Graffiti and Post-Graffiti

Figure 6: An example of HENSE as a graffiti writer. Style is in traditional bomb style. Exemplifies HENSE as a graffiti writer because he uses MSK at the top right corner of the bomb, thus stating his loyalty and crew affiliation. Image provided by: <;.

It is necessary to differentiate what constitutes graffiti as opposed to post-graffiti, since many rarely make the distinction between the two, and in what capacity that affects the Atlanta graffiti dynamic. While there are perhaps many reasons that contribute to the confusion, including the general ambiguity and misconception of graffiti in its entirety, the main reason why people (both in and outside of the subculture) don’t distinguish between the two is because it is easy to marginalize the topic of graffiti by compartmentalizing it into a generic term that they believe encompass illegal and legal painting on the wall. But the differences are astoundingly simple, in which such a distinction can be made regarding the difference between a graffiti writer as opposed to a graffiti artist, and even the venue in which graffiti operates within can determine aspects of the two’s differences.

Graffiti writers act in a plural method that encompasses a whole, such as operating within a group (or crew).[1] Graffiti artists, though, act in a more concentrated, individual platform in which they usually are not a part of a crew, or any other plural affiliation. HENSE, for example, has acted as an individual for the past ten years, whereas before then (in the early nineties to the late nineties) he operated within the graffiti community in Atlanta as a member of the infamous MSK (Mad Society Kings) crew and would tag, bomb, or piece his name along with various members of his crew and the crew itself[2] (Fig. 6). Now, as HENSE has proclaimed in various interviews and on his own website, the graffiti artist is commissioned and paid to do legal works and even art galleries in what has developed into a legitimate platform and career for HENSE.[3]

But the transition from illegal to legal works does not indicate entirely the differences between graffiti and its post counterpart (since there are still many post-graffiti works that are deemed illegal); a certain aesthetic, stylistic, and even dynamic difference between the two that indicates why many have begun to make such distinctions (Fig. 7). To begin with the stylistic changes that developed over the years, a number of trends in materials and methods used to create graffiti that created a whole new effect on how the image looks.

Figure 7: Image exhibits the distinction between graffiti and post-graffiti. The top 'Property is Theft' stencil is an example of post-graffiti, while the lower NEKO tag is an example of traditional graffiti. Image taken by author.

Three of the major methods used that had the greatest perceivable impact have been “stencils, characters, and logos.”[4] Where once there was an emphasis on letters and the creative use of them (bending, distorting, exploiting), there now developed a faction within the graffiti subculture that borrowed directly from mainstream advertisement companies (i.e. repetitive and similar images that could be reproduced at more expedited rates) and applied it to the streets. But because they were not on any payroll and had no set obligations to anyone, including other graffiti writers and artists, artists could be as subversive and irreverent and rebellious with their imagery as they wanted to be. In essence, graffiti artists were still allowed to paint whatever they wanted in whatever style they wanted, despite any legal or moral ramifications that would be issued against them, and they were able to do so because of their unique social status as proverbial outlaws.[5]

This is not the case, though, of all post-graffiti and graffiti artists’ work. In many cases, as has been established earlier with the transition from illegal to legal work, post-graffiti adopted a more integrative idea set which allowed many artists to go back and forth and in between legal and illegal works. HENSE and TOTEM would be an embodiment of such stylistic and ideological mindsets. When post-graffiti began to establish a link between established institutions (e.g. governments and corporations), they began to also veer away from such liberties that graffiti writers enjoyed and instead embraced a new style that could and, as will be shown, would be more acceptable on a commercial level. As is shown in Figure 8, one of TOTEM’s pieces he did for a local Atlanta pizzeria called Corner Pizza, the artists developed a post-graffiti style from unwanted, unsolicited, and illegal works to a more acceptable and commercial format. But rather than being able to paint whatever he wanted, TOTEM was contracted to create a piece specifically molded to the aesthetic the pizzeria wanted to portray, which then made his work another form of advertisement, though obviously with a few stylistic and technical differences. Essentially, though, post-graffiti did become the legitimate, mainstream growth of expression in what was once an outlaw, fringe set of ideals and painting, and where once a graffiti writer did not have to consider what others would think of their aesthetic, the graffiti artist now becomes commissioned and paid to have restrictions on what they can and cannot do.

Not only does this shift in the legality of graffiti become a product of the post-graffiti movement, but also the attention graffiti receives: graffiti in its original context was generally, and still is, treated as a peripheral art form or disregarded as vandalism. With legal works cropping up in the post-graffiti movement, post-graffiti can no longer be called vandalism because of its legal association. And so a shift begins to take place in the general public’s acceptance of an agreed-upon graffiti aesthetic, in which artists such as HENSE can paint and be commissioned by public policy in Atlanta’s Beltline (Fig. 9).[6]This has and will continue to have a significant impact on how a city’s visual culture composes itself as it slowly starts to integrate graffiti styles as an accepted form of expression. The question, though, then becomes whether or not the individual writer or artist in graffiti is compromising their art work to fit the mold of acceptability.

As Jeff Ferrell very succinctly summed graffiti writing up in the early nineties: “Graffiti writing breaks the hegemonic hold of corporate/governmental style over the urban environment and the situations of daily life.”[7] And so if graffiti artists and post-graffiti start to become acceptable for governments and corporations to utilize in their own aesthetic practices and advertisements, then post-graffiti can then become susceptible to those ‘hegemonic holds’ that Ferrell talked about by being manipulated to capital gains and wants, searching for an idea of fame that HENSE, SEVER, TOTEM, and other prominent Atlanta graffiti artists have achieved as well as international artists like BANKSY, OS G ÊMEOS, and ROADSWORTH, among many, many others. Even BANKSY was seen skeptical about this new form of acceptance in his documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which he expressed a concern for graffiti becoming a bastard form of its original rebellion and recalcitrance.[8] Essentially, did post-graffiti lose its primary charm of resistance of mainstream acceptance and aesthetics by becoming merchandised back in the 1983 Sidney Janis Gallery’s Post-Graffiti exhibition?

Figure 9: Depicts HENSE's Beltline piece in Atlanta, which was entirely legal and commissioned by the city. Image provided by Creative Loafing.

Post-graffiti opens up an unexplored avenue within the graffiti subculture. While incorporating mainstream tactics, aesthetics, styles, and techniques, post-graffiti pieces of work have the “tendency to be more legible and are thus able to communicate to a greater number of outsiders than traditional graffiti.”[9] Post-graffiti then becomes less esoteric and isolating than traditional graffiti because it attempts to bridge the barriers separating the subculture from the main culture through its philosophy of visual rhetoric, one concise in its message with no wildstyle, throw-up, elaborate tag, piece, or any other variation of style in traditional graffiti. But it should be noted that while post-graffiti attempts to bring down cultural barriers, it does not necessarily mean that post-graffiti purposefully or consciously panders to the ‘hegemonic hold’ on aesthetic practices that compromise its rebellious spirit; rather, as previously stated, post-graffiti utilizes different tools, styles, and modes of expression to communicate the individual artist’s message.

The confusion occurs when considering certain factors that make a graffiti artist as opposed to a graffiti writer. When those differences include commissioned work, individual expression without group mentality, and different tools for their trade, the graffiti writer does work with a group/crew, a primary focus on letters and names, an emphasis on quantity of “getting up”, then it can appear that fundamentally the only thing the artist and the writer have in common is a flat surface. But considering that graffiti and post-graffiti still share the cityscape and public space, their roles within their communities stay the same: “disrupting the status quo by creating a gallery of free art.”[10] While post-graffiti is sometimes solicited, it still occupies space considered free art, in which the public can pass by it at any point and take pictures and touch it, all without having to pay for an admission ticket into a formal, traditional gallery to look at images hung on a wall. The graffiti culture in whole rejects those principles of traditionalism within the art community and elsewhere, and that it is why they are treated similarly. But there are inherent differences necessary to recognize in investigating a comprehensive analysis of graffiti within Atlanta and other cities.

[1] Ferrell, Jeff. Crimes of Style. Pg. 49.

[2] Carroll, Johnny. Hense: With Paint on His Hands.

[3] HENSE. “CV.” HENSE the Name. <;.

[4] Waclawek, Anna. From Graffiti to the Street Art Movement. Pg. 24.

[5] Widner, Michael. “The Impermanent Art of Graffiti.”Viz.

[6] Michaud, Debbie. “Walking the Beltline Part I.” Creative Loafing.

[7] Ferrell, Jeff. Crimes of Style. Pg. 176.

[8] BANKSY. Exit Through the Gift Shop. 2010.

[9] Waclawek, Anna. From Graffiti to the Street Art Movement. Pg. 27.

[10] Ibid. 29.

[11] Stuart, Gwynedd. “Graffiti atop City Hall East: Cool or Uncool?” Creative Loafing.

[12] Jamestown. “About.” Ponce City Market. <;.

[13] Jamestown. “Historical Timeline.” Ponce City Market. <!prettyPhoto%5Biframe%5D/7/&gt;.

[14] Geis, Karlyn J. and Ross, Catherine E. “A New Look at Urban Alienation: The Effect of Neighborhood Disorder on Perceived Powerlessness.” American Sociological Association.  Pg. 233.

[15] Waclawek, Anna. From Graffiti to the Street Art Movement. Pg. 256.

[16] Rutheiser, Charles. Imagineering Atlanta. Pg. 100.

[17] Stone, Clarence. Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988. Pg. 26.

[18] Ibid. Pg. 231.

[19] Rutheiser, Charles. Imagineering Atlanta. Pg. 125.

[20] Ibid. Pg. 61.

[21] Stone, Clarence. Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988. Pg. 27.

[22] Rutheiser, Charles. Imagineering Atlanta. Pg. 170.

[23] The phrase “getting up” refers to literally painting on any surface throughout the city, but most appropriately denotes the energy of many graffiti writers as the phrase connotes an active meaning in what they do.

[24] The role of the piecebook within the graffiti community is relatively simple, in that it’s pretty much a variation on the idea of a sketchbook. Jeff Ferrell, though, furthers such a rudimentary explanation best when he stated, “As a record if a writer’s work, and as evidence of his skills as an artist, piecebooks serve an important function in confirming the writer’s identity.” Ferrell, Jeff. Crimes of Style. Pg. 69.

[25] Rutheiser, Charles. Imagineering Atlanta. Pg. 82.

[26] Ferrell, Jeff. Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality. Pg. 53.

[27] Crew refers to a collection of graffiti writers that share a common goal in promoting themselves. While there are instances where crews act as protective agencies that represent writers, they are mostly non-violent and are purely there to further the identity of individual writers. So, unlike many common perceptions, graffiti crews are nothing like the more violent gangs.

[28] NECKO. Interviewed by author.

[29] Ferrell, Jeff. Crimes of Style. Pg. 49.

[30] Henry, Scott and Wheatley, Thomas. “Exploring Atlanta’s Modern Ruins.” Creative Loafing. <;.

[31] Tag, most often, refers to a quick signature of a writer’s name. It’s best known as a way for writers to get their name out there so that they might be recognized by other graffiti writers, thus begetting a modicum of respect and fame—though most writers evolve past the tag in order to receive “all-city”—a term referring to being known throughout a city by other graffiti writers—and truly respected status.

[32] Waclawek, Anna. From Graffiti to the Street Art Movement. Pg. 235.

[33] Rutheiser, Charles. Imagineering Atlanta. Pg. 196.

[34] Waclawek, Anna. From Graffiti to the Street Art Movement:. Pg. 257.

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