Red, Write, Remix: Deconstructing the District & Graffitiby Saaret Yoseph

Fort Totten metro station platform, Summer 2010.
In every city, graffiti signifies signs of life. An erratic and ephemeral product of our interconnected social structure; a process for which creating and consuming becomes a communal experience. In public spaces, like the transit system, where people are mobile – physically and mentally – graffiti writing adds to the background noise of the cityscape; a communicative device that layers the experience of each daily commute. Though, huddling close and confined with other passengers, we are often able to escape mentally; plugged into our iPhones, immersed in a book or, simply, our own world. But despite the transience that technology allows, there’s no denying the significance of our space and the brief impressions left by proximity. As we travel through D.C. via transit, there remains an indelible presence of unknown individuals. The same is true of the graffiti dotting our ride. On the red line, specifically, the outdoor segment of the route, the view outside is dominated by names in living color. Monikers. Phrases. Sometimes, even images. What is the significance of the writing on these metro walls? What impact do they have on commuters? And, perhaps, more importantly … why should we care?

Investigated in the likeness of overheard conversations, I posit that there is a language being spoken on the streets. Graffiti has historically been a tool for public discourse and, here in the District, we hear it best on the metro. As we commute daily on the red line between Union Station and Silver Spring, we participate – either conscious or subconsciously – in the persistent dialogue that graffiti creates. The practice of reading and writing is a generative, internal grammar that anchors us to our shared space and connects us to each other. Equal parts craft and confusion, art form and act of abatement, red line graffiti is as much a cultural product of Washington, D.C. as it is an indicator of the city’s pulse.

A SAMO-sort of lit. review

Rather say art begot art, and the migrations were no one’s business.
Graffiti near Brookland metro station, Summer 2010.

(Mailer 18)

In the context of art history, graffiti stands somewhere slightly outside the canon, or at least fervently straddling the rim. Unraveling the topic through aesthetic valuations is a challenging, and surely more subjective analysis than I attempt to do here. Instead, I unpack the practice of graffiti, particularly metro graffiti, with a contribution to existing cultural studies scholarship that is both discursive and deconstructive. Certainly, contemporary art theory will poke its head, but I neither presume expert knowledge on graffiti as an art form nor do I care to engage in such a discussion. Gregory J. Snyder, author of Graffiti Lives, reaffirms the focus of my pursuit as he explains, “There seems to be a consensus in the mainstream that graffiti murals are art while tags are just vandalism. Within the graffiti culture itself, however, no such strict division exists ...” (Snyder 47). Aesthetic value, is therefore, not as important to me as perceived and ascribed value, both within and outside of the culture.

Further more, I tend to agree with the sentiments of Norman Mailer in the revelatory book The Faith of Graffiti. He writes, “Art has been saying with more and more intensity: the nature of the painting has become less interesting than the nature of the relation of painting to society …” (Mailer 28) As such, my pursuits with this avenue of research is decidedly sociologically driven; an inquiry informed by engagement rather than evaluation. Mailer speaks to the ambiguities of locating graffiti in the 20th century as I cautiously assemble the haze of the 21st. Yet, whatever the time period, there is no denying the pervasive impermanence of graffiti in our streets. Indeed, “[something] rabid is loose … ” (Mailer 27-8) and my humble musings on the subject-matter can only add to the continuum of text lined, layered and reverberating from the walls today.

In order to expand the scholarship of my own work, I place Mailer’s early-70’s depiction of New York City graffiti in conversation with Gregory Snyder and Nancy MacDonald’s ethnographic research there decades later. Similarly, I engage with topical news items on present-day street artists like Swoon and Shephard Fairey, and align them with the activities of local artists in the District.

Privately, countless pop culture and personal encounters have made their impression on me as well, including my own daily metro rides. Years as an onlooker on the red line have inspired a metro graffiti documentary project on illegal public art on public transit. Which has in-turn spurred a series of interviews with D.C. graffiti writers, commuters, city workers, scholars and local nonprofit leaders. These formal and informal discussions have shaped the tone and intention of my ongoing explorations; more descriptive than declarative and keen on letting the stakeholders speak for themselves.

Driven by the accounts of others, as well as my own, my relationship to graffiti and all relevant research is firmly rooted in a sense of place; the way a community of practice tangles with communal space to engender a sort of textual synasthesia. This concept is one that Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky) mentions in his cultural manifesto Rhythm Science. And like my interests in presence and impermanence, he addresses the “transience of meaning, a place where text and textuality switch place with blinding speed.” (Miller 33). Additionally, Miller considers the, at times, unintentional, vectors formed from artistic acts of expression. He explains that, “the creative act becomes a dispersion of self. Back in the day, it was called alchemy, but in the hyperfluid environment of information culture, we simply call it the mix.” (Miller 29). In the context of graffiti, this natural mix (and remixing) not only includes elements of the individual, but the environment as well. Just as the train cars are left littered with our discarded newspapers at the end of the day, I am equally convinced that the words we consume leave remainders in our collective memory.

I also consider the significance of the backdrop itself. Many a person has overlooked my affinity for the metro, assuming my inquiries to be about graffiti alone. In my mind, however, context feeds content. The typical graffiti setting is slightly complicated on the metro; a temporary mode of expression offered to a captive, but mobile commuter audience. The significance of space for metro-goers traveling daily on the red line and the writers aggregating their work at their attention is the extra variable that I attempt to incorporate here. Despite the contradictions of communal, city living, I believe, like Joshua Meyrowitz, that “the localness of experience is a constant” (Meyrowitz 21) and however disengaged our consumption of graffiti may be, no doubt we’re experiencing it together. In his essay, The Rise of Glocality, Meyrowitz touches on a lot of larger concepts about physical closeness and connectivity that I find relevant to my research. Discussing the effects of our mobile, globalized and hyper-mediated society, he notes the following:

“[The] essential localness of experience [does not] negate the significance of forms of communication that seep through walls and leap across vast
distances … Consciousness of both self and place demands at least some sort of minimally external perspective. (Meyrowitz 21-3)
Summer 2010.

Though, Meyrowitz means this as a testament to our increasingly fragmented senses, I contend it to be the groundwork for my case on behalf of shared locality; an opportunity to consider the commonalities and communal attachment that illegal public art on public transit provokes.

Centered at the intersection of art and culture, I conceive of metro graffiti as a hyper-local, communicative device that conveys public identity,
appropriates public space and connects both producers and consumers to the city fabric. Though, I emphasize the act of and attachment to graffiti, I am assuredly aware of its indirect impact. No doubt, there is a good deal of second-hand participation in the practice through spectatorship. In his essay, The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism, Douglas Crimp conjures Walter Benjamin when musing on the significance that presence and absence have on the aura. It is this aura, and its fate following reproduction that are enumerated by Benjamin and referenced here by Crimp:

The wither away of the aura, the dissociation of the work from the fabric of tradition, is an inevitable outcome of mechanical
reproduction. This something we have all experienced … [when an] aura has been utterly depleted by the thousands of times we’ve
seen its reproduction, and no degree of concentration will restore its uniqueness for us.” (Crimp 94, emphasis his)

Attending to the notion of an aura is necessary considering how frequently graffiti works are being photographed and distributed online. Carlo McCormick frames this problem well when describing the act of photographing as a series of “decisive moments that have since become
iconic.” (Art in the Streets, McCormick 21). Indeed, the photographic process has folded into the graffiti practice, as a whole. As writers create their works on an uncertain outdoor canvas, the captured image of their piece becomes all the more meaningful; a permanent byproduct of impermanent art. The ability to obtain an image of an illegal piece is essentially verification that it existed in the first place. Many a writer that I have spoken to have shrugged off questions about attachment to their graffiti, accepting of its temporality as long as they are able to get a “flick.” In our digital age, securing these momentary snapshots has become easier and more collaborative.

Innumerable options are available for graffiti writers and graffiti enthusiasts, alike, to reproduce site-specific work for subsequent consumption. As Martin Irvine outlines in a contributing book chapter Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture, “there is the material moment, the physical act of doing the art in a specific location … But more and more, street art is being made and performed to be captured in digital form for distribution on Websites and YouTube--the work of art in the age of instant digital dissemination.” (Irvine 9). Advances in technology not only allow for graffiti to be experienced beyond its natural setting, but actively engaged by an online audience. Though, my concern with graffiti is tied to its appearance on the red line and the linkage it facilitates through physical space, I remain cognizant of the ever-expansive channels of communication that allow for graffiti writers to have their work read second-hand.

SAMO graffiti (1977-1980). (
And, finally, aside from these various written works, my research interests are loosely informed (perhaps, simply inspired) by “SAMO,” the former writer most famously recognized as Jean-Michele Basquiat. When proliferating his other identity or working in-studio, Basquiat placed heavy emphasis on the power of the word, especially those considered obscene or provocative. So much was his belief that we are drawn to the forbidden that he would cross out words he wanted readers most to see. But while his brief career was prolific, he was hardly understood. Art critic Jerry Saltz describes Basquiat’s creative opus to be “[wildly] uneven. Some of his work looks like junk. Yet to me he's less about individual works than an overarching ‘voice.’” (Saltz, April 2005). Similarly, metro graffiti, for me, is not about a particular writer, but the virtue of writing, itself; the distinct accent of D.C. expression. Therefore, as a frequent viewer of graffiti, metro-rider and D.C. resident, I attempt to critically engage the chaotic city dialogue to find out if the “Same old shit” is anything special.

Names in the background: a history

Authority imprinted upon emptiness is money. And the ego is capital convertible to currency by use of the name. (Mailer 5)

Because graffiti is innately temporary and subject to the limitations of its environment, cataloging its life on the street can be difficult. Exacting its history is even more imprecise, at once a crude and overly ambitious endeavor. Certainly, a matter for a discussion all its own, but herein, I will attempt the basics.

The practice of graffiti is essentially rooted in public name writing, generally employing one of two functions.

1) Resistance: Having historically served as a counterculture tool, the assertion of graffiti in public spaces has been “a voice for
uttering what is deemed profane, prurient, or otherwise unfit for polite public discourse.” (Art in the Streets, McCormick 20)

2) Recognition: As a means of communication, the writing on the wall also serves as an indirect, yet intimate marker of “having
been there,” as McCormack puts it. Simple, but significant proof of existence. (Art in the Streets, McCormick 20, emphasis his

Graffiti across from Rhode Island-Ave metro station, Summer 2010.

Though, these notes provide a template for understanding graffiti, the practice itself predates the subculture’s emergence (1960’s by some accounts, 1970’s by others). Considering the core process of writing is important. From cave paintings to current day productions, selfhood has been exorcised and shared through image, script or a combination of the two. As result, the act of writing has become innately sacred; a sacrificial element of capturing experience and communicating it with others. Miller poignantly addresses the social value of the written word by asserting that, “there’s something about the labor of writing and the sense of being part of the continuum of writing … to describe or characterize what it feels like to be alive …” (Miller 57). Writing is, therefore, not just an account of life experience, but, historically, an experience, in and of itself.

As an expressive means for formulating public identity, graffiti utilizes the written form as well as aesthetic techniques for the maintenance of personalized language in public space. Typically, contemporary graffiti can be identified by the following characteristics:

Tag: Constructed relatively quickly, either with aerosol or a marker, tags are essentially signatures; used to advertise a name with little to no color incorporation.

Tag in between New York Ave. and Rhode Island Ave.-Brentwood metro stations, Summer 2010. (Photo by Suni Shah)

Throw-up: Also called “fill-in” and “bubble letters” that display a wider, outlined tag and often employ a hollowed or contrasting color effect.

Throw-up at Brookland metro station, Summer 2010.

Piece: As Snyder explains, piece is “short for masterpiece,” (Snyder 32) a multi-colored, mural or burner (intricate design brandishing the writer’s name, but rarely legible to the lay-man); often sketched out beforehand in a black book and done with more effort and time than a tag.

Piece at Brookland metro station, Summer 2010.

Styles and customization vary between localities, graffiti crews and individual writers, but the purpose of propagating script is always the same. I imagine the insistent writing on our city walls to contribute (albeit, illegally) to social connections and concepts of selfhood in the same way that a street sign would, positioned in the backdrop and layering our semiotic space with unchallenged authority. Mailer paints the picture eloquently from the perspective of an average New York City writer adding his name to the subway landscape:

You hit your name and maybe something in the whole scheme of the system gives a death rattle. For now your name is over their
name, over the subway manufacturer, the Transit Authority, the city administration. Your presence, your alias hangs over their scene.
There is a pleasurable sense of depth to the elusiveness of the meaning. (Mailer 6)

Qualifying this power that the writer has over the city is perhaps as profound as Mailer explains it to be however, the utility of visibility is apparent. The writing of a name in public is tantamount to thinking aloud; a storied tradition of reaching out and asserting authorship, claiming rights as well as recognition.

The where, the work and the word

A name appears and slowly it will morph into a small congregation …
(Macdonald 204)

Earlier I mentioned the significance that setting has to graffiti writing. But appropriating space is no easy endeavor. Sharing their name and garnering attention requires quite a bit of hustle on the part of graffiti writers. In an interview conducted by ethnographer Nancy MacDonald, one writer named Drax sheds light on the nature of the graffiti game: “[It’s] like a job, it has to be successive for it to be successful.” (Drax as quoted by Nancy MacDonald 67). Thus, heightening your public identity means heavy proliferation; not just a matter of artwork, but art work.

For active writers, the practice of graffiti is one that gives them an intimate knowledge of their sprawling city canvas. Cory Stowers, art director of Words, Beats, and Life, Inc., a graffiti-affiliated nonprofit, explained to me in a recent interview that navigating the streets at night is an education of sorts. “In terms of a graffiti writer’s connection to the city, writers walk the block, in an out of alleys and, in general, the rule is to learn the city like the back of your hand … So in that respect, they become very, very connected to the city … They see parts of the city that normal folks don’t see day-to-day …” (Stowers, April 2011). Absorbing the ebb and flow of their physical environment allows them to develop a hypersensitivity to the city scene – a sixth sense for trouble, easy exits and scalable buildings for brandishing their public identity.

But beyond understanding the lay of the land, writers are adept at optimizing city spaces for the purposes of self-promotion. Specific sites are carefully selected during the writing process. As Gregory J. Snyder explains, producers of graffiti works “write in places where their work is more likely to be seen by their intended demographic. It is not the amount of disorder that determines a good spot to write graffiti, but the number of potential viewers and the unlikelihood that the graffiti will be painted over.” (Snyder 49). Judged for their ability to garner eyes and awe, writers establish points of attraction in their respective cities that evolve into graffiti-laden spots for active and ongoing dialogue.

Graffiti across from Rhode Island-Ave metro station, Summer 2010.
Nearly every metropolitan city has a place like this, a sort of aggregate for graffiti where writing is incentivized. Frequently, transit is the first line of offense as it promises continuous readership by way of commuters. For example, in mid-70’s New York City, during graffiti’s heyday, subway trains endured a haze of written expression, acting not only as localized platforms for producing work, but as a means for propagandizing a writer’s name. Jeffrey Deitch describes the scene as “an open air gallery: Artists communicated with one another through tags, drawings, and concrete poetry on walls and doorways. The subway system became an artistic link between neighborhoods … It unified the city, creating a common outlaw culture.” (Art in the Streets, Deitch 11).

In the same vein, the red line metro serves as a breeding ground for expression, a hub for local writers (from D.C., Maryland and Virginia) looking to become known. Grey steel and back-wall concrete span for miles along the line’s outdoor route from Union Station to Silver Spring; approximately 20-25 minutes worth of travel time to read the assortment of names clustered and waiting for willing eyes. Stowers considers the red line to be a requisite stepping stone for writers hoping to establish their other identity. Piercing the public sphere, gaining respect and recognition within the subculture means tagging this known writing site; engaging your peers and – subsequently – all others encountering the space.

Yet, just as writers gravitate toward heavily-trafficked areas, their work equally causes city-dwellers to stop and notice oft ignored crevices of the city. Doorways, mailboxes, storage units, sidewalls – virtually every surface is fair game for grabbing attention. The surrounding space of the red line was basically unused until the early 90’s when writers honed their skills and styles on the back walls of the mostly industrial buildings there. Without sidewalks or foot trails available, Stowers explains that only writers and homeless people would traverse the hills, thickets and fenced in areas along the red line to claim space. Affirming Stowers’ account, Heather Deutsch of the D.C. Department of Transit has noted the red line’s history as a place where people have always walked, whether with or without permission. Now, with the development of the Metropolitan-Branch trail, a pedestrian pathway between Union Station and Silver Spring, the city has caught up with its wandering constituency. Perhaps, the appropriation of the red line by graffiti writers in the past had a hand in its accessibility to commuters today. Though, there’s no denying that they made the red line a local attraction.

To this point, recognized street artists like Swoon and Shepard Fairey frequently discuss the objectives of their work in and with the public. For Fairey, his imagery is about toying with notions of visibility and perceived power, while Swoon injects life into dilapidated or marginalized “third spaces,” like the red line, that would otherwise go unnoticed. Kirk Semple, a writer for The New York Times, quotes Swoon in 2004 as she defines her intentions out on the street: "It's trying to create a visual commons out of the derelict walls of the city." (Semple, July 2004)

As an output of fame culture, graffiti operates as a marketing tool; marrying the economics of open space with a privatized sell for celebrity.
The effects, however, are often unexpected. In the process of brandishing selfhood, a new outlook is inspired. These personal advertisements of public identity are forcefully forged in the city structure, creating spaces where once none existed and inserting personalized narratives of experience. It’s these individual narratives that Snyder feels inevitably shape the “urban experience.” Like de Certeau before him, Snyder sees these unconventional aesthetics as evidence of a lived environment, a tool for reanimating our everyday space as long as we’re willing to stop and look (Snyder 72).

The District's contribution (in context)

I hit the red line so I can be known. (Fame, Red Line D.C. Trailer)

Although, graffiti is gaining prominence in art history and gallery spaces around the world, its position on the streets is ever-elusive. Determining the meaning and impact of graffiti in any city is difficult, but metro graffiti in D.C. is nebulous, at best. District culture is a contradiction in and of itself. International, increasingly hybrid (read: white), and post-modern, D.C. is awkwardly affixed at the country’s seat of power and class. The eight wards of the uneven “Diamond District” makeup a Petri dish of social divides and spatial collisions, with four quadrants that run westward toward wealth and eastbound to gentrification. Our metro system is the lifeline of this city, and its graffiti an embodiment of the District’s character: quirky, frenetic and stubborn; a political face and percussive energy.

How does graffiti operate here in the capital? What does the red line metro mean to the practice of city writing? For me, these enduring questions are guided by the opinions of local writers themselves. In past interviews, I have asked them why they “get up” on the red line, what the space means to them and whether it’s significant to the city. A diverse set of answers have since ensued. Here's a glimpse of an interview conducted with one red line graffiti writer named, "JU" (a.k.a. "JuJu:"

What can be learned from these opinions and personal accounts, if nothing else, is that metro graffiti is more than just white noise in the city. It has significance. However, fragmentary the narratives coming from these public names, its clear that a space for them has been found – or rather forced – onto the red line metro. The contribution that the red line offers D.C. graffiti is worth further exploration because of the city’s current lack of distinction in the graffiti scene. We are not New York City, with its provenance and fame, nor Los Angeles with a Cholo-style all its own. Instead, as Stowers asserts, D.C. is an “amalgamation of styles” (Stowers, April 2011) and the confluence of identity is most evident in transit. As local writers leave their mark on the metro system, their impressions are left on the city, giving us as consumers a chance to absorb, interpret and, hopefully, engage.

Works Cited:
de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of
California Press

Crimp, D. “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism.” October. Winter, 1980. 15:

Deitch J., McCormick, C. et. al. (2011). Art in the Streets. New York: Skira Rizzoli
Publications, Inc.

Deutsch, H. (October 2010). In-Person Interview.

Irvine, M., et. al. (2011). “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture.” The
Handbook on Visual Culture. London: Berg/Palgrave MacMillan

Macdonald, N., (2001). The Graffiti Subculture. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Mailer, N. (1974). The Faith of Graffiti. New York: HarperCollins.

Meyrowitz, J. (2004). The Rise of Glocality: New Senses of Place and Identity in the
Global Village. Web. 27 April 2011.,9

Miller, P. D. (2004). Rhythm Science. New York: MIT Press.

Saltz, J. “To Hell and Back.” The Village Voice. 12 April 2005. Web. 27 April 2011.

Semple, K. “Lawbreakers, Armed with Paint and Paste.” The New York Times. 9 July
2004. Web. 27 April 2011

Snyder, G. J., (2009). Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground.
New York: New York University Press.

Stowers, C. (April 2011). Phone Interview.

Works Considered:

Baudrillard, J. “Simulacra and Simulations.” Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings.166-
184. Web. April 2011.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Web. 27
April 2011.

Hyperlinked Sources:

Brooklyn Museum: Exhibitions, Jean-Michel Basquiat

Red Line D.C. Project, The

Semple, K. “Lawbreakers, Armed with Paint and Paste.” The New York Times. 9 July
2004. Web. 27 April 2011

Shepard Fairey, Obey

Words, Beats & Life, Inc.

  • Unless otherwise identified, all photography and video originally captured by Saaret Yoseph.