Culture Magazine

Graffiti Aesthetics 2: Learning to See

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
This originally appeared at The Valve on August 18, 2007. Upon re-reading it I rather like it. I'd forgotten I'd undertaken this kind of analytic and descriptive work. We need more of it.
It took me awhile to feel that I “comprehend” the more complex graffiti, the so-called “wild style” pieces where the letter forms are elaborated and extended so they are all but unrecognizable. It is not at all clear to me, however, just what is there for comprehension, hence the scare quotes. As far as I know, there has been little discussion about the logic and aesthetics of such pieces. The writers certainly know what they're doing in the way that all artists know what they're doing; but much of this knowledge is not explicit and analytic. It is intuitive and procedural.
I am not at all prepared to present a sophisticated analysis of such work. But I would like to ride one of my methodological hobby horses, the need for accurate description. Though it lacks theoretical pizzazz, description is important because it provides the verbal “handles” we use to “grab” an object and examine and manipulate it. We describe so that we can think. If our descriptions are poor, then our thinking will be inconsequential.
Old School and Wild Style
Let us begin with a simple old-school (not wild style) piece by Gaser (photographed on November 26, 2006):
Note: If you want to see a larger image, you can click on the image and thus be taken to my Flickr site, where I store these images online.
Since description is at issue, let's begin with a basic description of the piece:
The letter-forms are simple block letters with 3D extensions. Notice that three of the letters - G S and R - ordinarily have curves in them, but Gaser has eliminated any curves in this version. He doesn't always do that, but he did it here. (This is, of course, common enough in display fonts.) Note also the downward extension of the “A” and the “R.” The name form is outlined by a narrow yellow stripe and set off against relatively small red “clouds,” as they are called - common practice. Notice “LOTUS” written at the upper right. I don't know whether that's a crew, a girlfriend - real possibilities, or something else. The letters stand man-high off the ground, about six feet.
Finally, the yellow stripe across the middle appears to be a “slash” (mark of disrespect) by another writer. This Gaser piece is next to another piece of similar size and style that has been extensively slashed, though not completely “gone over.”
That description is about as straight-forward as it gets. Note, however, that it only really works if you've seen the photograph or the piece itself. Without the photograph, for example, the description doesn't really tell you much about the letter forms. It doesn't tell you that they are all of the same height, except for the downward extensions on the “A” and the “R,” though you might make that assumption based on your knowledge of standard letter forms. Nor does my description tell you about the black lines in each of the letter forms. Nor does it tell you the angle and depth of the 3D extensions. And so forth.
It would, of course, be possible to describe many of those things. But the description would be a long one. Describing visual forms is difficult; hence the saying, “a picture's worth a thousand words.” If all graffiti was like that Gaser, the point would be fussy and pedantic. Most of the pieces I've photographed, however, are not that straightforward. They are far more resistant to such easy description. The forms in them do not have common names that we can use in describing them.
Here's a more recent Gaser. I photographed it on August 8, 2007, but it wasn't there the previous time I'd visited the site, August 1.
gazer red and purple.jpg
This is wild style. To be sure, the forms are compact and regular. But the letter forms are not immediately apparent. That's wild style, a very general concept that covers a great deal of stylistic territory.
How would you describe this piece? The colors are easy enough, at least as colors go: pink above, lavender below, with black outlines and 3D extensions. But the letterforms, how do you describe them? If you didn't know that it was a Gaser, would you even recognize the letters? It's easy enough to count out five letters, but identifying them - to a first approximation, they all look alike. Upon closer examination one sees differences, but that doesn't help much.
In general, I find it easier to parse the letter-forms in a name-form when I already know what the name is. But just how do you get prior knowledge of the name behind the piece? In two ways: 1) someone tells you, 2) experience. In this case, I've seen a number of Gasers - he's pretty active in the area - and I've developed feel for his style. But I've also learned to read clues.
Another Example
Consider this piece, which I photographed on November 22, 2006:
lotus.jpg What is the name and how would you describe the visual forms? We can certainly make some descriptive headway without bothering about the name.
The name form is roughly symmetrical, with a complete heart-like form on the left and one on the right, with interesting extensions into the center. I observe also that the overall form seems to be projected in 3D using center point perspective. That's a beginning, and I believe a useful one. But there's a lot more to be done. If we knew the name, would that help us describe those forms, to make sense of them?
That is the problem, and I'm not quite sure just what kind of problem it is. It is certainly one of description. But I think it is an aesthetic problem as well. I find that design very pleasing. Is that all it is, an abstract design divorced from the name. Or, more accurately, is that all that survives in a photograph, the design? If so, is the underlying name of any importance whatsoever? What is its relationship to the expressive form the artist has given it?
I took this photograph roughly the same time as I took the first Gaser, but it's only in the past month that I've recognized it as, yes, you guessed it, another Gaser. Given that knowledge, I can see the forms in the piece as being derived from the name; but I would be hard-pressed to demonstrate the derivation in exacting and specific detail. How do I know it's a Gaser?
As I've already indicated, there are a number of Gaser pieces in the area, all different. There's another one that consists of block letters, but most are more complex, such as our second example. But none are so remote from the underlying letter forms as this last one. Still, they have a style, and there are visual motifs shared among them. This piece has the style and some of the motifs. The style is difficult to describe, but the motifs could be circled on pictures and named. That, however, would involve more detail than I want to deal with here and now.
Beyond that there are two specific circumstances, however, that finally “tipped” the identification for me. One of them is “LOTUS.” From the very beginning I thought of this piece as “the LOTUS at the old chocolate factory.” The block-letter Gaser also has LOTUS written on it, as does the pink-lavender one. That is one clue, but it became a significant and useful one only when I had gained a good deal of experience with graffiti, more than I had when I first photographed the heart-form Gaser.
The other indicator is that Gaser's are often paired with Ceaze's, another writer active in the area. The block-letter Gaser is next to a block-letter Ceaze. The pink-lavender Gaser is across from a multi-color Ceaze. There is a Ceaze to the right of the chocolate factory Gaser, though I've only identified it as a Ceaze in the last month. Once I knew that was a Ceaze it became obvious that this must be a Gaser.
* * * * *
Just how I arrived at this recognition, this identification, is not ultimately important. I note, however, that if these sites were archeological sites, evidence of actions by people long gone, that the kind of comparative analysis implied by my account would be written-up in detail in technical journals. That's how you work with such material. You look at all the markings, note similarities and differences, identify motifs, attend to contexts, and reason your way though it all, guided by some notion of what intelligent people are likely to have been doing.
Members of the relevant graffiti communities, of course, do not have to reason things out in this way. That is because they've already got all that comparative knowledge. They've acquired it from other writers, through studying grafs in the areas where they paint, and through photographs in books and, these days, on the web.
But I digress. Let's return to the grafs themselves and consider a different kind of descriptive issue.
Triple Logic
Let's look at another piece, a relatively simple one, though not so simple that I can read the name:
triple logic.jpg
The name-form as a whole is outlined in orange against a (dirty) whitish background. This is fairly standard, the name-form against a contrasting background. The background may be some flat color, it may be cloud forms, it may be whatever else was on the wall before the name-form went up, or it might be something else.
The letter forms themselves are outlined in black and the 3D extensions are filled with pink. Now look at the letter faces. They are filled with a gradient that goes from lavender, through deep purple, to a warm medium brown. This gradient does not follow the letter forms. It is simply imposed on them. The letter forms appear to be tall and narrow, giving them a vertical cast, while the gradient cuts horizontally across them.
On top of this we have a pattern of rectilinear forms in light blue and medium green. Some of these rectilinear forms stop at letter-form boundaries while others cross them, with most of them going beneath the boundaries. Like the gradient, these rectilinear forms obey a logic of their own, but exist in the world of the letter forms.
Finally, observe that some of these rectilinear forms are wider than they are tall, others the opposite. They thus compliment both the vertical orientation of the letter forms and the horizontal orientation of the gradient. Thus while they are not derived from and subordinate to either the letter forms or the gradient, they do mediate between them.
The name-form of this piece is thus composed of three intersecting visual “logics.” They are independent of one another but nonetheless interact in a way that I find pleasing and harmonious. The use of intersecting visual logics appears in many pieces, though perhaps not so clearly as in this one. My sense is that it is more common to have two intersecting logics than three.
This technique is certainly not unique to graffiti. Photoshop, for example, makes it trivially easy to employ two intersecting logics. Given any set of letters (or any graphic form, for that matter), you can impose a gradient, a pattern, or a picture on it with ease. I'm sure that, with a little work, you can manage three or more logics as well. It strikes me as being an obvious graphic design technique. Whenever and wherever the technique originated, the writers working the subway cars of New York City were using it - in the very large - at least by the early 1980s, if not before. There are many examples of two intersecting logics in Cooper and Chalfont, Subway Art (1984), and some examples of three as well.
The important issue is whether or not the technique is used as a decorative device or as a fundamental conception of pictorial space. I'm not even sure I can make that distinction in a coherent way, much less discuss it. Suffice it to say that the use of intersecting visual logics is well-established in graffiti. Whether writers have been developing it in a deep way, that is another question.
But it is not one we can even address until we have identified and described the basic technique. That's what I've been doing, identifying and describing basic techniques. Let's get back to it. I want to make one final distinction.
Styles of Derivation
While the name-form in the triple-logic piece is relatively opaque, it is in same ways very much like the block-letter Gaser. Consider these version of the triple-logic where I've used Photoshop to eliminate two of the visual logics, the gradients and the rectilinear forms:
triple logic letter forms-shaded.jpg
Considered simply as a visual object, that name form is a flat 3D object of uniform depth very much like the name-form of the block-letter Gaser:
0 gaser analytic.jpg
Two of the three logics in the triple-logic had to do with the face of the name-form. Eliminate them and we have a 3D form similar in kind to that of the block-letter Gaser.
The heart-form Gaser, however, is quite different. In this version I've reduced it to the name-form plus some of the background:
It is not at all obvious that that is a 3D form in center-point perspective, though it seems to emanate from the center, and the letter forms are gone. Restore them and we have a recognizable semblance of the original and we can see the letter forms:
To be sure, we may not recognize the letters from which the letter forms are derived, but we can now see their articulation. It is all, in effect, on the “face” of the name form. Once we see the articulations we can read the 3D cues, though that might take a bit of “reading.”
How do we characterize these two strategies? The first one, the one that yields the letter forms for the triple-logic, seems obvious enough. You start with the letter forms for the name, as Gaser did with the block-letter piece, and then you variously connect the forms and warp them so that the final shape disguises the name. It seems to me that this is thus a process of topological transformation.
The second strategy is a bit more difficult. I'm not so much concerned about overall 3D name-form as I am about the letter forms on its face. What seems to be going on is that the letters are being broken into components and motifs and these elements are then ordered and recombined in ways the suggest the original letter forms, but other forms as well. It's a process of analytic dissection and recombinant synthesis.
Consider this passage from Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Subway Art (1984, p. 71), where the late Kase 2 is describing his computer style:
Wildstyle was the coordinate style and then computer. That's what I brought to out. Nobody else can get down with it 'cause it's too fifth dimensional. I call it the fifth-dimensional step parallel staircase, 'cause it's like computer style in a step-formulated way. It's just sectioned off the way I want. Like if I take a knife and cut it, and slice, you know, I'll slice it to my own section and I'll call it computer style.
I find that passage a bit obscure in the way that Ornette Coleman's harmelodic theories to be obscure. But Coleman certainly knows how to make music and Kase 2 knew how to paint graffiti. There's a Kase 2 subway car on the same page as his account of computer style and it doesn't look much like Gaser's piece. Nor, as far as I can tell, has the notion of computer style entered the common lexicon of writers. Nonetheless, Kase 2's description of the style resonates with what I see in Gaser's piece. For the moment let's say it's done in computer style, or some variant thereof.
This gives us two ways to derive name-forms, along with their coordinate letter-forms, from the underlying name: topological transformation, and computer or computational transformation. Add to that the notion of intersecting but independent visual logics and we have the beginnings of an analytic tool set for grafs.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog