Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Kilroy was Here

Governments consider it illegal and vile, others consider it credible expression. It has been used to defile politicians, express unrequited (or requited) love, delineate territory, create identity and espouse ideas and statements, political, social or otherwise. It is ubiquitous and controversial. Graffiti is art to some and trash to others.

The act of putting up markings on public and private property may have gained widespread attention through hip hop and gang turf, but the reality is that ever since man could create ink, it could also wield instruments to apply that ink. Graffiti has been discovered in Mayan ruins, ancient Greece, Rome, Pompeii and has served as a means to discover language (as in Jordan and Syria) and understand history, something that didn't escape the Monty Python boys.

In their movie, "Life of Brian," the titular character is caught writing grammatically incorrect, anti-Roman remarks in Latin on a palace wall. A centurion catches Brian in the act and quickly reprimands him on his case usage, making corrections on the wall itself with the same brush. After Brian understands his lingual mistakes, the centurion forces him to rewrite the correct phrase 100 times by sunrise.

The scene makes one wonder if it was a commentary on the difficulty of the Latin language and the state of education for plebs; if it was a joke on the idiocy of the ancient Roman guard; or rather, a cleverly disguised commentary on the manner in which a government should act -- rather than castigate its people for expression, perhaps it should teach and encourage them.

Instead, graffiti is not seen as an art form by most politicians, a fact that spurs the continued use of this non-conformist expression.

In the 1980s, graffiti gained worldwide attention as hip hop climbed the charts. Graffiti is one of the anchors of hip hop and started being documented in movies such as, "Style Wars" and "Wild Style," and in Blondie's "Rapture" music video. In hip hop, MCs would battle to test each other's rap skills, graffiti artists and crews would do the same. Soon both battle-forms bled into gang mentality, forever making the unfortunate connection among the three.

The truth is, graffiti (like rap music itself) is not threatening, it is merely humans expressing themselves. Sometimes that quip, image or verse is jarring. That moment is the purpose. Some embrace it; some rebel against it; some create retorts.

I've thought about this art form from the moment I read a series of books on my aunt's shelf that compiled graffiti from around the world. Four, short, British, paperback publications proved to me that people have something to say and they will do so however they can. Some is inane, juvenile and offensive; some is clever, witty and inspiring. All are valid.

Here are some graffiti artists that prove their form is art:


And here are some pictures of graffiti I took this year in Belgium; by far one of the coolest cities for graffiti, and one that has a love/hate relationship with the art:


The sole purpose of travel is not hitting the tourist spots, but understanding a culture, people and language. People are what make a country, not buildings. When I travel, I try to get away from what Lonely Planet books tell you and create my own journey. Of course, I do see some of the sites as many times they explain a people's history, but that history is best understood by talking to people -- a taxi driver and shop owner have a lot to tell. These are all new realizations for me that started in 2004 when I joined the Peace Corps and lived out in the regions of Georgia, a country you will hear and see more of throughout this endeavour. The stories people tell me help me understand more about myself and the world I live in. Slowly, their stories help me tell my own. This is my story so far.