Graffiti a difficult word to define; it’s not difficult to think of an example of a graffito, and it’s easy to explain the essence of graffiti to another person, but it’s nearly impossible think of a descriptive, yet completely encompassing functional definition; notwithstanding the dictionary definition of graffiti as unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface (Merriam-Webster). Graffiti comes in many forms: pictures, political statements, pop culture references, and ad campaigns. It can be helpful, humorous, crude, or offensive. In many places it is illegal. It has no limits. For these reasons, a single graffito expresses an individual or subculture’s feelings on politics, history, or society; however, the expression does not end there.
The origins of graffiti are rooted in ancient Rome, where people would write political messages and advertisements on the sides of houses and apartment buildings. The modern spray paint was born in the New York City subway of the 1960s. The first popular case was reported by The New York Times. The story was of a man from 183rd Street with the nickname Taki, who worked as a messenger and travelled all over New York using the subway. He would write his name and street number using a marker— Taki183 wherever he went, and became a pop hero. Other people soon started a contest for popularity, and also “tagged” things with their names; a new subculture was born (“Graffiti Grapher”).
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, graffiti as an art form and a public statement became much more popular. Groups of artists began competing to see who could cover more ground, produce the biggest single graffito, and complete the fastest graffito. This competition to stand out caused the creation of various accepted fonts and styles, becoming more and more popular. Because graffiti was a cultural phenomenon, these fonts quickly became standardized, and included bubble letters, and Broadway font, as well as standard arrows, curls, connections, and twists. Colors and patterns began to become more popular, and people began to compete to see who could get the most attention with their tags (Davey).
Today, graffiti is one of the main four components of hip-hop culture (“Graffiti Grapher”); however, graffiti artists are not limited to any single demographic (“Graffiti Wipeout”). There are four types of graffiti—tagging, gang affiliated, hate messages, and generic messages. They range in size from the tag, which is a small name written in only one color, to the throw-up, which is a large name drawn in multiple colors. The largest type is the “piece” or masterpiece, which includes art (“Graffiti Wipeout”). The latter can be interesting, as the art can range from stencils, ad campaigns, and political messages, to fantastic creations and attempts at beautification (Ians).
In modern culture, graffiti is illegal in many places. Due to increased surveillance on subways and other public areas, graffiti and tagging is less prominent. Instead, it has become popular on freight trains and brick walls of run-down villages. For this reason, graffiti has a acquired a negative connotation in some peoples’ minds; however, there are some people who recognize it as an art form and help others realize their ability as artists to participate in graffiti (“Graffiti Grapher”). These people claim graffiti writers must “acquire the technical abilities, social skills, and conceptual apparatus necessary to make it easy to make art” (Lachmann, 230). States spend billions of dollars every year dealing with graffiti in neighborhoods. While some graffiti can be erased using chemicals, sometimes the only option to get rid of graffiti is to cover it using paint. Because graffiti is generally seen as vandalism, some communities combat it by creating paintbrush murals on walls where graffiti frequently appears (“Graffiti Wipeout”).
In Russia, graffiti is most prevalent in the summer months. Weather complicates graffiti in the winter months, when snow can prevent the paint from sticking to the wall. Even on a clear winter day, the cold air makes the metal spray can intolerably cold, and sometimes freezes paint on the tip, diminishing control of the flow. While some graffiti, labeled “bombing”, is illegal in Moscow, there is still some legal graffiti. This legal graffiti, drawn by writers, provides some color at the beginning of the summer months, creating a much better atmosphere after the monochrome winter. Because these artists are not under pressure to leave their message quickly, the graffiti in Russia is not the same as the hasty, illegal graffiti of America. The artists in Russia aren’t under the same constraints of painting quickly, under the cover of darkness, or in a deserted neighborhood. Some artists in Russia are even commissioned to draw graffiti in certain public places. While other places are illegal, they are targeted because they are out of the way. It is common to see graffiti on garages along railways in Russia (Ians).
Graffiti produces a broad springboard for a site of memory. It can be used to study political or social criticism, an artistic or historical path, or simply the signs of a subculture. A single graffito can be studied in depth, looking at what the colors, message, and history of the image convey, or multiple images by the same writer can be studied. Graffiti speaks to the culture and subcultures, it tells us about modern Russian society, and it influences future graffiti. It can also be shaped by the people who interact with it on a daily basis, allowing it to speak more to modern history than other monuments.
The inspiration for studying graffiti in Russia came from the popularity of graffiti in other countries since the end of World War Two. One of the main inspirations came from Germany—specifically East Berlin. The similarities Russia and Berlin faced in reconstructing a nation and culture after the end of World War Two led me to believe the inspiration for their underground artists would be similar. I wondered whether graffiti in Russia had reached the same level of quasi-legality of American graffiti, opening the streets to artists and taggers who wanted to expand their talents. Of course, St. Petersburg’s attitude towards graffiti is heavily influenced by the kind of image the city wants to present to its many visitors. Peter the Great founded it in 1703 with the intent of moving Russia’s capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a move designed to help Russia shake off its eastern image and establish itself as a forward-thinking western country (Kalashnikov).
With that goal in mind, laws were soon passed mandating that buildings have colored facades; in fact, if they remained white, they were required to pay a hefty tax (Kalashnikov). This high standard for the image of the buildings – both in architecture and in maintenance, perfectly demonstrate the importance of image to St. Petersburg. One of the biggest eyesores in a city is construction. This image of a pristine building is maintained through construction through the use of fake building siding. When a building in St. Petersburg is scheduled for long-term maintenance, the whole side of the building is covered by a mesh canvas (akin to the stickers that go over bus windows for advertisement, allowing passengers to see out from the inside) on the façade the building, or an image of the projected outcome of the project.
While this image conscious attitude demonstrates the importance of superficial appearance to St. Petersburg, at first glance the architecture of the city can be underwhelming. With so many buildings built with so much pomp, it can be difficult to see the proverbial forest for the trees. The image-conscious city is anything but pristine, and many apartment buildings are currently falling apart. It is in those areas of the town, where the buildings already look a little rough, that people are most likely to practice their art.
The graffiti I found in Russia was significantly different than the graffiti I expected to find. While graffiti was plentiful and dispersed about St. Petersburg, it was not intricate, colorful, time-consuming street art or strong Russian political graffiti. Instead, I found a wide array of gang and individual tags, messages in English, pieces of stencil graffiti, and spray-painted advertisements. Often more important than the form of the graffiti, however, was its location. The tags in St. Petersburg were abundant along canals, alleyways, and shorelines. There were half a dozen groups and individuals who had established names for themselves in the Primorskaya area alone, including “subway”. The graffiti tags ranged in size from simple names a couple inches long to names of groups sprawled across building after building in the same area. These tags were painted usually under the couple of hours of semi-darkness St. Petersburg experiences in the summer. On the night of June 19, I was fortunate enough to witness a group of three young men tag a wall on a canal. The night was a citywide celebration of the end of school, and many people were partying on the mainland. I decided to stay on the island, and was sitting by a canal at 2 am talking quietly with some friends when I heard a strange sound. Looking across the river, I watched a man spray his initials- JD, and within minutes, take off running with his friend down the canal. This experience set the tone for the rest of my observations. It became clear to me that graffiti in Russia wasn’t just a rising art form ignored by the police, except in severe cases. It is still illegal, and every mark is a criminal risk.
With this lesson in mind, I was able to better analyze some of the other graffiti in St. Petersburg. The speed with which people tagged the wall on the canal explained the popularity of stencil graffiti. Just as tags were popular along canals, the coast, and hidden deep in apartment complexes, stencil graffiti was more popular in high-traffic areas. More people could see the message, but the risk of getting caught painting was higher. These stencils had less to do with identifying a particular individual or group, and more to do with spreading a message. The stencils ranged from simple geometric patterns and short phrases to elaborate art. Because stencils are reusable, many times the stencil graffiti recurred within a certain region. Two of the more popular graffiti in the University area was a simple gear accompanied by the words “My friend is send by sun” and a larger-than-life stencil of Johnny breaking into the bathroom in The Shining. These pieces took less time to spray through a stencil than they would have taken to spray freehand, and their reference to English and American culture revealed the age of the painters; the generation born after World War II learned English in school and is able to use it as a part of their artistic outlet. Other stenciled graffiti included advertisements, many times incorporating an image and a web address or leading a customer up to the door of an establishment with a recurring image.
Overall, the graffiti found in Russia was of neutral, if not positive, emotion. There were many instances outside apartment buildings of a female name, accompanied by the Russian “Ia liubliu tebia” (I love you). There were few graffiti I found with negative political messages, and even fewer with perverse, crude, or sexual meaning. This positive tone also speaks to the motive of the artists. Their goal is not to start a revolution. Instead, graffiti seems to be a budding artform in Russia, and a way to provide an adrenaline rush on the short Russian summer nights.
The location of the graffiti was often just as telling as the content of the particular graffito. While the content of the graffiti varied across regions, there were some areas that rarely, if ever, were sprayed with graffiti. Inside St. Petersburg, there are many palaces, churches, and museums. In many cases, the building itself was a historic as well as a tourist location. On these buildings in particular, graffiti was rarely found. While it was true that these buildings were cared for much more frequently than the neighboring apartments, there were no obvious attempts to cover up graffiti. It seems as though there is a code, or understanding, amongst artists that they not paint on these national treasures. The meaning of the building itself can send a much larger message than any graffito can. Another cause for this may be opportunity. There are some places that did not contain graffiti due to the lack of opportunity for artists to paint on them. Unlike in New York, graffiti on the side of St. Petersburg metro cars was impossible to find. Graffiti on the inside of the car, however, was much more common. Many times, short messages were carved into the windows of the car, making cleanup costly and difficult.
Another interesting aspect of the graffiti culture in St. Petersburg was the public’s reaction to the graffiti. There was one particular strip of shops along the Smolenka River between the Primorskaya metro and the Gulf of Finland which was a high-traffic zone for graffiti. During the six weeks I spent in St. Petersburg, the graffiti there was painted over twice, and reappeared twice. While people who painted over the graffiti were trying to convey an obvious message, the results of their efforts were less than impressive. Many times, the people who painted over the graffiti were lazy, only covering the part of the cement wall which contained graffiti to begin with (sometimes in the particular shape of the graffito underneath), and almost always only painting one coat. Through this one coat, many times the original tag could be seen. Often, the paint did not match the cement it covered. In this instance, the paint covering the graffiti becomes a form of graffiti itself. Its purpose is to express a distaste in the markings on the wall, but do not cover them in such a way that they erase them from the public memory. And while there were many attempts to cover graffiti around St. Petersburg, the artists made their art more permanent by painting on store signs and windows, and carving things to add to the permanence of their message.
While the graffiti in Russia was not what I anticipated, it spoke volumes about the underground culture of St. Petersburg. The location and subject of the graffiti provided information about the demographics of the artists, and the content demonstrated a surprisingly positive attitude about life, politics, and love. While it is clear that graffiti is still illegal, it is by no means eradicated by strict crackdowns on artists. Store owners and government officials currently only make half-hearted attempts to cover graffiti in most areas, but in return, graffiti artists are respectful in their placement of their art. Graffiti is a growing art form in Russia, and will continue to track a legacy of cultural attitude, foreign influence, and pop culture over time.