, by definition, inert. Right? Wrong. They certainly seem to do nothing, but walls have effects and allow social life to blossom. Some people detest walls because they remind them of the places they can't access.
Some other people like walls because they're a tactical-technological mechanism that gives shelter. Walls can be covers to create an interior: in doing so they also create barriers against the exterior. That's only logical: Animal life can be fierce.
Walls in their mere materiality make things happen: they either favor or impede urban functions, and enable shifting vitality and numbness in city life. Walls also funnel spaces for movement. Their distribution allow (or not) for unnoticed flows to pass: such as sun, air, artificial light, cars, people, ants, lizards and non humans. (Walls do different stuff through different angles.) Walls are the sides of homeless' houses. Walls dialogue with those who choose or are pushed to find "arrons" in the street.
Each wall does not have a single meaning. They speak, so to speak, differently to everyone. Walls don't have a single tongue, and each wall is singelar, different one from another. ...But what is this nonsense, walls have meaning? This may be debatable, but they surely have effects. To be blind of these effects is to not understand how the place we live in is. And ultimately walls are built by specific persons, by specific
orders demands goals reasons ends ideas, to maintain a certain order, both in the physical sense and metaphorically.
And that's not even the whole picture. Many people don't even speak any wall language. That is, because walls remain invisible in their uses. And hence become naturalized, that is, assumed as natural, which they are not.
We all see walls differently than some centuries ago. Since circa the 1960s, an increasing number of graffiti writers (a label for a mixture of several subcultures) called our attention to walls. Most (sub)cultures only get proper attention from broader society when they become institutionalized: that is, recognized as a proper and legitimate form of social gathering of some value beyond their mere micro cosmos. Some cultures and people are not even recognized before, during, nor even after existing for a short or long time.
Today some people see enchanted walls with the magic life of graffiti writers, painters, because of the acquired heritage of the past half century. But: what if we could have appreciated the social importance of graffiti, walls, et cetera, before indoctrinated to do so?
The classic example of an ignored
artist individual is Vincent Van Gogh dying poor and valued only as a personal weight to his brother and close acquaintances. Bob Dylan was once called Judas on stage for probing with elecrical sounds when guitars began to allow for such experimentation. Plenty of artists and non artists as well walk the Earth without no one (not even themselves) being able to look into their own spiritual worth. Some historians look back to recognize grand idols and their uprising. Anthropologists look at the present to see how they form in situ. But what is ahead? At least a subtle attentive gaze could be in place. Perhaps looking backwards can help to look forward.
Lets keep track on how graffiti was first spotted as a new youth urban culture: Two mayor players took pictures of graffiti when these were not massively done, attended to, recognized nor shared. Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant were early photographers for the history of street art. They gave images for magazines, books, movies (see the early Style Wars), and what not.
Today we know of –or at least have at hand– a number of iconic bombs, captures and protagonists of the world of street art. Let us again, and most importantly, not forget the uncountable-unknown-forgoten minor players: graffiti artists in the early days, and other unnoticed peripheral social actors as well as bombers, bathroom scribblers, and occasional love messengers. No historic record will remain of past and current urban presences. Some wall scribblers may rise in the art and street world. And even get to be of social (and market) reference for other growing artists.
But the point is not about the
potential latter possible "success", but the fact that underdogs ( all "dogs" everyone) matter(s). No matter who, how many, or why. Just because. Walls can help to forget this point, or remember to look at the social life that surround them.
No one –or not many at least– were looking at urban wall painters in the beginning, or even nowadays for that matter. In the 70s Henry Chalfant documented in pictures the american hip-hop culture as it was coming to life for the first time. He stated that breakdancing and people painting on trains were on the spirit of competing to do something beautiful.
Later on, graffiti culture became, to a certain extent and for
a certain audience specific circles and purposes: glorified and placed as Street Art, that is, a commodity for market targets. And an important consequence was to make the city a supposedly prettier place. Some cities began to tell artists where and how much paint should be placed in each site. Prizes and tons of buckets have been delivered in recent years. Real estate speculation and touristic gain have become calculable profits both by the creative explotation of street art as well as by attacking the so called improper behaviour of city defacement and destruction by unrecognized bombers.
The old school tagged names and shapes of spray can signatures molded the publics impressions: many people views these scribblings as mere masculine-young-infantly wandering on the walls. For protagonists, graffiti colors and superimposed shapes forms of a new art form, a somewhat Abstract Art... Granted. Graffiti today mutated to a total medium in its own right, and is many times equaled to art. But, by an opposite coin, graffiti is equaled to vandalism too, and these categories are not mutually exclusive.
Samo –street name of the more widely known artist by his complete name: Jean-Michel Basquiat– has entered, by 2017, in the top most valuable painters to have a picture sold for above the line of the 100 M. Basquiat leveled up the game to make of graffiti a whole different and new topic. However, claiming that art is the sole value of street art for urban interventions is just a glorification of one possible aspect, not always the most valuable. Given that this is true in some amount, hatred against rules and commodified spaces have place as well as the search for anarchistic freedom, art expression and the unknown.
Market and art are then just but a very small fraction of the picture. What we are refering to are walls, cities and ultimately people. Not all is fun and games. Abandoned places are also sites for rape, murder, assault, as well as the playground of the forgotten ones. Be it for better or worse, society flourishes among city walls. Graffiti advocates even say that colors on a wall is not the problem but the context. Chalfant goes on that direction.
Everybody says "oh graffiti: big crime, vandalism" and everything. But the fact is, from the point of view of you know from the big picture the biggest crime was the abandonment of neighbourhoods by both the federal government and the local government. I have no patience with people who really complain and complain bitterly about graffiti as such of a big problem.
And abandonment goes in several directions: from top to bottom, as much as bottom to top, and sideways. Who's next to you now while reading? And what about outside?
The problem is not that we don't grasp the huge social challenge around walls. It's that we're just not that interested.
We, not the walls, are somewhat inert. Not that there's anything wrong with you, me or some wrongdoer people. Quite the contrary. It's only that no one can grasp all that a wall relates to and entails.
The world is vast, intricate and infinite in unfoldings. Our cities aren't messy, they're living and ever changing environments. Shall we join an exploration.