Grafitti as an Exemplary Practice?: Tats Cru

lloquium series featured a program about the production of Zigzag, the new video podcast which seeks to capture and convey some of the many fascinating aspects of life at MIT. This week's edition features a profile of the New Media Literacies Project. The video includes footage of several of our graduate students setting up to interview my colleague Beth Coleman for a forthcoming entry in our exemplar library project which will deal with DJs and music remixing practices. The center piece of the documentary, however, deals with the most recently added film in our collection which deals with the New York based Graffiti group, Tats Cru. This is a segment that cuts close to home for me. Indeed, many of the interview segments were shot in my living room. As some of you know, I am proud to have spent the last 12 years of my life as housemaster of an MIT dormitory known as Senior House. (Contrary to the name, the community includes a full range of undergraduates -- frosh to seniors -- and houses many of those at MIT who are interested in alternative cultures.) Tats Cru came to MIT in part at the request of our graduate resident tutors, Andrew "Zoz" Brooks who wanted help constructing a mural which would pay tribute to "Big Jimmy" Roberts, a long time night watchman who was much beloved among our residents and who passed away a few years ago. Our students have raised more than 50,000 dollars to create a scholarship in Big Jimmy's honor but they wanted an icon to help memorialize his role within the dorm. Since he worked between two dorms, the agreement was that they would paint a mural on canvas that would be portable and could spend part of the year in each location. Tats Cru came to MIT through help from the Creative Arts Council and Michelle Oshima and worked with our students to produce something that was worthy of Big Jimmy's memory. While the group was on campus, the graduate students on Project NML also filmed the production of the mural and conducted interviews to help explore graffiti as a form of creative expression.

The story of Tats Cru is a fascinating one: a group of former street artists who have become known around the world for their murals and graffiti, who work with local communities to create memory walls and who work with corporate clients to support their branding efforts. It's hard to pick any group of artists who better embody some of the contradictions which surround graffiti as a form of creative expression.

Grafitti is often discussed in terms of personal expression -- leaving one's own distinctive mark on the environment -- yet it also depends heavily on the trust and collaboration that emerges within the members of a particular Cru. Most of the exemplars so far have focused on individual artists. We very much wanted to examine here what it was like to produce art within a collective:

Nicer: Some of the things we use to do with the kids was: we'd have two guys working on the same name, and then I'll switch the papers and let them copy each other's work. And they would never get it the same. The way you do a circle is unique: it's your circle. No one else is going to copy it exactly the same. The way you create your own lettering, the way you sign your own name, even your signature or the way you write, it's so unique. It makes you an individual and you have to be proud of that.

Red: In this art form, from what I've learned, you gotta push forward. And you can't copy. I could sit there and try to copy Nicer's but it's not going to come out the same. I got to find my way and my defaults and push myself.

Nosm: Sometimes your brain is just empty, and then Nicer comes up with something: "Oh, I got this idea, I always wanted to do that." And then How comes to it and says, "yeah, we should add this and that." And then, next you see everybody's brainstorming, and we come up with a new idea for the mural.

Nicer: It's not any oil painter who can paint on the same canvas with another oil painter. And he'll paint something red and somebody else will go, "no, I want to change it blue." He'll catch some kind of fit, because he doesn't know how to work together with someone. Us, as a group, we've learned that already. And it hasn't been easy. There have been times when I've stepped back away from walls and looked and go, "wow, that red looks good." And then two guys will walk buy and one will stop and change it blue, and they'll walk away from each other. And I'll go, "uh, maybe it looks good blue." So I have to learn to trust their judgment. Because what better kind of artist can you get than a 6-headed, 12-armed monster artist?

Some of the best passages deal with the ways they seek inspiration from the culture around them:

Nicer: I grew up in a neighborhood in the '80s where there wasn't a lot of art programs. So I didn't have a lot of stuff to reference besides comic books. I would look at comic books and they would show me different colorings and outlines and characters and cartoons. And superheroes was a big thing to me. So I started young just tracing and drawing comics. As a teenager I started noticing some guys who were doing graffiti in my neighborhood, and they brought color to the walls: they would have fancy hand styles, and the lettering, the shapes, and the colors of their characters. So, I was drawn to it.

BG: It was already part of my neighborhood. That was, like, the culture. If you walked through the hallways, or walked through the streets of New York City, that's what you saw. And we took the trains, and you saw graffiti on the trains. So that was, like, the first opening of graffiti to me.

Nosm: I was born in Spain and grew up in Germany, and I've been in New York for about 7 years. Me and my brother was a little bit different because we started graffiti back in '88, '89. We saw a couple of books from New York, and we saw the movie Wild Style--it's a famous graffiti movie that is something like a documentary--and based on that, and based on our older friends who were tagging--that's like, writing your name all over the neighborhood--they were doing that and we just copied it. And after a couple of years we realized we could do more with it. Not only tags but also pieces, characters, you know, like faces and stuff like that.

Or consider this passage where Nicer talks about the ways that commercial art -- even advertising -- informs their graphic style:

Nicer: I get inspired by, like, looking at ads in magazines or just a stroll through a local supermarket. Look at the cereal boxes. Every cereal box has got funky lettering, and the coloring is bright, and it's calling the kids, "come eat me, come get me!" And if you look at the characters on these boxes, you know, like Captain Crunch and you got all these, like, Sugar Pops or... it's stylized for kids, but it's just fun. And sometimes we're looking for something fun to paint.

At the same time, they defend their work on the grounds that it introduces aesthetic experiences to people who would never feel comfortable just going inside a traditional art museum:

Nicer: I guess what we do is bring what's in galleries and what's in museums--which is art and color and technique and style--and we bring that to community walls or to neighborhoods that, you know, sometimes these kids in those neighborhoods never would have a chance to go see the MOMA or see the Louvre. So I guess, in a way, by us painting these murals in these communities is bringing a part of that art and culture into their lives.

Part of what's really exciting about these films is that they teach new ways of looking at graffiti as a meaningful form of cultural expression, providing illustrations of key terms and concepts from their world which will give students and teachers alike a vocabulary for talking about what's going on within this community.

Tats Cru doesn't engage in graffiti as a form of vandalism. Their art is authorized by the people who live in the communities being decorated. They often get invited in by the people who own the property to paint murals:

Bio: One of the big reasons that it started to gain popularity in the neighborhood was, it was a way to combat graffiti. Landlords and store owners were tired of going out on a weekly or daily basis to paint over tag signatures. But they noticed whenever we would paint a mural, it was colorful, it was attractive, but, I think, the selling point was that it would go untouched. No one would deface it or what have you. The other artists or the other graffiti artists would respect it. So they began to commission us in an effort to combat that problem.

Nicer: We sell space in communities. We find properties that are abandoned, or people are having problems keeping clean, and we make agreements with the property owners to let us use the space. And we'll keep the rest of the property clean or we'll pay rent on it. And then we'll go to these agencies and say, "listen, we have these walls." And we pick and choose what clients go on there. We're not going to go out and do tobacco or firearm companies, or big alcohol ads. We understand that, at the end of the day, we're the one's responsible for whatever images we put up there.

Yet, they also make clear that there are rules and ethical commitments even among those who produce unauthorized forms of graffiti:

Nicer: The rule is, the bigger, the more time it takes, gets the pass. So there's a pass you're given. Like if you had a throw-up, or two throw-ups and somebody did a simple style piece over it--which takes longer, there's usually like a few colors and fill it in, and an outline, and it takes more time and it's cleaner--so that stuff can go over throw-ups, because it takes more time and more skill. But if you did a throw-up over that, then you're gonna create a problem.

BG: Then you have a mural that will go over anything.

We understand graffiti to be perhaps the most controversial form of expression which we have explored through the exemplar library so far. Many see it as enhancing their community. Others see it as a form of visual clutter or as a form of vandalism. To help us better understand the controversy, we turned to a CMS alum Rekha Murthy, who did her thesis on the mediascape surrounding the Central Square area in Cambridge. Her work focused both on official media -- signage, newspapers, window displays in stores -- and unofficial media -- stickers, posters, handbills, and graffiti. We were lucky to have an expert within our own community who knew a great deal about the politics of street media. Here's some of what she had to say:

Rekha: It's illegal to poster or put stickers or graffiti in the city of Cambridge on any buildings or any surfaces without getting the approval of the city. So, obviously there's someone out there enforcing these laws. I would walk up and down the streets taking pictures for my thesis of different street media. And I would go back every couple of days or so and the whole streetscape would have changed. And I found this guy in the department of public works for the city of Cambridge, and he's actually very proud of his job.

And he said that he sees himself, actually, as helping free speech. The people who poster or who put this stuff up, you know the graffiti artists and sticker people, may just see him as someone who destroys. But he sees himself as keeping the streetscape clear so that more people can share it and more people can communicate.

There's something that I noticed in Central Square that really intrigued me. Something that I didn't go out to look for, but it kept coming back to me. And that was: people seem to respect what they like to look at. So it's not about what's legal or illegal all the time. Sometimes it's something grayer than that. You can't draw a line in it, you can't draw a box around it. It's just what people like or what the don't like, or what makes people feel OK or even happy, and what makes them feel like their neighborhood is going down the tubes.

There are people who set out to deface. There are people who really do vandalize. And they cost local business owners money. That said, there's this other group of people who want to self-express, but don't actually want to deface. And I saw in my research time and again that, some of the people that I spoke with said that they'd be perfectly happy to put art, if there were places on the streetscape that the city kind of made available. That, it didn't have to be unauthorized to be exciting or legitimate. That is just had to be in a place where people could actually see it, that implied it was being taken seriously, and that it was respected, and that there was something community about it.

We hope the documentaries will generate discussion about the borders between art and vandalism, getting people to think more deeply about what graffiti contributes to urban culture and how we might develop urban policies which support more forms of grassroots expression within our cities without necessarily bringing about property damage.

The interviews for this film were conducted by Henry Jenkins and Margaret Weigel. The documentary was edited by Neal Grigsby, a CMS graduate student, whose thesis work is focused on adolescence as a theme across many forms of contemporary media.