How to Present Graffiti

First in a series

One of my hobbies is documenting graffiti. This started in Athens, around 2008, when there was, along with an explosion of civil unrest and political discontent in the city, an artistic explosion that spread out across the walls of the city.

I remember the point where I noticed that I kept seeing one word spray painted on so many walls it was practically overwhelming. “ASHES” the city seemed to be screaming, and the people were responding to it, the center was full of empty, husks of buildings, their insides burnt out. Eventually, listening to my grandmother complain about the renegade painters began to worry me; I was being constantly reminded of the transience of the artwork I was seeing.

But it was more than artwork. This wasn’t just some emotional outlet for creative people. This was part of a political atmosphere that was evolving and maturing and exploding, sometimes literally, around me. I couldn’t talk to the people involved in it, I didn’t have all the details of why they were angry, I couldn’t explain what they wanted if anyone had asked me, but I could see the marks of the various groups, I could feel their presence and I was inspired by their energy.
It seemed that the city itself was developing a voice. At times it was schizophrenic; it argued with itself, different voices climbing over each other to be heard. At times it seemed that these voices weren’t even having the same conversations; some of what I saw was purely artistic, some of it was aggressively political, there was the usual soccer related disagreement, but it was all happening at once, and in such an enormous volume that it had become impossible to ignore.

Through the years I’ve watched it change. Much of that energy seems to have disappeared. The angry, aggressive political message of “ashes,” that call to arms to take action, the snide comments against the police, while still present, seem to have given way to a certain hopelessness.

"I WANT TO DIE (LIVE)"

“I WANT TO DIE (LIVE)”

Graffiti such as this one are increasingly prevalent. It is part of a certain style that I see repeated over and over. They’re usually hand written, giving them a sense of individuality and humanity, often in black, and can be found across a wide variety of neighborhoods. This particular example says “I want to die,” which in this instance in the neighborhood of Plaka had been edited by a second person to say “I want to live“.

There are a few things I realized when looking at this sort of graffiti. The power of this style is in its repetition. It is not the repetition of concepts or images, but the repetition of an exact phrase written in a way that implies a single individual spread out across an entire city.
But how do you convey that sort of power through photographs? Perhaps I should photograph every instance of it that I see, and present them all at once as a collage, but that would still abandon the geographic element. (I’m still looking for a good way to map photographs, without abandoning quality (i.e. my camera) or efficiency (i.e. photographing on both camera and phone).) I don’t always have the luxury of presenting these photographs with the context they deserve. And I can’t re-create the sense of happening upon the exact same words again and again as you walk around a space.

Then there is the dialogue taking place on this wall. Some other passerby or graffiti artist walking past, possibly after having seen these words written elsewhere, decided that enough was enough; this sort of pessimism wasn’t to be allowed to continue. Or perhaps, this second individual agrees with the original author, that the situation they’re living in is unsupportable, but feels that Author No. 1 has misrepresented the situation: they don’t want to die, they want a chance to live.

And that’s the most difficult aspect to undertake when it comes to presentation: how do I present my audience with an appropriate understanding of a geographic, spatial, political, social, and temporal understanding of the works I’m showing them?

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