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Opinion

Column: Why good old graffiti thrives in the Internet age -- especially in L.A.

In Los Angeles, it’s all about the real estate, whether that means a plot of land to be built on -- or a span of wall to be graffitied. The city found out again what a costly truth that can be when an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer was shot to death last month, after he confronted an alleged gang loyalist tagging a wall in that particular gang’s “territory.”

But graffiti is older -- centuries older -- than either gang vandalism or sanctioned street art, and it shows up across the ancient world as well as the modern one; almost 2,000 years ago, someone wrote on a public wall in Pompeii, “Virgula to her Teritus: you are a nasty boy.”

Susan A. Phillips is a professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College, and she’s spent years tracking down, photographing and chronicling the graffiti of Los Angeles. Her new book, “The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti,” tells a rich story of another L.A., left behind in the sometimes hidden and coded “I was here” of hoboes, surfers, soldiers, gay outcasts and striking students -- graffiti that, like many of the people who made them, have often gone unseen by the rest of us.

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In an age where social media offers endless opportunities for people to use -- what would you call it, electronic graffiti? -- people still insist on writing things on walls. What is that impulse about?

Even before the advent of social media, I think people have always wondered what it is exactly about this that has made it such a durable part of human history, dating back literally thousands of years. It’s a very longstanding human tradition that you put your name and fuse it in a sense to public space in some way.

The internet is vast; it’s vast and it’s very, very segregated, self-segregating. People can write all kinds of things on the Internet that I will never see because I never look for them. When you’re confronted with something on the walls, you have to see it. So it breaks down those boundaries of segregation in certain ways.

I think there’s always going to be room for [graffiti]. It’s such a democratic medium, and a medium of expression that that really doesn’t require technology. Anyone can do it. And the fact that it’s illegal also actually makes it open up even further because there can be almost no limitations based on that medium of expression.

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We had the tragic incident of an LAPD officer shot and killed after he confronted a tagger in Lincoln Heights. Here’s someone whose life was lost because of people breaking the law but also violating public space, public places.

It’s always a tragedy when things like that happen, and that’s something that is very particular to the city of Los Angeles, in part because of our history with gangs and also in part because of the how many guns we have on the street. It points to how incredibly serious this battle over public space is, and why it is that graffiti is a front-and-center mode of understanding what that battle is about.

When things erupt in physical violence, you take it to a point where suddenly this medium that seems like, oh, it’s kids playing, or not important, it suddenly shows just how tremendously important our struggles over space are in our society.

When you say it’s particular to Los Angeles, why are we singular? Is it space? Is it sunshine? Is it the concrete?

It’s partly all those things, and it’s the sort of mythos of the sunshine as well, and how that meets the harsh realities of people’s lives. We have such a successful economy and we’re not necessarily very good at sharing it across the ranks of people whose experiences are quite different.

And that comes from things like housing segregation, economic inequality, job loss -- just the way that we’ve done our city has really contributed quite dramatically I think to the formation of these really durable gang entities.

Over the years, we’ve had tragedies related to graffiti. We’ve had store keepers who have been shot and killed trying to stop people from painting on the walls of the stores. There was, I think, a tagger who fell to his death; people were cheering that because they thought he got what he deserved.

When I started my work with gangs and graffiti in the early ’90s, I remember going to a party at UCLA and there was a professor there who you would think would be thoughtful, and he just said, I wish I could line up all the taggers against the wall and shoot them. The sort of negative vitriol that comes out of people’s mouths based on this medium is pretty incredible.

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One of the things that’s interesting and different about graffiti is the way that it really is connected to people in a very direct way through the act of placing the signature in public space. The signature begins to represent the person or the group and that’s why people take it so very seriously when you’re either trying to interrupt that or erase that as if it were part of them.

I think that’s what’s so angering about it, about that violation of public space and private property. It makes people so angry. And also the concept of private property in the west and in the United States in particular is incredibly foundational. So when you have something like graffiti, it’s really violating one of the most sacred principles of our society.

On the other end, we see the medium of graffiti being appropriated by high-end companies. Gucci and Louboutin are putting their products out there in graffiti fashion, perhaps to make them seem edgier?

There’s always, in any kind of subculture, resistance to commercialization, and feeling like the original values of the subculture are somewhat compromised by the commercial influence or corporate influence of it.

Graffiti is incredibly powerful. It is something that runs the gamut from a simple illegal writing of someone’s name somewhere to the production of these massive murals on the part of corporations like the ones that you’ve described.

Essentially, the advertisers and the corporations are taking advantage of that public, oftentimes producing what people don’t even realize are advertisements but that are used on social media platforms as a backdrop for selfies or whatever to further promote their products.

It’s a clever way that they’re doing it. And it can play its role in gentrifying neighborhoods and promoting goods and consumption in ways that you could argue are either healthy or unhealthy for society and for people, depending on what your perspective is.

In New York, someone just graffitied over a Louis Vuitton store logo and had somebody videotape him doing it.

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I know people who are those angry people. I also know people who are producing corporate-sponsored murals and who have honed their craft over a 20-year period and are now hoping to get paid.

I’m not a fan of gentrification. I’m not a fan of overconsumption and it does disturb me when I see people using graffiti to play a role in that.

Your book is almost a treasure hunt for these graffiti, like those left by hobos; you found evidence of them under the bridges of the Los Angeles River that has been there for a century or so. You found evidence at San Pedro at Fort MacArthur, military people who left traces of themselves in World War II, and on surf shacks in Malibu, where Gidget used to surf – there was a swastika painted on one of these. What is the story of graffiti in Los Angeles before the public became aware of it and identified it as a gang thing in say the ’70s or the ’80s?

I view them as just a way of telling a different history of the city of Los Angeles. It’s no accident that most of the people that I discuss in the book are quite marginalized and using the walls as a vehicle for expression and for camaraderie and to create community, because that was the role that that played.

Incredibly marginalized people -- you mentioned hoboes -- these are people who are itinerant. So you have these different ways that people had of communicating within the group, even if the group was separated by time, place. Maybe they were incarcerated, trying to reconnect. That feeling of being part of the same group when you’re a vilified person is incredibly important.

What about that swastika on the surf shack in Malibu, a photo that had not been published before?

I was lucky enough to be able to interview Cathy Zuckerman, who is Gidget. I had a bunch of photographs from the 1960s surf graffiti, and she surfed right before they were taken, and I thought, I’d love to get her perspective.

Then at a certain point she just came out with this photograph and showed it to me and I was completely shocked. No one had ever seen this photograph. And this photograph was [of] a second-generation surf shack.

She herself had taken the camera and pointed it. It depicts these three, four guys, one smoking a cigarette. I mean, they look incredibly cool.

And then there’s this giant swastika in the background. For that reason, it had never been published.

What was it doing there?

The swastika was an incredibly popular/unpopular culture symbol starting in in the in the mid-’50s. Partly it’s because you have all these returning GIs. They’re coming home with their paraphernalia from World War II in Europe, including helmets uniforms and armbands and other types of things. It was like, we have been victorious over this, and we’re taking ownership of these symbols and bringing them back home as a symbol of our victory.

But later it began to be used by youth subcultures as part of their subcultural movements, without necessarily understanding the context of what those things meant, only knowing that, man, this thing has shock value, and we want to shock people! And that’s essentially what surfers were doing with it.

There were also illustrations from UCLA during the ’60s and’70s, the era of political protest. One was, “Why isn’t the strike more fun?” meaning a university strike. Another one -- “Nixon, pull out like your father should have,” meaning President Nixon in Vietnam. There’s witty political graffiti as well as just the vulgar or obscene.

There’s a lot of wittiness. At UCLA, the students took over Ackerman Student Union and they covered it with this kind of graffiti. Some of it is very earnest, like “Revolution in the Third World, here and now,” that kind of thing.

And then there’s other stuff that’s very self-reflective and sort of jovial, like, yeah, you know, this kind of sucks; we’re all sitting here now [striking] and it’s kind of boring and it’s kind of like work.

I’m excited about those photographs because it’s the first time anybody had seen them. I’ve had them for many years in my collection they were given to me by the researchers that took them. But this is the first time that they’re being published.

I would expect that graffiti was not considered of any value then, the way that poster art was not considered of any value for some time.

In a sense that’s the whole point of the book. It’s paying attention to the things that people have ignored that gets you to the understanding of a different kind of history, this ability to tell a different kind of history for a city like Los Angeles, the story of which has been told to death.

What will happen to graffiti in the next hundred years, versus what you chronicle, when there was a sort of artless sense of, here I am, here I was, and here’s the record of me, to people who will put graffiti on Instagram or create it only to put it on Instagram?

Graffiti has been a medium that has been durable since the time we’ve had writing. So in that sense, it can become part of whatever the future brings us. It’s very flexible because it’s illegal, it gives people a tremendous amount of freedom and control over what it is that their expression consists of. The possibilities for that expression are endless and they’re really embedded in the context and politics, the immediacy of the moment.

I can only imagine the ways that graffiti will be part of that conversation. I only know that it will be, simply because it has been such a longstanding part of human expression through time.

And Los Angeles in particular?

Oh, 100 percent yes!


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