Graffiti was historically referred to as drawings or letters “scratched” into a surface. It has existed since Antiquity. Over time, it came to represent a form or political protest for some, and a form of undesirable urban vandalism for others. Graffiti is now global in scope and continues to offer the marginalized or oppressed a chance to communicate with society. Recently however, graffiti is increasingly referred to as street art by both the artists who recognize it as a valuable art form, and the corporations who wish to commercialize and profit from it. As a result, politically charged graffiti is loosing its space in the North American urban landscape.
Graffiti was, and is still used in many parts of the world for voicing political dissent. I will be comparing and contrasting its different manifestations in Latin America (where it remains a means of political communication), Australia (seen as cultural heritage) and the United States (now mostly associated to Hip-Hop culture and commercial art). I will then examine in more detail the increasing commercialization of graffiti and its shift from visual resistance to that of visual consumption. Ultimately, I intend to show that because of its legalization and privatization, graffiti cannot retain its politically subversive edge because part of that edge depends on its very illegality and public nature. In other words, whether through city clean-up campaigns or through corporate appropriation, the powers that be are increasingly silencing the dissent once expressed in graffiti by re-claiming the streets as their own.
In the months that follow, my work will draw upon various sources of information, such as scholarly articles, web sites detailing current practices in street art, newspaper articles and two video documentaries. In particular, I will draw on secondary sources that examine the Brigada Ramona Parra in Chile, the framing of graffiti as cultural heritage in Melbourne, and the recent creation of Graffiti Chocolate Bars in New York City. In addition to these secondary sources, my research contains many primary sources, collected during my semester abroad in Buenos Aires this past year. Furthermore, my reasearch will soon bring me to Mexico and Guatemala, where I hope to document and experience first hand the graffiti culture that I come across. Particularly, I am interested in contrasting Mexican, Central American, and South American political themes as they are presented in murals. Mexico will be a real treat as I hope to see the work of Diego Rivera, famous for his political murals.
Upon my return, Montreal and the North American landscape will be my focus, where my interest lies in seeing to what extent the political nature is still present in graffiti. With the mixing of graffiti and the hip-hop culture, the use of graffiti for commercial ends, and the increasing difficulty of graphing in the streets, is visual resistance is not becoming visual consumption?