“To Us Writers, the Differences Are Obvious”

The Adaptation of Hip Hop Graffiti to an Australian Context

Introduction

1It appears that graffiti has begun to clean up its act. Escalating numbers of mature graffiti writers feel the removal of their graffiti has robbed them of a history, and are turning to legal projects in an effort to restore it. Phibs has declared the graffiti underground “limited” and Kano claims its illegal aspect no longer inspires him (Hamilton, 73). A sign of the times was the exhibition Sake of Name: Australian Graffiti Now which opened at the Wharf 2 Theatre in January 2001. The exhibition was commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company and comprised twenty-two pieces painted by graffiti writers from around Australia. Keen to present a respectable image, writers rejected the original title of Bomb the Wharf, as they felt it focused on the negative aspects of the culture (Andrews, 2).

2Premier Bob Carr opened the exhibition with the declaration that there is a difference between “graffiti art” and “graffiti vandalism”. The Premier’s stance struck a discordant note with Tony Stevens, a twenty-three-year veteran graffiti cleaner. Described by the Sydney Morning Herald as an “urban art critic by default,” Stevens could see no distinction between graffiti art and vandalism (Leys, 1). Furthermore, he expressed his disappointment that the pieces had “no sense of individuality … it could be graffiti from any American city” (Stevens, 1). As far as Stevens could see, Australian graffiti expressed nothing of its Australian context; it simply mimicked that of America.

3Sydney Theatre Company director Benedict Andrews responded with a venomous attack on Stevens. Andrews accused the cleaner of being blinded by prejudice (1), and felt that years of cleaning texta tags from railway corridors could not have possibly qualified Stevens as an art critic (3). “The artists in this exhibition are not misfits,” Andrews wrote (2). “They are serious artists in dialogue with their culture and the landscapes in which they live” (2). He went on to hail the strength and diversity of the Australian graffiti scene: “it is a vital and agile international culture and in Australia has evolved in specific ways” (1).

4The altercation between Stevens and Andrews pointed to one of the debates concerning Australian graffiti: whether it is unique or simply imitative of the American form. Hinged on the assessment of graffiti as vandalism is the view that graffiti is dirty, a disease. Proponents of this view consider graffiti to be an undifferentiated global phenomenon. Others conceive of graffiti as art, and as such argue that it is expressive of local experiences. Graffiti writers maintain that graffiti is expressive of local experiences and they describe it in terms of regional styles and aesthetics. This article maps the transformation of hip hop graffiti as it has been disseminated throughout the world. It registers the distinctiveness of graffiti in Australia and argues that graffiti is not a globally homogenous form, but one which develops in a locally specific manner.

Writing and Replicating: Hip Hop Graffiti and Cultural Imperialism

5Contemporary graffiti subcultures are strongly identified with large American cities. Originating in the black neighbourhood cultures of Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hip hop graffiti emerged as part of a larger, homegrown, alternative youth culture (“Urban Graffiti”, 77). Before the end of the 1970s, the aesthetic codes and stylised images of hip hop graffiti began to disseminate to major cities across America and throughout the globe. Its transmission was facilitated by: the production and export of films such as Style Wars (Silver and Chalfant, 1983) and Wild Style (Ahearn, 1983); the covers of rap albums; graffiti magazines; art dealers; and style manuals such as Subway Art (Cooper and Chalfant) and Spraycan Art (Chalfant and Prigroff). Graffiti migrated to Australian shores during the early 1980s, gaining influence through the appearance of these seminal works, which are credited by many as having inspired them to pick up a can of spraypaint.

6During its larval stages, the subcultural codes of graffiti invented by American writers were reiterated in an Australian context. Australian graffiti writers poached the vocabulary and rhetoric invented by their American counterparts. Writers spoke of “getting up”, “getting fame” and their “crew”, classifying their work as “tags”, “pieces”, or “throw ups”. They utilised the same bubble letters, and later, the incomprehensible “wildstyle” originally devised by American writers. It was not long, however, before Australian writers were making their own innovations and developing a unique style.

7Despite this, there is still widespread conviction in the view that Australian graffiti is a replica of an American cultural form. This view is supported at a theoretical level by the concept of cultural imperialism. It is generally understood, at a basic level, to be the diffusion of a foreign culture at the expense of a local culture. The concept has been usefully clarified by John Tomlinson. Since there are various orders of power involved in allegations of cultural imperialism, Tomlinson attempts to resist some implicit “master narrative” of the term, accounting for cultural imperialism in a multidimensional fashion (20). He outlines five possible versions, which inflect cultural imperialism to mean cultural domination; a discourse of nationality; media imperialism; global capital; and modernity (19-28).

8The idea that Australian graffiti replicates American graffiti draws particularly on the first two versions—that of cultural imperialism as cultural domination, and the discourse of nationality. Both these approaches focus on the processes involved in cultural imperialism—“the invasion of an indigenous culture by a foreign one” (Tomlinson, 23). Many people I spoke to about graffiti saw it as evidence of foreign, particularly American, domination and influence over Australian culture. They expressed concern that the appearance of graffiti would signal an influx of “American” problems: gang activity, escalating violence and social disorder.

9Cultural imperialism as a discourse of nationality hinges on the concepts of “belonging” and “indigenous culture”. In a conference organised by the Graffiti Program of the Government of Western Australia, Senator Ian Campbell argued that graffiti had no place in Australia. He felt that, “there should be little need for social comment through the vandalism of other’s property. Perhaps in nations where … freedoms are not recognised … but not in Australia” (6).

10Tomlinson argues that the conceptions of cultural imperialism as both cultural domination and as a discourse of nationality are popular because of their highly ambiguous (and thus accommodating) nature (19, 23). However, both notions are problematic. Tomlinson immediately dismisses the notion of cultural imperialism as cultural domination, arguing that one should aim for specificity. “Imperialism” and “domination” are rather general notions, and as such both have sufficient conceptual breadth and ambiguity to accommodate most uses to which they might be put (19). Cultural imperialism as a discourse of nationality is similarly problematic, relying on the precise definitions of a series of terms—such as belonging, and indigenous culture—which have multiple inflections (24).

11Cultural imperialism has often been tracked as a process of homogenisation. Conceiving of cultural imperialism as homogenisation is particularly pertinent to the argument for the global homogeneity of graffiti. Cultural homogenisation makes “everywhere seem more or less the same,” assuming a global uniformity which is inherently Western, and in extreme cases, American (6). The implications of “Americanisation” are relevant to the attitudes of Australian graffiti writers. On the Blitzkrieg Bulletin Board—an internet board for Australian graffiti writers—I found evidence of a range of responses to “Americanisation” in Australian graffiti. One of the writers had posted: “you shouldn’t even be doing graff if you are a toy little kid, buying export paint and painting legal walls during the day … f*** all y’all niggaz!” s3 replied, “I do know that modern graffiti originated in America but … token are you American? Why do you want to talk like an American gangsta rapper?” The global currency of graffiti is one in which local originality and distinctiveness are highly prized. It is a source of shame for a writer to “bite”. Many of the writers I spoke to became irate when I suggested that Australian styles “bit” those of America. It seems inconsistent that Australian graffiti writers would reproduce American graffiti, if they do not even tolerate Australian writers using the word “nigga”.

12Like the argument that Australian graffiti replicates that of America, the concept of cultural imperialism is problematic. By the 1970s the concept was beginning to come apart at the seams, its “artificial coherence” exposed when subjected to a range of applications (Tomlinson, 8). Although the idea of cultural imperialism has been discredited and somewhat abandoned at the level of theory, the concept nonetheless continues to guide attitudes towards graffiti. Jeff Ferrell has argued that the interplay of cultural resources involved in worldwide graffiti directly locates it inside issues of cultural imperialism (“Review of Moscow Graffiti”, paragraph 5). Stylistic and subcultural consistencies are mobilised to substantiate assertions of the operation of cultural imperialism in the global form of graffiti. This serves to render it globally homogeneous.

13While many graffiti writers would concede that graffiti maintains certain global elements, few would agree that this is indicative of a global homogeneity of form. As part of the hip hop component of their website, Triple J conducted an investigation into graffiti. It found that “the graffiti aesthetic developed in New York has been modified with individual characteristics … and has transformed into a unique Australian style” (“Old Skool”, paragraph 6). Veteran writers Umph, Exit, Phibs and Dmote agree. Perth writer Zenith claims, “we came up with styles from the US back in the day and it has grown into something quite unique” (personal communication). Exit declares, “every city has its own particular style. Graffiti from Australia can easily be distinguished by graffiti artists. Australia has its own particular style” (1). Umph agrees: “to us writers, the differences are obvious” (2). Although some continue to perceive Australian graffiti as replicating that of America, it appears that this is no longer the case. Evidence has emerged that Australian graffiti has evolved into a unique and localised form, which no longer imitates that of America.

“Going Over” Cultural Imperialism: Hip Hop Graffiti and Processes of Globalisation

14The argument that graffiti has developed local inflections has lately garnered increasing support due to new theories of global cultural interaction and exchange. The modern era has been characterised by the increasing circulation of goods, capital, knowledge, information, people, images, ideologies, technologies and practices across national borders and territorial boundaries (Appadurai, 230; Scholte, 10). Academic discussion of these developments has converged in recent years around the concept of “globalisation”. While cultural imperialism describes these movements as the diffusion of a foreign culture at the expense of a local one, globalisation interprets these profound changes as evidence of “a global ecumene of persistent cultural interaction and exchange” (Hannerz, 107). In such a view, the globe is not characterised by domination and homogenisation (as with cultural imperialism), but more in terms of exchange and heterogeneity.

15Recent studies acknowledge that globalisation is complex and multidimensional (Giddens, 30; Kalb, 1), even a process of paradoxes (Findlay, 30). Globalisation is frequently described in terms of contradictory processes—universalisation vs. particularisation, homogenisation vs. differentiation, integration vs. fragmentation. Another of these dialectical tendencies is that of localisation. Kloos defines localisation as representing “the rise of localised, culturally defined identities … localisation stresses sociocultural specificity, in a limited space” (281). While localisation initially appears to stand in opposition to globalisation, the concepts are actually involved in a dialectical process (Giddens, 64). The relationship between localisation and globalisation has been formulated as follows: “Processes of globalisation trigger identity movements leading to the creation of localised, cultural-specific, identities” (Kloos, 282).

16The development of localisation is particularly pertinent to this study of graffiti. The concept allows for local diversity and has led to the understanding that global cultural phenomena are involved in a process of exchange. Work around globalisation lends credence to the argument that, as graffiti has disseminated throughout the globe, it has mutated to the specific locale within which it exists. Graffiti has always been locally specific: from the early stages which witnessed writers such as Julio 204, Fran 207 and Joe 136 (the numbers referred to their street), to the more recent practice of suffixing tag names with the name of a writers’ crew and their area code. The tendency to include area codes has been largely abandoned in Australia as the law has responded to graffiti with increasing vigilance, but evolutions in graffiti have pointed towards the development of regionally specific styles which writers have come to recognise. Thus, graffiti cannot be thought of as a globally homogenous form, nor can it be said that Australian graffiti replicates that of America.

17As hip hop has circulated throughout the globe it has appeared to adopt local inflections, having adapted into something quite locally distinctive. In a sense hip hop has been “translated” to particular circumstances. It is now appropriate to consider Australian hip hop and graffiti as a translation of a global cultural phenomenon. A useful reference in this regard is Yuri Lotman, who designates dialogue as the elementary mechanism of translation (143). He suggests that participants involved in a dialogue alternate between a position of “transmission” and “reception” (144). Hence cultural developments are cyclical, and relationships between units—which may range from genres to national cultures—pass through periods of “transmission” and “reception” (144). Lotman proposes that the relationship between structures follows a pattern: at first, a structure will appear in decline, static, unoriginal. He records these “intermissions” as “pauses in dialogue”, during which the structure absorbs influences from the outside (144). When saturation reaches a certain limit, the structure begins producing its own texts as its “passive state changes to a state of alertness” (145). This is a useful way of comprehending Australian hip hop culture. It appears that the Australian hip hop scene has left behind its period of “reception” and is now witnessing one of “transmission” in which it is producing uniquely Australian flavours and styles.

18Of the contemporary graffiti I have observed, it appears that Australian writing is truly distinctive. Australian writers may have initially poached the subcultural codes developed by their American counterparts, however Australia has evolved to be truly unique where it counts—in graffiti styles. Distinctive graffiti styles can be witnessed, not only between different continents, but also within geographic locations. American graffiti registers a variety of locally specific forms. New York remains devoted to the letter, while graffiti on the west coast of America is renowned for its gang writing. American lettering styles tend to develop existing styles. New York wildstyle is easily recognised, and differs from letters in the Bay Area and San Francisco, which feature arrows inside the letters.

19While American graffiti is by and large concerned with letters, Australia has gained some repute for its exploration of characters. Like American writers, Australians employ characters poached from popular culture, but for the most part Australian writers employ characters and figures that they have invented themselves, often poaching elements from a wide variety of sources and utilising a wide variety of styles. Marine imagery, not usually employed in American graffiti, recurs in Australian pieces. Kikinit in the Park, a youth festival held in Fremantle in March 2001, featured a live urban art display by Bugszy Snaps, who combined oceanic and graffiti iconography, fusing sea creatures with spraypaint cans. Phibs also “uses images from the sea a lot” (Hamilton, 73), having grown up at the beach.

20In spite of this focus on the development of characters and images, Australia has not neglected the letter. While initially Australian graffiti artists imitated the styles developed in America, Australian lettering has evolved into something exceptional. Some writers have continued to employ bubble letters and wildstyle, and Australia has kept up with modifications in wildstyle that has seen it move towards 3D. Australia has cultivated this form of traditional wildstyle, elevating it to new heights. Sometimes it is combined with other styles; other times it appears as controlled wildstyle—set around a framework of some sort. In other instances, Australia has charted new territory with the letter, developing styles that are completely individual. Australian writing also blends a variety of lettering and graphic styles, combining letters and figures in new and exciting ways. Australian graffiti often fuses letters with images. This is relatively rare in American graffiti, which tends to focus on lettering and, on the whole, utilises characters to less effect than Australian graffiti.

Conclusion

21Graffiti is not a globally homogeneous form, but one which has developed in locally specific and distinctive ways. As hip hop graffiti has circulated throughout the globe it has been translated between various sites and developed local inflections. In order to visualise graffiti in this manner, it is necessary to recognise theories of cultural imperialism as guiding the widespread belief that graffiti is a globally homogeneous form. I have refuted this view and the worth of cultural imperialism in directing attitudes towards graffiti, as there is a valid foundation for considering the local distinctiveness of Australian graffiti. By engaging critically with literature around globalisation, I have established a theoretical base for the argument that graffiti is locally specific.

22Envisaging the global form of hip hop graffiti as translated between various sites and having developed in locally specific ways has exposed the study of graffiti outside of the United States. Current writings on cultural studies and graffiti are dominated by the American academy, taking the United States as its centre. In rectifying this imbalance, I stress the need to recognise the distinctiveness of other cultures and geographic locations, even if they appear to be similar.

23While writers across Australia argue that their locations produce original styles, few have been willing to expound on how their scene is “fresh”. One writer I spoke with was an exception. Zenith explained that: “the way we are original is that our style has developed for so long, fermented if you will, because of Perth being so damned isolated” (personal communication). He went on to say: “I also happen to feel that we’re losing the originality every second of every day, for a number of reasons … with web sites, videos, magazines, and all this type of graffito affiliated stuff” (personal communication). Hip hop graffiti culture is one in which communication and exchange is of central concern. The circulation of this “graffito affiliated stuff”—websites, graffiti magazines, videos, books—as well as the fact that aerosol artists frequently travel to other cities and countries to write, demonstrates that this is a culture which, although largely identified with America, is also global in reach. This global interaction and exchange is increasingly characterised by a complex relationship which involves imitation and adaptation.

Glossary

Bite To copy another graffiti writer’s style
Crew Organised group of graffiti writers
Getting up Successful graffiti endeavour; to graffiti
Going over To graffiti over another’s graffiti
Piece The most sophisticated kind of graffiti, which includes characters, words and phrases
Tag A stylised version of a signature; the most basic form of graffiti
Throw up Two-dimensional version of a tag
Wildstyle Style of graffiti characterised by interlocking letters and arrows
Writer Graffiti artist; one who does graffiti