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Beautiful City

Beautiful City: Graffiti Dialogic

Zack Gingrich-Gaylord

If you ask someone what they think about graffiti, the possible responses are fairly easy to predict. They’ll either like graffiti, or they won’t, or they’ll like it with certain caveats or some other variation. Pretty simple. More interesting is the question “what do you feel when you see graffiti?” Your response to this can tell you a lot about the kind of city that you think you live in.

For example, a graffiti writer might look at a tag or colorful piece and feel pride if it was one of theirs, or maybe jealousy if it was made by another writer, whereas a business owner would likely feel something completely opposite—anger at the vandalism of their façade, or anxiety as they anticipate the removal costs. The point here is that the graffiti writer and the business owner, while they may occupy the same geographical space, actually live in two different variations of the same city. One city is a canvas; the other city is built around tidy commerce.

We could propose that there are as many different iterations of our city as there are people who live in it. This isn’t just a clever theoretical trick—the nature of the city is constantly in dialogue and transforming through a variety of rhetorical and experiential causeways: a short list might include domestic, political, commercial and criminal influences. Each of these are all available as channels through which our actual lived experience of the city is created.

The city and its walls, therefore, are never blank or empty. They are always already written on, or inscribed with some kind of communication, just as they are at the same time always being written. Most of the time, this inscription of our shared narrative happens quietly and cumulatively; the ideology of our city is never questioned—we just live here. But, graffiti is a disruptive force, interjecting a shrill and often defiant voice into the otherwise quiet murmur of the stories we tell ourselves. The question “what do you feel about graffiti?” really asks us to consider our basic assumptions about who we are in this city, and what we are trying to do, together.

This commentary draws on ideas from ‘Our desires are ungovernable’: Writing graffiti in urban space, by Mark Halsey and Alison Young.