The Spray-Painted Image. Graffiti painting as type
of image, art movement and learning process.
The introduction suggests a model for defining
and categorising different types of graffiti, and the term
TTP (Tags/Throw-ups/Pieces) is presented.
Chapter 1 relates the body of research up to the present day and
proposes a comprehensive interpretation, based partly on English
and German subculture- and socialisation theories. Chapter 2 presents
the social background and internal social pattern of the writers,
and 45 Swedish writers are examined more closely. They are found
to be in general quite ordinary, but unusually creative youngsters.
Further, the spray art career seems to be linked to a socalled unusual
process of learning, which is confirmed by interviews.
Chapter 3 deals with the creation, expression, content and meaning
of this type of image, and it is compared with several other traditions
like Scandinavian animal ornaments, emblematics, book painting,
Art Nouveau, psychedelic art and traditional calligraphy. The discussion
is accompanied by pictorial analyses. The 30 most common pictorial
elements in TTP are enumerated. The stylistic development is observed,
with its complexity-simplicity cycle and the varied relations between
the letter and the picture.Wild style lettering with its combination
of 7 graphic characteristics is found to be the most original contribution
Chapter 4 follows the diffusion and acculturation from the
subway to the gallery and from the USA to Europe; Sweden in particular
Chapter 5 discusses the prevention methods of authorities fighting
graffiti, compares them and draws conclusions. Community centres
run by writers ( the Uppsala model ) are perceived to be the least
harmful and most effective method to decrease illegal
TTP. Finally, this kind of graffiti is related to the
institutional definition of art for which it could be qualified.
TTP is a new, freestanding and independent art form. However,
it could also give a different and post-modern meaning to
the term Underground Art.
The subject of this study is the spray-painted picture
which is also called TTP graffiti (Tags, Throw-ups, Pieces).
The questions I pose cover three aspects, namely:
Type of picture: Are TTP graffiti a new
type of graffiti and a new type of picture; what is its most
original form? What do we know about the origin of the pictures,
their creation, occurrence, content and meanings?
Art movement: How has TTP spread and developed?
What input has TTP received from other art traditions and how have
these in turn been influenced by TTP? What effects have societys
counter-measures had? Is TTP art?
Learning process: What does TTP look like
in practice, aesthetically and socially and what functions does
it have for the practitioners? What is characteristic of the practitioners
as a category of young people?
I maintain that TTP which, among other things, has
been described as meaningless destruction is instead
a meaningful, albeit controversial, activity. It is meaningful on
several levels and in several different senses.
In demonstrating this, I utiliuze material that has
been collected over a period of seven years in Scandinavia, Central
Europe and on the east and west coasts of the USA. This material
consists of pictures, interviews, literature, personal experiences
and contacts with painters and researchers. The methods I have used
are mainly participatory observation and historical-genetic
picture analyses, and my references are interdisciplinary with the
emphasis on art history and youth research.
By way of introduction, I describe the development
of the concept of graffiti, as well as how different types of graffiti
can be categorised, and show how, with the help of my own definition,
TTP can be seen as an independent type of graffiti which can
be characterised and distinguished from other graffiti.
A few central phases in the development of TTP
are described. It first appeared in Philadelphia during the latter
part of the 1960s in connection with the transition
from gang graffiti to graffiti loners. It blossomed in the
New York subways during the first three years of the 1970s
and developed its own social, technical and aesthetic rules
for its practice and execution. Social forces and creative urges
were important incentives. Subsequently the study deals with
how this movement developed, how it was examined and how it was
treated in scholarly and other texts. With this survey
as a starting-point I discuss a suggestion for a comprehensive
interpretation with the emphasis on certain British and German youth
research. TTP, as I understand it, is used, among other things,
as an unusual process of learning and as a flexible
survival strategy by teenagers - mainly boys -
during one period of their lives, and for some it also becomes the
beginning of a career.
My study compares painters in the USA, Europe and particularly
in Sweden with regard to social background, family structure, pattern
of life , schooling and interests. Forty-five Swedish graffiti painters
are examined more closely, and circumstances emerge that indicate
that the practitioners of TTP graffiti are fairly ordinary
but unusually creative young people. For instance, the group
has the same average grade as other pupils in the same year. In
Art, however, their average grade is significantly higher than among
other pupils. 42% of them had artists in the family, and generally
they were planning to choose an artistic profession. On an average,
the young people in the investigation had produced 20 lawful
paintings, a slightly higher number of pieces and a very large number
of tags. The predominant spare-time occupations were sitting at
home sketching and being with friends. 63% had parents with skilled
or professional jobs. 55% were born in Sweden, 45% in another country.
91% were boys, 9% were girls and the average age was sixteen. 36%
lived in one-parent families, as compared to about 19% among
other young people. Nobody in the group had been sentenced to prison
or had any convictions for serious crimes; their offences were most
often connected with graffiti. There was in general no clear information
on drugs, nor any alarming evidence. Thus the profile that is given
by the average painter in the investigation does not coincide with
the image certain mass media and authorities give them as hardened
young criminals. Their own social system, which appears to be at
the same time hierarchic and democratic, includes a sort of in-house
training, and the idea that TTP is a kind of learning process is
confirmed by interviews.
In the chapter on the picture and the art movement
I discuss how TTP graffiti, in its own context, constitutes a new
type of graffiti, a new type of picture and probably a new type
of art. It spreads roughly simultaneously both as a lawful and unlawful
art movement from the ghettos on the USA east coast out over the
western world, promoted by the painters own contact network,
by exhibitions and by the media. In time it actively influenced
the youth generation, contemporary art and popular culture. Primarily
TTP uses the side of a subway-carriage as its basis, spray
paint as its material and the letter as its motif. The basic forms
are tags, throw-ups and pieces, and to these can be added four lawful
sub-forms. The dancing Wildstyle letters with their
combination of seven different graphic characteristics seem to be
TTPs most original creation, and the present study analyses
its conception, idiom, themes, technique and stylistic development..
Special attention is given to the creation of the picture -
from the idea, through the sketch, to the finished painting.
Some thirty groups of the most common elements occurring
in pictures, signs and symbols are dealt with and certain frequent
iconic themes like dragons, octopuses and other wild or mythological
animals - which can be associated with the formation
of male identity - and eye figures - the ability to
see and the will to be seen - are discussed at
some length. TTP is compared with Nordic animal ornaments
- with special attention given to the camouflage technique
- and with book painting, emblem theory, traditional calligraphy,
Art Nouveau, Nouveau Frisco and several other historic
and modern types of pictures. TTP is also seen in the context
of social injustice, structural and ethnic re-groupings and contemporary
social changes. Pictures, interviews and picture analyses give examples
of the execution of the pictures, their content and meaning.
The spray-painted picture could be said to constitute a meaningful
organisation of the sometimes rather disparate expressions, needs
and influences which it reproduces.
The development of style is given particular attention
and is illustrated with Phase II: The Evolution of a Style
1971-1982, Core: S 1984-1988, and
Blind: S 1989-1993 and with a style-orientated
cross-section of published pictures. The graphic sketch-work, the
tricks of spray-technique and the picture/letter relationship undergo
interesting changes, and certain signs indicate a 10-year
cycle of increased complexity giving place to a new simplicity.
The illustrations in this and other chapters cover
a long period of history, from pre-TTP graffiti (e.g. inscriptions
from the catacombs of Rome, from the Swedish Viking era and from
the May student revolts), the pioneer Cornbread and early tags,
to todays complex and advanced murals. Special attention is
given to the Swedish painters Ruze, Core and Pike, whom I have been
able to follow during the whole period. As much as possible I have
preferred to use my own and other hitherto unpublished photographs.
From the beginning TTP develops simultaneously at different
levels between subculture and high culture. From the subway it makes
its way into the galleries and from the USA it spreads to
Europe and the rest of the western world, and this study focuses
on its capacity to adjust to new surroundings. In December 1979
the first European exhibition opened, and by 1984 there were no
less than seven large exhibitions of spray art in European
cities at the same time. The twenty American painters who,
together with the triumvirate of Haring, Basquiat and Scharf,
have been frequently represented in the galleries have lately been
joined by Europeans: French, English, German and Scandinavian. Spray
art and hiphop culture with its anti-racist model for solving conflicts
has at the same time been given a special position within the international
informal youth culture, a position which it still retains and develops.
Underground TTP has developed uninterruptedly in most of the big
cities in the western world, a process that is described country
by country. Since 1984 there are several skilful and now internationally
known painters in Sweden; train paintings are made regularly, exhibitions
are arranged and magazines published. The study gives a survey of
the history and development of Swedish TTP. In a special section
that deals with conflicts concerning public art two Swedish
examples from 1973 and 1991 are compared.
In the chapter on the combating and domestication
of graffiti I compare action patterns in the USA, Europe
and particularly Swedens big cities, and argue for the
method of minimising unlawful graffiti - to the extent
that this is desirable - which seems to be both most efficient and
least harmful: namely graffiti community centres, led by painters
according to the Uppsala model, officially designated
walls and similar possibilities. I give accounts of several extensive
anti-graffiti campaigns like the Clean Car Program 1984-1989 in
New York and also of the public debates, the changes of attitudes
and laws that have followed graffiti painting. A special example
of the dubious side-effects of conventional graffiti combating is
given from France.
In the final discussion TTP is related among
other things to the institutional art theory and it
appears that TTP could be defined as art, but as a new form. TTP
is a separate, independent art form. It also gives a new and postmodern
meaning to the term Underground Art.
The bibliography is intended to be useful in continued
research. For that reason it distinguishes between literature on
TTP and on other types of graffiti, which are listed separately.
It also contains all available newspaper and journal articles, mainly
in English, German, French and Scandinavian languages, exhibition
catalogues, broadcasting media, film and archives.
The thesis includes, as an appendix, a number of unabridged
interviews with the painters Mode 2 (Paris), Pike (Malmö),
Futura 2000 (New York) and Hex (Los Angeles).
What I initially maintained about the meaning, role
and importance of the spray-painted picture seems to be confirmed
by what has been documented here. TTP creates a new meaning from
known circumstances, in art and in life. That is the idea: the meaning
of the meaning is to create meaning.
Staffan Jacobson, Ph. D.
Department of Art History and
Center of Youth Research
Lund University, Sweden
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