Paris 2013

(Text in English, so the people that participated in the events in Paris can read it more easily. One paragraph of introduction in German.)

Im Juli 2013 gab es zwei Diskussionsveranstaltungen zu Graffiti in Paris, auf der einen diskutierten Wissenschaftlerinnen einer Hochschule und des Kultusministeriums mit Writern u.a. aus dem 19. Banlieue und aus Südafrika über die Kunstwerdung von Graffiti und über die Rolle von Graffiti in Gentrifizierung. Bei der anderen wurde sich auf Einladung des französischen Graffiti Research Lab getroffen um über Tags zu reden, unter anderem setzten sich das Publikum, ein Lightwriting Künstler und ein Kalligraf lebhaft über die Hässlichkeit oder Schönheit von Feuerlöscher Tags auseinander.

I “GRAFFITI VS PUB : QUELLE SOCIÉTÉ URBAINE POUR DEMAIN?” (Graffiti vs. Advertising: Which urban society for tomorrow?)


The first event on the 4th of july was part of a big festival called “Hip Hop Paris”. This festival has particular ties to the african continent, so there were writers from Senegal and South Africa present: Docta, Rasty and Curio. Apart from that also writers from the Paris region: Marko93, Da Cruz and Lazoo. Moderated by Renaud Degon, this event had as a little twist the presence of Béatrice Fraenke, director at the EHESS (a local academic institution) working on the anthropology of writing, and Roberta Shapiro, a sociologue also at the EHESS and working for the ministry of culture, who presented her theory of artification that she has published with Nathalie Heinich. An encounter like this is, of science and graffiti, is something quite new for the city, it is rooted in the success of streetart, was the impression that one of the writers shared with me afterwards.

Some notes from the discussion. We heard that in Senegal there is no anti-graffiti, and that writing at night in South Africa can be quite dangerous. In Senegal writing is part of a popular culture, receives respect and tries to serve for political expression. The South African writers  highlighted the importance of development of style and their views about a locality of style. They were of the opinion that each local writing movement still has their own style. The Paris writers pointed out the question of artistic development, personally but also as a movement. An example given was the taking back of what advertisement has taken from graffiti writing, to reclaim the idea of an aesthetic brand. “When you start there is no brand, just ego”, “your style becomes your brand” were the words that the south african writers found for this. In contrast to this, they also recalled how they “used the trains to send graffiti to the ghettos” of Soweto, and how the whole process of writing evolved for them from egoism to a learning and teaching attitude.

The scientific perspective was also focused on the idea of development. Graffiti, which had existed since a long time, has specifically evolved in the last decades, not only the aesthetic evolution of style writing. Also the process of artification, of the integration into the art world can be traced. This process opens for the writers the possibility of using other forms than walls, and also gives some the possibility of artistic careers.

But what about conflicts? The relation of graffiti to the urban life was discussed. The enormous amounts of money spent on cleaning and the idea that graffiti can be contained to legal walls was contrasted with the legal situation that allows to buy public space and fill it with advertising, but that forbid free artistic expression. The question grows more acute in the context of gentrification. There are differences in the perception of advertising logos and public writing, the second being often considered dirty (“Chaque société a le graffiti qu’elle merit” somebody said, every society has the graffiti it deserves), but this changes. Da Cruz had the impression that people abandon their prejudices in a process of development of admiration, also Marco 93 reported that he experiences rather interesting dialogues and encounters with the public.

Especially the confrontation of the points of view from the scientific perspective of artification versus the socially engaged and aware urban art should be noted. While the discussion of style and personal development can be quite easily connected to the artification theory, the points that for example Da Cruz brought in, opened quite a different perspective. For him it was important to point out that graffiti does not only get accepted as art, but works as an art for the people, outside the art institutions and easily accessible. This is also tied to the experience and insight of the first generation that was born in the banlieues from immigrant families and now has grown up and does projects locally, as Da Cruz told me after the discussion.

The whole debate can be streamed here.



The second event on the 23rd of july was hosted by the Graffiti Research Lab. It is part of a series, starting again in September the residency of the Graffiti Research Lab will host various events until May. Participants were: Malou Verlomme of the TAG-book, one member (Rainer?) of AKRylonumerik, which is a collective that for example recently did a performance at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the light-graffiti artist SWIT, and the calligrapher Julien Priez.

Priez explained how in his eyes there are taggers that are better calligraphers than some calligraphers. But that tagging does not have to end in other uses, like design or calligraphy, but that it can also remain purely tagging, urban writing with no other intended use. Verlomme pointed out that being instantaneous is quite central to the specific aesthetic of tags. The ephemerability of the results in the urban space led them to do their documentary book. The member of AKRylonumerik explained how they do works on paper, this allows easy mixing with video.

Media crossover was one of the central topics in the statements, Priez who mixes influences of graffiti with calligraphic traditions, Swit who works with the forms of writing and combines them with body performances and focuses on movements and AKRylonumerik that have to face technical challenges when performing writing in a stage environment with instant remixing. Also the Graffiti Research Lab works generally in this direction, on new techniques for writing and making them accessible. A short insight on examples where writing makes use of QR codes was given, for example a crew had attached a QR-code next to a piece on a train and you could see the video of the creation of the graffiti when accessing the code. From the audience came also a reference to the projects of from Berlin. Also the TAG-book project has its aspects of technological experiments and  accessibility. For example a section of the book is dedicated to teaching the readers how to be able to dissect tags for reading the names (an example can be seen online, Extrait Nr. 12). A member of the audience noted with enthusiasm that one interesting perspective remains the machines writing themselves (I spoke a bit about this with one of the hosts of the GRL afterwards, this is certainly a point that will come up with their future projects. The facadeprinter of Sonice Development is one machine that can write, others can be imagined.)

The question of artification was brought up from the audience, and also this time led to a lively debate. Swit claimed that he does not care for art history, he does it for the passion of painting (he also sees his art not as writing, but as images). For Priez this passion and volition can only be the base, like the tag is just the foundation for a visual concept. For him it is about the plasticity: the meaning of the words step back and make space for style. The debate came back several times to fire extinguisher tags, which form a good starting point for heated debates… Swit noted that he does not like extinguisher tags because he perceives them as big scale ugly vandalism and compared them to piss markings (someone from the audience jokingly replied that after Duchamp’s pissoir we cannot discard stuff like that so easily). Priez defended the technique by pointing out that it is quite an interesting process how in large scale tagging the body enters the process and how the deformation of the letters through the extinguisher writing serves as an interesting aesthetic quality.

Like at the first event, the debate went in the direction of acknowledging the social context and contestation that writing is bound to in the urban life, for example in the activism of the Pixadores. Again it was pointed out that this has to be seen in the light of writing being a global movement with a global history. A tag then is the common discipline, the common form that people in this movement and history adapt to. The form of the tag does not fit in the gallery, but rather seeks forms like for example fire extinguisher for efficency, in leveling out precision and visibility, as someone from the audience noted.

III A personal perspective

I wanted to document these two discussions, because they both seemed quite special. The first because of the confrontation with the humanities, and the second one because of the focus on tags. And because I wanted to give the readers of this blog in Berlin the possibility to take part in these debates through the documentation, as there are similiar events in Berlin, where style and technique, aswell as urban and social contexts of writing get discussed (e.g. the Vandal Cafe, the Graffiti Archive).

These events for me showed how the graffiti scene in its present stage of artification and in the context of gentrification stays calm and reflects about its means and foundations in a socially aware and the same time art-orientated way. Both the international orientation and the opening towards social sciences, to the art scene aswell as the hacking scene can work out well, when done in a reflective way like at these events, where the link back does not get lost, to the global movement of unregulated urban letters that do not aim at being accepted as art or recycled in new media projects, but remain where and what they are.