Monday, October 23, 2006

What Is The Purpose of Graffiti?

I was in the men's room of a local Chinese restaurant this weekend and noticed graffiti on the wall. Nothing too strange there, except that it was in Chinese. I began to wonder what the graffiti said. Not literally, that is, I didn't much care if I should dial some international number for a good time or if a Chinese-speaking former occupant of my place at the moment was lamenting "here I sit broken hearted," I wanted to know what was the real meaning behind what philosophers of language call the "speech act."

J.L. Austin correctly pointed out that we not only mean things with words, but we also do things with words. The intention of the speaker or writer is often more than just conveying the fact contained in a proposition. If I tell you your fly is down, I'm not merely stating a truth of the world, I am warning you to fix it before you suffer widespread embarrassment. Two people could offer reasons for having done something that ended badly and where one may be uttering those words as an apology, the other might be explaining why he did it and why he would do it again, despite the outcome. To each set of words there is more than a literal meaning, there is also an utterer's intent, there is something that she was trying to do by uttering those words in a verbal, written, or signed fashion.

What are the writers of graffiti trying to do?

Most times, the content of the graffiti is trivial. I don't know Joey P. and will most likely never meet him. If I ever met someone named Joseph whose last name started with the letter P, I will most likely have forgotten that someone of a similar name also, at some time before me, occupied the third stall from the end at some rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike, although I will assume he had the same problem getting the door to close. I also don't care if some other person named John actually rules or if the person who most likely doesn't know him believes that he regularly engages in certain interpersonal acts with other men. If so, I hope he enjoys it; if not, I hope his family is healthy.

With the exception of the occasional bit of political graffiti (which you tend to find on bridges rather than bathroom walls) if the purpose of the speech act is not to convince the reader of something, what is it? Is it an expression of what Nietzsche would call the will to power, an act of creative (some more, some less) self-affirmation? By writing on this wall, I thumb my nose at the rules and assert my own existence in the face of the universe. Is it an expression of disaffection, someone who generally feels powerless is striking back with an act of civil disobedience? The examples that one sees spray-painted on the sides of buildings seem to be a hybrid of social/political comment, an act of acquisition -- this wall is mine, and authentic artistic expression. Some are quite striking. The bathroom variety, on the other hand, seems to generally lack the aesthetic inspiration -- perhaps the muse is put off by the smell.

In the case of the Chinese restaurant, because of its location, the patrons are almost exclusively Anglo. The wait staff is comprised almost exclusively of native Spanish speakers. The owners and kitchen staff are the only ones who generally speak the language and we can most likely rule out the owners. The writer must know that his audience is not only limited, but must know exactly who it is limited to. But in the usual case, who is the intended audience? What is the graffitist trying to say? As someone who cannot even underline in books I own because of my childhood experiences in public schools, I've never understood it.