Where you would not have your own [child] live, and develop, and gather to itself knowledge of life and the things of life, is not a fit place for the [children] of other men to live, and develop, and gather to themselves knowledge of life and the things of life. It is a simple thing, this Golden Rule, and all that is required. Political economy and the survival of the fittest can go hang if they say otherwise.
— Jack London, in People of the Abyss
Most people read graffiti as a threat or an insult–indeed, that is what it’s usually meant to be: a territorial statement of ownership whose primary import is, “Get Out, Stay Out!” Graffiti writers themselves hope that other graffiti writers will interpret the message as a threat. No one would seriously deny that graffiti has as its primary purpose the establishment of boundaries. Yet is it not possible that it takes the form it does for another purpose, one that might be seen as admirable, and that one being the establishment of beauty in environments otherwise known primarily for bleakness? I know that may sound ridiculous at first, but in fact it is obvious that graffiti writers go to great lengths, and even some risk, to make their statements decorative, with loops, swirls, and colors, even to the point of obscuring the territorial message through the illegible elaboration of their forms. Perhaps there’s another message openly hidden in graffiti: and that may be that we have made such an insulting banality of our built environment that people become desperate to imbue it with some sort of stimulating form. Can graffiti be beautiful? If you think not, then ask yourself this: can birdsong?
After all, the trills and swirls of birdsong in the night, those cascades of instinctual music so beloved of poets, are nothing more than natural graffiti, the exact sonic equivalents of those swirls of paint delimiting the territories of dreaded street gangs. Anyone who has seen mockingbirds attacking crows or even hawks who come into their turf comprehends the ferocity of these sweet-singing creatures, and anyone who has seen them attack each other comprehends their selfishness. Yet their song–which translated would be the equivalent of gangsta rap lyrics–has been celebrated by poets since the days of the Thousand and One Nights.
In the case of birds, we can see the beauty because we can’t understand the meaning; in the case of graffiti, we can’t see the beauty precisely because we do understand the message. If we dared to see it abstractly, we would often see a well-ordered vocabulary of form that does for our empty streetscapes what birdsong can do for our desolate nights. I think that if we look beyond the territorial message of gang graffiti, we will see a desperate attempt to counterbalance the insult that the proponents of modernism have shouted at us all from every corner for the last fifty years.
The City on the Hill
The aesthetic mission of architecture in the years after World War II can all too accurately be described as the conversion of landscape to blandscape. Seduced perhaps by the smoothness required for aerodynamic form in the fast-moving vehicles seen as the emblems of modernity (now known to be emblems of profligacy instead), guided by a misapprehension of the complexities of engineering and mathematics as formally rigid (a concept long since invalidated by the inescapable uncertainties of particle physics and the richly-detailed recursions of fractal geometry), architects thought long and hard about what would best serve as the symbol of a wealthy and intelligent world culture and settled on…the shoebox. The shoebox set on end became the paradigm of the skyscrapers that house the financial elites of Western society, and the shoebox on its broad, flat bottom was designated to serve as the template for temples of the Consumption Cult, bringing you endless iterations of Wal-Marts, K-marts, Targets, Price Clubs, Rite-Aids, strip malls, parking structures, stucco apartment houses, cinderblock storage warrens, and all too many more, the long debilitating stutter of gray walls that is America’s architectural voice in the present era.
Add to that the abjuration of the commons and the complete capitulation to automobile dependency, as well as the increase in relative poverty rates facilitated by union-busting, job-exportation, and other corporate income-redistribution techniques (redistributing money from producers to investors), and the etiology of our civic psychopathy becomes more evident. Let us look at an actual building near my house, one that typifies commercial architecture in America at this time, and which is unfortunately in no way the worst of its kind. Let’s look at the Sav-On on Vine Street in Los Angeles, only a few blocks from several television studios that work overtime grinding out the normative image of itself that America spends several hours a day absorbing through the picture tube.
The Best Minds of Our Generation
The building fronts a major thoroughfare on one side, and a neighborhood street on another. The two remaining sides face a surface parking lot that occupies a third of the property–enough space for, say, four or five neighborhood shops with apartments over them and parking in back. The parking lot is oversized because a store of this size (about 10,000 square feet) that sells on low margins cannot be supported by neighborhood trade; it must draw shoppers from far outside the neighborhood, shoppers who can arrive by car and who will of course have to crowd neighborhood streets, clog neighborhood lungs, and park their cars on a three-inch layer of asphalt that could have provided retail or experiential variety to neighborhood residents.
Because Sav-On and its brethren sell on low margins to attract distant custom, they can afford to sell only merchandise which they can buy in bulk lots from wholesale manufacturers, and thus obtain discounts. This means that, far from increasing variety, such “big-box” stores diminish it, since only major manufacturers’ goods are represented in their stores, and the same manufacturers are represented in all the different “brands” of such big-box stores. You may buy whatever you want as long as it is what they have chosen to offer you; ask for an unusual item and you will most likely get a blank stare from the minimum wage clerk; ask to place a special order and you most likely will be refused.
And quite rightly so: a big-box store cannot afford to give you individual service. It would reduce profit too much and impair the job of redistributing income to its owners or investors. Thus, you now have a store which increases traffic and other stresses on community, while reducing choices and service available to local consumers. You have local stores punished for providing individualized service, by cutthroat underselling (often at a loss). You have a larger aggregate of jobs at moderate pay in local shops replaced by a smaller number of jobs at rock-bottom pay scales in the big box. And you have the local government treasury attacked both by the need to provide more infrastructure maintenance to accommodate heavier traffic, and by the inevitable tax breaks that big-box stores have been in the habit of demanding since the late ’70s. In other words, looking only at economic and environmental factors, you see a degradation of the neighborhood. Now let us look at the actual architecture.
The store has the aforementioned four sides. Where is the entrance? In the parking lot, of course, in tacit acknowledgement that this store is not designed to serve the neighborhood it occupies. What is on the other three sides? On one is the loading dock and the dumpster. And this is most interesting: on the other two sides, there is nothing. Nothing at all. Not even a token doorway: nothing. Just a vast expanse of cinderblock wall one and a half stories high, painted in the cheapest possible grade of plain white paint, and (on one side) a narrow strip of glass set up nearly at the roof level, so that someone outside looking in sees only the ceiling, and someone inside looking out sees only the smog. Oh, yes: and as a crowning artistic gesture, above the windows there is a sheet-metal pediment of such astounding blandness as to be invisible. Sav-On quite literally turns its back on the neighborhood. Because to Sav-On, neighborhood has no meaning; its customers are people in cars, and who cares where they live as long as they can be seduced by ads into driving ten miles to save $1.28 on a box of detergent and some toilet paper.
To Sav-On and its brethren, a neighborhood is just a place where you can buy enough dirt to plant your big box store. The cheaper you buy it and build it, the better; it leaves more money for the ads that bring the customers to that parking-lot door. Street-level windows? Who wants “consumers” to be distracted by the weather or passing friends when their attention should be riveted to the shelves and indoor ads. Sidewalk entrance? Why? People who walk can’t buy enough to interest us. An invigorating design? What’s the point of that? It won’t sell more tampons. Public space? If they have that they might raise our business taxes, and besides, people who are hanging out in a town square aren’t in here buying.
So the walls are high, wide, and blank. Except for…graffiti. Graffiti that grows like the vines it resembles, reclaiming the spaces arrogated by the Lords of Commerce. Loops and curlicues, code words, brags, and threats, and the name of the neighborhood written in the lingo of the streets. The Lords send their vassals out to paint it over day after day, week after week, and still it returns like the inexorable vines. And let me tell you, I think that graffiti here is not an insult to society, but an answer to the insult.
Dustbins of History
Graffiti has existed for thousands of years and in every sort of town–but it wasn’t till the last forty years, when the shoebox became the dominant architectural paradigm of the corporate world, that graffiti became almost universal in North America. On a train trip last year I noticed some painted on the back walls of pink stucco ghettos in that nearly all-white and most suburban of American towns, Simi Valley. Whoever painted it (it was in English) wasn’t protesting poverty or oppression. But all up and down the dry brown California hills marched the blank walls of stripmalls and office parks and gated suburbs, ever-expanding recursions of banality vanishing into the cloudless sky over the ridges….
Next time you see an angry scrawl on a blank heave of stucco or concrete or naked cinder block, next time you note the bitter music of human creatures penned into a maze as sterile as that faced by any laboratory animal, just ask yourself which is more dangerous to the future of the earth and of the human communities on it: is it the vandal who after all is striving in his ignorance and confusion to establish an identity for his neighborhood, or is it the graysuited oligarchy to whom neighborhoods are nothing more than square footage and loose change?
Listen to the mockingbirds….