Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation are men who want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.
— Frederick Douglass
I should also add the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger.” Graffiti and its related activities, such as postering (“wheat pasting”), is very much part of our urban environment. What I intend to do with periodic posts on Cartwheel Art is not just present the more interesting examples, but to define the issues, technical vocabulary and diversity of viewpoints within that culture. Nobody has to like any street work, legal or illegal, but it’s worthwhile to know what is being talked about. For example, most people don’t know how to tell the difference between gang and non-gang graffiti (the vast majority of what is seen). For those open to seeing graffiti as something not just limited to vandalism, I’ll be offering some perspectives on the distinctions between the good, the bad and the ugly.
I’ll also be spotlighting above-ground professional creative endeavors that are derived from street-styles.
For those unfamiliar with some basic definitions of forms of contemporary graffiti, this is where we’ll start.
Writer: Those that do modern graffiti call themselves “writers” because writing one’s name is the root of the whole movement. The term “tagger” is only used by the general public to refer to those doing all forms of marking graffiti.
Tag: the term “tag” is used in three ways. It is a graffiti writer’s name, or the action of putting a name on a surface, or the finished mark itself. It might be done with a marker, spray paint, scribed with a sharp tool, or less commonly with acid bath on windows, but it is calligraphic, in contrast to outlined letters. Fig. 1, various tags.
Throw-up: So called because it is “thrown up” (also shortened to “throwie”) onto a surface, they most often take the form of “bubble” letters consisting of an outline color and a single quick fill color (the area inside the letters). Fig. 2, Crae.
Another relatively quick form of graffiti is the “roller,” so called because the are done primarily with house painting rollers. If the writer feels the time is available, an outline may be put around the letters. Fig. 3, Haeler.
Piece: Short for “masterpiece,” pieces involve more elaborately modified letterforms and a broader range of colors. The writer’s signature is usually more prominent than shout-outs to crew-mates, friends and girlfriends, but not always, sometimes leading even participants in graffiti culture to misidentify pieces on web sites. Fig 3.1, Trav.
Production: When a number of writers coordinate on pieces and unifying background, often with figures (“characters”) and cityscape, that is considered a “production.” Fig. 4, WAI.
While these are basic definitions, there is a continuum from one to another. For example, a throw-up could be a bit more elaborate with drop shadow and some color which some writers would classify as a “simple.”
Along with the above forms, it’s common to see “slap-tags” (Hello, my name is…) where the writer has tagged an adhesive-backed sticker, and stickers with printed images or writing. Fig 4.1
Wheat pasting named for the glue used are also pre-printed rather than an on-the-spot creation. Fig 4.2 Bonks.
Crew: This is a loose association of writers (figs. 5 and 6). A writer may be a member of one crew or of several crews. While some critics of graffiti like to equate crews and gangs, that is misinformed at best and dishonest at worst. Crews are highly ecumenical, with members often being from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds. In most cases, the primary illegal activity of a crew is the doing graffiti and the gathering of material for painting the graffiti. Members of a crew may be from all across the city, and the intention is to represent the presence of that crew all across the city as well. Some crews have members in other cities, states or even countries. In contrast, gang activity is usually much more constrained to an area and involves a much broader range of illegal activity. Also, gang life is often violent if not lethal in contrast to crew conflicts which may involve fistfights but rarely guns or any lethal resolution. It is rare for writers to carry guns. The tragic deaths in L.A. that made headlines some years ago came from citizens confronting gang kids, not garden variety writers.
While some very skillful style-writing graffiti may be seen in public legal settings, a great amount of interesting work is in out-of-the-way or downright dodgy settings. I’ll post selected recent sightings from around various areas that most people would prefer to avoid. The first random assortment of things (out of hundreds) that I believe are still up as of this printing are:top, Ribs, a relative newcomer; fig. 7, a nice Bonkers, Soup and Haeler AL ground tag; fig. 8, Fishe, Crae, Versuz, Hopes Klek; fig. 9, veteran USC crew members Hert, Render and Alter; fig. 10, Wram x Industrial Downtown; fig. 11, Gas always keeping it funky with representational fill; fig. 12, true virtuosity in a South Central alley by Plek.
For more from Steve Grody, author of Graffiti L.A., join Cartwheel Art Tours and see examples in person. Grody intimately knows the work in the streets of the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District. To learn more and sign up, click here on the Cartwheel Art Tour calendar.
Top: Ribs, a recent newcomer.
Figure 1: Various Tags
Figure 2: “Throw Up” in the form of ‘Bubble” letters by Crae.
Figure 3: “Roller” by Haeler
Figure 3.1: “Piece” which is short for Masterpiece by Trav.
Figure 4: WAI
Figure 4.2: “Wheat Pasting” by Bonks.
figure 5 : WAI Crew
Figure 6: CBS Crew
Figure 7: “Tags” by Bonkers x Soup x Haeler AL
Figure 8: Fishe x Crae x Versuez x Hopes x Klek is an example of a “Roller piece”
Figure 9: veteran USC crew members: Hert x Render x Alter
Figure 10 Wram x Industrial Downtown
Figure 11: Gas, always keeping it funky with representational fill.