The writing on the street

There is a movement happening as this is being read.

Right now, there is a kid lost in an urban jungle with nothing but his wits and an aerosol can, painting his dreams on the walls around him. Maybe this kid keeps up with what he loves and doesn’t compromise his aspirations despite the illegal nature of his chosen calling. Maybe his art will be famous one day, even though the critics never got a chance to see it in a gallery and point out its faults over glasses of cheap wine.

Though this is a story, it’s not far from the truth. Graffiti has stepped into the mainstream. It is accessible, anonymous and undeniably cool, but it did not happen overnight. Modern street art is the product of more than 30 years of underground effort at nameless expression.

To understand what graffiti is, it is helpful to understand the vocabulary associated with it. In the book Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture, James E. Walmesley points out that the term graffiti is a dated one. Graffiti artists generally use the term “writing” when referring to their art, and they speak of themselves as “writers.”

The first thing a new writer must do is figure out a “tag,” or nickname. If you have seen graffiti, you have most likely seen a tag. They are usually short, aesthetic words sometimes written in complex tribal script known as “wildstyle.” As one writer said, “Choose a clever name that defies the norm of simple-minded slang.”

Once writers figure out their tag, the next step is “getting up.” Getting up means – as the name suggests – writers should try to spray their tag in as many places as possible.

There are two ways in which a writer can “get up.” One is a “throw-up,” in which the writer’s tag is usually written in bubbly block letters around three feet tall, typically in one color. A “piece” is similar to a “throw-up” but is larger and more intricate.

The tag and the throw-up are two tools beginner writers tend to choose. They are easy to put up and can be done without any planning.

On the other hand, due to its complex nature, a piece must be planned in advance. It can be the product of the combined effort of two or more artists. It can also include imagery beyond the tag, such as cartoon characters or of realistic imagery.

If a piece is well styled and has good use of color, it is then referred to as a “burner.” It is through these pieces that a writer’s style is judged.

Writers also use wheat paste to display their work in the form of a poster. Wheat paste has been gaining popularity recently and can be seen all over Tampa. The benefit of wheat paste over writing is its ability to be transported. An artist could mail posters to another city and ask an artist there to put them up. Wheat paste is also very inexpensive. It is a mixture of flour, boiling water and sometimes sugar.

According to the essay “In the beginning, there was the word,” by Walmesley in his book, TAKI 183 is credited with starting the graffiti movement. He was a delivery boy in New York in the early 1970s. Using a small marker pen, he began to write his tag wherever he went in the city. Others saw this and wanted to copy him. He unknowingly started the writing subculture.

“Graffiti started as just writing your name on things, but then evolved into a kind of urban calligraphy,” local artist Patrick Hannon said.

Graffiti is a unique art form in the sense that all of its participants have at some point broken the law. No other art movement in history can boast this. Graffiti will always be a subculture, despite mainstream efforts to control and incorporate it because of its inherent illegality. Rebellion and art are inextricably connected in the graffiti scene.

Accessibility is another defining characteristic of graffiti. Traditional art may seem stuffy and unapproachable to someone who is just getting into art. Yet, you can walk up and touch graffiti. It is there for the people and not for the critics. Graffiti is in the public eye. It defies the constraint of authority.

“You’re making your art more accessible to people,” Hannon said. “You bypass the gallery system and reach people you wouldn’t normally reach. It gives a sort of mystery or aura to your work; people want to know what’s behind it.

“When I see (graffiti) someplace, I think you can get an idea of the kind of culture a city has. If I see a bunch of cool stuff around, I think it’s a little glimpse at what lurks beneath.”

Graffiti has seen quite a bit of popularity as of late.

Marc Ecko, best known for his Ecko Unlimited brand of graffiti-influenced clothing, has been able to expand his empire into a multifaceted conglomerate that, according to, boasted billings of nearly $1 billion last year. He also recently released a video game, Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, where players can vicariously live the life of a street artist.

The online community MySpace has made it possible for fans to connect with numerous artists and view their work. Shepard Fairey’s popular “OBEY” tag can be seen on shirts sold at the popular clothing store Urban Outfitters.

On and around campus, the pulse of the graffiti scene is evident. If you look closely while you are walking to class, you may notice homemade stickers adorning various objects around campus or wheat-pasted silhouettes on the walls.

Graffiti has survived any attempt to stifle its rebellious creativity, and it seems this trend will continue. The mainstream has embraced the spray-paint rebellion. While some may argue the artists involved have sold out, I would argue they are just getting up.