βασανίζομαι

Figure 1. Basanizomai is pictured on a building in Athens on May 6, 2014. MAKRIS – Photographed by Angelos Tzortzinis and taken from TakePart. Artist Unknown.

 

Vasanizomai. I am in torment.

 

In Athens, Greece, a lovestruck teenager was the first to write these words on the city walls. Dripping in sorrow, they convey something dark and twisted that describe his unrequited love. But it also describes the state of the city. “Today, it is Greece that is tormented” (Theodoropoulos).

In 2009, the financial crisis that had been storming international economies almost swallowed Greece: the country was headed toward bankruptcy after being shut out by financial markets. In a desperate attempt to save his country from its financial fate, then-prime minister George Papandreou imposed budgetary austerity in return for financial assistance from the troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank). This agreement, however, never induced the growth it intended to; Greece’s GDP plummeted in response, and unemployment remains the highest in the eurozone.

 

“Integrating with the city’s architecture, [vasanizomai] took on new meaning” (Theodoropoulos).

 

It took on a new meaning to reflect the city and country that is suffering. Athens, Greece is both the site of a young man’s heartbreak and national crisis, and these two histories are equally reflected by this mark. A mark “visually translates the experience of being part of a city’s fabric” (Waclawek 91). Vasanizomai thus became part of Athens’s visual landscape because a city’s visual environment is shaped by the things that occur within its streets.

But a city’s visual landscape can also evoke things that occur within its streets.

 

Barcelona’s visual landscape evoked my consciousness and initiated my literacy of graffiti as an alternative form of grammar.

 

Figure 2. The outside door of Estudio Nomada in the gothic quarter of Barcelona, Spain. I took this photograph in July, 2014. Artists unknown.

In July of 2014, I travelled to Barcelona to study at Estudio Nomada, a school for artists, in the gothic quarter. I practiced art from an abstract approach, using alternative materials (such as kitchen tools and pencils without erasers) to produce works.

The streets I walked were inundated with works of graffiti and street art. But graffiti was both my visual landscape and my curriculum: through my arts program, I visited urban art galleries that featured the artists whose works I also saw on the streets.

Illiterate in the grammar of graffiti, I unknowingly conflated urban art with graffiti and street art.

But the three classifications of graffiti, street art, and urban art actually constitute very different forms of art within the umbrella category of graffiti.

Graffiti is the illicit marking of walls with text. It is primarily signature writing where, paradoxically, “taggers” publicly identify themselves through pseudonyms. Street art, or post-graffiti, developed from the graffiti movement and has since become very diversified.

Pieces of street art feature symbols and images more frequently than they do text. They more closely resemble works of art that could be seen in private spaces (like galleries or museums) and have given rise to the private art movement of urban art.

“[U]rban art is seen as art that originates from urban environments, it relates to the cities and is created by artists who live in the cities, thematize urban lifestyle and consider cities their working environment” (Dačić). But art on the street is distinct from urban art because “graffiti developed on the street and loses a sense of dynamism in an enclosed space” (Waclawek 174).

The street artists who have entered the private world and initiated the urban art movement, however, face criticism because street art is supposed to question the private art world. Many graffiti writers believe that “the fact that their work is free and illegal is essential to their participation in the subculture,” and “[m]oving into the commercial gallery market is often simply disrespected” (Waclawek 174).

And graffiti has infiltrated yet another space of contention: the internet. Photographs on the internet can “record the aesthetic character of the piece,” but they cannot recreate “the work’s relationship to its place of diffusion” (Waclawek 178). Critics lament the presence of pseudo forms of “graffiti” in galleries and on the internet because graffiti changes when it exists in spaces other than the street.

But this presence incontestably results in a greater public awareness of the umbrella of graffiti.

“[S]eeing a photo of street art can help the viewer open their eyes to seeing street art when they are on the street, street art that they might otherwise have missed” (Rushmore).

And any method of becoming conscious of graffiti, even though it may produce misconceptions (that can be corrected), is valuable because

 

consciousness is the first step to understanding.

 

The reason I became educated in this alternative grammar is because the city and the galleries introduced me to it. It piqued my interest, so I paid attention to it, started noticing it, and jumped at the opportunity to learn about it in school.

Having now developed literacy in graffiti, I can deconstruct and begin to actually understand the spaces that I interacted with.

 

Figure 3. A panorama taken of the Base Elements urban art gallery in Barcelona, Spain featuring Pez and Art is Trash. I took this photograph in July, 2014.

 

One such space is the Base Elements urban art gallery depicted in figure 2. Prominent in this panorama photo are Art is Trash and Pez. Formally introduced to these artists by an urban art curator, I couldn’t detect the differences between these gallery pieces and the pieces of theirs that I encountered on the streets of Barcelona.

But the works present in these different spaces are, in truth, very different.

The pieces in the gallery whose colors are brighter, lines are cleaner, and finishes are shinier more strongly attempt to be visually pleasing than the art on the street that is less polished. Athenian street artist Cacao Rocks, whom I heard speak this past October, admitted that when creating art for sale, he has greater intent to make pieces that are aesthetically pleasing (Rocks). On the street, he feels less pressure to make something that is considered to be “beautiful.”

Moreover, the pieces in the gallery exist independently from each other. Canvases can be arranged to control how they are viewed, but the visuals produced on them cannot interact with the visuals on other canvases. Thus, their purposes are not to make social commentary.

Figure 4. The outside of a door in Barcelona’s gothic quarter depicting the interaction of Art is Trash with other street art by unknown artists. I took this photograph in July 2014.

 

Art on the street, however, is in conversation with the art around it. In figure 3, Art is Trash (who can be identified by his style of stick figure) is responding to a piece that appears to have been first present on the wall.

The original piece is two wheat-pasted figures: one of an unconscious homeless man and the other of a teenager taking his picture. I interpret this as a demonstration of disrespect and deigning of impoverished people by the wealthy.

Art is Trash endorses the idea of the original artist by contributing characters doing the same action as the original wheat-pasted teenager: taking a picture of the homeless man.

Art is Trash progresses the original artist’s idea by adding a new element. He uncovers the homeless man’s thoughts in a thought bubble that depicts a person progressing through the different stages of life until his death, symbolized by a grave. The thoughts of the pauper juxtapose the actions of the pedestrians and introduce a comparison to consider: the concerns of the poor as opposed to those of the wealthy.

On this wall on the street, Art is Trash engages in a conversation and shares his voice… not through a traditional form of grammar, but the alternative grammar of graffiti.

Graffiti is an alternative grammar for people who can’t articulate their opinions through traditional forms of grammar (Boletsi). Graffiti began as disenfranchised persons declaring their presence on public walls (Reiss), and thus, it is the voice of forgotten people. Furthermore, graffiti is a way for people to express reactions when they feel something but don’t understand what they feel or what to say about it. That is why

 

we must understand graffiti to listen to whom it gives a voice.

 

Vasanizomai

 

is the voice of a boy suffering from unrequited love and a country suffering from crisis. In the Greek language, vasanizomai is a middle voice construction where the subject is not definitively the agent nor the patient of the action. “I am in torment” could signify that the subject is tormenting his or herself, or the subject is being tormented by an external source (Boletsi).

The grammar of graffiti itself resembles the middle voice construction because its writers actively declare their presence on walls but conceal their identities. We cannot realistically discern who is writing graffiti: are graffiti writers writing the graffiti or is the graffiti writing itself through them?

Graffiti is something that people consciously and unconsciously produce

and consciously and unconsciously react to.

The viewers of graffiti actively read it, but it is the graffiti that acts upon them.

 

In this way, it acted upon me.

 

Graffiti “creates a link between the text/image and the individual” (Taylor 94), and so it creates new meanings for whom it interacts with. In Barcelona, I was the viewer, but the graffiti was what drove me to become literate. Although I actively made the choice to study it, to take a course in it at the University of Michigan, I didn’t make the choice. The graffiti made me do it.

We must begin to understand this alternative grammar because it is more than what it appears to be at its surface value:

more than an aesthetic product

more than vandalism.

 

It is an active and passive expression of the producers’ internal reactions

 

to heartbreak

to crisis.

And it evinces active and passive responses in its viewers.

 

Figure 5. “Midge” tag on a subway car in New York City, New York in 1982. Photographed by Martha Cooper and taken from Slate. Artist unknown.

 

In 1980s New York, Mayor Edward Koch responded to subway graffiti by initiating war against it. Mayor Edward Koch argued that “citizens were frightened by it because it represented an unlawful disruption of the urban environment… [and] by getting rid of graffiti, the city would emerge as a picture of law and order” (Waclawek 54).

On the surface, Koch actively attempted to combat graffiti for the city’s morale.

Like 1980s New York, today’s Athens, Greece is overrun with graffiti. The enforcement of vandalism laws in the city have traditionally been lenient, but there is now so much graffiti that the public complains it deteriorates the quality of life; the people think there needs to be less of it (Alexopoulou).

But it is unclear whether the graffiti is causing the city’s problems or the graffiti is a demonstration of the suffering in the city that is trying to be recognized (Alexopoulou).

The inclination to suppress and erase graffiti could be an active attempt to reinstate order or a passive attempt to avoid recognizing the city’s problems because reactions to those problems are expressed through graffiti.

There is a reason vasanizomai is on Athenian walls.

We must understand vasanizomai.

We must understand all graffiti because it exists not only in Greece.

 

“There is not a city in the world without graffiti now. It has never happened like this with the amount of people involved ever before” (Seldin).

 

Graffiti is the grammar through which increasing numbers of people are expressing themselves.

Because of the growing popularity of the graffiti and street art movements on the streets and in other sites (on the internet and in private spaces), there is a flourishing public consciousness. It gives people a voice, and the public is listening.

But we need to do more than listen, we must understand.

Works Cited

Alexopoulou, Olga. In-Class Discussion with Olga Alexpoulou on Graffiti, Street Art, and Murals. University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, Michigan. 12 Sept. 2016.

Boletsi, Maria. “The Rhetoric of Crisis and the Grammar of Resistance in Greek Wall-Writings and Spain’s Hologram Protest.” University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. 30 Nov. 2016. Lecture.

Cooper, Martha. Midge. 1982. New York City. Slate Magazine. By David Rosenberg. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

Dačić, Anika. “Could Urban Art Be One of the Most Significant Movements in Recent Art History?” WideWalls. Urban & Contemporary Art Resource, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Rocks, Cacao. Discussion with Cacao Rocks on Street Art. University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, Michigan. 24 Oct. 2016. Discussion.

Rushmore, RJ. “Conclusion on Traditional Street Art and Graffiti Online.” Viral Art. Simple Book Production, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Seldin, Malena. “Blek Le Rat Interview.” FECAL FACE DOT COM. Fecal Face, 2 Apr. 2008. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

Taylor, Claire. “Graffiti and the Epigraphic Habit: Creating Communities and Writing Alternate Histories in Classical Attica.” Ancient Graffiti in Context. Ed. Jennifer A. Baird. New York: Routledge, 2011. 90-109. Print.

Theodoropoulos, Dimitris. “Faces of Austerity: How Four Greeks Are Surviving a Continuing Crisis.” TakePart. Participant Media, 22 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Tzortzinis, Angelos. MAKRIS. 2016. Getty Images, Athens, Greece. TakePart. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.

Waclawek, Anna. “From Graffiti to Post-Graffiti, Graffiti’s Genealogy, Street Art and the City.” Graffiti and Street Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011. N. pag. Print.

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