Message in a Spray Can

"Occupy and resist": one of Barcelona's 300 squats.

I will say, by way of introduction, that Barcelona is one of the most thoroughly mobilized cities I have ever seen.  Catalonia is glorified as the only place in modern history anarchism has been tried on a large scale—during the Spanish Civil War, an experiment so successful both the fascists and the communists united against it—and that tradition is definitely still very strong.  Barcelona’s general vibrancy seems to spill into its activism: just walking around the city for one week, I encountered three mass protests and countless infoshops and community centers.  And—its impossible not to notice—Barcelona may well be the most thoroughly graffitied city in the world.

Se pinta.

I have always (and by “always,” I only ever really mean after my rebirth-through-punk-rock at age sixteen) thought graffiti is, at least in concept, kind of awesome.  In idealized form, graffiti is all about seizing barren sites within the city scape—otherwise used only to project images that make us feel the compulsion to buy things, and reserved only for those who have enough money to purchase a billboard—and making it a space for expression.  Graffiti artists like Banksys are heroes for turning concrete into art and monotone walls into colorful murals—and not asking anyone for permission to do it.

"Liberty isn't requested, it is taken"

On days where I’m feeling particularly despondent, I often run down to a series of bridges along the Thames, where some enterprising soul has painted the walls with pro-immigration slogans, declaring “No One Is Illegal.”  I find it rather comforting.  Graffiti is one of those telltale signs—along with stickers on lampposts and posters on chain link fences—that I look for to remind myself there are resisters and alternative thinkers out there, even if they only leave a few tell-tale signs behind.

How many eyes do you see?

Of course, the reality of most graffiti hardly fits this stylized portrait.  I am made as indignant as any law-and-order reactionary by tags scrawled aimlessly across buildings and monuments.  Graffiti is, as often as not, intended to assert ownership and territory—rather than claiming the space for the public—and as much about destroying property as creating art.  The bombed out factories I used to ride through on NJ Transit three times a week on my way to New York could very well become tapestries for self-expression, but as far as I could tell were just one more weapon in on-going feuds between local gangs.

I can't see you, but I know you're there.

Which brings me back to Barcelona.  Our apartment was situated in the city’s old gothic quarter, and we spent our first day there—a Sunday, when everything else was closed—getting lost in the narrow, zig-zagging streets.  There was graffiti all around us, and it was fantastic.  Not just tags and bubble letters, but whole colorful scenes and portraits, with various inscrutable motifs appearing in different places.

And then, the next day, it was all gone.  I only realized on Monday that although the graffiti seemed like it was everywhere, it wasn’t really.  While telephone and cable boxes were covered, almost all of the major paintings were on the corrugated metal sheets they use to cover shops at night.  As a result, when the stores were open, much of the graffiti disappeared.

It only comes out at night.

As the week went on, I realized that—with some exceptions of course—almost all of Barcelona’s monuments were graffiti-free (and not because they had graffiti removed, as it’s usually pretty obvious when that’s been done).  Despite a wealth of tempting targets, even the stone facades of most buildings were clean.  Billboards, advertisements, deserted lots and storefront-covers seemed to be fair game; churches, statues, and houses were not.

How do you even do this with spray paint?

The sociologist in me is fascinated by how humans manage to create order and regulation in the most irregular and unlikely of places.  My thesis adviser’s book was about the social norms and community of homeless magazine vendors; my own thesis was only the careful choreography of dumpster diving.  I wish I had time to go explore graffiti in Barcelona; to figure out what it is that creates what is—in my opinion—a rather happy equilibrium between expression and order.

Not really sure where "graffiti" stops and "fine art" begins.

Barcelona is a licentious and tolerant city–I received four offers for prostitution on my first day, and the squatters, who have basically “stolen” entire buildings, openly flaunt this fact to the police.  I do wonder if there is some sort of informal understanding between police and artists about where to paint that makes this combination of anarchy and respect possible.  Perhaps—contrary to the fears of “broken window” criminologists who think that little bits of disorder breed chaos and crime—if you cut people a little slack, they aren’t as selfish and thoughtless as we assume they are.  And, at the same time, maybe if we realized this, we could just sit back and

Of course, the sixteen year old punk in me knows that, once you figure out that these things have rules behind them, they aren’t fun any more.

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Jukebox: Filth – The List

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One thought on “Message in a Spray Can

  1. Hi you. Just wanted to throw out there that most of the graffiti you generally see around isn’t gang-related. At least, this is true in the places I’ve been, I can’t speak for New York. Surely, at least some of the artists are in gangs, but most of the fancy, nice-looking stuff probably isn’t about gang territory. You can almost always spot gang graffiti if you know what you’re looking for. Namely, it is almost always crappy, and tends to involve more symbols and such.

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