Archive for the ‘Corporate Visual Landscape’ Category

A few weeks ago, I had written about the importance of knowing the roots of the graffiti movement in reference to some early films from the 1980s which had documented the start of graffiti in NYC. Usually once I write something, I get it out of my system (at least for a little while). However, despite my efforts to lay off the subject of graffiti and return to street art, my mind has kept wandering back to the topic of early graffiti and its development.

For this, I blame the 7 train. For those of you who aren’t native NYCers, or have never ridden that particular line, the 7 is an elevated train that runs through northern Queens. Not only does it pass the legendary graffiti mecca 5 Pointz (a warehouse located in Long Island City), but as I ride the 7 train every day through Corona, I see a lot of old-school graffiti styles, ranging from scrawled tags to latex rolling to stylized pieces. Maybe this is why I can’t stop thinking about the development of graffiti, the appeal of tagging, issues relating to destruction of property, and the implications of anonymity in graffiti (the last of which I will discuss in a future article). However, despite what is still exhibited along the 7 line, graffiti has evolved immensely since it first swept NYC in 1970. It no longer solely constitutes the idea of simply getting ones’ name out there (often termed “hitting,” “bombing,” or “tagging”), but has come to represent an entire genre of urban expression.

Graffiti along the 7 Line in 2009

In the 1970s, the name that started it all was TAKI 183. Almost overnight, his simple scrawl produced imitators across the five boroughs and gave birth to the first generation of modern graffiti in New York City. While not the first writer in NYC, TAKI 183 quickly became all-city due to his job as a messenger, and by the end of his short career had successfully hit stations in all five boroughs. By 1971, the New York Times had picked up on this burgeoning phenomenon with the article “TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals,” which brought the now widespread urban phenomenon of graffiti to the attention of the mainstream in a largely nonjudgmental manner.

Only a few short years after TAKI 183 began bombing the train stations, competitive creativity soon saw the development of stylized writing, including new lettering and design elements. By the 1980s, large, colorful, and stylized pieces (called “wildstyle,” “burners,” and later, “abstract graffiti”) with multiple creative design elements, such as clouds, arrows, perspective, and 3D lettering, had emerged onto the scene. If TAKI 183’s tagging were to be considered the start of the modern graffiti phenomenon, this development of stylized graffiti could be termed the second generation of graffiti. However the change was not only in the aesthetic stylings of the work but the mindset of the writers, who were less concerned with just getting their names out there to the general public than they were with creating complicated and intricate designs to gain respect and become known specifically within the graffiti-writing community.

Despite the respite caused by the sweeping laws and heavy penalties set in place by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch in the late 80s, graffiti and street art returned full force by the late 90s. Currently, we are in what I consider the third generation of graffiti, aptly and commonly termed “street art.” This term usually includes more of (but isn’t limited to) wheatpasting and stenciling. Oftentimes the focus is more on spreading ironic, playful, or socio-political messages or to utilize previously neglected elements of the public landscape with artistic intent.

(Here, it is important that we don’t mistake generation for a strictly linear development, because many graffiti writers to this day practice both multiple generation graffiti styles, depending on personal preference and purposes. Rather, it important to understand that the term generation is used merely as a chronological and developmental marker to distinguish these radically different methods of urban expression.)

Like TAKI 183, BNE is known simply for his moniker. BNE, who used to write graffiti, considers ubiquitous tagging to be part of the effectiveness of global ad campaigns. He has said that his competition is not other graffiti artists or taggers, but “the Tommy Hilfigers, Starbucks, Pepsi.” To contend with the legacy of corporate logos, BNE had long ago stopped spraying and started using stickers to aid him in his own campaign. (For more on BNE, check out this interview article from the New York Times in 2009)

Not only has the ease of sticker-slapping helped BNE to quickly and effectively disseminate his name on the street, but the uniformity of the print on a sticker has helped BNE create an easily recognizable logo, which is the point of his campaign. Using the font of Helvetica Nueu Condensed, BNE’s stickers are often misinterpreted as official intrusions into the visual landscape. And indeed, the argument can be made that they are using otherwise unutilized spaces to create visual stimulation.

While my thinking tends to be that it is nothing more than juvenile egomania that compels taggers to write their names over ever available surface, the argument can also be made that the way these bombers have created their own logos and saturate the landscape is just another way to rebel against the consumer culture. These days, we are so bombarded with visual stimulation that our eyes tend to slide from one image to another, whether it’s corporate or guerrilla. At the end of the day, they’re all just logos competing for our attention. The only real difference being that taggers aren’t trying to sell you something. So, if that is the case, why does it matter whose logo we’re seeing if it’s all visual pollution in the end?

Taggers and sticker-slappers like BNE are bringing graffiti back to the roots that TAKI 183 had originally intended because the idea behind first generation style graffiti was to be everywhere, and to be instantly recognized by your moniker. Can actions such as tagging, rolling, and sticker-slapping be considered art? I would say definitively that no: these forms of getting up usually so not constitute art the same way that company logos don’t constitute as art. Most first-generation graffiti is about proliferation of the name more than it is about style. Now don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with owners and managers of private property who have to deal with the shenanigans of those who decide their name is important enough to go anywhere and everywhere, whether it’s wanted or not (but isn’t that what legal ad campaigns do as well?) and I am by no means an advocate of tagging. However, both tagging and stickering definitely constitute a significant part of our urban visual landscape, which makes it worthy of mention here.

Contemporary society is greatly affected by our interaction with everyday visual culture; this is to say, the things that we see everywhere everyday. The movie Helvetica is a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design, and global visual culture. It takes a look at the proliferation of Helvetica, one of the most used typefaces in the world, as a part of “a larger conversation about the way typefaces affect our lives.” The film also works to “explore urban spaces and the type that inhabits them,” and intersperses these visual examples with interviews with renowned designers, who discuss Helvetica, the creative process of their work, as well as the aesthetic choices behind their works. This allows the viewer to see very clearly the rift between modernist and postmodernist designers, with the latter expressing and explaining their criticisms of the famous typeface.

This film makes the claim that the first problem that arises with a higher demand for more impressive space within the clutter of the visual landscape is a company’s desire to appeal to more people than its competition. In the 1950s, there was a demand for a more rational, legible, and “modern” typeface, which would simultaneously appeal to everyone and have “all the right connotations” (that is to say, none at all). The creators of the typeface believed that it was the social responsibility of designers to create order by use of a grid system and uniform spacing (as the spaces between the letters are as significant, or more significant, than the letters themselves). Modernist designers believe that Helvetica is the solution to all problems; that is, it works as the universal logo. This is because they believe that a font should be like a crystal goblet: the font itself should not communicate anything and a reader should not be aware of the typeface, except in its efficiency in communication.

However, postmodernists designers are unhappy with the way that Helvetica has become almost the typographic “default” of designers and is therefore leading to the decay of urban landscape. This has led to a swing back to subjective typeface designs as well as other experimental designs. Designers from this school of thought believe that typeface should display at least some degree of vitality and personality. This is because many post-modern designers believe that just because something is legible doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth reading. Therefore, they believe that in this sense, Helvetica’s legibility and overuse has led to overcrowding in the modern visual landscape with useless and often irrelevant information. Borrowing lettering design ideas from graffiti, stencils, grunge, and other hand-lettering styles, this film demonstrates how certain elements of street art have been appropriated and ruthlessly added into the corporate visual landscape. It’s rather ironic when this happens, because graffiti is widely considered a method of reclaiming public space or to display one’s art form.

This film gives those studying the corporate visual landscape important insight into the uses and connotations of typography. It leaves its viewers to question how typography affects them and their consumer behavior. But more than that, it shows how elements of the visual landscape will eventually be capitalized upon. Definitely a must-watch for anyone interested in learning more about graphic design and the corporate visual landscape.