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 to art.
Chapter 4 follows the  diffusion and acculturation from the subway to the gallery and from the USA to Europe; Sweden in particular is examined.
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 society”s 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 1960”s 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 1970”s 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 TTP”s 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 today”s 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 Sweden”s 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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