Graffiti: the stories we tell

Bortusk 1I found a new Bortusk poster in Amsterdam today. A slightly torn and weathered neon monster staring out at me from the side of a skip as i cycled past. I think that brings to about fifteen the number i’ve found around the city this year. Sometimes i go back to visit them, watching as the paper gets more torn, dirtier, overlaid with graffiti and stickers, or simply weathered away by the Dutch climate.

Bortusk is enigmatic: his colourful monsters placed seemingly for no other reason than to brighten up your day, a task they fulfil perfectly for me as they smile, wave and dance into sight on a rainy morning as you cycle past. For some, they are probably just graffiti: rubbish cluttering the street. For others, something to make you smile.

For me, they tell a story: a story about creativity, about sharing, about meaning. Once placed, they fall out of control of the artist, much as any story we publish moves beyond our control. Once curated, stuck into place, they become part of our environment, open to interpretation and reinterpretation as we please. It must have been six months ago that i found the first one, staring out at me and saying ‘smile‘, which i did. Then, over the following weeks, i found more and more members of the family, before i ever knew who they were by or what their history was. For me, they were just random moments of neon tinted welcome strewn around a strange city.

We create meaning in the world around us: we join the dots. No story is complete until we have read it, until we have made it our own and imposed our own meaning upon it. This is true of factual or fictional stories, stories we use at work, read on the train or tell to our children. The act of the telling and the reading change the meaning.

Graffiti is the unofficial language of society: the voice for the voiceless, or those who don’t want to be known. Sometimes it carries political messages, sometimes it’s about tagging territory or establishing hierarchies of importance and power, sometimes it’s hostile and threatening. There is a vocabulary of graffiti that may not be known to those of us outside the circle.

Bortusk 2Stories are not static: as graffiti grows over time, is overlain with new meaning, is replaced and stratified, so too do stories grow. We can lay the foundations, we can make the first telling, but as they spread through communities and are retold ad infinitum they change, they become owned by the communities that share them.

The narrative is important, the words that surround it less so. The meaning is what will persist if it is relevant and clear, so when we craft our stories, like posters on a wall, they need to be clear, but we have to recognise that they will move out of our control. And, eventually, they will weather and fade, becoming simply the foundations for the next chapter that is built upon them.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Adaptability, Aesthetics, Art, Community, Control, Culture, Environment, Graffiti, Learning, Meaning and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

137 Responses to Graffiti: the stories we tell

  1. Pingback: Wisdom in the Social Age | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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  3. Great post!
    I’ve collected a few photos of street art here ->

    You may want to check them out.


  4. awax1217 says:

    Reminded me of the story of Kilroy was here. In World War Two hundreds of GI’s wrote this graffiti everywhere. Even on bombs send to be blown up when they hit a target. It was crazy and really made no sense.

  5. WhitneyPower says:

    My goodness this is beautifully written. I love the message, too. Thanks for brightening my day.

  6. janetkwest says:

    I feel like there are many things that you can’t fix or express with words. It’s not that a picture replaces a 1000 words as much as a graffiti or drawing has it’s own particular purpose that a million words could never touch. I’m shutting up now. Talking too much. 🙂

    • gaudibox says:

      I agree with that statement! I started a blog with videos each week, for my fourth year research project! I don’t talk in them, but I find they reflect my experience much more elaborately and creatively, then If was to if write about it, and words just could not express, it allows a realness to come through! 🙂

  7. I’m a big admirer of graffiti and feel that it can really reveal a lot about a community. I just did a post looking at the graffiti I found in Barcelona and am fascinated on how unique it can be across communities.

  8. segmation says:

    I never thought that graffiti could make a story until I went to college at Ohio State and the assignment was to write a story on graffiti! Love your blog! Thanks for sharing.

  9. “The meaning is what will persist if it is relevant and clear, so when we craft our stories, like posters on a wall, they need to be clear, but we have to recognise that they will move out of our control. And, eventually, they will weather and fade, becoming simply the foundations for the next chapter that is built upon them.” — This is a profoundly beautiful insight!!
    Lovely, Julian. And for those who struggle with control, this is truly distressing– causing sleepless nights and neurotic behaviors. For the artist, it just is. For the writer, it just is.

  10. Fantastic post! We had the pleasure of happening upon some phenomenal artists creating their pieces live on walls in Barcelona this past summer. It was truly a highlight of our month-long trip. Thanks for a great message!

  11. annacorban says:

    Hey, this was super. It’s relit the fire under my butt to do a focus on Vancouver street art. Thanks for that 🙂

  12. lauraeflores says:

    I’m working on a thesis currently that has quite a lot to do with graffiti, they can be the medium of the faceless and the nameless, or as you called them… The voiceless.

    • julianstodd says:

      Sounds great, I’d love to see it. Nice blog by the way, I like your ‘working out loud’ style

      • lauraeflores says:

        Thanks! I’ll be sure to include a link to the thesis once it’s done (sigh… Feels like a neverending swamp at this point). And yes, the blog is working out for me quite nicely, puts more pressure on as procrastination is my choise of excuse sometimes, gets me in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard, when I don’t feel like it.

  13. elizabethweaver says:

    I especially love your definition of graffiti…so true. Thanks for this post.

  14. They are awesome – they would definitely make me smile! I love graffiti – it has the purest display method of any art form! No museum curators to alter the meaning… Just does its own thing! Very cool post 🙂

  15. gypsyflyblog says:

    As insane it might sound, I thought of doing a thesis on graffiti in college. Would have definitely done it, had I travelled to Amsterdam at that time. Thanks for sharing.

  16. I love this post. I can never help but stop and take a picture of my favorite graffiti pieces.

  17. tesseeeh says:

    this made me smile, just like graffiti 🙂

  18. Kaycers says:

    Great piece. I like what you said about no story being complete until we imprint our meaning onto it. Oddly enough the topic of graffiti came up a week or so ago with one of my coworkers. We were waiting for a train to pass and she remarked about all the graffiti saying, “I wonder what all that means? Probably unholy things…” I didn’t know how to respond. She seemed to think all graffiti was evil! I was taken aback. I’m glad to hear your beautiful interpretation of street art. Thank you for this post!

    • julianstodd says:

      Interesting how perceptions of graffiti vary so widely, but i guess that’s because it’s used in so many different ways. It can be beautiful or territorial and threatening. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  19. Amo a arte das ruas. Compartilho o seu sentimento sobre a dinâmica das mensagens. Muito, muito legal!

  20. katieoart says:

    Great blog, wonderfully written and insightful.. 🙂 thank you for inspiring

  21. Emily says:

    The most amazing thing to me is the accessibility of graffiti. I think this, the context, is what allows us to “join the dots” and create a story that means something to us as individuals. I don’t have to scrounge up enough will to visit the predetermined location (aka museum) only to search for a story that was hidden by the artist. Just by setting itself on that red brick building on the corner or on the bridge I used to pass under to school everyday, the graffiti allows me my own experience and story, shifting the intention of it’s creator to a secondary priority.

    Thanks for the great post 🙂

  22. lovely post. loved your thoughts. i had some lovely graffitis which I bought from Camden Town in London. They have a unique way of sharing thoughts and messages – though many of them have worn out now, they still have a lovely way of brightening up my space. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  23. originaltitle says:

    Great post and congrats on FP! I first started learning about graffiti/public art when I found out about Keith Haring’s chalk drawings in the subway station and Jean Michel Basquiat’s SAMO street art. From there I grew a love for graffiti art and public art and made sure to teach both of these to my art students in their own units. I think that it’s a form of art that seems much more applicable to this generation which is all about sharing things publicly. The students I taught had not had any exposure to art previous to my arrival and I think this was a good “in” for them to understand art and then explore other styles of art throughout history. We had many debates on whether graffiti art should be allowed or just allowed in certain places, etc and it opened up a great dialogue about what is art, does art have to be permanent, can art change once it’s been displayed and where should art be displayed. Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for sharing your post with the world! I think it’s a great topic that more people should talk about!

    • julianstodd says:

      Really interesting: i love how some graffiti, which starts as counter culture expressions of disent, ends up in galleries as mainstream art. To be ‘graffiti’, i think it has to be illegal, otherwise it’s just art in the style of graffiti…? Maybe…

      Thanks for your kind words and good wishes, and for sharing your experiences. I hope the students appreciated your broader view of art, best wishes, Julian

  24. Graffiti looks good on walls as long as it isn’t just random scribbles and swear words. I think it shouldn’t be frowned on as much as it is.

    • julianstodd says:

      I guess even random squiggles and swear words serve a purpose: they are the voice of the voiceless, or territorial signs. Not pretty i know, but maybe expressions of frustration?

      I like your blog: for the future, i don’t think you need to invest money in it, just your time. It’s neat.

      Thanks for visiting, Julian

  25. gaudibox says:

    Cool! 🙂 love street art, something special and unique hidden everywhere an anywhere in the world. Prague is king for some awesome pieces!! 🙂

    • julianstodd says:

      Hunting out graffiti is such fun! This is my Graffiti Hound site that does just that…

      When i have time, i’ll write a book on this!

      • gaudibox says:

        Graffiti hound is amazing, I have always taken pictures when I’ve traveled and even at home of street art, graffiti and even those cool stickers people leave around the place, what I love the most is most people don’t even take notice of them in terms of how creative and interesting they are, your blog graffiti hound is something I aspire to eventually- Really cool! (am following now!)

  26. lsweet360 says:

    You have a beautiful tone. Enjoy the moment now, and the future moment when it arrives, just for what it is. I loved reading this and it really made me stop a minute and think, so thanks 🙂

  27. Reblogged this on xortesttesttest's Blog and commented:

  28. Great post. So true. I went to Italy and was impressed by the Graffiti there as much as I was by the historical sites. 🙂

  29. parkakuma says:

    This is a great post. I really love doing the same thing around the city I live in as well. Here in Portland people are always posting stickers of Kurt Russell in various movies or ages or graffitti tags in some of the most intriguing places. I find it fascinating our need to leave our marks somehow in the urban playscapes we live.

    • julianstodd says:

      I guess we can see graffiti and tagging as a way of personalising sterile urban spaces? Nice blog by the way, i hope you find the blossom and enjoy it when you do. Best wishes, Julian

  30. Light Friday says:

    You’re a really good writer 🙂 loved reading this 🙂 XOXO Cecilia, Lightfriday

  31. bcgoldsack says:

    Hey I really enjoyed this post. I like how you look at graffiti more than just an illegal crime that runs through our cities everywhere. People should be more opened minded and try to see the story in each of these narratives that fill our cities. The fact that you have been to Amsterdam also appeals me. I’ve always wanted to visit the beautiful country. People normally look at graffiti as a “bad” thing when in reality it could be uplifting, it could be that one piece of graffiti that makes you “smile” and gets you through the day. Good Post

  32. Pingback: Approaching Social Learning | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  33. A great post I liked the idea of some see it and some don’t. A while back I was stopped at RR crossing waiting on a slow moving train the others in the car complained about the delay, I enjoyed the graffiti on the box cars

    • julianstodd says:

      It’s very subjective: sometimes i like seeing the graffiti flash by on the sides of the track, sometimes you see incredible images there. Thanks for visiting 🙂

  34. Well said – congrats on FP. Some street art done by my daughter in Vancouver. The city had it white washed by mid afternoon the following day….

    • julianstodd says:

      Great images, thanks for sharing them, she’s very talented! I like that, although the graffiti is transient, washed away by next day, you’ve curated it here for posterity. Nice blog by the way, i like your ‘what’s in my mind’ approach! Best wishes, Julian

      • Thank you. Vancouver has some strange opinions on what constitutes art.The city just spent $100,000.00 on a statue of a seven foot tall white poodle yet white washes the soul of the city away over night.

  35. coleman3442 says:

    I guess I’m the only fuddy duddy who’s clicked on this link… Muhuhahahaha! I live in Southern California and the graffiti out here is out of control. Most of the time, it comes in the form of a 15 year-old kid with a chip on his shoulder that scrawls imperceptible dribble on a freeway sound wall. The pre-pubescent vandal somehow finds his identity in claiming an unimaginative moniker by switching out a letter in a run-of-the-mill word. For instance: “Phase” becomes “Phayze.” Super creative. The other manifestation is gang graffiti, which is easily distinguishable by the XIII tacked on the end to indicate the gang’s loyalty to the Mexican mafia. Then there’s the large pieces that actually qualify as art. I respect art in all shapes and forms, but I also respect respect. Don’t spray paint on my stuff and I won’t spray paint on yours. Muchas gracias!!

    • julianstodd says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences: i think you’re right, some graffiti is easily appreciated as art, whilst other is much more hostile, reflecting it’s purpose to claim territory or simply to tag something. Like any language, graffiti is varied! More so than the straight written word, it is more geolocated, the context can come in the position as much as the colours, shapes and words.

      To some extend, i think by it’s very nature, graffiti has to be illegal and unwanted, at least by some, to warrant the title graffiti, rather than just art in the style of graffiti.

      I certainly see widely different cultural approaches to graffiti as i travel too: i’m in Singapore right now where there is virtually none at all, it’s simply not tolerated as a form of expression and the penalties are harsh, except in one part of the Arab Quarter, where shops and cafes are decorated in stylised and vibrant graffiti style (of space faring Egyptians as it happens…)

      Then there’s the point you make about the kids evolving the language… but that’s a longer discussion…

      Best wishes, Julian

  36. stephsim97 says:

    Reblogged this on Steph.

  37. Eva says:

    Reblogged this on Neukölln 2.0 and commented:
    ❤ "Graffiti is the unofficial language of society: the voice for the voiceless, or those who don’t want to be known. Sometimes it carries political messages, sometimes it’s about tagging territory or establishing hierarchies of importance and power, sometimes it’s hostile and threatening. There is a vocabulary of graffiti that may not be known to those of us outside the circle.

    Bortusk 2Stories are not static: as graffiti grows over time, is overlain with new meaning, is replaced and stratified, so too do stories grow. We can lay the foundations, we can make the first telling, but as they spread through communities and are retold ad infinitum they change, they become owned by the communities that share them."

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  39. Reblogged this on whiteness betrayed and commented:
    Graffiti emerged as a way for the voiceless to have a voice. These are some of their stories.

  40. irrevspeckay says:

    I appreciate your perspective, as well as the photos (and that colorful little guy!) Here’s my post on graffiti:

  41. iheartsiena says:

    A few months ago, when I was visiting Chianti in Tuscany with my parents, a beautiful town in the midst of countryside, we happened to walk along this hilly, quant street. While we were passing we suddenly noticed this unusual splurge of colour and artistry in a seemingly quiet road in traditional Tuscany. It really did feel out of place at first, to have such an unusual work of modern art in a very orthodox town of Italy! But then when I did get accustomed to it I felt it was rather telling of a story. It was very interesting. Was a very interesting read!

    • julianstodd says:

      That’s a good story, thanks for sharing it 🙂

      Graffiti can tell a story, sometimes in a way that normal words cannot. It’s a whole language in it’s own right! Best wishes, Julian

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  43. Awestruck 🙂
    Thanks for sharing this

  44. You write beautifully. The elements do reinterpret the artist’s original vision, as you say, on a daily basis. I share your passion for the art form. There’s so much room for growth in graffiti. I’d love to see the Van Goghs and Picassos of today on street walls.

  45. What a beautiful homage to the graffiti. Well, I believe that they are a new form of art that reminds people the people that there is beauty in every corner, wall, and empty space.

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  47. Shoes Summerfield says:

    Thanks for writing the post. The graffiti monsters sound quite interesting in their creation and their purpose. Very cool story!

  48. said-simply says:

    Very fitting assessment. I am moved by the idea that when we “curate” our stories, publish or put them in place, they are open to interpretation or endless re-interpretations. That is the beauty of every creative art form be it painting, music, or writing; the story means something unique to every single person. And their interpretation is what it is, not wrong or right, just the way they see it.

  49. sunenot2013 says:

    Reblogged this on SuneNotBlog and commented:
    Graffiti is a language I could never speak, but will always admire.

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  53. createandco says:

    Reblogged this on Create&Co and commented:
    Love your ideas about a how the art belongs to the community after the artist paste the work , open for everyones interpretation on their streets in their every day landscape.

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