Just as it threads through walls, streets and subway cars to form our urban cityscapes, graffiti threads through our culture as an aesthetic movement. Whether you view graffiti as: abstract self-expression, vandalism or intentional artwork, you cannot ignore its large and distinctive presence. “Graffiti: An Inside View” was held on Sept. 27 in conjunction with the Robert W. Library’s third floor exhibit “Graffiti: A Library Guide to Aerosol Art.”  The exhibit displays pieces from the Rose Library’s photograph collections and books related to graffiti.

The first thing that historian Antar Fierce, breakdancer (or “b-boy”) and writer MadClout, photographer H.J. Parsons and writer Web One want you to know is that they are not graffiti artists.

“When you call what we do graffiti, you’re equating it to dirty messages on the bathroom wall,” Fierce said. “That’s very basic, that’s very plain and that’s not what we do.” 

They define graffiti broadly, as anything written in a public space. “Style-writing” is more specific because it allows for the exploration and development of the artists’ signature styles. They say that their work, which they call style-writing, is more purposeful than graffiti.

“When you tell someone you’re a graffiti artist they think you’re automatically a vandal,” Web One says.

While the exhibit offers viewers an initiation to the art form, the talk supplements the material with a deeper inside look into its world and history through the perspectives of its artists.

The entrance of the “Graffiti: A Library Guide to Aerosol Art” exhibit at the Robert W. Library (Mitali Singh / The Emory Wheel)

Historian and style-writer Antar Fierce first became interested in the graffiti he saw on the subway in the 1980s. In 1989, when he moved to Atlanta for college, he documented the local scene and launched Steel Wheels, a magazine about graffiti, soon after. Mad Clout grew up in New Orleans’ French Quarters, surrounded by expressionism, jazz artists and street murals. Despite the city’s distance from New York City, where most of the form was developing at the time, the artistic nature of graffiti fed his interest.

“It’s definitely a lifelong addiction. And they don’t make medicine for it,” Mad Clout quipped.

Atlanta photographer H.J. Parson’s stylistically cinematic documentation work can be traced back to 2013. Web One, a classically trained New York City subway artist, describes his interest as flourishing during a time of hip-hop and breakdancing. 

“Can’t rap, can’t dance, but I can draw,” Web One said.

Web One describes how his interest in the art form began to develop and transform into his career.

“I did my first piece on a train,” Web One said. “Somebody said, ‘I saw your piece,’ and I was like, ‘Really?’ That made me want to go out and do more.”

The artists share a deep connection to the art form and want to share their knowledge about its history. This included clarifying commonly-held negative perceptions about the form. For instance, contrary to popular thought, style-writing came before hip-hop. While style-writing dates back to the ’60s, hip-hop rose to prominence a decade later. In fact, rock and roll and R&B had more influence on early graffiti than hip-hop did. 

They describe hip-hop as an umbrella movement encasing the artistic frenzy in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when MCs, DJs and break-dancers came together. 

“So, hip-hop is really a take on classical arts disciplines like music, dance, visual art, that stuff we couldn’t get in the school system.” 

When talking about contemporary impact, Web One said he was surprised at how graffiti spread from New York City to other places like Los Angeles.

The artists emphasized the role of photography and documentation for their archive, to stand as proof of their creative mark for when the trains stop running. When they were kids, they were more concerned with chasing down trains around the city. Now, years later, they hold their archives close and appreciate their value. Of trains, they are simultaneously writers and riders — both words conjure up images of freedom. 

“Trading pictures for writers is like trading baseball cards,” says Web One.

After the talk, the artists lingered in the gallery to chat with audience members about the pieces on display. DJ Nervex played tunes in the background, inspiring a bout of energetic dancing by some viewers while others tried their hand at style-writing that they could add to a “Wall of Fame” display.

A strong sentiment shared among the three style-writers is the inescapable allure of the art form.

“It hits you a certain way and it just sucks you in.” Fierce said.

Web One added that graffiti is “almost like a drug.”

“It’s just something you do from the heart, and I’ll never stop,” Web One said.

In the exhibit, I find myself re-entering multiple times an installation piece that recreates an NYC subway car accompanied by the sounds of the subway and graffiti art. 

The auditory elements play on loop, reminding me of the continuity of this art form. 

The art-form is alive and these artists are determined to keep it thriving for both the younger generation and themselves.

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Mitali Singh (she/her) (25C) is studying English, creative writing and psychology. Her poems have been published in Eunoia Review and FEED.
She feels most inspired while spending time outdoors and loves immersing herself in different forms of art.