Tag Archives: graffiti

Special Delivery – Endless Canvas’ Huge Warehouse Graffiti Show

SWAMPY – from Fecalface.com.

I’ve been more peripatetic than usual lately; we subletted our apartment in anticipation of a visa that was a month late in coming so I’ve been housesitting all over the East Bay. I’ve stayed in four different places, all inhabited by archaeologists–I’ve started making jokes about how I’m studying their settlement patterns. I thought about drawing plans of the layouts of the houses, but then felt like it would be an invasion of privacy–so what kind of implications does that have for archaeological practice?

Special Delivery – by Fecalface.com

Anyway, last Saturday night I took the bus down from my latest domicile in Richmond to check out Endless Canvas’ unbelievable “Sistine Chapel” of graffiti art in a warehouse in West Berkeley. It was held in the former Flint Ink building, a warehouse that has been vacant since 1999. When I walked up to the warehouse I was stunned to see a huge line full of families along with the requisite cool kids. The three floors of the warehouse were lit with industrial spot lights and there were multiple DJ setups, infusing the concrete with thudding hip hop and techno. The building was absolutely covered and I walked through the warehouse several times, up stairs, looking down elevator shafts and out onto the nearby train tracks.

There were several gargantuan pieces by my favorite Bay Area artists–GATS, SWAMPY, Deadeyes along with a few I didn’t recognize. I didn’t have my DSLR, so I took a few shots with my iphone, but I felt that it was mostly unnecessary–so many people were shooting that you could probably reconstruct the entire installation from images on the web. Besides, I’m not sure I could really add to the gorgeous documentation:

Devote, by Endless Canvas

Along with the photographs are a series of videos that show the intense connection to place that graffiti artists have and how they express this through their art. The videos also features a “buffer,” a guy that goes around and paints over the graffiti art and so is deeply familiar with all of the different artists.

When I walk through Oakland the graffiti resonates so strongly with my experience of the city. New pieces, old pieces, new artists, artists referencing each other–it’s an intense dialog with place that can be both intimate, you won’t see certain pieces or stickers unless you walk the street and grandiose, such as the huge pieces that welcome you back to Oakland after you go under the Bay in the BART. Graffiti in Oakland is a passionate expression of defiance and home and I feel deeply lucky that I managed to be around for its effloresce.

Changing Archaeological Conferences 1/2

Deadeyes and Safety First, painting. Photo by Connor Rowe.

The Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting at UC Berkeley this past weekend assured that I would be screamingly busy. I was an organizer of the conference, participated in a photo session (which I will discuss in a subsequent post), read my friend Shanti’s paper, and organized a session on Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary.

The session faced issues from the start–a lot of people sent abstracts but ended up canceling, I was so busy with the Blogging and Archaeology session at the SAA that I neglected some finer points of organization, and I almost canceled the whole thing more than once. It was good that I didn’t.

There were four fantastic papers presented by people from four different places–England, Ireland, Australia, and the US. The papers were diverse in their content, but all grappled with the place of graffiti in archaeological research and in wider cultural heritage. The international scope of the research was impressive and the authors of the papers were obviously intensely engaged in the interpretation of graffiti. A traditional discussion session after the papers would have been lively, fun, and satisfying–you can tell by the abstracts that we were doing something right. But we did something different.

Two members of the Black Diamonds Shining Collective, Deadeyes and Safety First came up from Oakland to conduct a live painting session and discussion of the papers. I had given them the choice, they could just talk or just paint or do a mixture of both. The session was a bit chaotic and ran over time, but at the end of the last presentation, we cleared a big space in front and brought in the large, prepared scrap of wood that I salvaged from Berkeley’s art practice department (thanks, Nick!).

Deadeyes and Safety First started painting and the room was absolutely silent. Multinationalism aside, everyone in the room was academic & white, while the graffiti artists were black. Were they just performing? Was it a strange, silent, live, Othering-event? Afterwards, several people confessed their enormous discomfort at this intense scopophilic moment. The presumed silence of our research subject was made real, highlighting the epistemic injustice that underlies academic research.

Deadeyes and Safety First. Their faces have been intentionally omitted. Photo by Connor Rowe.

Deadeyes capped his pen, stood up and turned around. He spoke, outlining his decade-long interest in and documentation of Oakland graffiti art and the intensely personal and political nature of graffiti, emphasizing the sociality in their chosen form of expression.  Suddenly, the focus of the room shifted, and these academic archaeologists had the creator of their studied object pushing back, correcting assumptions, and throwing into question the entire enterprise. Safety First chimed in at times while still working on the painting.

I came away from the session humbled but also re-energized. This, to me, more than studying the ruins of theme parks or dismantling vans, was the archaeology of the contemporary. Having graffiti artists live-paint their reaction to the papers was dangerous–I actually had no idea how dangerous until I was in the room, watching the collision of these spheres. It was endangering our precious research, our preferred notions of how material culture was made, and how conferences should be run.

I still haven’t fully digested the whole experience, and I’ll be following up with the individual session participants and discussants. Changing archaeological conferences is hard, and risky, and most people resist, probably with good reason. That’s why we still sit in rooms, reading page after page, flicking through powerpoints. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I was deeply relieved to read a paper in such a session the very next day.

Tomorrow I’ll write about another risky and rewarding session I was in, Heather Law’s Opening Dialogs in Archaeological Photography.

Graffiti and the Archaeology of the Contemporary

“Graffiti is to the city what colored leaves are to the forest. The changing art on the walls reflects the passing of time, and conveys information about the city’s inhabitants, their lives, and culture” (Curtis and Rodenbeck, 2004:1).

Ancient rock art and cave paintings have long been an area of intense interest and research in archaeology. Scratches on walls and pots are carefully recorded, traced, and published in prestigious academic journals. How does our knowledge of this past emplaced art inform our everyday experience in the contemporary world? While some archaeologists evince an interest in modern street art as part of Shanks’ “archaeological sensibility,” few systematic studies have been performed on the wheat paste, spray paint and stencilling that cover our urban landscape. At the 2011 Theoretical Archaeology Conference at UC Berkeley, archaeologists and members of the Oakland street art community will come together to engage in a dialogue meant to explore the archaeological aspects of graffiti art. This session will consider graffiti and archaeology from multiple perspectives, addressing questions such as: How can we record and document graffiti art? What is important? How can this engagement with unauthorized and highly visible art help us read the modern cityscape? How can we make a site visible? How can we convey the importance of a site? What does this intensive annotation of place tell us about the lived experiences of community in cities?

Papers regarding contemporary readings/explanations of graffiti, histories of graffiti, and the materiality of street art are invited to apply.

The sessions for TAG 2011 in Berkeley were announced, along with a sweet logo from Deadeyes/Safety First – local graffiti artists who are participating in the session with their collective, Black Diamonds Shining. Please contact me if you would like to participate in the session!

Graffiti & Archaeology II: The Wandering Wandjina

Perth was invaded in 2006 by a a strange looking being–it had large eyes, a nose, and no mouth, but an oval shape beneath its neck and an aura.  Stencils of this creature quickly covered all available surfaces, and just as quickly was commented on in the press and by the indigenous aboriginals of the western Kimberley region of Western Australia. The wandering Wandjina, a powerful being who was “the supreme spirit of the Worrorra, Ngarinyin, and Wunumbul people of Australia,” the one who “emerged from the sea and the sky, created the landscape, then returned to the spirit world,” but not before leaving their mark on rockshelter walls was reborn as a graffiti stencil on the streets of Perth.

In her Archaeologies article, Ursula Frederick studies the phenomenon of the Wandering Wandjina as part of a fascinating journal article on the interplay of traditional iconography and graffiti art in Melbourne and Perth. The above quotes are from this article, Revolution is the New Black: graffiti art and mark-making practices. In this article Frederick outlines her methodology in studying the graffiti from an archaeological standpoint, rather than that of sociologists who have attributed this art to social malfiescance and the like.  She contrasts traditional studies of rock art with her observations about graffiti, coming across interesting questions that could inform traditional study of ancient art.

For example, she notes the different media used to create tags (pen, crayon, spray paint) and the limitations inherent in each method of tagging–the technology directly influences the size and complexity of the art. This may seem overly obvious to fans of graffiti, but in rock art size is linked with importance, or dominance, rather than functionality.

Frederick also disturbs our archaeological interpretations of rock art having a single meaning, and being viewed by a homogenous community who views this art in a single way. It would be difficult to find people who share the same interpretation of graffiti. I’m sure that more progressive researchers of rock art are already exploring this alternate approach, but the example in modern graffiti is well taken from Frederick.

This past week has generated some buzz in the archaeological world about the place of contemporary archaeology, and indeed it has been very much in the forefront of my mind as I help organize USA TAG 2011, which has the theme of “Archaeology of and in the Contemporary World.” The discussion on the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology mailing list generated good questions from Angela Piccini: “what is the *work* that contemporary archaeologies do? what would *good* contemporary archaeologies look like and how would we recognise their worthiness and who says? what would we (collectively?) aspire for contemporary archaeologies?”

Given these questions, I believe that Frederick has provided a great example utility of contemporary archaeology and its role in informing our larger discipline. Archaeology is necessarily a big tent–we do study the whole of human experience, after all. Why give ourselves arbitrary rules and limits?

Graffiti & Archaeology I: Bahamian Ship Graffiti

Tracing of a sloop graffito from a slave house, Clifton, New Providence

Electronically leafing through archaeological marginalia is probably an overly-obvious habit of mine, and occasionally I’ll find fascinating bits that I’ll throw up on my tumblr blog, to put aside for later while I get back to the main research topic at hand. I’ve been looking into the serious study of graffiti within archaeology for a project I have brewing, and some unexpectedly wonderful things have came up.

Graffito of early-19th-century British warship, New Providence

Grace Turner conducted a fascinating research project (for her MA thesis, if I glean correctly) regarding graffiti inside the slave cabins in the Bahamas. In many cases ships were etched into the plaster and stone walls of these small buildings, and from these drawings she makes inferences about the ships that are depicted in the graffiti. There were almost 100 instances of this type of graffiti and sloops, warships, and schooners were drawn in such a way that indicated that the inhabitants of these buildings (presumably enslaved people) were “familiar with ship construction and rigging.”

Ocean-sailing vessels at anchor, Nassau Harbour. One has masts and smoke stacks.

Yet these graffiti-ships “do not appear as decorative or representational images in other Bahamian contexts,” implying (as Carver says, that “Bahamian ship graffiti did not serve any aesthetic or decorative purpose.” She then connects the graffiti with a tradition of “wrecking” which involves both the court-endorsed practice of salvage and a more clandestine practice of putting lights on the coast in improper places, for ships to follow and crash upon the rocks.

Schooner with raking masts, Sapodilla Hill, Providenciales

Turner also describes each of the sites in detail, considering where the graffiti occurred, who was living there at the time, what tools were used to inscribe the stone and plaster surfaces, and even how much light was available at the time. Her conclusions about the socio-economic status of the graffiti artists and their intentions in depicting these ships trails off a bit–like a good archaeologist she’s trying to consider more than one explanation for these phenomena. If these lower-classed Bahamians were making plans and wrecking ships it certainly implies a willingness to prey upon the very same ships that might have brought them to the New World.

Kudos to Grace Turner and her interesting research! It must have been difficult to locate and draw all of the ships for her project.

Lightwriting

Stop
This photo of a “Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. switchman demonstrating signal with a fusee, used at twilight and dawn when visibility is poor” was taken in 1943, and found on Shorpy.com. Click on it to view the incredible beauty of the full size.

These traces of light are so evocative and so ephemeral–as anyone who ran around with a sparkler and traced their name into the sky could attest.  Urban lightwriting first appeared on my radar from my interest in graffiti and placemaking, a subject I touched on briefly in previous posts (and in a few papers).

It seems that there is now an open source instrument for live performance drawing and animation called Tagtool that I am trying my best to spec out for this summer for some live, night-time annotation of a certain Neolithic mound.

Picasso Lightwriting

Being able to lightwrite what once was on top of what is could be a fascinating opportunity for interpretation and performance in archaeology.  I’ll reiterate something I’ve been saying for a while:

I want to haunt the present with the past.

lightwriting