January 20–March 3, 2017
Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery

How far would you go for your art? Would you pick a lock? Scale a building? Risk arrest? Those are just some of the occupational hazards of a graffiti writer. And for the (mostly) kids who birthed and grew this contemporary folk art movement, the recognition is worth it. To illicitly spray paint a pseudonym on enough public spaces to earn a reputation requires taking risks, thinking creatively, and being resourceful. But to those outside the graffiti world, their work can be misunderstood or under appreciated. So the first show of 2017 in Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, ALL BIG LETTERS, showcases graffiti in an effort to demystify its tools and strategies.

The birth of the movement can be traced back roughly 50 years to when kids began “tagging” public spaces all over their hometowns of New York and Philadelphia. The illegal art form flourished in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and as visitors to any big city or small town in America today can see, it is still thriving. The tools, methods, and styles have evolved over time, but artists’ goals remain the same—to be seen and not to be seen, at the same time.

Curated by Vandalog Editor-in-Chief and Haverford alumnus RJ Rushmore ’14, ALL BIG LETTERS traces this history with photos of BLADE’s eye-catching pieces on subway trains from the ’70s hung near images depicting Philadelphia graffiti writers GANE and TEXAS at work earlier this decade. The exhibit also acknowledges and investigates the surprising variety of tools that artists use. Custom lock-picking sets crafted to open bus shelters and D.I.Y. supplies, including pressurized PVC pipes filled with paint, homemade markers, and a special spray can with bike mirror affixed to it, so artists can see what’s going on behind them, will all be on display, alongside the works those tools are used to create. ALL BIG LETTERS is less about the art of graffiti and more about the craft of writing it.

ALL BIG LETTERS is supported by the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities.

Saturday, February 18, 2017
Brewerytown Street Art Walking Tour with Curator RJ Rushmore
2 p.m.
Meet at W Girard Ave & N 27th St, Philadelphia

Monday, February 6, 2017
Do-It- Yourself Zine Workshop with Adam VOID
4:30 p.m.
James House, Haverford College





Graffiti is an art. Graffiti is a sport. Graffiti is a quest for fame. Graffiti requires design and repetition: write a name until it matters.

Since modern graffiti burst forth from the streets of New York and Philadelphia 50 years ago, hundreds of thousands of kids have picked up a marker to take part, causing countless property owners to ask, “Why does graffiti look like that, and why is it on my wall?” The answers are complicated, but if you can understand the tools and strategies that graffiti writers use, and why and how they use them, everything else about graffiti comes into focus. ALL BIG LETTERS is an attempt to demystify graffiti, starting with these tools and these strategies.

“Graffiti” here is shorthand for a particular type of graffiti: modern graffiti, also called writing, hip-hop graffiti, graff, or tagging.1 This graffiti is, to paraphrase the graffiti writer KATSU, writing an assumed name without permission enough times and on enough surfaces to build a reputation.2 This is the graffiti that comes out of the summer of 1967, when Darryl McCray was released from a juvenile detention center and began writing the name Cornbread all over Philadelphia.3 Other teens picked up on Cornbread’s example. They wanted the fame too: it’s right there in the early Philadelphia names like Dr. Cool #1, Cool Earl, and Top Cat.4 They wrote those names all over the city. A movement was born.

This kind of graffiti is an urban folk art, developed mostly by kids. Before about 1980, the details of its history are difficult to trace. Most histories of graffiti start with Philadelphia in 1967, or New York around 1968. But what if a kid in Detroit wrote his name on a wall in spray paint in 1965? And what if he only wrote it once and nobody cared? Who first had the idea of adding a star or a street number? It was probably a case of multiple discovery, but arguments have persisted for almost 50 years over which teenager was the first to draw a crown above their name. Innovation was always a part of graffiti.

Writers are surprisingly resourceful. They climb buildings, craft their own lock picking sets, mix their own inks, teach themselves typography… It’s not just for fun—it’s for fame. Fame is the end goal of modern graffiti.5 There’s no exact formula and the calculus is different depending on which writer you ask, but fame is built on a combination of factors including repetition, longevity, visibility, degree of difficulty, novelty, and style.

Many of the criteria for graffiti fame are only fully appreciated by other writers or insiders with a sharp eye. Most writers want recognition from other writers, not from the general public. As SKEME tells his mother in the documentary Style Wars, “It’s for me and other graffiti writers, that we can read it. All these other people who don’t write, they’re excluded. I don’t care about them.”6

Art writers and gallerists tend to focus on graffiti’s style, because it’s the easiest element to replicate indoors and legally. And style is important, but writers are first and foremost competitors for fame. Their art and design skills, while no doubt impressive, are in service of that primary goal. Without underestimating style’s importance in graffiti, always consider its function.

BLADE spray painted on the side of a subway car

No single writer better captures the one-upmanship that is central to graffiti than BLADE, who focused on style, novelty, and repetition. Through the evolution of his style, we can chart many of modern graffiti’s critical innovations. BLADE is a “king” (slang for an acknowledged master and influential writer, often first self-proclaimed), one of the all-time kings of the New York City subway system. Throughout his prolific subway career, his pieces were some of the most eye-catching in the city, and practically every change in his style can be attributed to his wanting to make the most noteworthy and visible graffiti in New York.

When BLADE started writing, there wasn’t much competition. In 1970, bright yellow spray paint and an exclamation point on a subway car were enough to make a name stand out. As other writers caught on, BLADE had to push further, making his pieces “3D” and adding polka dots. Still, two colors were enough. Then, as other writers started adding cartoon characters next to their names, BLADE decided to invent his own characters. He painted a snowman and used four colors. Why is his name caught in a snowdrift? The trains were getting crowded with names, so adding a snowdrift or cloud backdrop was a way to cover up old work by another writer. By 1984, when BLADE retired from writing on trains, he had painted over 5,000 pieces, his works evolving into complex compositions in which the name was (almost) secondary. Every change in style was part of the competition, BLADE’s best possible response to the present situation. Eye-catching, innovative, and adaptive design was BLADE’s most powerful strategy for fame.

Today, writers like FAUST have picked up that mantle. FAUST and his writing partner SURE were capable of painting traditional graffiti, but they found their groove in marker tags and stickers, bringing a luxurious calligraphic style to their work. New York City surfaces are crowded with mediocre graffiti: printed stickers of names in bolded Arial or Helvetica, tags that look like every other tag, and pieces that are made up of styles borrowed from more innovative writers. For a time, FAUST and SURE’s work was instantly recognizable because the style was outside the norm. They could have written BANANA on a sticker, and people would have known who was writing it. Style made them stand out, and hitting the city hard with their work—“a tag on every street corner” would only be a little hyperbolic—made them kings. There are dozens of kings and queens that any graffiti writer worldwide can name, but only a handful of them earned their crowns through stickers and small tags.

SURE was killed in 2010 while serving as a Marine in Afghanistan, but in FAUST’s hands, the duo’s legacy has continued to evolve, with large-scale installations and murals that put their distinctive chisel-tip marker style under a magnifying glass. FAUST’s current work is a study in style and tools, replicating what markers can do down to the minutest detail, but using different paints and writing implements to increase the scale. As other artists have picked up on what has been called calligraffiti, FAUST has maintained his place at the head of the pack. Whether he’s using chisel-tip markers on a sticker, spray paint on a mural, or his finger on the snowy hood of a car, FAUST maintains our attention and earns his fame with impeccable style.

Competition among writers for the most perfected style (as defined by other writers) is how Philadelphia got “the graffiti your mother warned you about… the exaggerated, cryptic, often elongated versions of the graffiti writer’s tag,” aka the wicked.7 Wickeds are the quintessential Philadelphia tags, the basis of competition among writers for the most Philly style. They have been called “Philadelphia’s encrypted script,” and like wildstyle graffiti (whose visually complex and appealing letters are abstracted to the point of being nearly indecipherable), they appear unreadable to outsiders.8 A true wicked says to other writers that the writer is a real Philadelphia local—like someone who can name the entire line-up of the 1989 Phillies. It would be easier to write a more legible tag, but a true wicked gets respect (at least from others who can do them). There is perhaps no better example of a style of graffiti that is meant to appeal to and be read by members of the same writing community.

AEIOU all in different graffiti styles
EVAN ROTH, 2012.

But style is only one way to build a reputation. To write graffiti is, at its most pure, the performance of an illegal act to which style simply serves to draw attention. According to SKEME, an early New York City graffiti writer who has now transitioned to fine art and legal walls, “I consider myself a graffiti artist who is a former graffiti writer. If you’re doing legalized walls and spots, and you’re not risking anything, then what you’re doing is graffiti art. In order to be a graffiti writer, it must be illegal.”9 As SKEME suggests, to paint for style and remove the illegal performance is to paint something conceptually removed from writing.

When writers think about graffiti, the performance is as important as the product, sometimes more important. That’s why practitioners call themselves writers, for the act of writing, and not something like “graffitists,” for what they write. An architect makes a beautiful piece of architecture and it’s about the result. A writer writes graffiti on that architecture and it’s about the act. KATSU has said, “Graffiti is mostly about implementation, the act. What risks were taken? How did the body move? What mark was left?”10 That’s how writers look at graffiti, and that’s why SKEME would say that painting something illegally is writing and painting the same thing legally is art. They ask what went into making it. Did you carry five different colors of paint with you rather than just one or two?  Did you access a difficult-to-reach spot or tag somewhere high-risk? Before parkour and urban exploring, writers were already finding new ways to navigate and use the city. How did ELMS paint his name 30-feet tall in spray paint down the side of an apartment building? Did he rappel down from the rooftop without anyone noticing? Or did he take advantage of some temporary scaffolding? By considering the performance, you can get a sense of the degree of difficulty involved in creating the piece, one of the criteria for gauging the work’s potential for generating fame within the writing community.

In relation to urban planners, writers are much like skateboarders. Urban planners design public spaces with subtle nudges that make us safer or encourage certain behaviors that the average citizen may not even be aware of. The way we move through cities is not an accident. Skaters flip that concept.  Rather than experiencing the city as intended and following the nudges that pedestrians are meant to obey, they are constantly thinking about how they can use a city’s stairs, curbs, benches, and railings for their own purposes–purposes completely unintended by, and often contrary to the wishes of, the city’s designers. The world is a skate park, and everything on the street is potentially skateable. Writers are similar. They consider how every surface can be accessed and used or how visible a finished piece will be, while also hyper-aware of risks like the location of nearby police stations, the complexity of security systems, or the number of pedestrians on the street. Once that switch is turned on in a person’s head, it’s hard to turn it off. The city becomes a stage, with every piece of graffiti the residue of an unsanctioned performance.

All the things discussed up to this point–style, repetition, novelty, and performance–have essentially been strategies employed by writers. Now we get to the tools.

Writers use the city “wrong.” From day one, writers used everything “wrong.” They are hackers. Not in the sense of breaking in (although they do that too) or writing malicious computer code, but in the sense that they use things for unintended purposes. Evan Roth makes this point in his TEDx talk Artists are Hackers, saying, “If you think about the Krylon Company, right? They never intended for people to point their product at other people’s property. This was a brilliant or a terrible hack, depending on your view of graffiti… When I’m inspired by and falling in love with great graffiti, it’s not about how well rendered the paint is, it’s not how many colors are in it. It has everything to do with where those letters are placed and what systems it’s hacking into.”11 On the use of subway trains as a surface for graffiti, Roth adds, “This was a brilliant hack. This was a group of people exploiting a system for something it wasn’t intended to do, right? To transport art instead of transport people throughout the city.”12

Spray paint cans

Spray paint was a hack. The subway was a hack. Almost all of the tools and surfaces used by writers started as a hack to solve a problem. Writers consider how they can make their names famous, and they use whatever tools are at their disposal to make it happen. They replace standard spray paint caps with caps from other aerosol cans (like hair spray or oven cleaner), fill fire extinguishers with paint, fill shoe polish containers with ink to make homemade markers, and fill those homemade markers with Etch Bath (glass-corroding acid) instead of ink. The fire extinguisher creates a tag so massive that it’s impractical to remove, and it only takes a few seconds. Shoe polish markers have a huge nib for huge tags, oven cleaner caps let you paint more quickly by expelling a broader spread of paint than a standard cap, and Etch Bath frosts glass for perhaps the most damaging and expensive-to-remove form of graffiti per square foot. Biancoshock’s Spy Can (a bike mirror that attaches to a spray can to give writers a look at what’s behind them) was made in jest, but it’s almost believable. Writers will weaponize anything they can in service of their craft.13

But writers aren’t the only ones with tools. Those who oppose them—municipal governments, property owners, advertisers—use security systems to deter graffiti and various means to remove graffiti as quickly as possible. It’s an arms race. The best writers are as good at breaking and entering as they are at painting. Put a fence around a building, and writers will bring bolt cutters. Put a lock on a door, and writers will pick the lock, steal a key, or even build their own. New York train writers CRASH and DAZE had skeleton keys to open train doors, “stolen years before, copied and handed down from one artist to another.”14

Thanks to activists like Jordan Seiler, the “anti-vandal screws” that companies like JCDecaux use to protect the advertisements at bus shelters are just a mild inconvenience. For his PublicAccess project, Seiler makes custom keys that open up bus shelters in major cities worldwide and sells the keys online. A writer need only spend $40 or less for the keys to the shelters in their city. If JCDecaux decides to change the design of the screws, Seiler can just make a new key.

A collection of tools used to unlock protected surfaces

Graffiti removal (which writers call “the buff”) is often a humorously futile battle. For every innovation in buffing technology, writers fight back with even more damaging inks, paints, and adhesives. If the buffman only removes stickers placed at the lower edge of a stop sign, writers stand on their bike frames to reach a few feet higher. If a restaurant regularly paints over tagged-up bathroom walls, writers move to scratching the mirror instead. Often, a good buff can even lead to new graffiti, since writers are less hesitant to paint over grey paint than over the work of their peers.

New and more powerful tools may start as trade secrets among writers, but often become commercial ventures. KRINK’s inks began as the writer KR’s particularly well-made homemade ink, something for personal use and use by his friends. Now, KRINK is a global brand of graffiti-strength paint markers available at most good art supply stores, and competitors are putting out even more damaging products. It’s rare to see a contemporary writer using a classic spray paint brand like Krylon. Instead, they have at least half a dozen brands to choose from, all designed specifically for graffiti.

MOLOTOW describes its “High-Pressure” line as “The ultimate MOLOTOW™ action-product,” touting the can’s “famous UV- and weather-resistance” and “extremely high output-rate and high-pressure setting for quick and silent applications on larger areas… no matter if you’re working on wall or steel.”15 MOLOTOW is saying that the High-Pressure line is specifically designed for the needs of the writer doing illegal work. She can paint quickly and quietly, and the colors won’t fade. It’s high-performance paint suited to the illegal performance of writing.

Scribes on a Mirror
ADAM VOID, 2014.

Even stickers have seen innovation in response to the buff. In the mid-2000’s, writers like BNE and Smart Crew began using a new kind of vinyl for their printed stickers. The vinyl flakes apart (like an egg shell on a hard boiled egg) when anyone tries to scrape it off, so a sticker has to be removed in 1000 tiny pieces, rather than as a whole with one good tug. In 2012, Egg Shell Stickers made destructible vinyl available to the writing masses, unleashing something that the graffiti removal industry still has not figured out how to combat. Their best tool so far? A razor blade taped to a pole.

Whenever a new technology comes out to combat graffiti, writers find a way around it, and the solution is often to use materials that are ever more damaging to property. If there were no buffman and graffiti were legal, there would be no KRINK, no MOLOTOW High-Pressure, and no Egg Shell Stickers. There would be no need. And of course, there would also be no writing. Just graffiti art.

While they haven’t been commercialized yet, except as a limited release by KRINK, fire extinguishers are the ultimate graffiti tool developed in response to the twin pressures of security and the buff. Extinguisher tags are not what most people would call beautiful. They are, however, huge, eye-catching, quick to do, and difficult (or at least time-consuming) to remove. Put another way, fire extinguishers generate fame very efficiently, but they are also very destructive.

Tools can play a major role in stylistic innovation. “Rollers” are graffiti painted with a paint roller and house paint. With a paint roller on a telescopic pole, writers can reach new spots, placing their work above the buff and above other pieces that might be on a wall at ground level. They can also stick their roller over the edge of rooftop or bridge to paint spots that would be impossible to reach with spray paint unless they rappelled down the side of the building. However, the vast majority of rollers are simply “straight letters,” sans-serif block text in one or two colors.

The writers GANE and TEXAS made their mark on history by combining rollers with tall hands, the more legible cousin of Philadelphia’s wickeds (and, like wickeds, a style that had previously been achieved only with spray paint or markers). Largely as a result of that innovation, they have dominated Philadelphia graffiti in recent years. When GANE and TEXAS used paint rollers to replicate the look of tall hands on a multi-story scale, they displayed a skill with difficult-to-control paint rollers that plenty of writers wouldn’t be able to achieve at street level with spray paint. It was a quantum leap forward, to date only matched by other writers working in collaboration with the duo.

Innovative writers also tend to adapt their tools to changing situations. Adam COST, one of the most prolific writers in New York graffiti history, changes his tools, medium, and style depending on whom he is trying to reach. When he wrote with REVS in the 1990s, their logic was simple: do whatever is unpopular with other writers, and destroy the streets. COST explained it in this way: “If somebody did a perfect line, we painted a drippy line that dripped everywhere.”16 In 2005 when COST wanted to remind the graffiti community that he was still a king, he went with something that only other writers would notice: 8,000 distinctive two-letter CO tags all over New York. When he wanted the mainstream press and “street art” audience to hear about him again, he went back to ransom-note posters and stickers in hipster-friendly neighborhoods. By switching up his tools, style, medium, and even location, COST reaches different crowds and achieves different goals.

Generally speaking, writers who don’t have to worry as much about the buff innovate around style, and writers who do worry about the buff innovate around tools to create increasingly destructive, buff-resistant, or highly visible graffiti. At that point, tools become a means for damage above all else, and style based on traditional measures of beauty is often neglected. Given ink that is beautiful but easily removed or ink that leaves a permanent stain but is considered ugly, the writer will choose the more permanent and disfiguring ink almost every time. You’ll never see writers painting with watercolors. They would, quite literally, sooner paint with tar. If some graffiti looks ugly, you might even say it’s those who oppose graffiti that make it that way. The writers just keep doing their thing the best they can to make a mark.

Man standing on shopping cart painting with long brush

But writers have their limits. When it became clear that breaking into a train yard to paint a New York City subway car meant a serious risk of arrest, and a promise that the work would only “run” for as long as it took for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to get the car to a repair center to be cleaned, writers mostly gave up painting the outsides of train cars and concentrated their energies elsewhere (like subway tunnels and other walls visible from the trains). The incentive was gone. That’s how BLADE made the transition from painting subways to painting walls. The shift is still evident today to anyone who regularly rides aboveground trains in major American cities. Once cities’ transit systems could more or less control graffiti, writers moved on to surfaces visible from trains, like when a building owner installs anti-pigeon spikes only to see the pigeons move next door.

A writer active across different surfaces and in different locations may write one name, but will need many tools and many styles. CURVE on a metal beam with a white out pen (filled with ink). CURVE on a plywood wall with a spray can. CURVE under a bridge in five colors of spray paint. It’s not just adapting over the years. Adaptability means constantly responding to what is possible on the street and elsewhere. For Lee Quinones (who wrote LEE), that even meant learning to replicate his graffiti with oil paints when he brought it to a gallery setting.

Writers also react to the design and architecture of cities. While the basic tenets of graffiti remain consistent from place to place, the styles, tools, mediums, and locations change. In a driving city like LA, painting trains and putting up stickers just won’t do. Instead, MSK Crew and others have painted the billboards and road signs along LA’s freeways. In walking cities like New York and Philadelphia, putting up thousands of stickers and street-level tags makes more sense. NTEL takes advantage of Philadelphia’s walkability and avoids the buff with pieces that stick directly to the asphalt at crosswalks, and stands out in a crowded sea of small tags by gluing eye-catching 3D sculptures to walls. Smart Crew hide their work in plain sight with stickers that parody the ubiquitous locksmith’s advertisements found on most New York storefronts. Writers who live near a freight-train hub in a small rural town may paint freight trains instead of walls. The work travels the country and does not raise too much attention locally. Just as a city guides pedestrians to walk in certain ways, it guides writers to write in certain ways. Writers can fight against that flow if they want, or they can use it to their advantage.

Take Luna Park’s photo of graffiti on the Lower East Side. There’s a fantastic range at this one empty lot, from small printed stickers on a metal pole to tall hand rollers by GANE and TEXAS. Why? With some educated guesses, we can pick apart the scene.

TEXAS GANE written in blue on the side of a building

This empty lot is crowded. Not every block of New York is quite so dense with graffiti, but an empty lot on the Lower East Side presents a good opportunity for writers: space in a prime neighborhood without owners or tenants keeping a close eye or concerned about removal.

Start with the stickers on the right side. Stickers are quick and easy to put up, and that metal post provides a perfect surface for them to adhere to. Writers could also tag the post with small markers, but it really is an ideal surface for stickers. On the brick column to the right where stickers and markers would be no good, there’s a spray-painted tag.

To the right of the biker is a fire hydrant with a SEN4 tag, painted to catch the eye of pedestrians walking by. Some writers love hydrants and others avoid them, but they can fit a small tag in spray paint (or perhaps an Egg Shell sticker).

The privacy screen on the chain-link fence is the key piece of design at this lot. While it obscures the graffiti at ground level below the GANE and TEXAS pieces, it also provides new opportunities for writers. Along the outside of the fence are simple throw-ups and tags in spray paint. What else could you reasonably use to cover such a rough surface quickly and easily? Everything on the fence had to be painted fast. Rivington Street is busy at all hours. Every piece of graffiti is the physical record of a crime, and when you’re committing a crime, every second is another second of risk.

But the screen obscures more than the graffiti behind it. It also obscures what anyone might be doing in that lot. Like Banksy putting up a tarp when he installed work in the same neighborhood in 2013,17 GANE and TEXAS could paint their huge and time-consuming piece with relative privacy and protection, despite being in the heart of Lower Manhattan.

This exploration of Luna Park’s photo is just one possible answer to one instance of asking “Why does graffiti look like that, and why is it on my wall?” To ask those questions is always to invite a bit of guesswork, since one is building a story around the residue of a series of secret performances. However, trying to pick apart the how and why is a useful exercise without which graffiti can’t be fully appreciated.

The best graffiti is a clever response to the constraints of tools and surface, with stylistic flourishes and other innovations added in response to the constraint of competition. And yet, too often, attempts to bring graffiti into gallery and museum settings focus only on style, which is to miss the purpose of graffiti.

ALL BIG LETTERS is an attempt to balance the scales, to acknowledge the building blocks of graffiti such as repetition, longevity, visibility, degree of difficulty, and novelty—to re-evaluate style as a means to an end rather than for its own sake. Graffiti is no accident. Graffiti is built for fame. The spray can is a tool for mark making. The subway car is a tool for moving the name across the city. Style is a strategy for standing out among a crowd, or sometimes fitting in with peers. Repetition drills a name home at every opportunity. The writers who can master all of these components, and then push them further than before, are masters of getting attention, getting fame. They are kings.

RJ Rushmore is a writer, curator, photographer, arts administrator, and critic with a focus on street art, graffiti, public art, and net art. He is passionate about promoting art that is disruptive in public space, on gallery walls, and online. By day, he is the Digital Marketing Manager at Creative Time. By night, he is Editor-in-Chief of the street art blog Vandalog. He is a graduate of Haverford College, where he studied political science and history of art.


  1. The term “graffiti” (in origin an Italian plural from graffito, “something scratched”, but now often treated as a singular) generally refers to writings or drawings on public surfaces, usually walls; the earliest examples are thousands of years old.
  2. Rushmore, RJ. “An Interview with KATSU.” Viral Art. N.p.: n.p., 2013. N. pag. 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.
  3. “1965-1967: Cornbread Loves Cynthia.” Cornbread the Legend. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2016.
  4. “1967-1975: The Glory Days.” Cornbread the Legend. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2016.
  5. Snyder, Gregory J. Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground. New York: New York UP, 2009.
  6. Style Wars. Dir. Tony Silver. Public Art Films, 1984. YouTube. YouTube. 25 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
  7. Youthward, Buford. “Philly Wickeds.” Art Crimes. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2016.
  8. NISE, and LIQUID. “Philadelphia’s Encrypted Script.” Weblog post. Mass Appeal. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.
  9. Momentum Art Tech X Skeme Tmt. YouTube. MOMENTUM ART TECH, 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 6 Sept. 2016.
  10. Rushmore, RJ. “An Interview with KATSU.” Viral Art. N.p.: n.p., 2013. N. pag. 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Aug. 2016.
  11. Roth, Evan. “Artists Are Hackers: Evan Roth at TEDxPantheonSorbonne.” TEDxPanthéonSorbonne. Pantheon-Sorbonne University, Paris. 8 Nov. 2012. YouTube. Web. 4 Aug. 2016.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Military metaphors are plentiful in graffiti, from “bombing,” to going out on a “mission;” the first major graffiti documentary was Style Wars.
  14. Rorke, Robert. “Meet the Legendary Graffiti Artists Who Inspired ‘The Get Down’” New York Post. N.p., 11 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
  15. “MOLOTOW™ HIGH-PRESSURE.” MOLOTOW. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
  16. Caldwell, Caroline. “Vandalog Interviewed COST – Part One.” Web log post. Vandalog. N.p., 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Aug. 2016.
  17. Vartanian (2013)



Once upon a time, further back than I can put a real date on, recent enough that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority had come up with a system of graffiti-free trains but distant enough that we’d yet to realize just how mutable this art form could be as it migrated off the trains onto the face of the city itself and transplanted itself around the world as a global movement, I remember doing a story on a bunch of kids, barely teens at the time, who were pioneering a then new medium called ‘scratchiti.’ In the amped up war on vandalism, the city had finally found a way to make the use of aerosol spray paint and ink-based markers practically obsolete on the subways, but youth had found another way to make its mark—crudely writing tags with grinders and even keys on the windows of the trains. A quarter century hence we might remember this time as the absolute aesthetic nadir of graffiti culture, for indeed this was about as artless as it could be, especially in the wake of graffiti’s golden age of vibrant and sophisticated full car pieces during the seventies and eighties, but as a signifier of ongoing social resistance and the urgency of self-expression, it felt monumental. The takeaway then, at least for this writer, was that whenever the MTA might come up with scratch-resistant windows there would simply be some other manifestation; that we were engaging in a no-win game of adaptability and escalation that might just as easily lead to people carving their names with jackhammers into the subway platforms.

Thankfully, many municipalities have come to realize the hopelessness of any war on graffiti, and much as in that other specious overreach of law and order, the contemporaneous war on drugs, there has been some recognition of the inherent bias and folly of criminalizing our own kids with draconian punishments for victimless crimes. For whatever grim and slim lessons we have learned, and however we may have adapted somewhat saner rehabilitative or permissive strategies for dealing with these unruly energies and expressions, we still seemingly fail to fully recognize that what we see as an urge is in fact so primary as to be a need, or just as significantly, how that need engenders myriad new forms of ad hoc, impromptu, and adaptive methods in which most anything at hand can be turned into a tool of the trade. Much as we may limit the sales of certain materials to minors, or even make it illegal for them to possess things as basic as a simple Sharpie, we may be reminded, in light of the various repurposed graffiti implements on view here, of William Burroughs’s memorable quip that “nobody owns life but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.” As long as we continue to make one of the oldest and most fundamental human impulses a crime, our restrictions on real or perceived acts of violence on public space perpetrated by alienated youth will only produce a broader and more inventive array of weapons.

Graffiti, as old as recorded history, and fundamental to written and visual language as the “other voice,” has long been a close companion to the most rebellious expressions of youth, from the Situationist graffiti of the 1968 student revolts to Punk’s DIY modes of branding and advertising to, most evidently, the foundational role of graffiti in the birth of Hip Hop. Born of alterity and perpetuated as an oppositional, anonymous, and outlaw vox populi raised in rejoinder against the hegemonic forces of status quo authority, the devices of graffiti have been as temporal as its terms, necessities mother of its inventions, ingenuities partner to its ambition. And when we consider how these implements form a kind of tactical arsenal of homemade modifications, there is in that glorious tradition of form following function a street level folk art at work here.  Passed on generationally through a lineage of traditions both discrete and explicit and sustained by the ingenuity of adherents adapting to the vicissitudes of circumstance, the tools that graffiti artists (largely self-taught) devise themselves have a kind of folkloric quality. Somewhere within the vested interests of private property, the urban politics of destruction and the social taboos of deviance, we have criminalized the tools along with their use, but as purely formal and functional objects we may admire them as expressions of graffiti’s innovative esprit as well as its handmade naturalness.

Subway car painted with BLADE

If we ignore for a moment the purpose of these modified and manufactured devices, admire them for their form and inherent cleverness regardless of their intent, there’s something dearly genuine, unselfconscious, unaffected, and spontaneous about these makeshift ingenuities that invoke a fetish of urban folk. That is, beyond the relative sophistication at work here—evident, for example, in the technology of light graffiti, the chemistry of permanent inks, the forging of keys or the engineering involved in turning something like a fire extinguisher into a powerful spray can— these uncanny implements speak to an aura of authenticity that is ever more rare and seductive in the realm of slick fabrications and self-conscious intimations of post-modernism. It’s possible to be reminded here of a less well known incident from the notorious 1965 Newport Folk Festival in which Dylan shocked the traditionalists by going electric. While the howling sense of betrayal registered by the purists when Dylan shifted the poetics of old school Americana to the rowdy vernacular of Rock is well documented, an even more telling moment came when Albert Grossman (Dylan’s manager) got into a fistfight backstage with the great folklorist Alan Lomax. Even before the scandal of Dylan’s performance later that evening, his manager’s assault on Lomax, whose field recordings dating back to the thirties established a canon of American music from Woody Guthrie to Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, was sparked when Lomax reportedly introduced the Paul Butterfield Blues Band by saying, “there used to be a time when a farmer would take a box, glue an axe handle to it, put some strings on it, sit down in the shade of a tree and play some blues for himself and his friends.”

Lomax’s implication that all the “fancy hardware” was counter to the truth and primacy of the art form is relevant to our consideration of artists’ tools as arrayed along an axis of utility and integrity. Art-making itself, so often directed and defined by innovations and inventions yet constantly measured in turn by precepts of imagination and skill that instinctively distrust mechanical and technological facility, is varyingly assessed by these ambivalent, contradictory, and oddly relative standards. Within such a broad purview, the choice of tools can come to describe the work as mere craft or design, something utterly revolutionary and visionary, or just too easy in its reliance on external tricks. Against myriad biases—the primacy of the artist’s hand, the insistent supposition that “anyone could do this,” the modernist ratification of doing it first, or the rewarding of certain mediums as fine art to the diminishment of others as craft—we are constantly evaluating the techniques and materiality of art with conscious and unconscious attractions or disinclinations to the tools by which art is made. It’s really too complicated to examine here why a painter’s brush is held in higher esteem than a potter’s wheel, or to consider the various trials and tribulations by which some mediums like photography or digital art have struggled for validation, but with all this in mind there’s no ignoring a similar illogic of respect and refusal within street art regarding the various tools of the trade.

A set of subway keys hanging from a belt

One last matter we need to address in considering utility is that all tools are not created equal. Just as usage defines the function of any tool, what we might call the mutability of Burroughs’s frying pan, so too does disuse characterize a kind of dysfunction. Any casual stroll through a musical instrument museum is rife with countless examples of obsolescence: instruments that by some flaw or impracticality in their design have failed to find composers to put them into the classical canon, musicians to take pleasure in their possibilities, or audiences to sustain their continued production and use. Whatever the instrument, we might say that once it stops being used it becomes an artifact. Indeed there are objects in this exhibition that exist as artifacts or may in time prove more historically interesting than useful. Graffiti is itself an art of the ephemeral, each mark destined to an erasure due to the forces of nature and man, diminished by the weather and constantly facing eradication by another artist’s hand or by the civic buff, so it is perhaps appropriate to already discern in the history of its evolution a rapid turnover of tools.

Fine art is full of experimental cul-de-sacs, novelties that did not quite pass the test of time, materials that have been abandoned for being too toxic or not archival enough, tools like the airbrush that brushed too close to kitsch, like reel to reel video or super 8 film or the copy machine (which for a time had entire departments dedicated to it in art schools) that get supplanted by newer more versatile technologies. Hip Hop, of which graffiti was a foundational pillar, is the ultimate DIY movement of repurposed tools, and much in the same way that mixing elements from old records between turntables could create a whole new sonic landscape, the adoption of lowly commercial spray paints by kids for completely different purposes helped propel that most primal instinct of mark-making (the urge to say  “I was here”) into an art form. Each has spawned an entire cottage industry of tools, and to look at the earliest low quality spray paints to be adopted by this subculture in light of the high end manufacture of paints and markers made specifically for graffiti today is to witness relics of another time and utility. Which of these many implements we call tools of the trade will make it through the historical eye of the needle to become a fixture on the tool belt of artists generations from now is anyone’s guess. Only fools predict the future, but for those of us who can enjoy the folly of the moment, there is at this very moment a rapturous and dizzying field of possibility on display in the imagining of utility in contemporary graffiti art.

Graffiti in an abandoned church

Carlo McCormick is a critic and curator based in NYC. He is Senior Editor of PAPER magazine.


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