Graffiti: The Art of Politics

By Jeffrey S. Whitmore
February 1990; pages 8-9; Volume 1, No. 4

You Too Can Prevent Forests

(Spray-painted on billboard near proposed South Loop in Austin, January 1990).

In case you haven't heard, graffiti is a felony now. Beating the fuck out of your girlfriend isn't as bad as writing on a wall, according to the new law. But who cares, anyway?

The police do. Now that graffiti is a felony, it's become real crime, something truly worth the effort. It is no longer petty vandalism or criminal mischief, but a form of urban terrorism, a political statement that ranks with such heinous crimes as homosexuality, drug use, flag burning, prostitution, or sodomy. Consequently, graffiti dumps on the concept of private property in favor of free speech rights. In an age of increased governmental regulations of the people, graffiti's high illegality speaks for itself.

Ignore Cops

(Spray painted on a bus bench on Rio Grande St. in Austin; artist/perpetrator unknown.)

Today, there is a graffiti movement in Austin and on the UT campus, consisting of a non-group of decentralized, anarchic malcontents. Most don't even know who the others are.

Some have spontaneously formed FOE (Friends of the Oppressed of the Earth) and this writer speculates that everyone in that group doesn't know who the hell the other members are. Now that's what I call a secret club.

Millions of Dead Cristians [sic]

(Spray-painted on building on Guadalupe Street in Austin; artist/perpetrator unknown.)

Law-abiding cowards everywhere have reason to fear these insubordinate youths who roam our streets, spray cans in hand, ready to paint, pillage and destroy the remainders of our terrible heritage. This is something that the American mainstream just doesn't do. In the late Eighties, local residents left ideological slogans on such icons as the Austin Realtors Association and Exxon stations everywhere. Their messages, though now washed off, remain in memory:


(Spray-painted over Navy recruitment billboard by Taos Co-op in Austin; artist/perpetrator unknown.)

UT statues of famous Confederate War Criminals were not immune to this vandalism. Such graffiti was even picked up by the New York Times, which paralleled the anti-racist drive to get a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. statue on campus. Incidentally, even though both the Daily Texan and The Times carried the article, the Austin American-Statesman ignored it, choosing to run a story about a Round Rock citizen who loves the American flag.

Jefferson Davis: A root of racism
The editors feel the perpetrators didn't go far enough. Next time, we suggest you bring a sledgehammer. The above photo, reprinted from The Daily Texan, also ran in the New York Times.
Photo by Kirk Crippens

Unfortunately, any activity can produce a negative reaction greater than the original act. For example, if someone painted "NIGGER" on the UT shanty, the public would be more turned off than impressed by the vandalism. The same runs true for socially aware graffiti.

Does U.S. OUT OF EL SALVADOR painted on the Texan Federation of Women do any good? In order to be effective in the eye of the media and in the shaping of public opinion, a situation should be studied and evaluated before graffiti action can be taken.

Of course, one can always say what the fuck and run around with a can of spray paint. Wanton criminal behavior holds a wild allure that the status quo fears.

Who can blame rebellious activists for their anger? Remember, the Kappa Alphas fraternity, a group of "Southern Gentlemen," celebrates the "Rise of the Old South Weekend" every year. Their ilk have started fights with people of color, many of whom decide to fight back.

Frat houses are a deliciously deserved target for West Campus radicals. Although it's certainly not true of most local fraternity chapters in the IFC, which doubtless includes many fine, young, decent men, the UT Greek system has more than its share of racists and goat fuckers. Much like K-Mart, which raised its prices after the beginning as cheap retail outlets, new fraternities like Theta Chi begin with relative open-mindedness before they start attracting Swinus Erecti.

East Austin is a colorful, if impoverished, art gallery. The wall by the Travis County Probation Department's East Austin unit holds some eye-catching art by local virtuosi. The legendary Crips have finally arrived in East Austin. Their intense individualism and lack of respect for traditional penmanship can be seen in many hieroglyphic signatures.

It seems that political graffiti is mostly the realm of the educated bourgeois youth dissatisfied with mainstream culture. Those in power have always gotten in trouble when the have-nots get political. This remains to be seen in the United States today.

Free Speech Now!!!

(Spray-painted on UT's West Mall, artist/perpetrator unknown.)

Other hot spots for graffiti are Hyde Park and the UT campus itself. In fact, in late November 1989, free speech freedom fighters unleashed a wave of aesthetic terrorism, leaving colorful epithets and polemics all over campus in blaring red paint.

Apollinaris, Doctor to the Emperor Titus, had a Crap Here

(Public lavatory in Herculaneum, A.D. 79)

Graffiti's roots in tradition truly justify its status as timeless art. In fact, the oldest art recovered by archaeologists was graffiti in caves. It is unknown if the Cro-Magnons were "advanced" enough to declare art a felony, or if the caves' landlords withheld security deposits.

After World War II, European politicos exalted graffiti as a necessary tool for social change. The Lettriste movement and later the Situationist International laid the philosophical ground work for the Paris Revolution in 1968.

A Bas Le Realism Socialiste.
Vive Le Surrealism

(Translation: Down with socialist realism. Long live surrealism. Condorcet, Paris, May, 1968.)

In fact, the Situationist inspired London's punk explosion in 1976. Such figures as Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren and the Clash's manager Bernard Rose drew from the ideas of the spectable in shaking the foundations of contemporary morals. Oh, they were involved in music, too.

In short, the Situationists saw all history and reality as that of a continuing series of spectacles. This inherently schizophrenic view of life was preoccupied with images in the public eye. These Situationists presaged MTV by thirty years. Media events took on a reality of their own. The goal of humanity's Kultur was to share everyone's experience together.

No more concrete

Situationists created their own psychographic maps of cities, wrapping the geographic with the subjective. A major attribute of their avant-garde aesthetics was disruption - jarring the sleepy, everyday life of society, juxtaposing montages of disparate images. They sought to expand the lethargic paradigm of today's people, what Nietzche called the "Last Men."

Punk is Action, Not Fashion

(spray-painted many places in Austin; artist/perpetrator unknown.)

Naturally, this leftist ideology downplayed concepts of individuality and private property. As expected, the Paris Revolution was crushed like a raisin, but the legacy of Situationism lingers on. Its effects today can be seen in contemporary music, which has enveloped punk music to the point that label is too nebulous to use.

In the UT English Dept., Professor Neil Nehring incorporates much Situationist thought in his lectures on topics varying from British literature to poets and punks. The actual anthology of the Situationist International can be picked up at the Garner & Smith Bookstore in Austin. Hurry now before they go out of business.

Free All Pot Prisoners

(on building by Wheatsville Co-op on Guadalupe Street in Austin; artist/perpetrator unknown.)

Much of the political respectability of graffiti today was derived from this period of Situationist street art. Andy Warhol's protege Keith Haring works at a feverish pace in a life soon to be cut short by AIDS. His graffiti-style art proves how accessible art can be.

Look at any major revolution going on and you'll see cans of spray paint. East Berliners added some color when they overran the headquarters of the secret police. Other countries deal realistically with political dissent by institutionalizing graffiti. Sweden has a graffiti wall whitewashed every day to allow the young at heart to vent their frustration. And, of course, the soon-to-be-marketed Berlin Wall has sported some of the most intensely emotional graffiti in recent history.

Gentrification is Class Warfare

(Anti-apartheid shanty at the University of Texas; artist/perpetrator unknown.)

American anarchists, though not "leftists," are the main bearers of Situationists thought today. Some sent crates of spray paint cans to Hungarian revolutionaries in the mid-Eighties. Such art also proliferates at home. Like the hobos of the Depression Era, today's homeless counter-culture has several code symbols to communicate with others of their ilk. One such symbol, meaning "squat," a free pad, can be seen painted on the southern side of the shanty at UT. Curiously enough, some environmentally conscious San Francisco anarchists tend to eschew paint cans, since the chemicals help destroy the earth's ozone layer.

Urine the Money!

(Men's room, Quackenbushes, Austin, December 1989; coffee drinker unknown.)

You, too, can be part of this exciting movement. There are no clubs to belong to, nor any ID cards to carry. Just go by your nearest paint store and stock up. You will find a whole new world awaits you, a world of statues, sidewalks, police stations, streets, bus booths, benches and billboards.

The trick is to get the highest saturation of art possible, since it's only a matter of time until it gets wiped away.

One last thing. Watch for cops. If no one sees you spray graffiti, then no one can testify against you ... for most Americans, a felony is a serious thing.

Whitmore is a visionary who's seen the writing on the wall.