Graffiti has been on my mind of late, thanks in part to a New York Times report on a nationwide surge in graffiti and a Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit on graffiti that recently concluded in Los Angeles. It's one of those things I’ve never understood. Even in the exhibit, which was fairly positive, most of what I saw confirmed my views of graffiti as teenage hooliganism. I learned a great deal, yet I still saw a lot of people spraying their names (or “tag,” the name they create for themselves) on other people’s property. Is this all there is to graffiti?
I was surprised to discover graffiti seems to have developed independently on the east and west coasts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story on the East Coast is basically what you would expect: people started using oil markers or spray paint to put their tags in various places, and the practice caught on. On the West Coast, it entered a significant new phase with Chaz Bojorquez and others around the time of the Civil Rights movement. (Of course, graffiti in various forms has existed for centuries.)
One mural explained Chicano graffiti as a resistance. Remember, while Martin Luther King Jr. and others were working for the civil rights of African-Americans, a similar movement was taking place among Chicanos in California. An exhibit label described a people who felt walled in to urban ghettos. For people who have felt trapped by walls, mitigating the power of those walls is one way to conquer them. In the Chicano civil rights movement, a few people asserted their power over the walls by writing their names on them. It was a way to deny the supremacy of the walls which trapped them.
Graffiti has the potential to stand for things Jesus stood for. Even if these graffiti artists have found a less than constructive means of standing up for themselves, their insistence on their own dignity resonates with the Christian belief that every single human is made in the image of God. Undoubtedly, most tagging is just people looking for a thrill. But for a percentage, graffiti is able to express a defiance Christians can embrace. For some of us, it is easier to see the way oppressive situations, such as the European ghettos for Jews during World War II, were dehumanizing in the past, but less easy to see the way situations which exist today in our own country are similar. In a world that dehumanizes, dehumanization is disproportionately strong in these poor, marginalized communities.
Destructive ways to assert one’s value in the face of a dehumanizing situation are common. Many analyses of violence in poor urban settings claim young men posture as a way to demand what small degree of respect they can. In a setting where honor is so hard to come by, even small slights become exaggerated. It is easy to see the error in this violence, and rightly condemn it. Can we, at the same time, see how these young men are looking for a modicum of respect they have been denied? Can we see how we might react that way in a community that has over 25 percent unemployment?
Graffiti can be a way to awkwardly stand up for one’s dignity, but it can also remind servants of Jesus that the world is still unrepaired. In his epistle, James speaks to those Christians who consider pointing out the flaws of others their Christian duty. These Christians were passing themselves off as teachers, but James calls them “a friend of the world” because they were condemning each other for their mistakes.
We must be careful to avoid this error of inadequate judgment by moving into redemption. Graffiti helps us to do that. It is easy to see that graffiti is a violation of other people’s property, which should be condemned. We can also take the next step, and see inside graffiti artists and taggers the image of God crying out for recognition.
Stephen Hale is wrapping up a MA in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and volunteers with undergraduate commuters at Biola University. He blogs at pushofpikes.wordpress.com.
(Photo courtesy of Pureanal/Wikimedia Commons.)