In cities, our surroundings are built and imposed by strangers. Advertising and the inescapable pervasiveness of branding have put signatures on almost every object in the urban landscape. From hood ornaments to neon shop signs to company names on jeans, t-shirts, televisions, wristwatches, and even bus stops––our sight is constantly bombarded by assertions of identity from non-persons. This is all legal, mainstream, and unabashed; all of it has been paid for; and it is all designed to generate profit.
By putting business names on commercially made objects, companies monetize and categorize the myriad objects that fill our lives. The Bic logo on my pen, the Coca-Cola label on your soda can, and the Nike swoosh on our tennis shoes all link these items to price tags. When we consider their value, our first thought is money: a business created them, it exchanges them for a calculated price. The worth assessment is impersonal, democratic, and discretely numeric. The need to evaluate the complex aggregate of skills, resources, time, and labor that went into making these products has been eliminated––conveniently effaced by an unmistakable number.
Monetization is inclusive, productive, objective, and––above all––social. It is a triumph of the universal over the personal, of the institution over the individual. So when an advertisement is strewn across a skyscraper, it is an affirmation of the business and the social institution being orchestrated inside. The infrastructure and the advertisement are two parts of one mechanism.
But graffiti has a different function altogether. If advertising and infrastructure are mechanisms of predictability and uniformity, graffiti is a wrench. It sells nothing. It aligns itself with neither prices nor institutions. Its aims are undefined and often illegible. Graffiti speaks with a single voice in an arcane argot. While numbers are the paradigmatic universal language, graffiti is an exemplar of subjective speech: with no desire to be understood, just so long as it is heard.
The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and external culture…”
––Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life
To spray-paint the side of a public building is to spit in the eye of the faceless institution operating within. As an artist signs in the corner of his painting, a graffiti artist––a vandal––signs in the corner of a utilitarian public space. He calls it his canvas, the whole structure, whereas everyone else, all those included in the social apparatus it represents, name it and use it as an aqueduct, an alleyway, overpass, or courthouse. In a single presumptuous, hijacking, counter-culturally rebellious act, he openly rejects the one-size-fits-all imposed interpretation of his surroundings. He is a criminal––not because he is an individual, but because he has the nerve to claim his own voice (his own way of seeing and naming) should have equal footing with those of institutions: institutions that include him, and claim the right to speak for and through him.
Graffiti is hacking because it revises, and thereby threatens to eclipse, the widely accepted uses, values, and meanings of urban space. By inviting us to buy––to wear t-shirts, for example, with a brand on them––businesses invite people to subscribe to a mass-produced social identity. They sell the notion of exclusivity in the form of self-effacing inclusion. They promote similarity: a healthy social force. But the strongest society, as many have argued, is the one in which individuality is erased.
Society, particularly in the urban environments where it is most powerful and dense, is a force that deconstructs the individual. It functions surreptitiously, efficiently, and piece-by-piece. Look around your home. How many of your things have a name on them? Whose identity do you put on when you dress in the morning? Why? When was the last time you wrote your name on a wall?