graffiti and the grotesque, banksy and bakhtin

If listening to my own voice didn’t make me want to scratch my eyes out, I might invest in a camera, create a YouTube account, and make a video response to Rosianna’s insight on graffiti in Madrid. But as it happens, my YouTube fame reached its peak after St. Patrick’s Day in Westport, KC (…I’ll leave you to speculate), and I prefer to write what’s called a “response”–like a video response, but with more word, less video.

First, an introduction.

Rosianna Halse Rojas is the coolest. She’s the type of early twenties career woman who’s making her own path in the world by rejecting the traditional job route by creating original and insightful content online. (She also happens to be the PA for critically acclaimed writer John Green. It’s fine.)

In this video, Rosianna reflects upon the graffiti she saw whilst walking through Madrid on a sunny day, enriching the city with its big, bright colors. Although graffiti is often seen as transgressive, or “not an authentic use of the space,”Rosianna points out that graffiti is not the only way that we claim spaces. Consider billboards, for instance; most people have no real control over those spaces either. The difference? Advertising is set up by major corporations, convincing you to fork over your money (the exceptions are the occasional PSAs, but even those are often funded by these corporations). Graffiti, on the other hand, is created by the common people, and it can be used to claim spaces*, to challenge the hegemonic political or ideological systems,or as art, among other reasons.

Rosianna then poses the question, “Many have said that their aversion to graffiti is down to the fact that it’s decoration we have no control over. But we have no say about billboards and buildings, for the most part, so why do we focus on graffiti?” and then generates her own response, “There’s a theory in urban sociology. If a city has broken windows or graffiti, it fosters a sense that crime is authorized in the city. But there’s a better angle I think, and it’s partly Mailer’s and party mine… [G]raffiti is powerful because it celebrates the that the city is out of control, and it celebrates the sense that when I wasn’t here, someone else was.”

Her reference is to Norman Mailer, who wrote an article in Esquire in 1974 entitled “The Faith of Graffiti.”



(Here’s the full text, if you’re interested.)

I want to build upon this notion that graffiti celebrates a city out of control. Graffiti, by its very nature, is carnivalesque–an overturning of the dominant social binaries (elevating disorder over order, for instance), and a celebration of the grotesque. Mikhail Bakhtin discusses the folk-humor of carnival in Rabelais and his World, and man do I love Bakhtin!** When I think of my pre-Bakhtin understanding of carnival, I imagine the festival in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when they crowned Quasimodo the king of the fools, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro. The carnival in theory is no different from these folk traditions–Bakhtin argues that carnival can create an alternative social space in which life is shaped according to a pattern of play and characterized by dialogism (that is, various voices are engaged in dynamic discourse). In one way, graffiti’s carnivalesque nature is revealed through its rejection of a fixed, authoritative monologue.

Carnival not only deconstructs social, political and moral norms, but imagines an alternative way of living, allowing voices that are normally silenced to perform in their own right. The same reversal is true for graffiti. Rosianna mentioned that there is the sense of the city being out of control, but perhaps this sense is only illusory, created by a multiplicity of voices at play and in conversation with one another through graffiti . Perhaps graffiti does indeed offer an alternative way of living, if we only stopped and looked and paid attention.

When we think of graffiti in terms of transformative art, chances are the mysterious street artist and political activist Banksy comes to mind. The British Banksy’s graffiti art is satirical and thought-provoking, such as two male cops, traditional figures standing for the repressive state, kissing each other.

“But Kasia”–you might protest– “not all graffiti is made by Banksy types. What about those punks who like drawing giant penises and vulgar language on the walls of establishments? Think of the children!”

You’re right, sort of–not all graffiti is intentionally created with a political purpose in mind. It instead seems to be drawn by kids with too much time on their hands and just-because antagonism in their minds. That’s where Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque becomes important–the grotesque is an exaggerated representation of the body or the sensual, which disrupts expectations and brings elevated ideas down to earth in a material way. Graffiti in its most grotesque form does just this; cartoon cocks that seem apolitical actually remind us of the dialogue that we deem unfit for polite or standard conversation (sex, curse words, etc). In the same way, the artists who draw the vulgar images might often feel excluded from the “proper” or “official” world (indeed, they even feel criminalized), and they use graffiti to announce their presence.

At the end of her video, Rosianna comments on this phenomenon of criminalizing graffiti artists. She mentions London’s efforts to rid itself of the graffiti on the South Bank, and says, “In criticizing graffiti, are we trying to escape the reality of other people? Probably… It feels like a generation already inclined to feel ignored is being erased…”

When I googled, “Kansas City graffiti,”  I found an article on the KC Star‘s website reporting on the rush that people get from power washing graffiti. “When graffiti is the enemy, a power-washer wand feels like … power,” reads the article’s lead (painful, I know). The City has recruited its residents to participate in this erasure of graffiti–a clever move! It heightens the divide between the law-abiding Us and those felonious Them, and furthermore,  it gives the participants a taste of this authority. The article quoted two women, who said washing the graffiti gave them a sense of “empowerment” and was “therapeutic.” This saddened me more than anything: that they gained their sense of power or peace by aiding in the silencing of another’s voice. The effect, in this case, is not only escaping the reality of other people, but playing an active role in wiping them away.

For those interested, I actually did find some Kansas City graffiti on Flickr. Here ya go:

*Graffiti becomes increasingly problematic in the case of gangs claiming space, because this space is often grounds for violence. I don’t have an answer for this, but research and writing might get me closer, eventually. What are your thoughts?

**I once posted on my Tumblr, “Ever since I began my university education almost three years ago (!!!), Bakhtin has been way up there on the list of dead Russian theorists who fascinate me,” and though I’ve since graduated, he still tops the list.


One response to “graffiti and the grotesque, banksy and bakhtin

  1. Good replies in return of this query with firm arguments and
    explaining all concerning that.

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