Touching the Hood

An Intimate Look into the Faceless World of Graffiti Writers and Writing Culture

(Excerpt from unpublished manuscript)

We’re the cockroaches of art. You don’t see us out during the day, but we’re out there at night. We’re like the Masons, a secret society. We’re just people who know each other in a certain way.”       AZMA

Colorful. In-your-face. Invisible. A secret society hiding in plain sight.

By silent consensus, graffiti writers embrace values that seemingly act against their own best interest. ‘Writers’, as they refer to themselves, taunt their public with distorted, convoluted letterforms, inscriptions hinting at the familiar but designed to fall short of being readily legible. They provoke an involuntary audience and demand its attention, only to frustrate those who respond with an indecipherable message. A writer may spend hours creating a beautiful artwork, and then make it virtually impossible to track down that work’s author. They operate using pseudonyms, aliases that shield their true identities even from each other. Their works are intentionally impermanent. If any one piece ‘runs’ too long, the author will return and destroy it him or herself. Their works are, for the most part, uncollectible. I have yet to meet an independently wealthy graffiti writer, yet any commercialization of graffiti is generally disdained. The same writer who creates a universally appreciated masterpiece may scrawl a tag nearby that will, with comparable consensus, be regarded as vandalism.

Writers resist all forms of authority. This also holds true within their own society, yet many writers accept personal responsibility for enforcement of an unwritten code – even if that enforcement ultimately leads to blows. Writers are sovereign individuals within their tribe, and tribes are sovereign within their nation. No one individual can speak for the nation or for the tribe. One individual may speak for a ‘crew’ of writers – crews typically number up to a handful – but, even within a crew, compliance is voluntary. There exists no recognized arbitrating body within this society. In fact, there does not even exist a single, accepted definition for the word “graffiti”.

And yet the graffiti world is not one of chaos. It is highly structured. There are distinct social strata in the population of writers, and there are distinct characteristics stratifying the four genres of graffiti any individual may write. Writers actively maintain an extensive, virtual network. They are linked-in internationally. Writers are aware of historical luminaries as well as contemporary heroes. Mature writers formally school those who are younger and receptive. Established, commercial enterprises cater to graffiti writers. Two brands of spray paint, for example, were specifically developed for the graffiti market. Many property owners, including prominent corporations, invite graffiti writers to paint on their walls. These events sometimes spawn a gathering of the tribes, gatherings for which writers will fly in from France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere to participate.

Despite the ocassional high-profile fanfare, graffiti writers are most at home in the shadows. They exalt in anonymity.

Who ARE these guys??