The Voice of Graffiti

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I think most people can agree that graffiti is a messy topic when it comes to really defining it.  It’s so diverse that some people would call it art, vandalism, propaganda, gang-related territorial markings, and so on depending on your background and point of view.  I personally love the grey-area concept of street art, it makes it a great topic of controversy (not to mention I myself am a novice yarn-bomber).  Argue as much as you want concerning it’s artistic merit or its legality issues, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that graffiti is one of the major forms of cultural/counter-cultural free speech.  I mean think about it, images and pictures either positively or negatively depicting a social issue or such is probably an opinion by the creator of the piece.

Modern graffiti as we have today really took off in the 1960s where instead of images and pictures, graffiti writers were concerned with “the Name”.  To them, the Name was like a logo, telling the world who you were and that you existed.  From the 1970s graffiti wars of New York to today, graffiti has evolved to the strange dilemma of being treasured and also hated.  Graffiti culture has lost its edge in a way actually.  Where before it was supposed to piss people off and be rebellious, now in some places walls are being torn down to preserve and auction off works by Banksy or Shepard Fairey.  In America, graffiti has become a part of the culture, influencing the styles of clothes we wear, commercials, spiral notebook covers, shoes, etc.

Now I’m not saying that all graffiti has been reduced to what may be called “kitsch”.  To be quite honest, I always think the religious icons are some of the most interesting sub-genres within the graffiti culture.  Images of the Virgin Mary or the Dalai Llama are always some of the most interesting I think, especially if they’re controversial.

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Okay…….so maybe Surfing Madonna isn’t the best example of controversy, but you should understand what I mean.  So anyway, people have used these religious icons as a part of their intention to say something.  Could this be a suggestion for more moral behavior in interaction with others?  Religious images on public walls, like most other kinds of graffiti, demand the attention of the public as they pass by.  There has been one group that has taken advantage of this concept and that is the Gospel Graffiti Crew.  This is a Christian Based group that spreads the word and love of Jesus Christ by tagging moral messages on….legally allowed areas.  I’m sure graffiti purists at this point may be clutching their computer screens or tablets screaming, “NO! IT DOES NOT COUNT AS GRAFFITI IF IT’S ON LEGAL WALLS!!”  But if looks like graffiti and is on walls like graffiti, the public will just assume it’s graffiti regardless of the ramifications.  But a part of me wonders, at what point does this become propaganda?

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I mean, street art also makes an impact in other countries in looking for change in their government.  Look no further than the Berlin Wall, where most of the graffiti was on the western side describing the need for freedom in East Berlin from the U.S.S.R.   Graffiti has become a very common form of protesting against authority, especially in the Middle East.  In Egypt, the large youth-driven populace began to protest against the ruling military regime that ran the country, mainly by tagging city walls.  This enabled citizens to be aware of political ideologies within the country.  In Tehran, graffiti has been attributed to the youth underground that has to hide itself.  Under the rule of Ahmadinejad, the religious police have been under strict control to rid the city of youth rebellion.  In all of these cases, it seems with the right words, any piece of graffiti can instantly become a piece of propaganda to influence the minds and hearts of the people.

So say what you will about street art.  It’s a medium that is utterly confusing to understand yet makes complete sense to those that make it.  Try as you might though, it will never be suppressed for very long; Mayor Lindsay tried, Ahmadinejad tried, governments all over the world tried but every time they fail to destroy the graffiti movement.  It is the voice of the people in times of change.  It may embody what we fear to give actual voice to.  Whether we like it or not, graffiti will never go away completely, not as long as something need to be said.

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The Mourning of Atticus Finch

My favorite quote in the whole world came from one of my friends in high school.  He looked at me one day and said, “I like books.  They also make great helmets.”  I naturally thought this was just a funny joke for being so ridiculous.  However as time has gone on, I’ve begun to analyze this little statement and have come to the conclusion that books do not only make great helmets but the very best of helmets and I’ll tell you why.

All the knowledge and experience contained in all the stories of all the books ever written have helped mankind get closer to understanding what it exactly means to be human.  Mr. Machiavelli says that men often tread the path most common and so we imitate those whom we admire.  Stories are who we are, who we once were, and what we can hope to be.  They show us how we can change.  With knowledge can one be better equipped to face the challenges of nature and make better educated choices.  From the stories of famous heroes and the downfalls of others can we make a choice of what we inherently believe to be right and wrong.  You don’t have to agree with a story to learn from it.  With the lessons learned from books can every man defend himself honorably, see the world justly, and know his personal identity.

So where am I going with this?  I’m sure lots of people have heard of books being banned in schools, libraries, and states across the country for content that is disagreeable or going against morality.  One of the largest forefronts of this is the Christian Coalition who say that books that have sex, vulgarity, violence, and other profane subjects should not be exposed to America’s children.  Don’t get me wrong, I would NOT give a 7 year-old Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  That would be stupid.  However, you shouldn’t get rid of it as a whole because of the fear that your child might get a hold of it.  However, required school readings set many conservative parents and individuals into a frenzy.  Any story that has any one of the few “immoral” attributes I’ve already listed above is come under scrutiny and have been taken off the the reading curriculum and even the school libraries.  Of the many books already banned from schools, some of them are:

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Where’s Waldo? by Martin Handford (yes, this has been a banned book!)

1984 by George Orwell

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

Howl by Allen Ginsberg

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Now while I could argue the case for all of these books, I feel the need to defend Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  I first read this novel in my AP English class and besides Steinbeck, it was the best thing I read that year.  The book has been recently banned in Louisiana school districts because of it’s racist content and the fear that it might spread “white supremacy”.  Yes, it contains racist content but it’s a look into history.  This was before the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s so the treatment of African Americans are going to be pretty sketchy.  Have these people not looked in a history book recently?  The commonness of racism is enough to make you sick, portraying it as some sort of disease.  It should not inspire feelings of white supremacy.  If it does, the professor has probably done a terrible job teaching the book in the first place.  But like any book, there are multiple themes going on.  Racism is the main theme but there are also motifs on class structure, gender, hypocrisy, the call for respect, and deindividuation (it’s a word! look it up!).  I’m just amazed and aghast that the people that have had read To Kill a Mockingbird object against it because of it’s racial overtones.   Were they not aware of Atticus Finch?  He is openly opposed to racism in the book!  He’s the one character that everyone likes because of his strong sense of morals!  He constantly tells his children and others:

  • “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” (Ch. 3)
  • “You can’t go around making caricatures of the neighbors.” (ch.8)
  • “When a child asks you something, answer him for goodness’ sake.  But don’t make a production of it.  Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles them.  […]  Bad language is a stage all children go through, and it dies with them when they learn they’re not attracting attention with it.  Hotheadedness isn’t.” (ch.9)
  • “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” (Ch. 11)

These are just a few examples, but there is no denying that this story is relevant to the way we can grow as people.  It’s not as if racism has escaped our times as well either.  We still have to deal with that.  To ban books like this is not only setting us back to prejudice and ignorance, but is a strict limitation on our first amendment rights of free speech.  Every author that writes a story is putting a little bit of themselves in the dialogue or the actions or the overall ideas portrayed.  To ban a book is to kill that universe of ideas that let the reader learn a little bit more about themselves.  With banning books, we are silencing Atticus from telling us to respect one another, killing Piggy before he even has a chance to be the voice of reason, and making sure Harry Potter never survives as “the boy who lived” to inspire our sense of worth to the world.

I guess I’ve talked a lot about this, but I just can’t help it.  Books mean a lot to me.  And so I conclude affirming the statement that I put forward at the beginning:

“I like books.  They also make great helmets”

                             –Nicholas “Nicholock Holmes” Beall

 

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