Spray It, Don’t Say It

A look into the world of defiance through artistic expression and spray paint

December 16, 2016


There are few terms in the world of art and expression that inspire more public debate and dissenting opinion than the term “graffiti.” Baseline perceptions of the art form paint a black and white picture: Graffiti is an act of vandalism that produces as much beauty and meaning as it does vapidity.

There is a fair chance that you will see some form of color climbing along the side of a building while walking down a city street. Regardless of its legality, graffiti and street art are common to see. Behind each mural and tag are voices few have ever heard. The voices of the art provide a unique perspective into a culture that is lively and creative, yet vastly misunderstood.

In order to hear the voice of street art, so to speak, one must know what it is they are looking at.

The name graffiti comes from the Italian word graffio, which translates to ‘scratch’ in English. When even the roots of a word provide such a negative connotation, moral questions manifest quickly. There are many opinions about public art, and the most prominent voices in the debate are the negative ones. Because of this, it is no wonder the aggregate of public art has been given a name that connotes vandalism.

The contemporary conception of street art is dominated by the work of Banksy, an anonymous British street artist whose political activism is ingrained in his globally visible stencil and spray paint art. An older crowd might instead think of Keith Haring, renowned New York gallery artist and activist who found his start graffitiing the subways of New York City

Major successes like Banksy and Haring are rare considering the general animosity toward uncommissioned public painting. The negative rhetoric that has limited unsightly tagging and vandalism also limits an art form whose merits have not yet been acknowledged on a greater scale.

Not all public art receives the respect it deserves, while many pieces are not intended to be art at all. To understand the depth and variety of the culture, it is imperative to explore the motivations of those responsible for the work.

San Francisco street artist FNNCH has expressed that the paint we see in the streets can be placed into three different categories. He views murals as “commissioned public art,” street art as “uncommissioned public art,” and graffiti as “uncommissioned public not-art.” Behind the murals, street art and graffiti are people with intention, and this intention is what dictates whether a public work is defiance, art or both.

FNNCH began his pursuit of street art in college, following the likes of Banksy, and, more locally, Jeremy Novy; both use their art to provoke thought and to bring beauty and color to areas characterized by bleak social and economic surroundings. FNNCH is part of a movement to make art more accessible to all people.

“Art is not for some select elite; art is for everyone. And the best way to make art for everyone is to bring it to them,” FNNCH says.

In developing his career, FNNCH realized he was most attracted to the risk of street art, no matter how beautiful it might be. Watching Banksy create his art, knowing full well it may disappear, was a rush in itself.

“What I loved about his work was the cognitive dissonance he created: You knew the work was illegal and would go, but you liked it and wanted it to stay,” FNNCH says.

Along with bringing art to people, FNNCH wants to inspire people to question how public space is used. Through his art, FNNCH attempts to remind civilians of the beauty that can be spread throughout society.

“We do not, in the Bay Area, have a culture of participation, where landlords and business owners are excited about public art … I know how much better the city can be because of it.”

Street art is much more extensive than graffiti because it can be created in many ways and is not limited to only spray paint and territorial angst. For instance, some street artists paste pre-painted sheets of paper onto walls in public areas using glue or wheat paste, which is a mixture of flour and water.

Another street artist, called Above, is known for hanging sculptures from power lines in public areas. Alameda artist Mows creates miniature doors and windows and places them on buildings so that the public can see them.

FNNCH uses stencils and spray paint in order to create unique designs, much like how Bansky creates his art.

“What is common amongst these practices is that they are intended to be art,” FNNCH says. What FNNCH conveys is that the distinguishing characteristic between graffiti and street art is the intent of the artist.

“Graffiti is done for me; street art is done for you.”


Thematically, street art brings creativity to the public because it is, by nature, adventurous and limitless. In FNNCH’s opinion, street artists have a deep consideration for the public because they care about what the community thinks and feels about the art.

Street art strays from the streak of defiance against authority that is common in graffiti and mainstream vandalism.

“Some people like the rush, but I personally derive no pleasure from the illegal aspect of the work,” FNNCH says.

FNNCH, like many, believes that graffiti is not an art form in the way street art is but rather an entire culture dedicated to defiance through spray paint and characters. The reason graffiti lingers in society is because its writers do not respond to society’s animosity. In FNNCH’s opinion, graffiti is created by a graffiti writer for a graffiti writer.

FNNCH describes the philosophy of graffiti as a game played by graffiti writers: The type of paint used, where they paint, what they paint and how much they paint. In contrast with street art, FNNCH says, graffiti writers usually do not intend to create art.

FNNCH, who does not identify as a member of graffiti culture, summarizes the difference between graffiti and street art as follows: “Graffiti is done for me; street art is done for you.”

The restrictiveness of graffiti culture is not uniform; with different territories and crews come different expectations and standards. Some do not see character graffiti to be authentic graffiti, while others do not consider a piece to be graffiti unless it is created with stolen paint.

Marcus, a local high school student whose name has been changed to protect his identity, exists artistically in direct contradiction to FNNCH’s beliefs. “I personally think the [question of whether graffiti is art or crime] is hilarious,” Marcus says. “I believe without a doubt that graffiti is art, [but] the obvious answer is it’s both.”

While he concedes that his art acts partly as a means of self-expression, Marcus’ goals extend beyond personal gains. “My intention is to have a positive impact on the world and everyone around me.”

Marcus believes an essential contributor to the integrity of graffiti’s message is its anonymity. “It doesn’t matter who you are and what your background is, you can always be a respected graffiti artist,” Marcus says.

Marcus says he possesses no resentment toward the city’s graffiti removal efforts but desires a mutual understanding. “Our laws were designed by regular people and sometimes doing what’s right doesn’t match. The more [the city] paints over hidden places with graffiti, the less places graffiti artists will have to go. It shouldn’t be a war against graffiti, it should be an effort to make everyone visually satisfied.”

Another anonymous graffiti writer in Palo Alto, Josh, tags as ‘The Enterprise.’ Josh’s older cousin introduced him to tagging in 5th grade by his older cousin but did not start tagging until a few years later. His stenciled tag depicts a distorted smiley face with his tag substituted for the mouth. Josh has tagged numerous locations around the Palo Alto area.

Josh does not consider himself much of a visual artist. When asked about his artistic ability, he remarks: “I’m the worst artist I know.” The feeling of rebellion and defiance is what initially drew him to tagging, but as his life has grown more challenging and complicated, his tagging has adopted more of a therapeutic purpose.

“I personally leave my tag as a sign of youth,” Josh says. “The design is a reminder for me to keep in touch with my inner kid as I get older and [become] weighed down by college apps, grades, test scores and other responsibilities.”

Removal efforts are an integral part of graffiti culture; as an act of defiance, there must be something to defy. Steve Banks, the Public Works Manager of Maintenance Operations in Palo Alto, oversees the team responsible for cleaning up graffiti.

Like many suburban cities, graffiti is generally unaccepted by the Palo Alto community. Many locals are making an effort to limit tags in public spaces, and according to Banks, “a lot of people around town volunteer to clean up graffiti.”

“They just don’t like their area getting dirty,” Banks says. Palo Alto does have its own cultural aesthetic and graffiti does not seem to adhere to that, nor does the community make much of an effort to embrace it.

There is a surprising amount of empathy toward graffiti culture among those who clean it. In the experience of some of the Palo Alto Public Works employees, people who have worked with the culture in Palo Alto have a deep familiarity with it in a way that many people do not.

“You start to know the people,” Banks says. And although citizens may expect city maintenance to keep all tags off the street, there is some subjectivity in regards to the more artistic pieces.

“If it’s covering a sign, which is really what we [clean] the most, then I think it should be removed,” Banks says. “But if it’s off the beaten path and it’s not so bad to look at, I’m not going to be in a hurry to remove it.”

There may be more resentment on behalf of some graffiti writers toward the maintenance crew that cleans up their work. This likely stems from the territorial aspect of graffiti culture.

“Our guy took a roller of paint and crossed the tag out and left it like that over the weekend, and when we came back after the weekend, [some graffiti writers] had named him ‘the buffer’ and had left notes for ‘the buffer,’” Banks says. “For a couple years, there were all these notes and tags to ‘the buffer,’ everywhere, just because of what he had done.”

Certain acts of vandalism are punishable by fines, jail time or mandatory volunteer service; even worth less than $400 in damage are considered misdemeanors. FNNCH notes that the punishment for repeatedly writing a name in public is comparable to that of certain misdemeanor charges for rape in California.

Mike ‘Bam’ Tyau is a graffiti and mural artist from Honolulu, Hawaii. Bam started writing graffiti in the 80s during the rise of hip-hop culture.

When rebellious culture shifted from punk rock and skating to hip-hop and breakdancing, Bam worried that his dancing skills would be insufficient. Instead, he volunteered to write graffiti for his friends and paint the backdrops for their crew. Bam was instantly drawn to graffiti and the voice it gave him.

Bam views graffiti as a voice for the voiceless; he sees how graffiti can provide grounds for expression in public places that can catch the eye of an everyday person.

“When you start writing graffiti, it’s a powerful voice. Writing graffiti gives you power. And with that power comes a responsibility.”

Bam also quickly discovered how effectively graffiti expresses culture. He used his own disposition to develop his personality in his graffiti.

“As young teens in Hawaii, [graffiti] was our identity,” he said.

He urges new artists to internalize their environments and upbringings in their work. “There is more to it than just writing your name. Use graffiti to explore your culture.” Bam currently works as a mural painter for small communities all around the world. He heavily considers the culture of a community when working within it.

Throughout history, graffiti has been employed as a form of civil disobedience. Contemporarily, divisive walls — whether between East and West Berlin or Israel and Palestine — have blossomed into canvases for anonymous voices against establishment. Where people are being silenced by a government or oppressive regime, graffiti and street art seem to flourish.

There are a few demonstrable reasons for this. Accessibility, both to the artist and the audience, seems to be a great attractor. “Anyone can write it,” Bam says. “Anyone of any sex, any age, any race can write graffiti.”

A look back to hip-hop culture in the late 70s and early 80s pinpoints graffiti’s simultaneous rise in popularity. People who had been wrongfully marginalized for years were speaking up through many forms of art. As some voices grew louder through music, art allowed many voices an ear-splitting volume. While recording technology afforded musical expression only to some, graffiti came to light as something anyone could do.

Additionally, it’s a demonstration of rebellion that doesn’t cause significant upset or destruction. Each paint mark is a pointed assertion encompassed by peaceful intentions. Those who seek compassion from a higher establishment are given a non-violent forum to do so.

This plea for understanding is apparent throughout the Mission District of San Francisco. Amid the countless alleyway paintings of Frida Kahlo and the Mario Brothers alike are smaller, more vulnerable cries against the rapid gentrification that has swept the area.

With the influx of employees from Bay Area tech companies such as Google and Facebook, many have sought affordable housing in a neighborhood historically notorious for being a stronghold of the working class Latinos of San Francisco. Rising population and an unprecedented influx of wealth meant that the familiarity of the Mission many had once called home was rapidly upended. Where small businesses and family operations once dominated, upscale establishments now cater to a new class of inhabitants.
While the neighborhood’s color has survived — vibrant murals and graffiti tags everywhere you look — this shift has not been without consequence. Those with the deepest ties to the area have found themselves without their sanctuary and without the solid community that once existed.

Wandering down the alleys of 24th Street, it becomes easy to conceptualize the use of graffiti as a public forum. It is as immediate and accessible to the artist as to the audience. Along the edge of an undeveloped parking area, angular capitals are scrawled in pale yellow spray paint: For Alex Nieto, victim of gentrification… 4•4•86 – 4•21•14. Just down the street, marked on a garage door: Keep hoods yours.

It seems that in the Mission, graffiti’s merit as art goes unquestioned. Its categorization is of miniscule importance compared to the power of its content. While power and control have been seized from the community, graffiti and street art survive due to simplicity; only paint and space are necessary, and both seem to be limitless despite the constant flood of new art. As seen globally, graffiti in the Mission appears to be the last remaining envoy of collective thought.

It is no surprise that street artists and graffiti writers take advantage of the attention that the public supplies. Big cities and public spaces set the stage for those who aim to carry out social movements or express the pleas of people who are otherwise unable to speak up.

Not all communities see the necessity or embrace the impact of civil disobedience, and rather than admiring the brazen assertions, people often pass off graffiti and street art as nuisances to society.

The communicative efforts made by minorities and underrepresented groups are dependent on cultural, social and economic circumstances, as well as the history and demographics of an area. Empathy for those who have social struggles may increase the appreciation of street art and graffiti, especially if the work done expresses pleas for justice, peace or other moral causes.

Not only do you see their work, you also hear their voice.

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