Wailing on the Walls of Sin Cities: Graffiti and Punk Syncretism

Jaime Hernandez flyer, 1983.

“The young and poor were being warehoused, not helped. What could come after squatting, welfare, and graffiti? Only homelessness, despair, and punk” (Mark Aronson, 1998).

Normal Mailer once called graffiti “their text on our text,” meaning that by the 1970s and 1980s young urban Americans had recaptured inner city argot from the not-so-clean hands of business, trade, and commerce. Though not exactly an indictment of the advanced technological Superstate, graffiti forced people to realize that the eyes and hands of the sub-proletariat, so-called wild kids and banditos, were right around the corner with spray cans, ready to delineate America’s underbelly. The authorities, and even neighborhood residents, often abhorred graffiti as the reckless and ferocious habits of the “natives,” casting them into the roles of outlaws and saboteurs. Yet, historian Joe Austin has placed such identification within a wider context, suggesting that these insurgent art actions elicit meaning well beyond being mere marginalized, antiethical activity, for they are shaped by “the specific ways in which ‘youth’ has been historically shaped has left young people without legitimate spaces in which to live out their autonomy outside of adult surveillance. Young people are pushed to either ‘Take Place’ by appropriating nomadic, temporary, abandoned, illegal, or otherwise unwatched spaces with the landscape, or to ‘hide in the light’ ” (1998: 14). To emphasize the notion of “take,” one can reflect on this phrase by art theorist Ellen Handler Spitz, highlighting the fact that “Graffiti turns art into a verb” (qtd. in Philips 1999: 32). Hence, art and action are fused into one.

Austin further argues that New York City wild style was a keenly felt response to compounded alienation: the aftermath of the Cross Bronx expressway construction, which dislocated entire communities; steady white flight from the boroughs; landlords burning buildings for insurance money; a changing and even hostile economic landscape (such as graffiti artist Futura learning printing press skills right as the industry became automated); urban renewal that tended to ghettoize people further; a 1977 power outages that inspired looting; and crass Hollywood portrayals that normalized the Bronx as “Fort Apache” while silencing local voices. Hence, graffiti was a means by which youth could dismantle a neighborhood’s invisibility and take place or vie for contested spaces while seeking fame in “an alternative economy of recognition and prestige” (1998: 242). In short, graffiti offered an opportunity for youth to seek appropriation, authorship, agency, and autonomy.

Futura 2000 train graffiti, 1980.

Graffiti, in some sense, is riffing or riffage; that is, it embodies a play on words and surfaces, a recasting and reprogramming of such surfaces, fulfilling a desire for people to insert surfaces back into public scrutiny. The spraycan is a mobile signifier, serving to provide art “glitches” and “shrapnel” to some viewers, or referendums of taste or non-taste, skill or non-skills. It is an art that revels in dialectics: it is often ad hoc, yet mapped and purposeful. It is shambolic and symbolic, unread and an eyesore, atavistic and uptown. It is art that can further trap, alienate, blight, and tarnish, and one that can ripple the Botox-surfaces just enough to reveal that no system, architecture, or project can fully purge the desire to offer a counter-meaning. It signifies the power of vandalism in the field of vision — vivacious some say, or vicious, or vitalizing. It reveals the action latent in surfaces and is an art that sutures one’s will or willingness on the canvas of the living street. It is a code for the quick — an adept aerosol demonstration of visibility.

Throughout America, city authorities often utilize people doing community service or jail time to whitewash graffiti, re-paint surfaces, and blast tainted/blighted areas with high-power water hoses. Such repainting has even been dubbed the Unconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, the title of a film from Portland, Oregon, that adopts the discourse of documentaries to interrogate one central, yet complex notion — what exactly is art? — while suggesting that the paint-overs, or buffs, are essentially fascinating, public financed modern art projects, since the cover-ups look quite similar to the prior modernist style of both Constructivism (like Alexander Malevich) and Abstract Expressionism (like Mark Rothko).

Other municipalities sometimes work with local artists in a creative effort to curtail the habit, replacing graffiti-prone spaces with a mural. Such is the case with Peter Quezada. In the late 1980s, he taught himself how to “draw and paint” so he could create vibrant public neighborhood art with messages and images that would often deter “vandalism,” such as “Drinking and Drugs Aren’t Magic; Don’t Do ‘Em,” “Pray to End Gang Violence,” and “Have the Courage to Say No to Gangs,” among others. Other phrases included odes to the sense of place, such as “Take Area Pride” and “…A Little Bit of Graffiti Hurts a Lot of Bodies.” He told folklorist Sojin Kim that he didn’t want his neighborhood to look like a “dump”; hence, this was a pro-active, pro-neighborhood attempt to close the gap between the social dimension of public art and the very real need to reclaim territory from people deemed destructive (qtd. in Jones 1995: 263). Quazada’s murals were sometimes not sanctioned: hence, to some critics, his approach was not dissimilar to the graffiti he was supposedly challenging.

Peter Quezada. “If You Wanna Dance, You’ve Gotta Pay the Fiddler.” 1990.

In the eyes of some artists and critics, graffiti reveals the distress that coheres at the margins of power, and the art is a functioning code and custom that runs counter to the direction of conquest. Graffiti may actually reveal “places marked by history and time, sites that no one is using for anything else…Abandoned houses are used as artistic media, giving new value and utility to their textures…walls, signs, benches, and streetlamps…once dead, gain new meaning” (Bou 2005). Unlike art traditionally placed in galleries, graffiti is sometimes open source, ready to be reworked by the actions of other artists, or impacted by inclement weather that does not destroy it but instead transforms it. The deterioration becomes part of the new texture, perhaps even revealing latent ties to the “informalism of American abstract expressionism” (Bou 2005). Plus, graffiti is by no means localized, for the “artists share a worldwide network…Messages, meanings, and symbols born in New York surge across state lines and national borders…” especially since modes of dissemination have included close-to-the-ground train cars, which moved “wild style” beyond locale turf while pop culture magazine layouts featuring graffiti have shaped cultural discourse, since the mid-1970s (Chalfont and Prigoff 1987). Today, graffiti has proven that national borders are permeable membranes, for graffiti has automigrated on a global scale, re-surfacing trains in Europe and marking the flux-ridden space of punk bars in Thailand. Currently, one can easily browse books on graffiti in London, Berlin, Brazil, and Japan at any large “box” bookstore; this suggests that the form has been both lionized and neutralized, catapulted and co-opted, to some degree.

In punk rock terms, graffiti might be considered a way of defending a vulnerable sense of oneself from the mummifying trends of consumer society. Also, to adopt and adapt Daniel Wojcik’s notion of graffiti as “unauthorized, masterful…contemporary folk art,” I suggest such street ‘logos’ (graffiti) mirror punk art, such as flyers, stencils, and stickering, for it embodies a “grassroots form of aesthetic behavior, largely the creation of ordinary people who do not necessarily think of themselves as ‘artists’” (Wojcik 1995: 12). The squiggles and looping lettering of what has been dubbed wild style — immediate, crowded, intensely colored, strident, and even sensual — form a new urban babelogue that few can forestall, eliminate, or “crush.” Taggers crop up everywhere and refuse subjugation. In the 1980s, blue chip art was re-born when Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring married graffiti to the inevitable capitalistic ends of their work. Such gray areas have been described as the result of collectors who are “fascinated by these voices from the ghetto; they want pieces that capture the combustion in the subways. They want tame tigers. Lame tigers. The paintings are mind-blowing, but nothing compares to a train hit. Nothing (Sacha Jenkins 39: 1999). This irony didn’t dissuade South Bronx space Fashion Moda, whose exterior was spraypainted by Crash, to promote graffiti art’s acceptance by the art world by working with figures such as John Fekner, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, and Keith Haring. As described in a Sally Webster essay, “Fashion Moda: A Bronx Experience,” Crash, then a 19-year-old graffiti artist, curated the space’s first graffiti show and invited eleven of his mostly male black and Puerto Rican compadres like MITCH, KEL, 139TH, DISCO 107.5, with lone exception Lady Pink, who actively collaborated a few years later with Jenny Holzer. The works, either sprayed directly on the walls or on canvas, ranged from blown-up tags to full narratives and included works by FUTURA, who soon worked with the Clash.

Futura 2000, with the Clash backing.

In the mid-1970s, two books highlighted LA graffiti, including Los Angeles Barrio Calligraphy (1976) by Jerry Romotsky and Street Writers (1975) by Gusmano Cesarett, each seeming to illustrate the premises set forth by Spitz in 1991: Growth, change, crises of identity, uncertainty, restlessness, lack of balance, often poverty… dominate the places where graffiti play their most vital roles (Philips 1999: 33). Meanwhile, the commodification of graffiti happened as early as 1973 (the same year a whole subway car, windows and all, was painted 3-D style by Flint 707) with a gallery exhibit of twenty acclaimed giant canvases. This same year saw Richard Goldstein, in an article in New York magazine, argue that graffiti was “the first genuine teenage street culture since the fifties…” (qtd. in Chang and Herc 122). However, backlash was inevitable, and 1973 also marked the year that New York Mayor Lindsay established the graffiti task force. Yet, by 1975, an Art Space Gallery show in SoHo show offered $1,000-$3,000 pieces from the likes of Phase and Bama. Graffiti represented both a maelstrom and a money machine.

Still, graffiti during this period continued to be seen as the poetry of predominately working class, electric boogie kids scrawled on the brick and steel papyrus of cities for a generation raised on parachute pants, microwave milkshakes, and Oliver North (Thompson 1990: 136, McEvilley 1992: 93). The legacy of the 1970’s generation seems to symbolize graffiteros “armed with Krylon, Rustoleum, Red Devil spray paint, Flowmaster Ink – and a relatively new bit of technology, the felt-tipped pen. Students…used the tools of the painter, art student, and teacher, not to defile but to create guerrilla art” (George 1998). Even today, The Museum of The Harlem Graffiti Hall of Fame on 106th Street enshrines examples of current work in a sunken concrete playground as a homage to that generation.

Whether on the side of a subway or garbage dumpsters, on bridges or on the nice walls of a renovated condo, graffiti is a blunt reminder that two worlds exist simultaneously, and not very independent of one another. The dichotomies are plain. Cities are the topography of privilege, of locked gates that speak of maid service and architecture that freezes time and space in the form of credit cards and stocks. Graffiti is less a comment on social struggles for power and more a form of resilient, outsider assertiveness — a kinetic language that is unwrapped on top of the other (Thompson 1990, McEvilley 1992). It creates wailing walls that announced gangs, crews, rappers, taggers, breakers, graffiteros, and the names of the dead. It suggests that modern consumerism has certain edges, or tensions, that false trickledown economics cannot gloss over.

Spray Cans Spouting Analog Anarchy

This is what a lot of us had hoped would happen in the digital age: the
technology would put low-cost, easy-to-use tools for creative expression
into the hands of average people. Lower the barriers of participation,
provide new channels for publicity and distribution, and people would
create remarkable things. Think of these subcultures as aesthetic petri
dishes. Seed them and see what grows.

– Henry Jenkins “Taking Media in Our Own Hands”

Simply replace the word digital in the quote above with predigital and recall what I asserted previously about the age of xerography. In this modified context, Jenkins seems to describe Do-It-Yourself punk art in myriad forms, including stickers, stencils, ‘zines, flyers, and …graffiti. Xerography was a low cost, easy-to-use tool, providing new channels of distribution and fermenting a Petri dish of vernacular expression that helped fuel punk’s long-lasting sense of community. Within this subculture, Xerox flyers, sometimes illegally posted and short-lived – a kind of instant art meant to biodegrade (or to poach a phrase from Henry Jenkins: “edge towards extinction” — an in-built obsolescence) in the long autoclave heat of summer or torn down by an angry passer-by or the rare rabid collector — are akin to graffiti, which I briefly surveyed last chapter. If any doubts persist, one should notice how the city of Plymouth, England lumps the renegade/outlaw media together on its official web page, which advertises anti-street art services, including: “Removal of illegal graffiti and flyposting. 1 x operative (variable number of hours per day) additional staff used if required due to heavy attack of graffiti or flyposting.” The war metaphor denotes the sanctioned, defensive, and hostile hegemonic reaction to the subversive creation and dissemination of both forms. To take a macro view of punk within the digital age, Kevin C. Dunn writes, “For the past thirty years, punk rock has simultaneously worked within and against the hegemony of capitalistic telecommunication networks, navigating an increasingly interconnected and mediated world; the medium itself becomes a subversive message in its own right,” offering both agency and empowerment (2008: 194).

From the early years of 1975 (almost synchronous with early rap), punk took an outward-looking stance against the Teflon-coated autonomy of government and corporate enterprise, and catalyzed social, political, and aesthetic concerns in England and America. As a loose-knit community, punk too responded by grafting its own succinct styling on top of the architecture it disdained, thus evoking the relationship between modes of power and the vulnerability of individuals in a rapidly accelerating society. In the book Instant Litter, a work that featured punk posters from the 1978-1983 Seattle scene, poster maker Art Chantry muses: Artists preferred to post in very specific neighborhoods where the images scared off the common folk and caught the attention of those who understood. The result was more of a community primal scream than advertising…The street poster was the medium of communication, a punk community billboard back in the days when even college radio wouldn’t play the music…They were urban folk art, a sort of printed graffiti with a dark and sinister edge…any style of skill level was acceptable, and….the art form itself was significant as the music it advertised (1985: 3).

Punk still actively promotes Do-It-Yourself ethics, action-oriented political theory, and a bristling underdog psychology, though some critics underscore that these political “actions” are most often realized only in a form of street theater and spectacle, not in concrete terms. Sometimes this spectacle involves rampant stage diving and moshing, which, according to Tomas of Beefeater after one mid-1980s tour, “wasn’t a sincere release of energy, a sincere form of bodily expression, It was just a … asocial ritual … In a way they [punks] are society now too and that’s a shame. They still buy 7-11 food, they have no impact on the government, or the economy. They still entertain themselves the same way, they have the same values and futures as everybody else … so there’s no anarchy, rebellion there at all (Pit zine 1986). Furthering this notion a bit, Bob Mould of Husker Du told Interview magazine that “People want to think they are outside the norm, but in reality everyone is inside this pink bubble. Clusters of radicals are still part of society. All you do is influnce the trends of the norms. You can just change where the balloon stands, you can’t change what’s in it” (Rabid 1986: 128). In this light, punk rebel yells might be considered no more than hollow exercises linked to feverish bodily alienation.

Yet, even the Buzzcocks, usually noted for their jagged romantic pop songs, wrote little political diatribes like “Autonomy.” Guitarist Pete Diggle told me in person that this was Joe Strummer’s (The Clash singer and most political member) favorite Buzzcocks song. Diggle added, “I was always conscious of writing stuff that is universal and slightly philosophical and is about the human condition and the nature of people, but also the plights of people (2004). Although it was not as pointed, or detailed, as any Clash song, it did serve to establish that the band was not just concerned about rampant sexual proclivities (“Orgasm Addict”), musical maelstroms (“Noise Annoys”) and heartbreak (“Promises”). They were concerned with personal sovereignty and individual agency in a time of an ongoing political crisis during the low points of Labor rule in late 1970’s Britain, with its high unemployment rates, police actions, right-wing National Front growth, and garbage collector strikes. In the liner notes for Burning Ambitions, a punk compilation, Chris Salewicz described this time: “Mid-1970s Great Britain had been a dull, grey, disgusting place, in which rising unemployment and inflation stymied the country, especially its youth” (Cherry Red: 1982). Punk responded by producing a cultual revolution, as Pete Shelley, singer of the Buzzcocks offered to Salewicz, “It changed a lot of people’s lives. It made virtually everybody self-employed, and doing things they wanted to do. It gave the people the necessary impetus” (Cherry Red: 1982). Examining such song texts as the Buzzocks’ for their political undercurrent, and the relationship of a band’s message to the status quo, or to the culture at large during such a time period, enlarge one’s notion of politics within punk.

The Buzzcocks, circa 2000s, with a graffitero backdrop.

If television, newspapers, and radio represent the old, unidirectional, push mediums of communication from top-down, the “pull” medium of the Internet, in which people become nomadic and participatory, taking what they want, may be a useful metaphor to explore the dynamism of the first punk era. Yielding a nuanced and often fissured alliance between unlikely partners, as Henry Jenkins has noted in his introduction to Democracy and New Media (2003), the politics of the Internet remain unstable. Leftists imagine the World Wide Web as a Public Commons that fosters a new tribe of mind. With bravura, they announce that the vested interests, perhaps the manacles, of corporations and national governments lack sovereignty over them. Libertarians imagine the same space as an electronic frontier, akin to the West in the minds of pioneers, a place of endless individual agency and free, unfettered expression, which should remain as-is; yet, others see it as a federal project not unlike an information superhighway, a term coined by former Vice President Al Gore, who recognized the possibility of regulation and monitoring. Still, Jenkins has continued to questions whether this space, like underground punk culture, actually nourishes personal empowerment and citizenship or simply displaces actions into a subcultural lifestyle that is rife with a form of politics that feels as broken as democracy. It may simply be a dystopia.
The Internet, like underground punk, may foster counter-culture materialism and consumption that encourage the virtual equivalent of a shopping mall, in which consumers are simply pitched products while their actions, to poach Jenkins again, are “displaced from real-world involvement into a narrow, vulgar, trivial, aggressive, and isolating,” similar to the identity politics cemented under the concept of punk (2003). Fanzines and punk culture, in some ways, may mimic hegemony by manufacturing consent of its own. As Matt Wobensmith, the editor of Outpunk fanzine posits: “[punk culture] is just like a monoculture; just like society at large. They want to cut you off. They want to take away your roots. They want to give you a false identity and a false reality” (qtd. in Schalit 1997: 320). Still, some portions of punk culture remain potent: the vernacular expression of flyers and graffiti.

Like Internet users often contest virtual space, punks once intensely contested physical space as a means of interrogating hegemony. Simon Danser has noted the potential analogy between both in his article “Beyond Anti-Capitalism,” though he defines an Internet folk group, or web community, as having specific mores:
I use this term very loosely to include, for example, people who regularly visit
counter-cultural Weblogs (such as MetaFilter) as well as people who more actively take part in UseNet discussions, email forums, or chatrooms. Internet chatrooms are infamous for contesting sexual ‘norms’ and, at a more overtly political level, objections to G. W. Bush’s plans to attack Iraq have mostly been disseminated over the Internet rather than in the mass media. Equally, far-right ideas and Holocaust-denial sites also proliferate on the Internet. While not sharing the views expressed on these sites they are, of course, equally valid examples of attempts to contest the hegemonic processes. (2003)

Flyers, the scattered folkways of the international punk culture made visible, belong to no one and everyone. They are unstable entities edging towards extinction (or in-built obsolescence) in cities marked by flux. In communities that have laws on the books that try and curb the spread of flyer art on and around public spaces, the art is often the hallmarks of anonymous artists creating instant media while working in the subterfuge of night. Therefore, the act is tinged with the furtive and sometimes vapid romance of breaking rules, both legal and aesthetic: “Black Flag went deep into the culture, bringing out LA in a rash of minor vandalism…[They] took it further than anybody, perfecting a hit and run technique that double-dared authorities. Graffiti of Ray Pettibon’s bars were all over, and flyers, slapped up with wheat paste and white paint and sun-dried onto every lamppost or boarded store-front for a ten block stretch, [and were] almost impossible to remove” (Parker 1998). In an interview with David Grad in Punk Planet in 1997, Black Flag guitarist and founder Gregg Ginn noted that, “We weren’t doing anything illegal, except for graffiti – they never got us for that! There was so much of it, we were probably known to the general public from that – we were merciless. We felt that it was our only outlet. If the media was controlled, what other way was there to get information out there? It had a big impact on the visibility of the band, since we did it on real high-profile freeways!” (1997). One should also note that a Pettibon flyer, for a Black Flag concert at the Mabuhay, perhaps from 1981, features a staring doberman dog, a smiling police officer with a woman hanging on his shoulder, and a child tagging a building with a spray-painted flowery form — the symbol of the Symbionese Liberation Army — likely remembered in pubic memory from a photo featuring a gun-toting Patty Hearst in front of a dark orange banner with the image. Later, by the mid-1980s, punk bands such as Crimpshine in the Berkeley area, who became part of Lookout Records’ roster, was also notorious due to their graffiti. Note this exchange in Maximum Rock’n’Roll, linking: underage youth carving out DIY messages in contested spaces, harnessing angst latent in teenage boredom, and undergoing media hype and scrutiny:

MRR : The impression that I got was that you already had a plan of what you wanted to do with the band before it even started. Mostly what I’m referring to is the “media” hype, the name everywhere, the graffiti.

JEFF : Most of that stuff wasn’t planned, it was like when some woman from the (Oakland) Tribune came to Berkeley High looking for high school bands to write about, and said, “Do you want to be in the newspaper?”, and we’d be like, “Yeah, sure”. In terms of all the television and newspaper stuff, none of that was like we went out and tried to do it, and in terms of graffiti, we were just basically bored. (1988: #63)

The emphasis on using the public space as an alternative to mass media represents street art as a mode of vernacular expression and instant media that compensates for a lack of access in the decades prior to Become The Media campaigns, guerrilla video networks, YouTube, and blogs. As Jenkins now notes, such media is everywhere and converging.

Black Flag, early 1980s.

Punk folkways, including the creation and posting of flyers and the spraying of graffiti, represent the tense and fractured transition to this era. As Joey Shithead of DOA testifies, “It was the only thing I could do to drum up some publicity for the band. I would spraypaint the band’s name and various slogans outside clubs, on churches, on walls, anywhere” (36: 2004). If the spraying did not represent just a point of access, it could also reveal a point of pride, as noted by Henry Rollins when he told an interviewer, “Black Flag is the hardest playing band in the world, you can spray paint on any wall and sign my name to it,” thus marking the wall as a site of ratification and endorsement too (Harlan: 1983). Fellow SST Records label mate and bass player Mike Watt has admitted that Martin, the singer for his pre-Minutemen band the Reactionaries, tagged a Hollywood wall with the band name before or after an early area gig with the Alley Cats and Plugz, inciting the whole town to want to kill them. In response, they quickly changed their name to the Minutemen (Mullen and Spitz 2001: 194-195). In a mid-1980s Canadian episode, a letter to the editor in the fanzine Maximum Rock’n’Roll described the U.S. band Legion of Doom of “spraypainting Satanic garbage all over” Guelph, Ontario (#35). Granted, this graffiti did not likely mimic the flare and funk of hip hop styling, but as Jenkins notes in “Taking Media in Our Own Hands,” any such work should be understood within its own context: “Amateur creativity should be valued on its own terms, judged by the criteria of the subcultures within which these works get produced and circulated…When we are talking about traditional arts, we value amateur expression as much for the process as for the product” (2004). Punk graffiti may be crude and sparse, like punk flyer art, but within the community, this style has iconic merit, not the simple sneer of vandalism. This does not mean that punk bands did not use graffiti to threaten or vandalize. In fact, a 1986 Maximum Rock’nRoll scene report from Houston, TX describes how the band Afterbirth, who played a show with Life Sentence and Vicious Circle at the club Cabaret Voltaire, felt they did not receive adequate pay for their performance. Even after the booking person explained the expensives, the band returned on the following Sunday night and “spray painted all sorts of hate and Nazi solgans. A swastika on the door with ‘fag bar’ writen on top. Stars of David with ‘fag’ written” in the middle. ‘Gates is a Jew.’ ‘Ronnie’s Rip-Off Bar.’ ‘Make Money off Punks.’ Their intention was to have us closed down as well as intimidate me with the landlord and the neighboring landlords” (Gaitz). Though these episodes might be rare, punks sometimes used street art to target and punish their own community for imagined trespasses, using a venal discourse that mimics mainstream bigotry.

Although Black Flag did create radio spots, as evidenced on their Everything Went Black double LP, which contains a whole album’s side of such recordings, street art such as graffiti and fliers were not just acts of vandalism but a means of infiltrating public consciousness, establishing a temporary free zone, de-colonizing or reclaiming public space, and creating an avenue for expression when major media was off-limits. That public space could even be the compound walls of a police station, as Chuck Dukowski reminds us in a mini-overview of the band, “For one of those early shows, we put fliers somewhere, and Greg had to go to court for it. And they fined him or something. Our response to that was to go right from the courthouse to the Redondo Beach police station and graffiti the station wall in broad daylight” (Babcock 2008). Still, that freedom was short-lived, and creating that space came with consequences, such as early Black Flag singer Keith Morris, later of the Circle Jerks, getting charged or arrested with littering because of all the flyers that had been placed throughout the city for an early daytime show at Polliwog Park (Steve S.: 1998). As Morris described the tumultuous event to me: “It was an early afternoon Sunday. A picnic in the park with the pond and the ducks. About six dozen picnicking families, and 300 hundred punk rockers. And the whole place just exploded. There was food flying from all directions” (2002). In an earlier interview, he revealed that “the newspapers thought we were anarchists and terrorists who came to town to ruin things. From that point on we came under police scrutiny” (qtd. in Mullen and Spitz 2001: 218). Punk re-made the public park, just as families were attempting to enjoy a supposedly safe public space in the middle of the afternoon, revealing the carnivalesque underbelly.

In an even darker episode relating to punk graffiti and police, Dave Dictor, singer for the band MDC, was arrested on Memorial Day, 1983, in New York City for spraypainting the band’s logo on a subway wall. As he attested to me:

It took me three days to go from different precincts to different precincts, and eventually I ended up in a place called the Tombs, where basically you start out chained together with all the other prisoners and you work your way up and you finally get out to court. There I was literally on the group bench with all these momma rapers and sister rapers, these people with blood all over them, pretty harsh people, and there I was for graffiti. In fact, while I was in jail, all those guys there were like, “Graffiti? I want your bologna sandwich.” So, I’d just give them my bologna sandwich. (2008)

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An undercurrent of vandalism, or disruptive and marring messages, even an eyesore energy, was often expressed in the act of flyer construction and dissemination, just like it was imbedded in graffiti tagging too. For instance, in Austin, Fred Shultz, drummer for the Big Boys, intentionally mixed egg white with flyer paste in order to make the posters nearly impossible to remove after being under the Texas sun for days. Somewhat in contrast, Jeff Nelson, drummer from Minor Threat and Dischord designer, admitted, “I have always hated graffiti, and believe it harkens and hastens the decay of cities … In general, I think most of my peers in ‘the scene’ were above the crude nature of graffiti. I know that Brendan Canty from Fugazi/Rites of Spring, etc., had a bedroom covered with graffiti when he was in the band Deadline and lived in his parents’ house in DC. I would guess it was something done sporadically by some, and outgrown … When wheat-pasting posters, I always made a point of NOT putting them on nice buildings, and tried to put them only where others had put up posters, such as on signal control boxes or plywood walls surrounding construction sites. The act of putting up a poster with wheat paste was far more brazen than stapling up flyers, and it felt increasingly risky to do so. I always envied Europe their large poster kiosks, specifically meant for the posting of bills” (2008). Still, Nelson recognized that the bands’ flyers were likely perceived like a form of graffiti, acknowledging, “I am sure many felt that our flyers and posters were no better” (2007). More importantly, he draws attention to the lack of city funding for truly public social and physical space, which likely leads youth to taking “any means possible” to create their own form of DIY media.
Similarly, if Black Flag was the most notorious band in the greater Los Angeles area, actively “spraying their name and logo on virtually every highway overpass and abandoned building,” then their ability to mobilize people to distribute what some have suggested were thousands of flyers was a way of cementing their subcultural presence at a time when SST ads read, “Unite Against Society” (Blush 2001). This, however, did not make them loners in the field. As Mark Vallens notes on his web site Art for Change, “LA’s punk rock underground was promoting itself with the only means available to it… the hand made Xeroxed flyer. The established corporate media barely acknowledged punk (except to belittle it), and so it was necessary for punk to create its own media” (2007). With roots as far back as 1977, such flyers were so rampant “that one couldn’t see a bare lamppost anywhere in Hollywood, and those sometimes crude flyers helped build a tiny scene into a mass movement” (2007). This suggests that Black Flag flyer crews were merely applying the lessons of punk’s first wave but seeking greater results.

Victor Gastleum flyer, mid-1980s.

Victor Gastelum, who would later work for Gregg Gin at his label SST for several years, offered another insight to me, during an email exchange, positing that the purpose of graffiti and flyers remain different at their core:
I see it as a low-end form of advertisement art. By the time I was doing flyers (1985), people did not post them because you would definitely get busted. They still get posted in parts of L.A. like Silverlake and Hollywood. In the big city, the movie studios have always been going off and must have some shady agreement with the cops because I’m sure it’s just as illegal for them to do it. Posting doesn’t happen in the suburbs much though. I don’t see it as part of the graffiti scene because flyers were serving a commercial purpose, and even though you had a lot of freedom, it was not for the purpose of total self-expression. It was a place to develop an illustrator style. Experiment with graphics, typography, and a way to participate in punk besides being an audience member. I see it more in following the tradition of the rock posters and poster bills of the 1950s and 60s. (2007)

Thus, Gastelum suggests that punk art and the tradition of graffiti were mostly separate and distinct, though he does underscore that they might converge in the sense of vying for public space alongside quasi-sanctioned commercial posters in urban environments. Rat Skates, drummer for thrash metal band Overkill, suggests similar street art in his overview (Born in the Basement) of the band’s early incarnation, which would play clubs in NYC in 1979 and see punk graffiti, such as the logo for the band the Misfits, scrawled on sidewalks and buildings in or near the East Village (2007). In Washington D.C, walls were sprayed with the phrase, “Straight-edge,” while Los Angeles was marked by the gang signifying graffiti phrase “Suicidal Boyz,” signaling the early Latino and African American based fan culture of the Suicidal Tendencies.

This contested sense of space, the wrangling over private and public, used and unused, colonized and liberated spaces, resembles the Public Commons of the Internet, including the tensions between subcultures, with their participatory ethos, and the ever-increasing sense of branding and pitches for product – the concentrated power of the market economy nimbly at work. If this space, the Internet, provides room for renegades such as hackers, culture jammers, and open source advocates of grassroots communities, the pre-digital days of punk flyers and graffiti were a bellwether, urgently anticipating the age of New Media, whose mantra, according to Jenkins, is access, participation, reciprocity, one-to-one viral marketing, decentralization, dispersal, and contradiction.

Some of these sentiments are underscored in article that Lance Hahn, iconic punk legend from the bands Cringer and J-Church, wrote for AOK zine, titled “Save Your Local Graffiti Writers.” He argues, “Our society is uptight. Graffiti is the voice of the unheard…graffiti has been around for centuries…there will always be those out there who have something to say and will say it however they please. Even if the meaning is personal and no one can relate” (1985). He notes that local authorities adopted “sneaky work” — surveillance — in order to “exterminate” the street art (“heathen scum graffiti”) in Hawaii, where his band was based. The contradiction between personal and public (graffiti script that lives in public spaces with private meanings), and the tensions between “boring and ugly” blank walls of the city versus “wildfire” new graffiti styles is well-noted, signaling that Hahn is far more interested in a city hub, and island government, that grants access and participation, not “goon squads” that enforce hegemony and attempt to control the vivid aerosol expressions of youth — the instant DIY media of kids speaking out.


Bansky wall pieces.

One might consider graffiti artists as cultural jammers too, a term coined by the band Negativland, which generally refers to appropriating and adapting mass media to produce critiques, protest, or insight into that media. Granted, aerosol art may lack subtle interplay with the already exisiting messages, but it does try to re-define the essence or visual culture of a city by working with and against the visual fabric of the scene. Imagine the topography of the city as a series of skins that are being contested, but people must live within these skins. On one hand, as well-regarded graffiti artist Bansky notes in the book Wall and Piece, such a skin, like a wall, “Has always been the best place to publish your work…the people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit, which makes their opinion worthless” (2006). The skin is no more than commercialized property, to be controlled by the status quo. He insists that insurgent street art is only dangerous to three people: politicians, advertising executives, and graffiti writers. He stresses that street artists did not pose the greater threat by defacing neighborhoods but the “companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff” do threaten people (2006). Street artists give a community back, to some degree, a sense of urgency, agency, and freedom.
Through the use of delivery mediums such as graffiti, flyers, stencils, and fanzines, punks imagined a future in which media, as Jenkins writes in “Converge, I Diverge,” would be “everywhere… we will use all kinds of media in relation to one another. We will develop new skills for managing information, new structures for transmitting information across channels, and new creative genres that exploit the potentials of those emerging information structures.” Although the Internet has replaced the whir of copy machines and the acrid smells emanating from spray cans nozzles with the click of fingers on keyboards, the potential Jenkins outlines in his philosophy of Cultural Convergence, found again in “Converge? I Diverge,” remains paramount, for it entails “The explosion of new forms of creativity at the intersections of various media technologies, industries and consumers. Media convergence fosters a new participatory folk culture by giving average people the tools to archive, annotate, appropriate and re-circulate content. Shrewd companies tap this culture to foster consumer loyalty and generate low-cost content” (2001: 93). In the pre-Web days, major corporations vied with cottage industry, “ma and pa,” DIY indie labels for space in fanzines, then tapped graffiti artists to pitch product under the banner of hip, and now act like viral marketers on social networking sites, framing the web pages of punk bands with drop down ads that spell the name of resistance as consume. This is the contested space not solely of the future, but of analog, brick and mortar reality too, mirroring any city street with its shifting, boisterous hive of intersecting and often contradictory messages: rebel/sell, protest/pitch, and beware/buy.

And Then The People Shouted — Crass!

Crass stencil.

In England, the band Crass took street art to a whole new level of confrontation, which they outlined in the liner notes to their album Best Before 1984: “Since the graffiti days of ’77 we had been involved in various forms of action, from spraying to wire cutting, sabotage to subterfuge…throughout Central London…Our stenciled messages, anything from “Fight Wars, Not Wars’ to “Stuff Your Sexist Shit” were the first of their kind to appear in the UK and inspired a whole movement that sadly, has now been eclipsed by hip-hop artists who have done little but confirm the insidious nature of American culture.” According to Tony D, who was interviewed by John Robb of the Membranes for the book Punk Rock: An Oral History, bands like Crass also heavily appealed to squatter communities: “Squatting was becoming a big thing for all these people. Our squat applied to the European Union to become a free state! …People from all over Europe were coming, people hitchhiking in from France with a pound! People now started writing on their clothing at every gig. The graffiti on the wall would be Crass and the Ants [Adam and the Ants]” (2006: 429-430). Additionally, Paul Weller, the singer of The Jam, noted to Uncut that in the mid-late 1970s he visited Joe Strummer, singer of the Clash, who lived in a squat near Regent’s Park — a “horrible place but it had this big fish thing spray-painted on the wall” — which underscores the long relationship and history between squats, punks, and graffiti (1993: 50). Such varied wall markings signified a temporary flux zone, a subculture/opposition culture microcosm, an in-between place (unused/remade), a place of inversion, despair, hope, and promise: some theorists might deem these uber liminal spaces in which the entrances are marked by stencils, which have been described Peter Walsh as “beautiful little booby traps lying in wait, aesthetic gifts left behind as urban folk art, simultaneously revealing and concealing their purposes” (1996: 1-2).
The notion of such sites as places of contestation is outlined by the on-line magazine Do or Die in the article “Desire is Speaking,” in which the writer, describing squat life, once a staple of punk communities in the Netherlands from 1978-1984, reminds readers:

…at the moment, when ‘neo-liberalism’ is the only ideology and the market economy has colonized everything – even our genes – these practices show us possibilities for other ways of living, other economies, or even the end of the economy. There is an ongoing discussion about the necessity of creating an alternative economy that is less dependent on the mainstream market and the state. The Dutch VAK-group, for example – a federation of houses, studios, workplaces, companies, a farm and financial institutions – strives towards analternative infrastructure based on anarchist ideas, such as local democracy and federation. By supplying financial means, skills, experiences and other services, new projects can be supported and existing projects can network. Another example of an alternative economic system is the flourishing LET- schemes, local exchange systems without money, based on trading skills. (Rhizomes: date unknown)

My own experience traveling through Europe on a punk poster tour in 2004 with the band Retisonic revealed a nuanced network of squats of varied political persuasions that featured bars, art galleries, band performance halls, bookstores, eateries, and childcare facilities, all operating on the margins of official business.

On the website for Southern Records, the current distributor of the Crass catalog, a mini-history of the band’s art actions are provided, including prominent images of their handbill art, handed out at gigs, which included pithy statements such as “These Agents of the Law, and the Wealthy Elite, which they serve, are in reality the agents of death…we may be a nuisance, but they are deadly.” In the same panel as the text, a little girl (resembling Little Bo Peep) holds a jumping rope. She is juxtaposed next to a denuded landscape and a cloaked skull figure, with an iron cross on his trench coat. As the web site further notes, “During the lifespan of the band, Crass blitzed [highlighting the metaphor for street war] London with stencil graffiti containing messages…sprayed directly onto ads that were degrading to women. The graffiti was motivated in an attempt to counteract the mental rape inflicted by the advertisers. Stencils were made to fit inside a paper carry bags, which had the bottoms cut out. This way, when a target advertisement was located, the stencil could be sprayed with less risk for being caught.”

One must be careful not to assume that such sloganeering stencils were rampant, though, or even more visible than the band’s trademark logo itself, as Paul Cooper, who grew up near the Crass commune, attests:
As for graffiti, you would see band names scrawled on walls, bus shelters etc with marker pens, but again it was not overly original. Living only 15 miles from Dial House where Crass lived and worked meant that the Crass symbol and the logo with the broken rifle above the Crass name in a circle would often be sprayed around Romford where I lived using stencils. Due to the fact the graffiti was really only punks writing either band names or their own pseudonyms in marker pen it would have been considered petty vandalism I suppose. Crass were very well respected with any punk friends. Crass and Conflict were a big influence on me and my friends as they got us into animal rights. I still don’t eat meat today, which is a direct result of listening to Crass/ Conflict and reading their record sleeves. I don’t remember seeing any of the Crass slogan stencils; their sleeves/ posters stimulated enough conversation themselves. (2008).

Crass was not alone in their efforts either. Kev Hunter recalls the Epileptics, who later would become Flux of Pink Indians and join ranks with the Crass circle, announced their presence in 1978 “in their home town of Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire that summer with spray-painted graffiti. Together with their name, they had a logo and a slogan – ‘Smash Guitar Solos.'” The bands’ messages seeped through both throughout subculture and culture at large, colliding and converging with media. Arguably, Crass’ reach was more expansive, via music, stencils, graffiti, and record sleeves that could be folded out into posters the size of a dinner table. They had a sometimes indelible, lifelong impact, cementing an alternative lifestyle for portions of an entire generation.

Punk stencils on Alder St., Eugene, OR, 2008.

The editors of World War III Illustrated, which was readily available on shelves along with other illustrated comic/zine hybrids such as the over-sized RAW and plentiful punk zines during the 1980s, recognize the connection between punk and street art when discussing how magazine art could be stored in file cabinets or have a second life on the street, driven by the ingenuity and work ethic of readers: “One of the things that I always liked about the punk scene is that art itself is part of a totality way of life…” explains Seth Tobocman, who chooses not to separate the feelings, aesthetics, or artistic aspects of people from their lives (qtd. in Sprouse 1991). During the same conversation in Maximum Rock’n’Roll, Peter Kuper outlines how such an egalitarian philosophy impacts street culture by disseminating ideas beyond the printed page: “A lot of our graphics from the magazine get out of it and are nearly public domain. The work just goes out and the magazine doesn’t stop at the border of the page. We all love the idea of our work being something you can see on a telephone pole or being made into a stencil,” that people would wheat paste all over the skin of a city. “The whole idea was to get the art to as many people as possible,” which in turn removes the money/price from the equation, widening the audience of people experiencing the art and retaining a potential and effective sense of subversion… (qtd. in Sprouse 1991). For instance, Alphabet City, as the East Village is dubbed, witnessed a profusion of stenciled “signature skeletons scaling buildings and flying angel cats” by Michael Roman beginning in 1981, whose winged cat faces and beehives of human faces later lined the walls of the gay and punk hotbed Pyramid Club. In 1984, he was featured in a Stencil and Sprayshow at the Chelsea-based Proposition gallery and later worked on album art for the Doughboys (Canada) and Die Toten Hosen (Germany) and stadium rockers like Madonna and Rolling Stones (Hammond: 2005).

Michael Roman.


The origins of stenciling might be traced back to Europe during the 1940s and 50s, when communist and fascist parties adopted such methods to disseminate their issues and propaganda. Even critiques from within the Eastern Bloc were aided by stencils, such as one Marxists-Leninist cell in East Germany smuggling “3,000 copies of the ‘GDR edition’ of the Roter Morgen, several inner-party materials, a homemade printing apparatus for printing up to 50 stencils, a homemade [Rollapparat], a typewriter, one 35 mm camera as well as printer’s ink and ink pads were smuggled in with the aid of a handful of couriers until 1979,” all intended to change “bureaucratic state capitalist” from within (Polifka 1997). It’s no odd paring — the sheer utility or readymade prepared messages with the quickness, efficiency, and effectiveness of transmission. In a recent study of stencil art, Josh MacPhee posits that the “political street stencil is a direct extension of industrial usage…It is harder to remove than posters and flyers, and it creates a uniform clean image that can be repeated over and over, saturating an area. ..In a world run by the capitalist need for everything to have a fixed meaning…the open sign of the stencil can be disorienting, confusing, and even liberating” (2007). This makes stenciling an extremely relevant model for Crass, a means by which the band could bolster a sense of urgency, together with encoding their messages with a street level legitimacy and an easily discernible visual dialect: agitated people versus the impervious state, or emboldened women versus bankrupt, suppressive gender codes. An earlier, alternate history of stencils is outlined by art critic Peter Walsh:
Street stencils are beautiful little booby-traps lying in wait, aesthetic gifts left behind as urban folkart…[and] have a deep relationship to the systems of hobo symbols that operated during the nineteenth and early 20 centuries…indicating information like ‘be prepared to defend yourself,’ ‘you may sleep in a hayloft’ or ‘must work to eat’ enabled the vagabonds hopping trains to communicate with each other without letting the police and other authorities in on the message. (1996)

He continues by describing the cat and mouse games played by an active stencil artist who both revels in espousing a message and concealing it simultaneously, which I earlier described as the modus operandi of psychedelic posters and punk flyers. This relates to an overarching dialectic between communities. The ever-present fray marks and fissures actually denote a longing and desire, in the words of stencil artist cONVENIENCE, “to personalize” his environment in a manner “acceptable” to him while living under the restrictions of laws that he does not “make, want, or benefit from.” Space — the politics of land use, the topography of an environment, and aesthetic expressions contained therein — is not the sole conflict here, but language is as well. Again, Walsh typifies this larger, vexing, core issue:
This controlling of information through the coding is played out daily in society at large. Scientist, doctors, and art critic…protect their turf by inventing jargon. Banks, governments, organized criminals, and military organizations protect their power bases by encrypting their secretes. Abstract artists protect their rarefied domain by imbedding esoteric historical information in their gestural languages. By replicated these power structures on a small scale…stencillers…like the hobos, highlight the presence of social class systems and point to the existence of information have and have-nots…We are left with the image of stencil practitioners, free to roam the city at will, but in actual practice held separately in ideological jail cells, tapping their secret messages back and forth. (Walsh: 1996).

The Southern web site provides examples of Crass street stencils, as if to reinforce the concept of a street art user’s manual. Images such as ‘In All Our Decadence People Die, Who Do They Think They’re Fooling: You? Wealth is a Ghetto,’ is tagged with the following note:
THIS IS A SAMPLE OF SOME OF THE SPRAYS THAT WE USE FOR VARIOUS GRAFFITI PROJECTS. IF YOU CUT THESE STENCILS OUT, PERHAPS IT WOULD BE BETTER TO COPY THEM ONTO THIN CARD FIRST…YOU CAN BUY ALPHABET STENCIL KITS IN MOST SHOPS THAT SELL ART MATERIAL. YOU CAN ALSO BUY CRAFT KNIVES WHICH ARE THE BEST TYPE FOR CUTTING STENCILS. SOME OF THESE STENCILS ARE THE ONES WE USE ON POSTERS (ETC.) TO LET PEOPLE KNOW WE WON’T PUT UP WITH THE SHIT THEY’RE PROMOTING. IT’S A COOD WAY OF SPENDING AN EVENING, GRAFFITI IS A REALLY EFFECTIVE WAY OF LETTING YOUR OPINIONS BE SEEN, BUT DON’T GET CAUGHT…

However, despite these acts being considered agit-prop anarchistic rantings from marginalized communities, such material eventually ended up in trendy boutiques: “the [Crass] logo made its way onto fashion-punk shirts, like…one worn by old-school hip hop artist, Junior,” who is seen in a photo from Melody Maker on June 23, 1983, page 33. Later, bands from the Crass circle, including New Model Army, signed to major labels like EMI and were attacked by the anarcho band Conflict, who penned one album title as “Only Stupid Bastards Sign to EMI,” a direct reference to a T-shirt worn by the singer of New Model Army on Tops of the Pops which read “Only Stupid Bastards Do Heroin.” All language can be seen as a kind of contested space, in which a phrase or logo can be appropriated, co-opted, fissured, and poached freely.

This year, a new book on Crass, The Hippies Now Wear Black, will be published by the collective AK Press, while the methods and purpose of Crass remain potent. For instance, on the popular web site Flickr, in which people can upload their own photos and join groups, the anti-war stencil group has no less than 900 members, featuring a variety of images and text, including the logo of Star Wars poached and re-made as “Stop Wars.” Other stencils offer recycled hippie phrases such as Make Love Not War and common Gulf War I and II protest slogans such as “No More Oil For War.” One particularly powerful image includes Uncle Sam from the WWI-era “I Want You For the U.S. Army” campaign art by James Flagg, with four million originally printed earlier last century, re-imagined as “I Want You in Afghanistan.” The once lionized iconic image is severely parodied, featuring a Pinocchio-sized nose and clown face. Even today, Crass’ concept of the readymade stencil as graffiti alternative still empowers the latest era of war protestors.
This is highlighted in part by a new generation of punk street taggers, such as the self-identifying “punk graffiti artist” Revolting Mass, who does both freehand and stenciling, from defacing beach signs to adding deep blue colored skulls with Mohawks on squat walls, while his posters pitch slogans like “9-11,” “Babylon’s Burning” and “Fascists Racists and Haters of Refugees Follow Your Leader [blow your head off like Hitler],” and “Fuck the System Liberate Yourself” (http://www.ablazegraphics.co.uk: 2001). Hence, punk and graffiti have come full circle from the insurrectory acts of Crass to third generation punk graffiti applied to London’s skin by a generation hounded by the Anti-Social Behavioral Order, part of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act codified into law, to tackle “anti-social behavior.” Such punk “actions” can still be considered as a subculture’s resistance to the state’s willingness, along with corporations, to legislate and curtail behavior that it deems provocative, alarming, and distressing.

Art Crime and the Money Machine: Gotham City Style

Despite punk’s desire for ground zero, a clean slate, replete with a revulsion of the past, punk is actually quite nostalgic, looking for its rightful place in the dust bins of history. When the section of an art show called De-signs was put together for the exhibit titled The Downtown Show, New York Art Scene, 1974-1984. The section covered graffiti and punk rock posters from bands such as Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell and The Ramones (Spears: 2006). When critics and performers look back at the volatile late 70s and early 80s, they see converging street art cultures. The artist Lydia Lunch, a crossover performer known as part New York noise provocateur as singer for Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, anti-star of transgressive Richard Kern films, and spoken word performance poet, likened her work to the visible “outsider” urban folk art: “I had only been scribbling in notebooks, like all the other delinquents if they hadn’t been writing on bathroom walls or subway trains. The stage at CBGBs, that’s where I took my atrocities” (Beatty: 1989). Young entrepreneur artist born Fred Baithwaite, but better known to the world as Fab Five Freddy, started organizing graffiti artists and promoting them on the downtown art scene then blossoming in tandem with the punk rock club scene. His point was that the living, aggressive art was a perfect fit with the same antiestablishment attitudes that ruled at punk landmarks like CBGB. If punk was rebel music, this was truly rebel art. Samo, a thin, curiously dreaded Brooklyn renegade became the art world’s primitive savant under his real name Jean-Michel Basquiat, who would later perform at the Mudd Club, another NYC punk haunt (George 1998). The Samo tags were mostly confined to SOHO, as if Basquiat was directly confronting art “authorities,” or conversely, seeking their blessings.

Basquiat, mid-1980s.

Fab Five Freddy has also noted that Basquiat’s work reminded him of the painter Cy Twombly, even though it still conveyed a sense of “dilapidated graffiti-slashed slum buildings,” which Basquiat loved to hear (qtd. in Vassel 2007). Diego Cortez, who was also a highly influential member of the scene and helped foster the connections between street art and new wave trend makers, insists that Basquiat “really was a punk — that was really his identity, which is kind of outside of black and white issues… a whole side of punk is very aggressively anti-intellectual. It is a ploy, the punk ploy” (qtd. in Vassal 2007). The ploy part is essential, for it suggests that the anti-intellectual is a masking, a performative discourse, which helps legitimate the art and music as bonafide resistance in the eyes of the community. The ploy ushers in the essence of the new.

Although 1977 photos of the dressing room of the Marquee in London reveal a scattered cornucopia of layered graffiti that forms a visual counterpoint to the sweat-slickened, half-naked appearance of bands like Generation X, CBGBs became a temple of punk graffiti, bar none. In his essay “CBGBs as Physical Space,” Richard Hell provides this overview right before the site closed:

CBGB’s bathroom.

The graffiti has gotten thicker, but that happened quickly too. It took only three-four
years for the place to acquire the garish veneer that’s become it’s distinguishing mark — Hillary’ stunning, and stunningly effective inertia…his lack of interest in removing any defacement…All those spectra of marker scrawls, blurred spraypaint swaths, and day-glo stickers comprising the interior planes of a shimmering temple of impulse-to-assert, can’t truly be seen as ‘self-assertion.’ It’s more like mob behavior, like what goes on in a mosh pit, or like blank genetic reflexes, than anything to do with anyone’s self. It provokes [kids] absence, their faceless selves buried under the next pretty layer of pointless assertion. The walls are an onslaught of death and futility as much as they are of life and utility…It’s about being young and hungry, about energy, anger, sex; pure formless assertion. Or not; it’s about boredom and frustration (Salyers 2006).

Rauls, Austin, early 1980s, by Dixon Coulbourn

.

In addition to CBGBs, graffiti was an intrinsic and steady staple of the visual aesthetic of clubs and spaces ranging from Al’s Bar and the Vex in LA, to Huntington Beach, where Jim Kaa, guitarist from the Crowd, explains, “Our story is the local Snack Bar at Brookhurst Street Beach, It would get graffitied one week and painted over the next week,” (2008) to the dingy bar O’Banions in Chicago, which hosted punk shows. The Whiskey a Go Go was layered with tags such as “Give Me a Break,” “This is the World Famous Whiskey a Go Go?” “Gonna Kill Ya Someday,” and “Eat Shit and Die.” Graffiti also adorned the walls of the club Godzillas in L.A. (booked by the Stern brothers from Youth Brigade), which can be seen in a photo of No Crisis from Flipside #31. In fact, the L.A. Times reported: “Punks of all persuasions, from skinhead beach kids to style-mongers with hair waxed into outlandish shapes, circulated easily through the spacious rooms, adding graffiti to the walls, sprawling in dark comers, even indulging in a bit of free-for-all handball against one of the high walls” (Jan. 6 1982). Such description teems with a subtextual discourse that portrays the site as liminal — underground, unconventional, inverted, and full of ‘otherness.’

Even in the deep South, Shank describes the original Raul’s based in Austin as a place where, “walls were caked with graffiti and sweat so that when you leaned up against them…splinters didn’t pierce your skin but instead band names — like the Offenders, and the Huns, and Re*Cords – would be imprinted backwards on your shirt,” like a tattoo or remnant of the club itself (1994: 2). The brick exterior walls were also covered with bands names scrawled from top to bottom, including the Dicks, Offenders, Huns, and F-System. Another club in Austin, Duke’s Royal Coach Inn, was also marked with rampant graffiti, like “No Frats,” “Brad First Your Last,” and bands names like the Inserts, Delinquents, S.T.B. (Sharon Tate’s Baby), and the Recipients. A famous photo of the Big Boys, seen squatting in front of the club’s logo, features a graffiti backdrop of the band’s name and the phrases “No Frats” and “No KKK No War.”

The Ritz on 6th St. used white sheet backdrops lined with graffiti, which can be seen in live shots from the Circle Jerks/Big Boys show. Also, a Skunks (early Austin punk band) photo taken at Crazy Bob’s in 1979 features an array of graffiti, including the band’s logo, in the backstage room. Such graffiti not only marked the site of punk and the carnivalesque, it also utilized by punks to deface the sites of Others, as Biscuit breathlessly wrote in Left of the Dial: “Midnight runnin’ on a bicycle with a spay can lookin’ for trouble! If the fraternity/sorority BMW has a frat sign on the window, it gets red spray painted noodles down the side. I spray painted DEAD FRAT on a thirty square block area on all four street corners” (2004). In the mid-1980s, Biscuit was featured in an ad for $6.95 “Thrashirts” in the infamous skate zine Thrasher, posed in a skinny Thrasher shirt and a can of spray paint, his finger affixed to nozzle, with scrawled tags and a large flag reading “fun” (referencing their record E.P. “Fun Fun Fun”) behind him. This outsider punk artist, known for his ample and keen flyering, album art, and assemblages, was now cemented in the public mind as a street artist as well, bridging the boundaries between forms.

The Big Boys.
In D.C., on a wooden sign posted outside Madame’s Organ, a venue that once hosted the Bad Brains and Teen Idles, black graffiti (“Punk Rock Kilied Me,” plus other scrawls) is documented on a photo used as the flyer for a May 1980 film called “Wet Streets At Night.” The Masque in L.A., despite being home to queer-centered bands like the Screamers, was marked by graffiti blaring “Fags is not Cool” and “Kill All Hippies.” Much later, another kind of visual kind of vehemence took place when reactionary graffiti was used to mar or disrupt punk sites, such as K Records’ office in Olympia, WA, which was spraypainted, along with the apartment of its owners, Slim Moon and Donna Dresch, in the 1990s.
In terms of album art and promotional campaigns, punk attitude and graffiti commingled together to form the signifying style of punk, as evidenced in scholarly work beginning with Dick Hebdige, who wrote in 1979, “the graphics…used on record covers and fanzines were homologous with punk’s subterranean and anarchic style … [one typograpgic style] was graffiti which was translated into a flowing ‘spray can’ script” (112). Notable manifestations of graffiti at the time of the first wave of British and American punk include the logos or lettering, sometimes with implied instead of overt graffiti motifs, include: the Jam’s In the City (1977) record, plus several singles, including “Down In the Tube Station at Midnight,” ‘Modern World,” and “News of the World”; Avenger’s “We Are the One”; Dead Boys’ “Sonic Reducer,” Wayne County and the Electric Chairs’ Blatantly Offensive EP (in the form of latrinalia), the Ramones “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”; The Saints I’m Stranded album, the U.K. Subs “CID”; Subways Sect’s “Nobody’s Scared”; Radiators’ “Lets Talk About the Weather”; Patrick Fitzgerald’s “Safety Pink Stuck in my Heart”; and the logos of bands like The Banned and Suburban Studs.
In addition, two key videos from the 1976 first wave of punk feature graffiti, including the promo clip for the Damned’s “New Rose,” especially the walls behind drummer Rat Scabies, which seems to have DEATH in red, and the opening shot of the Sex Pistol’s “God Save the Queen,” which has the band’s logo spraypainted on one of the amplifiers. During the same period, Ray Stevenson photographs of the Bromley Contingent featured them in Linda Ashby’s graffitied apartment in the Saint James Hotel (“Anarchy in the UK means free from the police state…” “Banshee Legend they don’t want anarchy” among other phrases) while several shots of the Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee contain graffiti, most notably the still black and white shots of Gene October from Chelsea lying down and pointing at the camera.

Stiv Bators by Ed Colver.

Punk lore tells that graffiti at the infamous apartment complex Canterbury featured the phrase “Piranhas eat lesbian shit” in an elevator where someone routinely urinated, while other graffiti, like swastikas painted in the lobby, were attributed to “a bunch of junkies calling themselves the Youth Party.” Later those were offset by “a series of Star of David emblems sprayed adjacent to them” (qtd. in Mullen and Spitz 170-171: 2001). Black’s Flag’s four black bar logos, which depict an impression of an undulating flag, originally conceived by Greg Ginn’s brother Raymond Pettibon, were supposedly the result of making the flag easy to quickly graffiti. Moreover, representative graffiti examples from the first and second wave of North American punk abound: the Black Flag graffiti logo and black bars on a white sheet backdrop on the video for “Depression” and “Police Story,” featuring Dez Cadena on vocals, from Target videos; the Don Rickles prime time sitcom “CPO Sharkley” from March 1978 features the Dickies playing in a room wounded with dizzying graffiti; shots of a young man spraying graffiti begin the video for Gun Club’s 1983 performance of “The Lie” on Dutch TV; a Flipside #31 graphic for (Impatient) Youth features Strap on Dick Chris and friend slumped next to a door and wall with the band’s spraypainted name and a photo of Social Distortion with the band playing live in front of their name spraypainted behind them; myriad Ed Colver photographs (45 Grave in which the band name “Dead Kennedys” is evident in a heap of graffiti; a 1979 shot of Stiv Bators, inundated by latrinalia, a shot of the Mau Maus found in Hardcore California, whose writer Craig Lee can be found in an opening photo behind a barred window, surrounded by graffiti, and three photos featured on the insert for the album Youth Report, a punk compilation, including shots of Shattered Faith, Channel 3, and Bad Religion); a 1983 Spin blurb on MDC, featuring a shot of the band alongside their graffiti “No War No KKK No Fascist USA”; famous photographs of the Dead Kennedys by f-stop Fitzgerald featuring the band is hand-sprayed T-shirts emblazoned with shirts marked by the letter S, which is divided down the middle by each wearing a tie, thus forming symbols ($) for money; photographs of Barbara Kitson of the Thrills, later featured on the Bacchus Archive release “NAFLTC”; photographs by Ruby Ray featuring Sid Vicious in San Francisco, Sally Ray of the Mutants, and rockabilly Ray Campi, among others; a Ann Suma photograph of Middle Class, featuring the scrawled words “Slush,” “Flopside” (or perhaps Flipside), and “Everybody Loves Somebody Be A…”; a photograph of Pleasant Gehman at Zero Zero in 1981 with the phrases “Visit Ohio,” “Get Plasmatized,” and “Happy Birthday Veronika,”; Murray Bowles photographs of Really Red, Husker Du, and Los Olvidados; a press photo of the Pagans, from Cleveland , Ohio, seated in front of a wall littered with rock’n’roll posters and a huge scrawl of “Pagan Mania!”, a Flipside issue #40 layout of an interview with the band Ribzy features a stark b/w reproduction of the band hanging on to a wall with band graffiti such as the Fuck-ups and Discharge; the Pariah album Youths of Age has the album title emblazoned in graffiti-style, located at the end of a line of punks and skins waiting alongside a brick wall; a savvy photo of Paul Westerberg in 1983 with the graffiti “Replacements suk” behind him; the Canadian band D.O.A. photographed in front of the heavily graffiti-scrawled Berlin Wall while on in 1984; the Washington D.C. punk band Scream photographed by Tomas (Beefeater) in a graffiti-lined room for the Bang on the Drum and “Walking by Myself” and 7” single sleeves (1986); the vinyl LP label for the Government Issue album You, released in 1987 on Giant, features a photo of the band in front of the heavily tagged Berlin Wall, featuring the line “The Wall Will Fall,” and the graffiti-tagged upturned living room featured in Suicidal Tendencies’ “Possessed to Skate Video (1986). Images of tagging continue to thrive in punk art, as evidenced by the front cover for the 2004 release Cruisin for a Bruisin by the garage punk band The Bobbyteens, which features a band member spraying the band’s logo on a red wall with white aerosal script, and more recent releases like the Midlife Crisis EP, with their logo painted on a wall, and the T4 Project, featuring an illustration of a punk tagging a wall.

Several key photos of UK fans and bands surrounded by graffiti exist have continue to circulate, like a shot of Sue Catwoman in color with myriad classic bands names behind her, or a black and white shot recently reprinted in Mojo magazine of XTC at Fulham Greyhound, flush with graffiti, in 1978. Record art examples include Killing Joke’s first self-titled LP, The Exploited Punks Not Dead album, The Ejected’s A Touch of Glass album in which the band is shown up against a graffiti-covered wall, opposite of three female punks in miniskirts, GBH’s album City Babies Attacked by Rats, the band graphic and logo for the Depraved found in Maximum Rock n Roll April 1986, and press photos for the bands Action Pact and Anti-Pasti. When two members of Final Solution zine staff ventured to Britain during 1980, they offered this first hand prospective of the period:

London graffiti is created with your giant Pentel felt tip pen that is carried at all times to write on train walls, tube station walls, or any wall that looks like it needs to be written on. There is some great graffiti on the side streets of Carnaby St. and slogans read from anything like “Kill the Mods” or “Elthan Mods” or “Bromley Skins” or “Punx Rule” or whatever. People’s names, band’s names, your area with your category is the one most seen and general garbage can be found anywhere (Oct. #8).

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As Mark Brennan of the mid-1980’s Oi band Business describes in the liner notes to his band’s Smash the Discos re-release, during this time period, “You’d have one punk gig where there’s a bit of graffiti or whatever, and in comes the heavy mob to shut it down” (1997). Graffiti invited trouble from authorities. Even though it had become a recurring motif used by major label designers, it did signify real threats, not just commodified aesthetic street style.

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In Colorado, the young hardcore band Bum Kon offered the song “Is This Art?” in which the refrain was a pugnacious and pithy testament: “blood on the street/graffiti on the wall, this is art!” In 1980, Sham 69 released the song “Spray it on the Wall” on the album The Game, in which Jimmy Pursey frames street art both in terms of creating vital, galvanizing self-made media (“spray it on the wall in capitol letters/tell your friends not in whispers but in shouts”) but also in terms of pushing and providing agency and autonomy. In the discourse of the song, such art creates spaces for youth to experience a worthy sense of freedom, despite how transient it may be: “Big brother is watching you…you’re just another face in the crowd/so come on son shout it out.” Black Flag may have sung a 30-second tirade called “Spaypaint” on their Damaged LP, and the Circle Jerks might have yelled ‘You run around and paint graffiti/on everybody’s walls,” then remind the character that that “ain’t nothing at all,” on the song “Up Against the Wall” (Group Sex 1980) but the authorities were watching. In the film Decline of Western Civilization, Keith Morris yells the lines while pointing back at a spraypainted logo of the band (black paint on white surface) that serves as a backdrop to the stage (in later stages of the band, the crude backdrop was replaced by a logo from their first album, juxtaposed next to a Shawn Kerri icon: the Circle Jerks skanker, found on the first albums and flyers too). When the Texas band Legionaire’s Disease headed to California and spray-painted the World Trade Center in San Francisco, they were banned from the city. In another incident, when Black Flag was cutting the track for “No Values” at 4:00 a.m., guitarist Gregg Ginn placed his amp in the hallway and played the savage riffs while nearby kitchen windows were wide open. The police arrived, or committed “breaking and entering” according to the band, then on the way out asked what band was playing. When they heard “Black Flag” as the answer, they connected the band to graffiti on Edison Wall. Such a reputation was bound to signal future tension and rancor between the two camps.

The Clash, graffiti, on the Westway…

Most prominent, in the sense of legend, as noted by Jon Savage in 1991, might be the Clash’s white logo near the Westway: “When I think of the punk years, particularly 1977, I always think of one particular spot, just at the point where the elevated Westway diverges from Harrow Road and pursues the line of the Hammersmith and City tube tracks…From the end of 1976, one of the stanchions holding up the Westway was emblazoned with large graffiti which said simply, ‘The Clash.’ When first sprayed the graffiti laid a psychic boundary marker for the group….” (Evening Standard: 1993). This is the same Westway signified on the back cover of the Clash first LP, depicted in the riot scene in 1976 at Notting Hill. This same LP art, “with splurges of red and pink aerosol paint…” according to Marcus Gray, also suggests “the neon and graffiti of the urban environment, and evoke the fire and blood of riot.” The tense, alienated urban terrain of the Clash was now central to their lore, which was even further cemented when Strummer supposedly spay painted “White Riot” on the office of Capitol Records. Later, the Clash would work extensively with graffiti artist Futura X, who appeared on their Combat Rock (he designed the cover and sang on the record) and painted their banner for their multiple Bonds Casino shows, in which Futura sprayed graffiti live on stage during their multiple performances. His work, including a large Clash banner, appears in their video “This is Radio Clash.”

Pagan Babies band layout, mid-1980s,

Maximum Rock’n’Roll.

By the mid-late 1980s, graffiti had become part of the aesthetic of New York hardcore visuals, and graffiti style influences are found in the logos of bands like Pagan Babies, Token Entry, the Crumbsuckers, Vision, and later, 25 Ta Life and others, a period that Ari Katz, singer for the band Lifetime, has described as ripe with “young bands … starting up, and they were all baseball bats and graffiti” (Edge 2006: 27). The lettering on such band logos is often blocky but frenetic, a hint of wild style submerged as a New York hardcore punk trope. Jimmy Gestapo, lead singer of the band Murphy’s Law, recalls the illegal after hours bar A7 in the early 1980s, at which he and Raybeez (singer for Warzone) worked the door, featured the territorial warning, “Out of town bands, remember where you are,” spraypainted above the stage (Burmester 2008: 58). This occurred right prior to the city declaring a de facto war on flyer and concert bill posting during 1988 and 1989, much like its war on tafiti trains, in the name of “quality of life” issues, when promoters and activists like Bob Zark were systematically fined $50.00 to $100.00 for each handbill to which he affixed to lamp posts, which eventually led him to form the group Stop-Gro (Stop Persecuting Grassroots Organizations). Zark, who provided scene reports to Maximum Rock’n’Roll, reported in Dec. 1988 that the city had fined him $3,000. With the help of Jello Biafra and Allen Ginsberg, he sought out the ACLU, landing the lawyer Ed Baker, who brought a lawsuit against the city. In the zine, Zark attests, “The chances of our striking down the city posting law as unconstitutional in the state court are very good. If that happens, we will put the poster police and their money making scam out of business,” later dubbing it “sweet revenge.” In an attempt to help fund his efforts, punk bands like APPLE, The Radicts, the Dream Smashes, the Lie Detectors, Masters of the Obvious held a benefit gig. In 1989, he reported to Charles Bernstein that he underwent three trials, and the city was seeking $22,000 in damages.

In contrast, over a period of two years, the city only fined the club the Roxy $200.00, though the club routinely plastered the city. Zark was also supported by the rock’n’roll critic Dave Marsh, who some say penned and popularized the term “punk.” Soon, the tactics were not confined to New York City, having quickly disseminated to bordering localities. Zark recounts: “We’ve learned that in New Haven, Connecticut and Kingston, New York, there are poster police modeled after the New York City poster police and they do nothing but the same thing. They run around and look for posters and then take the names off the posters and chase people down, use undercover tactics, threats and intimidation to issue massive fines. This is complete cultural repression (qtd in “The Botox” :1989).

The dissemination, one must note, worked in two directions, since the appeals for justice eventually came forth from Central Europe, ironically highlighting the tension between individuals expression and freedom of press versus state suppression: At the time there was a strike going on in the shipyards of Poland and a petition was circulated and about 400 people signed it in Poland voicing their disapproval in the anti-postering law of New York City (qtd. in “The Botox”: 1989). These historic realities of these consequences draw links between the “subversive” style and tactics of people “speaking back” in urban environments, using either graffiti or flyers, to de-colonize spaces and negotiate their messages in a bureaucratic society, literally becoming the media, long before the guerrilla video slogans of the 1990s.

Such actions also relate to skate culture, in that, “Youth used graffiti to “colonize pools,” in which skaters “frequently sprayed the terrain surface not only to mark it for themselves, celebrating its transfer to the domain of skateboarding, but also against others, marking off the terrain” (Borden 2002: 51). Hence, the meaning of such actions can be understood to signify how punks and skaters worked in tandem to inhabit and re-imagine spaces often overlooked, neglected, or off-limits. While graffiti may seem bright, garish, and at times soft as 60’s psychedelia, punk was much more about tatters, appendages, splotches, and cut-ups. It is a visual counterpoint to the flawless mechanism of modern consumerism, where all roughness is glossed over in favor of spry, advertisement friendly, near-lampoons of American life (prime time TV, boxed dinners, the Inquirer). Punk, however hackneyed and trite it sounds, intuitively yearns to elicit and touch the bristling, uncosmetic side of (un)popular culture. It practiced, like the fin-de-siecle bohemians of the late 1800s, a romantic and willful sense of decay that manifested itself in the post-Vietnam and Watergate late 1970s right through to post 9-11. Punk was the insolent leer destabilizing Jimmy Carter’s smile, Reagan’s Hollywood jaw, and it is the same leer decimating George Bush’s attempted folkisms.

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