Wall Art & Identities Graffiti and Street Art


Street art has been a practice that is considered either pointless or as a tool for attention. At the same time, street art is the canvas that reveals a specific community’s identity and perspective of the world depending on where the art was created and under what circumstances. The main question is, what happens when an individual's voice is heard through embodied street art? In one case graffiti gives to it’s artists fame. While in another layer in America, people receive graffiti as if it was the worst thing someone could do to a neighbor. Then we see graffiti become a tool that has many uses among people all over the world, and its use will be explored by observing how the meaning of street art is reconstructed.

Tagging & Street Art In The Play "Who Shot La Miguelito"

The play ..."explores the changing of our cities, the covering up of cultures and the silencing of voices through the viewfinder of street art in the Mission District." - San Jose

In the play, "Who Shot La Miguelito," there is a scene where people of the bay at La Mission get together to introduce a new member into the tradition of writing on the walls. The people of the community guide La Miguelito how to feel her city and how to paint this feeling on the wall. Their almost like in a chorus and they voice their instructions in a rhythm as if they were in a ritual conjuring a spirit. There is a rhythm and a melody that comes out of the spray cans when they’re being used to paint on an imaginary wall that faces the audience. La Miguelito's friends are all moving rhythmically to the music of these spray cans. Friends of La Miguelito get closer to her as she begins to flow into the rhythm and guidance of her neighborhood. The neighborhood talks about a mural that was done by La Miguelito's mother, and now it’s time for her offspring to continue the tradition. They all shout in an orchestrated unison and La Miguelito sprays. They all shake their cans and La Miguelito listens. They all count, shout, they feel the vibe, they shake the cans, and their voices guide La Miguelito deeper into what it means to make her own mark. (San Jose 3-4)

How did Tagging Gave a Voice to Young Adults?

Cornbread "King of the Walls," in Philadelphia, 1967
You could be on the basketball team, you could be in a gang, or you could go out here and write on the walls.” -Gastman

During the 1960’s, Cornbread became famous for his tags in unique places that would grab the attention of the city. His most famous work was the tagging of the sides of a famous elephant at the Philadelphia zoo and the jet of the famous group Jackson 5. He went to the extreme to have his name in unreachable and landmark places where everyone could see and this eventually landed him in jail. This became a new art movement that captured the attention of the city. His art soon inspired other young people like himself to do the same to have some glory and attention, soon the walls of Philadelphia bloomed with all kinds of names and numbers that represented several and aspiring artists from all over Philly. The goal of tagging became to be the most extreme and unique when tagging, and this would eventually create a name for the artist. Tagging soon became a problem because it was associated with marked gang territory boundaries and written threats. What is interesting here is that although tagging is vandalism, Cornbread took this practice and reframed it in a way that brought him recognition. The meaning of tagging on the wall went from a territorial gang mark, to one of being a personal mark on the most daring and captivating spot of the city.

How Female Identity Carved It's Way Into Tagging

Graffiti art is considered an only a male art form because of how rough it can be out on the streets. Graffiti art didn't have a space for women, until it a group of women changed its male dominated dynamic. Girlpower is a crew of women started by Sany in the Czech Republic as a response to being shunned by the men in the graffiti culture. Her work was always sprayed over with sexist comments, like return to the kitchen. She wanted to show that she had a meaningful role as a tagger so she founded an all female group of artists that defied both the male dominated community of graffitists, but also the authorities that restrain and jail them. Below is a video of her film where she documents her crew over nine years and also the extreme dangers of being a graffiti artist but especially a female graffiti artist.

Various art work being produced by female artists

To bring it closer to home, another similar movement was started in Oakland around 2017. Girl Mobb aka Nina Wright resides in Oakland, CA and is know for her contribution for empowering young female artists to be part of the street art community. It all was started when she realized that there weren't that many female artists after she was invited to participate in an all female art show in San Francisco. The street art community there is dominated by males, so she decided to shake things up, so she organized workshops specifically for teenage girls with the goal of augmenting the female experience and presence in street art. Soon, other cities responded positively to her movement and requested her camp to come to their city. Her work in empowering young female artists created and broadened the female presence in the street art scene. These two females are just a few examples of what it means to take the meaning of street art and graffiti and creating a new human experience that we all can experience. We will now have the female perspective in these cultures as will see a new shade of identity out in the walls.

The Source of Identities

What does a work on the street say about the identity of the artist? The meaning and identity of the work has a source based on the place and time where the inscription happened. The patterns between how an artist approach leaving a mark on a wall versus how the community receives them are as follows.

How an artist impacts their work after the community receives it is another way in which the artist creates another layer of identity
  • The act of breaking the rules and the adrenaline of being caught is something that inspires these artists. Nobody should tell them what to do and when to do it. This is why it's graffiti, because it's free from any kind of regulation from external parties.
  • A different meaning of tagging is the mark of territory by gang activity. The response from community is negative because they see that gangs are active. The appearance of a territorial and mindless tags later on causes the community to care less for that particular street. The police urges their community to keep it clean and to get rid of those tags promptly in order to prevent crime and isolation.
  • A different approach by other artists is to gain recognition, so they leave their tag somewhere where it will get the most views. Their approach is more about being visible than being risky. Their artwork usually is created in places that are touristic and less around high criminal activity areas.
  • Then we have moralism, where it expresses the beliefs of the community. We see this everywhere in the world where social or political murals send a message to all the social layers of their country. Making them aware of a problem or requesting a change into one of the political and socio-economic layers of their society.

Artist v. Institutions

The art world is huge and these bullet points serve as a surface guide into the art work and by no means define it. Here is a video where prominent artist Banksy destroys his street art during an auction. He defended his prank using one of Picasso's quotes: “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” Since the shredder malfunctioned, now this work is considered to be even more valuable than before because it contains a timeless message directly from the artist.

An article by "Brooklyn Unplugged" states that the acceptance of street art into mainstream art circles has created social controversies. In late 2012 a Banksy piece disappeared from a London wall and resurfaced at a luxury art auction in Miami, Florida. The piece was know as the kissing coppers. Residents of its original London neighborhood expressed protest. They felt strongly that as a work of art it belonged to the community where it was created, and that it should be returned. The auction went ahead nonetheless and the piece was sold to a private collector for 1.1 million dollars!

Mural without a wall: Banksy's Kissing Coppers at Fine Art Auctions Miami. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Graffiti & Street Art Transcends in Our Future Communities

The discourse between law and artists about vandalism and art both are correct. Both have valid points when it comes to the safety and well being of a community and another is that when used correctly, art has the power to beatify and bring attention to the community as well. It's important for a community to become conscious of when an art work in the street is in fact art, or just a mere territorial mark so that they can decided together what to do with it and not feel overpowered by its presence.

Something that makes possible for us to imagine a new America is how people take the initiative to guide others and teach them about this art. This kind of art is what has the power to embody a voice that can positively change or create something in the thread of our communities. The act of teaching and helping others transcends through time and life as this knowledge passes on to exist in different forms. The new student then learns and makes new art that is relevant to the time we live in. How does this act create a new America?

San Jose, Sean, Who Shot La Miguelito, UC Berkeley, 09/06/19

Planet, Spray. "A History of Graffiti - The 60's and 70's." Spray Planet by Montana Colors, 16 August 2018, https://www.sprayplanet.com/blogs/news/a-history-of-graffiti-the-60s-and-70s

Chan, Sewell. “A Sociologist's Look at Graffiti.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Feb. 2009, https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/a-new-look-at-graffiti-writers-lives/.

“Is Graffiti Illegal?” Guided Tours of Brooklyn, NYC, 17 July 2018, https://www.brooklynunpluggedtours.com/is-graffiti-illegal-crime

Crimmins, Peter, and Whyy. “Cornbread, the First Graffiti Artist, Shows New Work at Philadelphia Gallery.” The Philadelphia Tribune, 29 July 2019, https://www.phillytrib.com/lifestyle/cornbread-the-first-graffiti-artist-shows-new-work-at-philadelphia/article_3c40bc9a-2590-5322-83c2-dfd4fef7380c.html.