In Other Words

Revolution in a Can

Graffiti is as American as apple pie, but much easier to export.

The worst moment in the history of graffiti came during what was also its heyday, in the early 1980s in New York. That was when mainstream culture adopted graffiti as something called "art." A counterculture medium that had, at least for a bare moment, been about communication and empowerment became saddled with the oldest high-culture clichés. Graffiti came to be about "personal style," "aesthetic innovation," and "artistic self-expression"; about looking good and catching the eye; about stylistic influence and the creation of a self-conscious visual tradition. That left it perfectly positioned to be co-opted by consumerist culture. You could say that the grand murals of graffiti art, known to their makers as "pieces" -- short for "masterpieces," another hoary cliché -- were a kind of stand-in for missing advertising billboards, made by artists from neighborhoods that had been left out of Calvin Klein's underwear ad buy. It was only by chance that those murals had no commodity to sell -- until they realized they could sell themselves, as that high-end good called art.

Then, by way of contrast, think about graffiti as it appears to us around the world today, in places where painting on a wall is about speaking truth to power. The Arab Spring was marked by spray-painted taunts to dictators, and Haiti's chaos led to impassioned scrawls. A crackdown against anti-regime graffiti in the town of Daraa was even the inspiration this year for Syria's tank-defying protest movement. In many of these cases, the artfulness of the graffiti takes a distant second place to what someone is actually trying to say. "Free doom -- Get out Hamad," reads one spray-painted text from Bahrain. During the rebellion in Libya, "Freedom=Aljazeera" written on a wall makes the value of a free press perfectly clear; on another wall, the simple tracing of an AK-47 is enough to invoke an entire ethos of rebellion. In Guatemala City, stenciled portraits of the "disappeared" of Guatemala's long civil war, with the Spanish words for "Where are they?" written below, stand as eloquent witness to one of the country's most crucial concerns. (The portrait style is loosely derived from the British street artist Banksy.)

In all these cases, graffiti is being used as a true means of communication rather than as purely aesthetic exchange. These 21st-century scrawls leapfrog back to a prehistory of graffiti, when wall writing was mostly about voicing forbidden thoughts in public. And they take us back to the first years of graffiti in New York, when some members of the underclass declared their incontrovertible presence by "tagging" every square inch of the city as they transgressed the normal boundaries set by class and race. As German scholar Diedrich Diederichsen has written, "graffiti was a form of cultural and artistic production that was illegible from the dominant cultural perspective." When some of those same taggers realized that they could also make "pieces" that would count as something called "art," they began quickly buying into the values of the mainstream they'd once confronted.

By now, grand graffiti gestures are as tired as could be, at least in the context of the Western art world. But across the rest of the planet, the static language of the American "piece" has moved on to a second life as the visual lingua franca of genuine political speech. The most elaborate images from Egypt, Libya, and Haiti today look very much like the 1980s paint jobs on New York subway cars and warehouse facades, and yet their point is not to function as art but to work as carriers of content and opinion. In Managua, the swooping letters developed for New York graffiti spell out the initials of the Sandinista party. In the Palestinian West Bank, a big-eyed figure you'd expect to see decorating a wall in Los Angeles wears a keffiyeh and proclaims a longing for a "free Palestine," as the text beside him says, in English.

It's not clear whether the use of English in so much of this wall-painting represents a desire to speak to Western eyes or whether English has simply become the standard idiom for political protest, even of the local variety. (It could be that the two are almost the same.) But it does seem clear that the stylistic clichés of graffiti in the West -- the huge loopy letters, the exaggerated shadows dropped behind a word -- have become an international language that can be read almost transparently, for the content those clichés transmit. Look at New York-style graffiti letters spelling "Free Libya" on a wall in Benghazi or proclaiming "revolution" in Tahrir Square: Rather than aiming at a new aesthetic effect, they take advantage of an old one that's so well-known it barely registers.

That thing called "art" in the West is essentially an insider's game, thrilling to play but without much purchase on the larger reality outside. We have to look at societies that are truly in crisis to be reminded that images -- even images we have sometimes counted as art -- can be used for much more than game-playing. In a strange reversal, the closer graffiti comes to being an empty visual commodity in the West, the better it serves the needs of the rest of the world's peoples, who eagerly adopt it to speak about their most pressing concerns. It is as though Coca-Cola, as it spread across the globe, turned out to be a great nutritional drink.

PATRICK BAZ/GETTY IMAGES, SAEED KHAN/GETTY IMAGES, JONATHAN SARUK/GETTY IMAGES

CHRIS HONDROS/GETTY IMAGES, ALLISON SHELLEY/GETTY IMAGES, JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In Other Words

Conflict Graffiti

The art of war.

Blue, white, and orange stripes began appearing on roadside boulders in South Africa a few years ago: the jarring tricolor of the old apartheid flag.

White extremists, mostly disgruntled Afrikaners, were emboldened enough to paint them at night in the remote north of the country. Government road crews toiled furiously to blot them out. But the masking paint never quite matched the color of the rocks. And so the clumsy erasures only served to draw more attention to each new hateful act of vandalism. In this way -- through an obscure little graffiti war -- the racial neuroses that still plague South Africa were exposed more vividly than in any news article or TV talk show.

In the murky convulsions of the world -- regime changes, revolutions, wars, uprisings, crackdowns, contested elections -- hasty scrawls on public walls seethe with deeper meanings, counternarratives, revelatory lies, ground truths. Sifting such tangled messaging can be surprisingly tough. The key nuances are often obscured: a partly cracked wartime code. Expert graffitiologists, also known as foreign correspondents on deadline, must accept that there is both more and less to a sloppy stencil of "el ché" than meets the eye. Like whether it appears in backwater Chiapas or a swish quarter of Beirut.

Often, graffiti breaks a big story pithily. A gigantic boot swings down, as if from heaven, to connect with the upturned rump of a dictator cringing over a hoard of cash. The boot is polished in the hues of an insurgent flag. The toe flashes a tiny smile -- the sardonic grin of victory. You know right then the tyrant is doomed.

That exuberant street cartoon of a toppled Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi aside, however, I suspect the finest political and wartime graffiti, like most humor, isn't nearly so universal -- it's never the obvious, apprehensible stuff.

"NATO NATO NATO," stamped across liberated Kosovo, seemed a banal plug for a popular detergent brand. But a jaunty message left near the bodies of an entire family incinerated in their house could stop your breathing: "Behave or We Will Send in the Waiters." Who were the waiters? A Serbian death squad? Kosovar rebels avenging themselves on collaborators? A macabre joke? That single haiku distilled all the darkness of the Balkan wars. Its sinister absurdity, its very inscrutability, made your skin crawl.

Similarly, in authoritarian 1970s Mexico, where I grew up, the adobe walls were often splashed with what seemed like the nonsense verses of Edward Lear. One tag, for example, was a serial exclamation: "¡Eche-birria!" It meant nothing. Then it slowly materialized into the surname of a handpicked president of that time, Luis Echeverría. Finally, a sly gibe emerged from within the letters: It translated, literally, as "Vomit [your] goat stew!" Try squeezing that baroque bank shot into a soundbite.

Mexico, in fact, has a venerable history of conflict graffiti.

Unlike the young Arab Spring demonstrators, who only recently discovered the overlapping pleasures of adolescent and political rebellion, Mexicans draw on a long and rich tradition of visual protest. (Think of José Posada's famed posters of skeletons dancing through the gore of the 1910 revolution.) Indeed, Mexico's latest addition to the lexicon of public defacement and defiance is even recyclable: narcomantas, or "narco-banners." Drug cartels have taken to hanging cotton, plastic, or paper sheets above busy intersections to get their messages across.

This creepy innovation may stretch the boundaries of traditional graffiti -- the yawp of the scofflaw or the rebel. But it remains, like all genuine graffiti, transgressive. Ruthlessly so. In July, for instance, in Ciudad Juárez, that narcotized Mogadishu on the northern border, two large streamers appeared one morning that threatened any U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spooks operating in the city with death and dismemberment. Police quickly tore the warnings down.

Mexico's narco-banners can be snappy, if a bit retro. Laser-printed, punched with neat wind holes, the fanciest ones look like car dealership advertisements or the sort of signs that civic clubs carry in parades. Here, it isn't the words that are dadaesque. It's the format that's in-joke surreal. The drug lords intentionally mimic the campaign clutter of Mexican political parties. Their tone is weirdly formal.

"MISTER PRESIDENT CALDERÓN," read one of a series of banners fluttering recently above the state of Sinaloa, a cartel stronghold, "DO YOU WANT TO FINISH WITH THE VIOLENCE? THEN REMOVE YOUR SUPPORT FROM CHAPO GUZMÁN IN SINALOA. THAT'S THE SOLUTION."

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera is Mexico's most powerful drug kingpin. Apparently, the polite advice emanated from rival mafias. We'll never know. Narco-banners may now be an inescapable feature of the front lines of the country's bloody cartel wars (death toll: more than 35,000 and counting since 2006). But like all serious war graffiti, they are anonymous, barring some brazen exceptions. Footage available on YouTube shows a group of sicarios -- cartel assassins -- coolly filming themselves as they erect a banner in Chihuahua City. It's a sunny morning. Rush hour. The gunmen, waving AK-47s and wearing balaclavas, direct traffic like jaded policemen. They possibly were policemen.

Mexican journalists assigned to the drug war have a tendency to get murdered. So more than other colleagues, they must rely on simply reporting the graffiti. Toting up the proliferation of narco-banners is a metric of cartel control.

Which brings up a truism of wartime graffiti: You can generally guess who's winning not just by the volume of their spray paint, but by the quality of their exhortations.

Last year, I drove far into Mexico to say a final goodbye to an old friend. His cancer had metastasized after a family member, a niece who was a schoolteacher, had been kidnapped, raped, and axed to death, seemingly for sport, by a gang of cartel goons. As I negotiated Mexican Army checkpoints and sped south along highways thinned of traffic by the relentless drug violence, I spotted faded government billboards -- official graffiti -- looming beside the roads. They urged whoever still bothered to read them: "Di NO a las Drogas," or "Just say NO to Drugs." With apologies to Nancy Reagan, who I'm certain meant well: The government was screwed.

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