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Karl Marx has this theory of social alienation that proposes idea that in a capitalist system-much like the 24-hour consumer fest we Americans find ourselves bogged down in-the lower rungs of the class-war ladder are pressured into conformity by those who own the means of production and that’s why we work shitty jobs, put up with bullshit labor requirements and grin and bare the monotonous taste of coffee and ever-increasing weight of the daily grind.
And anything or any form of expression outside that prefabricated box is wrong.
In a pure (I cannot stress that word enough) Marxian society however, the owners of capital no longer make the rules because they no longer own the capital. How sweet it is to imagine a world where we don’t have to work mostly to make our bosses rich, where social classes are eradicated and everyone pushes happily towards equal contribution and equal redistribution of wealth. Or perhaps more importantly, imagine a world without NO TREPASSING signs; a world where all the factory walls and subway tunnels are suddenly public domain, free to use or draw on as anyone sees fit.
Because the more I sit around my apartment and ponder the issue the more I realize Wu Tang said it best when they told us that: “Cash Rules Everything Around Me”. We live in a consumer culture, bound by an insatiable need to turn every product, marketable skill or good idea into a commodity. But if the bourgeoisie can’t figure out a cost-effective way to mass produce it, society blocks that shit like an angry Ben Wallace.
So let’s examine the art: graffiti.
Illegal. Feared. Rejected by societal norms and described like cancers to communities, a destructive virus that consumes and devours decent proper values until suddenly there’s a crack house next door OR perhaps just another victim of Marx’s social alienation. Let’s be straight, America really has no problem with graffiti-as long as they can make a buck off it. The style has been mimicked and milked in almost every market, from designer t-shirts to XBOX games and countless hip-hop album covers. Yet despite all this corporate love, the act of getting up, putting the paint on the walls is still punishable by jail time and large amounts of debt.
Graffiti is the art form of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie can’t sell off the walls of their factories so whatever the workers write on them is finally there’s to keep. It’s an art that cannot be exploited by those who own the means of production, because graffiti exploits them first. The proletariat artist is using the property of the bourgeoisie as a canvas-essentially redistributing the use of property to the people. In that sense graffiti writing becomes the last truly free artistic vehicle; it cannot be taxed and doesn’t have to be taught. Anyone can participate, regardless of class, race, religious preference or sexual orientation. Graffiti doesn’t even require consumption of any materials if the artist doesn’t wish to purchase them. According to old school ethics, paint should be stolen from supply stores as an act of liberation from bourgeoisie’s financial death-traps-but really, all you need is a rock and a hard surface to scratch on to make your mark.
Historically speaking, the movement was born out of and has always been about class war. Graffiti provided an outlet for the young, angry and poor to express their lamentations with society and make their presence known in their communities without costing them a dime. The movement grew in leaps and bounds, and pretty soon cities all over the world were suddenly awash with words and bright colors-like everyone on the planet was picking up a can and getting up. Marx himself would easily categorize the “graffiti vandal” as a member of the lumpenproletariat, a derivative of the working class drawn to or forced into criminal activity as means to either a.) survive within the current class structure by their own terms or b.) to provoke the state towards social reform. Depending on what Marxist you’re talking to, the lumpenproletariat can be counter-revolutionary or pro.
However, a closer examination of history shows us that graffiti has been implemented as powerful tool for vocalizing political dissent and forcing its message into a public forum. Mao Zedong, the former Primer of Communist China was arrested by police after inscribing a 4,000 character manifesto on the wall of a University bathroom. In the 1960’s, graffiti was used in both the American Civil Rights movement, the Anti-Vietnam movement (the SDS, the Weathermen, The Black Panthers, etc) and the May 1968 rebellions in France where the streets of Paris where suddenly alive and colored with a thousand different slogans and maxims of the oppressed and downtrodden. The early punk scenes also embraced the prophetic power of graffiti as fans of anarchist band CRASS started putting their logos all over the London Subway. Each example preceded some manner of larger social change.
But America doesn’t want this change. And American doesn’t want graffiti. America wants to profit off the production of its citizens-the system wants you to buy canvas and paint, to pay rental fees at galleries, to tax your income from the sale of artwork. And if your designs become popular, America wants to buy the license and start flipping it on the street like crack rocks. It’s all about the bottom line.
In order to understand the criminal association with graffiti, one must examine it as an extension of the Capitalist attitude of “property over people” and how Marx and other social philosophers define an inarguable link between capitalism, imperialism and elitism. In America, the nature of the state is to protect, first and foremost, the investments of big business and those who control the money. Any Noam Chomsky book can tell you that this corporate/political hybrid has served historically as the catalysts for countless social struggles and transnational aggressions. From organizing civil struggles in Latin America against already in-place Leftist governments to the current War on Terror, the reach of capitalism is a long one. And anyone that resists envelopment into that system is pushed out completely and graffiti writers are no exception.
Political scientist Michael Parenti once said in lecture, (later sampled on Choking Victim’s No Gods / No Managers) that it is a common misconception in this country that the police are here to fight crime, “the primary function of the police is social control and protection of property.” Applying that observation to the way most American judicial systems handle graffiti cases, the connection is more obvious than ever before.
I live in Pittsburgh. And in the news all summer was the story of a Yinzer artist that went by MFONE, currently being charged with 6 felonies, 18 misdemeanors for vandalism and trespassing could face higher fines and a longer jail sentence than most rapists and murderers. Most likely the charges will be reduced yet even still, the only way this could even be rationalized as justice is if we are too assume that the facade of buildings are worth more collectively than the lives of citizens. No politician, district judge or doughnut eating beat cop will ever admit to that, but on paper, the evidence is there in dollars and cents.
But despite all this political juxtaposition, the simple, Zen truth of the entire matter is that graffiti is an act of creation, misinterpreted as an act of destruction. Paint is less lethal than bullets, booze and cigarettes but it’s less accepted on the streets as all three combined. Most writers aren’t deranged and rampant criminals hell-bent on heralding gang warfare and urban decay-they’re just workers with something to say, looking for a place to say it. And in a Marxian world, that would be ok. No private property, no social alienation, no over-zealous justice departments skimming through Myspace for evidence-just a collective community of opinionated peoples, reclaiming the city and coloring it whatever they want. I stopped writing in any serious sense years ago, but whenever I see a well-placed burner or thoughtful phrase scratched into a bathroom wall, I’m more satisfied than I would ever be staring up at a goddamn billboard. The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind. It’s written on the fucking wall.
write by Athelstan