Case Study

Graffiti, Gender, and Youth (20th c.)

Why I Taught the Source

It is particularly difficult to document the historical experience of young people from their own perspective. Adults (parents, relatives, religious leaders, coaches, teachers etc. – including professors like me) frequently elicit primary source evidence of all sorts from young people (in the forms of tests, poems, drawings, sports performances, purchases, clothing ensembles, art, room decoration, etc.) as part of their everyday socialization and training. How can historians write history in the words of teenagers, for instance, when the historical documents most readily available are frequently the outcome of tasks designed, initiated, overseen, and evaluated by adults?

I use "graffiti art" – the unmediated writings, paintings, and drawings that began to appear in public spaces in New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere on the east coast during late 1960s – in order to examine the: status of young people as valid historical actors and "citizens" relative to adults; changing access of young people to shared public spaces; gendering practices within youth cultures across time; changes in interpretation and use of commercial popular culture across time; and youth culture in the post-1960s era. Drawing upon their own recent historical experiences in their analyses of graffiti provides historians with further insight into the perspectives of youth.

How I Introduce the Source

I introduce graffiti art as a primary source after midterm, which is generally given over to the period after the 1940s – an era of the "teenager" as well as recurring moral panics about the "the younger generation" (especially in regard to social reproduction in a mass society). In my history of youth course, students will have analyzed other sorts of visual texts produced by and for young people and will have examined other conflicts around "autonomy" and age. The section immediately prior to our consideration of graffiti covered the counterculture and the era of the "hippie" through an investigation of psychedelic posters, which have some interesting overlaps with graffiti writing. The experience of mostly white middle-class beats and hippies making a cultural and social place for themselves in particular neighborhoods in post-WWII U.S. central cities, makes a nice comparison with the experiences of young immigrants and youth of color in other neighborhoods. This background provides the opportunity to discuss social class and urban location as well as cultural borrowing and innovation.

Having set up the major institutional frameworks for socializing and policing young before 1940 (via families and peer groups; schools and colleges; common workplaces; the consumer marketplace; popular culture for and about young people), I place emphasis on the ways in which young people within this framework lived as historical actors in the period after 1940. One of my main goals is to push students to critically examine their own historical experiences as young people, and then use this as one way of gaining partial insight into the historical experiences of others, including their relatives and adult acquaintances. In my American history survey class, I use graffiti art to talk about youth culture after the 1960s, the emergence of hip-hop and its relationship to events and trends in US central cities in that period, and the consumer relationships between youth cultures and commercial culture products, like music, clubbing, and clothing.

Reading the Source

There is a wealth of accessible sources on graffiti art including photographs that are available on the web and in print as well as a couple of great documentaries that cover the entire history of graffiti. Moreover, graffiti writers since the mid 1980s have been producing subcultural media of their own (dvds, websites, and magazines). Early examples of these media are difficult to come by, but current examples are available in hip-hop shops and alternative bookstores in most large cities around the world; your students might also volunteer copies. I direct my students to spend 30 minutes before class viewing a set selection on particular websites (including some of my own documentary photos on library electronic reserve), selecting two that interest them most, forwarding them to me, and bringing a copy to class (print it out, bring a laptop, download to a memory stick, etc.) Readings about the history of graffiti are assigned in the youth culture class; I stick to the textbook in the survey class.

Guided by a few questions from me I ask students to discuss the photos they chose with others in their small group. In the youth history class, the questions I raise are tailored or comparative versions of general course themes. In the American survey class, I ask them to think about:

  1. public space and young peoples' "right to the city" after 1940;
  2. various "public audiences" and the relevance of their historical experience in interpreting this work;
  3. the interchanges between commercial popular culture and graffiti art, as well as the criminalization and criminal provocation of graffiti art;
  4. the relative historical importance of the individual painting compared to the art's widespread visual impact in the city; and
  5. how the photographic evidence might shape our historical interpretation. (I usually devote not more than 10 minutes to small groups.)

After concluding the small groups, I open the discussion to the entire class using a general Socratic method. My intent is to push the students towards locating graffiti art in a larger set of contexts about youth, social hierarchies, and history. Ideally, this takes up about one third of the class time. I then ask the students for examples of evidence (usually images) that interested them the most and add these to a small set of the images I selected. The class and I work collectively in analyzing and contextualizing this particular evidence, with some opportunity for students to direct the inquiry themselves.

I have included four of the images I commonly use. To demonstrate my method of inquiry in class, here are the kinds of questions I ask in a comparison of two images ("Bronx Schoolyard" and "Tags and Throws").

  • Why do graffiti artists paint near (and sometimes, over) other graffiti or advertising work?
  • The schoolyard painting was a planned, invited event by two artists; the tags (linear signatures quickly written with spray paint and markers, usually taking around 15 seconds or less to complete) and throws or throw-ups (large initials quickly spray painted in a lightcolor with a dark outline in a "bubble" letter style, usually taking around a minute or less to complete) have accumulated on a side street over the course of several years (perhaps decades). Compare the kinds of social connections between young people that the work in each image suggests.
  • If graffiti artist can make mural-like works of beauty, as evidenced in the schoolyard photo, then why make tags and throws at all?
  • Cities offer plenty of places for young people to hide and paint, even outdoors (under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in old industrial areas, etc.). Why would graffiti artists select these sorts of risky (all the painting in the photos is illegal activity), public spaces for their work? Why select schoolyards and side streets?
  • Well-respected graffiti art requires considerable skill and practice. Given that graffiti artists could paint almost any image imaginable, why do they select names and initials?

Reflections

In the history of youth class, I will have spent considerable effort helping students examine 2-D objects as well as film and pubic spaces by this time in the semester. In the American survey course, this assignment is one of six that focuses on primary documents and methods of historical analysis. Both classes are asked to hone, adapt, and exercise skills that we've developed earlier in the course in order to comprehend the importance of everyday historical experience (including their own) in understanding social phenomenon.

Graffiti art seems to occasionally incite hot debate, particularly over the relative values and changes of individual and group rights to the city, private property, and commonly shared public spaces. Since these are also matters of concern (and moral instruction) assigned to educational socialization, some students may expect the instructor to "uphold the law" when discussing property and its uses. I find that the method commonly practiced in the humanities and social sciences, of asking students to withhold moral judgment from their own culture in order to gain a better understanding of others, to be among the most difficult tasks for some students.

How to Cite This Source

"Graffiti, Gender, and Youth (20th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #303, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/303 (accessed September 22, 2014).

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