Having been given the time to explore some projects while waiting for Ph.D application results, I figured I would exploit it by exploring my city, albeit from a drastically different perspective.
Having now dedicated my life towards studying Russian hip hop culture, I have found myself relating to the graffiti which I walk past in a vastly different way now. Rather than being scared or perturbed at its presence under a bridge, I see it as a place of community, a place of refuge for members of a society that is drastically misunderstood in the everyday societal landscape. Many see it as meaningless and without any sort of substance, pollution on a wall that needs a good cleaning. However, look a bit deeper and one can find the names (or tags) of different people, collectives, and groups who come together in secret to share in a bonding experience that many of us not within these communities couldn’t possibly understand. The hip hop community is not one of isolation or rejecting society for a utopian alternative but rather changing the society one lives within, albeit very slowly, awakening the senses of people to the beauty of these cultural spaces that seem so foreign upon first glance. In this post, I’ll share some photos and thoughts about one spot in Dearborn, Michigan where I currently live in order to demonstrate the richness of these subcultural spaces. Spaces which are often seen but ignored, observed during one’s commute but never understood. In these spaces, a language is shared among participants, a common dialect which one cannot be taught but must learn to read through shared experience and mutual participation. A profound, sometimes humorous and sometimes crass, expression of very real emotions and thoughts, graffiti is a way to share thoughts publically yet privately as well. Encoded within the sharp lines, beautiful swirls, dripping edges, and bubble letters, artists “write” (create graffiti) their world on concrete and walls with no expectation of praise or adoration from anyone outside their community, their cultural family.
Let me show you Dearborn from a different perspective.
The place I explored today was a bridge over a river which opens up into a marshy wetland where a relatively new(ish) water treatment plant was built. The construction took great care in preserving the wetland biome that exists there in order to help maintain the ecosystem and the life that dwells in these natural geographies. But ignored (by me really up until today) was a concrete bridge built ages ago which cars pass routinely on their way out of Dearborn, to the grocery store, coffee shop, or really wherever else one needs to go. Overlooked and ignored, a forest to the left of the park has a path that runs through it which many use to walk their dogs, get a bit of respite from the sound pollution of suburban life, or just to walk and collect their thoughts. Yet, at the head of the path, if one chooses to go right, the bridge stands, a path running under the bridge’s left side allowing passage into the marshland from the bottom. Here, graffiti begins. As you can see, the diversity in the language and colors shown proved to me how popular this space is to those in the graffiti subculture. A look at the layers of paint reveals a well-attended history to this place, although during winter it is (to my knowledge) rarely visited. While it’s clear that some “writers” simply do it to pass time and as an empty recreational sport, it was clear that others took profound pride and showed deeper amounts of care in what they put on the wall. A piece of themselves, their art and tags reflected who they are and what they stood for, what they believe, and what they want to be or are perhaps.
There was a large chasm between the beginners, the recreational ‘writers,’ and perhaps the more experienced. Those with far more chops took up more space, not always, presenting their graffiti persona in big letters and multi-colored displays for those in attendance to the wall to see. Asserting their rightful space, these anonymous graffiti artists claimed this place as their own for a short time. As the pictures show, although a tag took up space it was never for too long, and as time went by smaller tags would arise, covering the tags yet themselves covered over in the course of time. Some ‘writers’ obviously didn’t spend too much time on their drawings and tags, while it was clear that others cherished the time and took the time to think about (perhaps even plan out and sketch) what they were going to write on the wall, evidenced by the shadowed lettering in the first photo. I can’t help but think about the intended audiences for these pieces. Who were they writing for? Was it just for them, or were they or art they part of a larger movement of subcultural youth trying to find themselves and assert who they are on the walls of a space only the interested may actually come to, understood by even fewer? What would it feel like to spend your time on something which only a fraction of the population will actually see? Do they share their work with their family, friends, or is it kept a secret which only one’s graffiti family knows? Where do they buy their paints and are they part of a larger graffiti community? One of the more pressing questions is when do these writers “bomb” these spaces, and are there times when more than one group is tagging and “bombing”? Judging by the wear and layers, it seems that this place is both old and popular.
I could identify some trends to the tags that you’re seeing, although many were left unidentified as I couldn’t quite decipher if some were tags or just spur of the moment tags. I was specifically looking for evidence of visitation, some sign that these people were regular attendees of this space in order to gauge the development of their tag and how they chose to express themselves through it on the wall. I was able to identify several:
- Common Tate W
- Pink Dot
The personalities associated with these tags can only be assumed but based on the photos and observations, LTC, NERZ, and VOLK are somehow related to each other as their tags show up in the same places regularly. Further, Flips seems to be a leading figure in this space, as his tags are numerous and ostentatious a times, leading me to believe that he may consider himself “King” or the main influence. Common Tate W’s tag is quick and unassuming, leading me to believe that his presence is one of haste and perhaps not all together connected with the rest of the graffiti community in this space. Others like Volk are also numerous and sometimes close to the first group, leading me to believe that a group of friends visit the place and have formed a collective of some kind. What these friends look like and their ages cannot be speculated and only assumed. NARD’s tag was infrequent but was present, and CHRO’s tag was also present but on the other side of the river exclusively.
Lastly, I want to draw your attention to the right two photos. In the center photo, you can see the tag DEW written. However, it’s not the fact that it’s there but (if you look closely) that it was rewritten over a faded version of itself in black. This is fascinating and proves to me that this bridge has served as the premiere place for a very particular set of “writers” who have established this place as their subcultural meeting spot, affirming their belonging in this space by rearticulating their geographical ownership via their tag. The usage of blue as opposed to black is fascinating to me too, perhaps a utilitarian idiosyncrasy or something much more profound. The right photo is also interesting, although for completely different reasons. As you can see, the swastika was scratched out with red spray paint, although if the person who originally did the swastika was the one who crossed it out cannot be said. What can be said, however, is the care that was put into making it, as the swastika is two colors and not poorly done meaning that whoever put it there had meant to do so with some intentionality. Who this person was and their intentions can never be known but it can be said that its disfigurement indeed meant something, doubly so as it was crossed out twice by perhaps two different people.
As you can see, this location serves as a conduit for expression. Not by one person or one type of person but a whole network of disparate voices vying for attention via their personalized expressionary methods. While for some graffiti might just be a fun pass time, for others it was clear that to “write” and to “bomb” means far more than simply spraying letters on a wall. It means sharing something deeply personal with the world, even if the world will never see it. You know, the writer knows, the community knows it’s there. And perhaps that’s all that is needed. The self-recognition that I did it, that my name is immortalized on a wall on Earth somewhere, and that if I die my name will go on, even if just in the minds of a few.