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September 20, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The art of urban embroidery

Tagging, graffiti, street art—the different ways in which we mark the urban landscape engender diverse and conflicting views among New Zealanders. Who are the markers, why do they do it, and why is this topic so emotive? Salient writer David Smith went in search of answers.

Graffiti and street art has many forms. We’ve all seen the ‘unsightly’ marks—’FTP’ and others—tagged across public walls and buildings, as well as the colourful, multilayered pieces that are hard not to admire for their skill, if not inaccessibility. The layperson often likes to draw distinctions between this ‘artistic’ graffiti, and tagging. But is this distinction shared amongst graffiti and street artists themselves?

Dr Fiona Hutton is a senior lecturer in criminology at Victoria University. Recently she and colleagues Joanne Cox and Mike Rowe undertook a study analysing New Zealand attitudes towards tagging and graffiti for the Ministry of Justice. She contends that tagging is seen as distinct from other markings and images.

“Very broadly, tagging is seen as a nuisance by other graffiti artists as it often ruins their work. Tagging is associated with little artistic skill or merit. Graffiti art on the other hand is appreciated by those involved in graffiti (and others) for its artistic skill and the effort made to place it, for example, in high, inaccessible places.”

Mr X—as we will call him—claims a number of friends involved in Wellington’s street art scene. He agrees with Hutton’s analysis.

“People have what is called a tag. Like maybe [my friend] ‘BMD’—that’s his [street] name. But BMD doesn’t go around to put BMD up. He puts up a graphic, really artistic piece, and then puts BMD next to it so that he can gain notoriety and recognition. But it’s not his tag that is the sole thing he goes out to put up on a wall—it’s his art. These guys do street art… whereas the other tagging is just shitty, territorial marks.”

Dr April Henderson works in Victoria University’s Pacific Studies department. Her research includes extensive ethnographic work among local “writers”—practicioners of graffiti forms that developed as part of New York and Philadelphia street culture in the 1970s and 1980s that were subsequently exported globally. While limiting her comments within this tradition, she sees things less simplistically.

“People [outside the graffiti community] will say ‘tagging is bad, but those really colourful, artistic-looking things over on Hanson Street—those are OK.’ I’m inclined to reject the ‘art/not art’ binary that this classification presumes. Anyone who’s ever seen a tagger’s notebooks will realise the incredible amount of time and energy that usually goes in to developing how their tag will look. Tags can be just as governed by aesthetic principles as large-scale pieces, even if those principles are less obvious to someone who’s not literate in them,” she explains.

“That said, among writers themselves—people who are literate in these forms—distinctions are made all the time between ‘style-ly’ tags and ‘crap tags,’ between ‘dope pieces’ and ‘wack’ ones! That’s another aspect that people in wider society often fail to realise: that is, within the specific graffiti traditions I’m talking about, there exists fierce internal critique and certain codes amongst writers. For example, writers should only go over another writer’s work if what they’re doing is better than what was there, or if the previous piece has already had a long run. Thus, putting a simpler tag over a more intricate piece will cause frustration and anger, but the creator of the piece may not be categorically opposed to a well-executed tag elsewhere.”

Mr X agrees that there are various styles of graffiti and intense rivalry and scrutiny amongst proponents of these forms.

“There are different groups, you know, cliques that roll together. Guys that have a particular style that they appreciate—but they don’t appreciate other styles—and they will find people with a similar view or outlook on street art. They will work together, and maybe cross out another group’s stuff. They will become an expressly formed crew.
“They’ll say [another group’s work is] shit, make some yarn that it’s objectively worse than their stuff. But realistically, they subjectively view their style as superior to the other one… but if you get crossed out it is a huge sign of disrespect and people get real barred up.”

The stereotypes and the truth

According to Henderson, people who write graffiti come from all backgrounds and the stereotype that graffiti artists are poor, brown, and likely to become criminals is misconstrued.

“I’ve conducted interviews with a wide variety of people who variously describe themselves as writers, aerosol artists, and taggers, and they are very diverse in terms of class background, race and ethnicity, and gender,” she says.

“I’ve recorded stories from pakeha writers who recount how police treat them leniently, and presume that they must have permission to be painting the wall, but the same police officers harass Maori and Pacific writers even when they do have permission… so the threat that people may feel when they encounter graffiti probably has some kind of relationship—whether people are conscious of it or not—to a set of racialised and class-based anxieties.”

And while writers come from a range of backgrounds, their reasons for marking the urban landscape are equally diverse. Graffiti is not necessarily a spontaneous outcry from the disenchanted, downtrodden and dispossessed.

“While it’s popular to think of taggers as youth who’ve gone off the rails and strayed from parental control, I know a tagger here in Wellington who is the child of an anarchist and clearly and articulately explains his tagging within a narrative of generational continuity, where he and his parent share a view that is anti-establishment. So for him, it is about a political stance (or a rejection of politics). But for others, it can purely be about falling in love with letters; the way they slope and curve and dance and lean.”

Mr X believes that the common canvas of the street provides the opportunity for an artist to expose their work more widely.

“I think it’s just another medium. You know, it’s quite difficult to get a large number of people to see your art.”

Linked to this is sometimes the desire for fame and notoriety. However street art produces a unique kind of celebrity, says Henderson.

“What I think is so interesting about tagging and graffiti writers, is that it is a very different type of fame than what is sought by all these aspiring pop stars on idol shows, because it largely remains an anonymous fame. The writer’s marks acquire fame—or infamy. Their artistic nom de plume acquires a reputation, but they could walk down the street and no one would recognise them.”

Mr X notes that this anonymity means that even acquaintances are sometimes unaware of each other’s aliases.

“There is an underground street art community and it’s a mixture of people who have mutual respect and dislike for each other. So there are a lot of guys who appreciate other people’s work. For example my mate whose street name is ‘Whiskey’—I introduced him to my other friend who was BMD. They knew of each other, but they didn’t know that each other was ‘Whiskey’ and ‘BMD.’ When they found out it was like man-love collected right there, and out of nowhere, ‘Oh my god?—Yeah, yeah!’ and then they were boys. They started going out and doing missions together, climbing into really hard to access places and helping each other put up their work.”

The dangers and the boundaries

One night in late January 2008, Bruce Emery—a middle-aged, overweight, and deeply religious father of three—caught 15-year old Pihema Cameron and another youth spray-painting his garage. Enraged, he grabbed a 13 cm knife, and chased the youths 350 metres down the road. When Emery reached the youths, a verbal altercation ensued. Emery responded by stabbing the stoned and drunk Cameron through the right side of his chest, and then left him in the street to die. He went home, washed and secreted his knife, and said nothing to his wife and children.

Mr Emery’s trial captivated New Zealand and aroused debate about graffiti and tagging like nothing seen before. Despite the severity of the offence, many people supported Emery’s right to protect his property and labelled Cameron a ‘criminal’ deserving of this punishment. Others expressed shock that a superficial marking could provoke someone to kill another person.

Emery received four years and three months jail for manslaughter. In the trial, the judge encouraged the jury to consider the partial defence of provocation—the same defence abolished since its controversial use in the trial of Clayton Weatherston, and regularly used in cases of heterosexual men ‘snapping’ after sexual advances from other men. The defence was rejected, suggesting—implausibly—that Emery lacked the ‘intent’ to murder Cameron. After less than a year in jail, Emery received home detention and now lives only blocks away from the family whose son he killed for spray-painting his garage.

Why does graffiti, and tagging in particular, generate such emotion among New Zealanders? The visually confronting and personal nature of tagging, its relationship with private property, and its association with societal decline may all contribute to strong feelings of intrusion, Henderson says.

“Clearly, visibility is the point of graffiti, but the visibility of the mark combined with the invisibility of the person who left it can contribute to powerful senses of anxiety and threat for some people. Graffiti indicates that private property cannot be completely protected; thus, in a capitalist society where the protection of private property is paramount, it becomes for some people a lexical sign of disorder and social decay.”

This is linked to a disruption of the presumed ‘natural’ framework of accepted urban practice.

“Anthropologist Mary Douglas introduced a concept, “matter out of place”, to conceptualise the way we classify things according to whether they are in proper relationship to other things. So, for example, tomato sauce in its container is not dirty, but your shirt is dirty if it’s got tomato sauce spilled on it: in this case, tomato sauce on your shirt is ‘matter out of place’,” Henderson says.

“Why is it so offensive to see a big tag at the bus stop, but nobody thinks twice about a big advertisement? We seem to have little choice about that, because the advertisers have paid somebody to put their sign up: their matter is ‘in place’ because it fits within the relational framework of capitalistic logic. Tagging, or a big well-executed throw-up, on the other hand, is ‘writing out of place’ because the writer did not pay somebody to put it there.”

Media Studies lecturer Dr Geoff Stahl has written in-depth on urban semiotics. He agrees that subversiveness of graffiti depends on its relationship with urban space and the accepted boundaries of that space.

Stahl says Wellington is a “profoundly middle-class city” that permits a certain kind of creativity, in certain places.

“Street art is tolerated—you can go to down to Leftbank, various laneways, and you can find street art, though it may not last very long… people see these kinds of places like privileged nooks and crannies where these kinds of statements are tolerated. Whereas if tagging finds its way out into the public eye in other words, it’s not accepted.

“Think about places like Cuba Mall, or Courtenay Place, or places in Newtown or elsewhere… they have a particular kind of function. Cuba Mall is a commercial strip that tolerates a certain set of sub-cultural practices… What tagging does is call into question what the limits of acceptable practice on Cuba Mall are. Among the other things like not walking your dog, tagging is one of those things that kind of disrupts the accepted [practice].”

What ‘accepted practice’ is can vary from city to city and may be informed by the history, politics and socio-economic atmosphere of a given setting.

“I think the context is [everything],” Stahl says. “There are certain cities that have set up places where you can put graffiti, tags, street art. Melbourne is a good example in terms of the kind of laneway culture that exists there that tolerates street art, and in many ways kind of celebrates street art. You go to a city like Berlin, where every single building is tagged—you can’t escape the tagging. It’s part of its charm—it’s kind of decrepit in a way. Whereas Wellington… it doesn’t do decrepit very well.”

Recently, the Wellington City Council painted over a graffiti memorial to dead Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. It had stood as a feature in Mt Cook for 28 years. Instead of being welcomed, the whitewash was met with outrage among some residents. Stahl notes that what was once subversive can become part of the texture of the city.

“History plays a role in naturalising and neutralising graffiti in a sense. It gains the patina of age, which in a way kind of makes it part of the urban fabric; it recedes into the background. And people felt quite offended by the Ian Curtis statement sort of being erased. So it does become part of the visual landscape in a way in the sense that it just recedes into the larger streetscape.”

The voices

Despite their impact on the urban space, street artists are rarely given a voice to influence the management of such space or dictate the accepted practice, says Stahl.

“Look at the way particular views are presented in the media. It’s not necessarily the point of view of the taggers or graffiti artists. They’re not going to be interviewed—most people don’t know who they are; they’re not known quantities. Whereas it is the property owners—the shop owners and everything else—who have the privilege of speaking about these sorts of things. So this becomes the dominant view in a way,” he says.

“[Street artists] either can’t, or are unable to, or are not allowed to [present their views]. It’s very rare that they enter into discussions about how we should be conducting ourselves in public space and how we should be making use of public space.”

Henderson points to the development of Waitangi Park as a lost opportunity to incorporate—in a more substantial way—the views of graffiti artists. Its predecessor, Chaffers Park, had been treated as a legal graffiti spot by both the Council and artists. She observes that it “was… [a] place where young people could go, safely, and work on their art form so that they were capable of doing more than just tags.”

Despite attempts to influence the development of the new park, graffiti artists were largely ignored.

“Some of the people that painted at Chaffers, particularly Triple S Crew, actively petitioned the City Council to incorporate legal walls in the redesigned Waitangi Park. Again, this is an example that defies the common presumptions about graffiti writers as anti-civic menaces: this particular crew was actively engaged in the civic process, making submissions, speaking eloquently in community fora. Despite all this, when the model for the redesigned park was finally displayed, there were no legal walls in it,” Henderson explains.

“Whether by accident or design, they’d been dropped from the model. At this point, that same crew, and some others, went to the media in a last ditch effort to draw attention to their cause. What resulted was the two small legal walls you see at Waitangi Park now—a tiny fraction of the old wall space.”

However, some forms of street art are being encouraged within an accepted framework dictated by the community. In Nelson, the annual Arts Festival is incorporating an “Oi You” urban art competition into its 2010 programme. Participants can enter one of two categories—school-aged children or open entry—and are encouraged to draw inspiration from a style of street art synonymised with artists like Banksy and Faile. The best artwork in each category will be exhibited in a “playfully distorted street-scape” in a local Nelson park (see

This form of street art—given widespread publicity over the internet and through Banksy’s recent documentary-movie Exit Through the Gift Shop—is sometimes seen in a different light. Pointing to places like Melbourne and Brooklyn, Stahl says that this art is perceived as containing a certain kind of value in that, “it seems to be contributing to, rather than detracting from,” the visual culture of the city.

By channelling the energies of artists, communities can direct street art into ‘appropriate’ avenues and negotiate the accepted practice within the urban space. From Stahl’s perspective, “it kind of inoculates the threat. [This form of] street art has now sort of been institutionalised in a way.”

Whether its forms are guided into these ‘proper’ venues within the city, or left to disrupt the ‘natural’ framework, street art in all its forms will remain a feature of the urban landscape. People will remain bound by emotion in this issue—some to ‘protect’ against feelings of intrusion and to safeguard their property, others to defend an aletrnative medium of expression. Artists will continue to articulate their views upon the cityscape.

And of course, the marks will endure.


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Comments (5)

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  1. richie rich says:

    I heard that ZMFM were somehow involved in repainting the Ian Curtis wall? Can anyone confirm or deny? It was pretty regularly removed & then repainted through the 80s.

  2. Lance says:

    “Look at the way particular views are presented in the media. It’s not necessarily the point of view of the taggers or graffiti artists. They’re not going to be interviewed—most people don’t know who they are; they’re not known quantities. Whereas it is the property owners—the shop owners and everything else—who have the privilege of speaking about these sorts of things. So this becomes the dominant view in a way,”

    O woe, woe, when someone damages someone else’s property as a form of leisure, it’s only the property owner’s view we get.

    This idiot lectures at Vic? Shameful.

    The right to own property and not be arbitrarily deprived of it trumps whatever frustrating crisis of artistic expression taggers or graffiti artists or any other vandal are going through.

  3. Kim says:

    No, actually it doesn’t. Graffitti is much older concept than NZ property laws. Besides, NZ property includes moutains of historical fuckery and unfairness. I completley understand when a “vandal” doen’t give a shit about a picket fence or a pissy old business wall or whatever.

  4. Lance says:

    “No, actually it doesn’t. Graffitti is much older concept than NZ property laws.”

    And physical violence is a much older concept than New Zealand assault laws, what’s your point?

    “Besides, NZ property includes mountains of historical fuckery and unfairness.”

    Sorry, I’m terrible with legalese, you lost me at “fuckery”.

    “I completley understand when a “vandal” doen’t give a shit about a picket fence or a pissy old business wall or whatever.”

    I completely understand when someone gets angry enough to take a swing at some colossal bastard that probably earned a nice shiner. Doesn’t mean they haven’t assaulted someone.

  5. Isobel says:

    This is a really well written article! I’m writing my thesis about ethics and street art and this could be quite helpful, thank you.

    Lance, I think you need to find a quiet corner somewhere and breathe in and out. Slowly.

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