These days, people seem to be a bit more hip and edgy. You know what I mean? It’s like the general public is starting to accept things that were once counterculture like street art and graffiti. Only that’s not really the case. Reality is, they like street art. They abhor graffiti.
You know it and I know it. People hate on graff. One, because they don’t understand it. And two, because they think it looks like a hot mess. I’ll be the first one to admit it. Three years ago, I didn’t have a clue about graffiti. But I ended up marrying a graffiti writer. Not a street artist. Not someone who paints witty stencil art on public spaces. An actual graffiti writer. And he’s been painting for the last nine years.
Thus began my education on all things graffiti. One of the basic things I had to accept from the start was that graffiti is graffiti and street art is street art. You shouldn’t associate one with the other. A lot of people tend to group these two forms of art together just because they both use spray paint. Wrong. Why? Because they’re completely different genres. It’s like saying country music and Hip-Hop sound the same. Sure, they’re both forms of music people enjoy but their origins couldn’t be more opposite.
Like typography on steroids, graffiti is all about flexing the various forms and shapes of letters…with swag. This is why having a name in graff is so important. The letters you choose for your name will define you as a writer and your name essentially becomes your own logo. It’s basically personal branding at its best. Or worst. Depending on which side of the fence you sit.
To the average person, the alphabet may simply be no more than a mere collection of letters ranging from A to Z. To graffiti writers? The alphabet is something worth getting hyped about. They look at it with a totally different set of eyes. They study each letter’s curves and lines, they take in the small bits and the long bits, and every fine detail in between. They love the alphabet so much that once they decide on a name for themselves, it’s merely a matter of time before they begin to create a style of their own out of a series of letters.
Matt tells me, “People learn to see your name [piece] and will know it’s you, just by your style.” Just as every graffiti writer has a distinct name, every writer also has a distinct style. Like me, you may not think so when you first see it at a glance. All your eyes pick up on are a bunch of colours sprayed all over a building or a train in what looks like illegible hand-writing. But believe me, it says something specific, and the person who wrote it that way did so with purpose and creativity.
Take a closer look the next time you see a piece on a building or a wall somewhere. Try to think of letters the way a graffiti writer would. Remember how much they love the alphabet. Can you see any letters? Do the letters look as though they’re moving? Do they have flow and swing? Is there an extra curve or funk added to it? Or are the letters simple and straight? Does it look sharp, pointy, and maybe even aggressive?
Styles vary with every writer, but at the end of the day their goal is the same. It’s all about having a name and getting it up. This is why you see graffiti in the first place. They don’t choose public places by accident. Everything is intentional. Trains, buses, buildings, parks, public restrooms, trees–you name a place, and I can bet you’ve probably seen one before. They’re called “tags”–it’s a quick way of getting up without having to do a full, proper piece (you know, the colourful one I mentioned before).
This is where “throw-ups” come in–as in, throwing up a piece quickly. Somewhere. Anywhere. You’ve probably seen these sort of pieces too. They’re very simple, big, and usually bubbly. Remember elementary school and writing in bubble letters for fun? It looks like that. It’s another style of graffiti and is a bit like the middle ground between a piece and a tag. It’s a big and simple way of getting your name up because a tag can only be so big.
Graffiti has a deep history and amongst graffiti writers, there’s a lot of respect and understanding for it. Unlike street art, there are certain unwritten rules to go by within the graffiti world. For example, you can’t simply just paint anything you want and be called a graffiti writer. One observation I’ve made is that every writer I’ve met has watched the 1984 documentary Style Wars at least once in their lifetime. Style Wars is set in New York, capturing the very beginning of graffiti writing and is as essential to the graff world as the Bible is to Christians. It’s worth checking out if you’re keen to learn more about the origins of graffiti.
People often say graffiti is just a trend. Cities always try to find ways to clean it up and think they can put an end to it. But year after year, the art of graffiti lives on. Writers pass on their knowledge and passion for it, and new generations pick up where they’ve left off. Society will continue thinking they embrace all arts and welcome counterculture because they accept street art. And at the same time, they’ll still find graffiti revolting. But hopefully one day people will gain even a small appreciation for those crazy letter forms which they’ve so often seen. Yes, those letters that can mean only one thing: graffiti.