kind of ideological censorship.
[6] Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, Subway Art, 95. 17.
[7] Nicholas Ganz and Tristan Manco, Graffiti World: Street Art from Five Continents (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 8.
[8] Jeff Ferrell, Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality (New York: Garland, 1993), 172. Sociologist Ferrell argued that the very act of graffiti signifies a resistance to authority through the anarchic “visceral revolt” that emerges from the intersection of creativity and illegality.
[9] Hal Foster, “Subversive Signs,” Art in America, vol. 70, no. 10 (November 1982): 90.
[10] James Walmesley, “In the Beginning, There Was the Word,” in Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Street Art and Culture, eds. Aaron Rose and Christian Strike, (New York: Iconoclast, in conjunction with D.A.P., Distributed Art Publishers, 2004), 202.
[11] Craig Castleman, Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), 137. Mayor of New York 1966-73, John V. Lindsay (1921-2000), announced anti-graffiti programs as early as 1972, calling for harsher penalties and fines for the act.
[12] “Cy was here” references Kilroy by substituting it with Twombly’s name and “Cy’s up” refers to graffitist terminology of “getting up” or posting their art.
[13] Rosalind Krauss, “Cy Was Here; Cy’s Up,” In Artforum International v. 33, n. 1 (September 1994): 75.
[14] Ibid. Krauss’ definition of graffiti as violent is unconvincing owing largely to her argument that Twombly, as graffitist, had nolegitimate claim to his canvas. In fact, I would argue that such an assertion of entitlement to site typifies the act of graffiti.
[15] Jeff Ferrell, Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality (New York: Garland, 1993), 172.
[16] Ibid., 173.
[17] Clyde Haberman, “Graffiti ‘Art’? Issue Deserves a Sharp Stake” New York Times, (22 October 1996): sec. B, p. 1.
[18] Castleman, 150 and Austin, 128. During the summer of 1974 the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) announced a “ten million dollar program of graffiti eradication” and in 1977 (the same year Holzer began posting her Truisms series) the Transit Police Department created a new “vandal squad” to enforce its anti-graffiti campaign and instituted a new kind of car wash that sprayed chemical solvents to remove graffiti from subway trains.
[19] Ibid., 11-12.
[20] Howell, 126.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.

Words: Maria Seda-Reeder

Bio: Curator, writer, and contemporary art lecturer Maria Seda-Reeder uses language as a bridge for critical discourse; collaging her various skills on behalf of artists, institutions, collectives, and nonprofits. She believes in the power of contemporary art to both reflect the past and inform the future. She is the Director of Exhibitions & Artist Support Initiatives @wavepoolartcenter.