I just got a great phone call from a guy I know. I never knew this about him, but he heard about this website and told me a secret: back in the 80’s, he was one of the first writers in Montreal. He used to write Eyes. He had all kinds of stories to tell about those days. Apparently there were only four or five writers in Montreal at the time, and no crews to speak of: there was plenty of city to go around, so each writer had a whole neighborhood to himself. He never got in any trouble with the authorities, because his pieces looked good, and people didn’t really consider it vandalism. In fact, when writers would come in from other cities and go over his stuff, the police would actually let him know so he could fix it. Canada’s a pretty civilized place.
Eyes told me he used to rack cans from a hardware store, but he was terrible at it. He had an army jacket with big pockets, and he would go to the store and buy one can, but walk out with three more in his pockets. One day, he came up to the register, and the store owner looked him straight in the eye, and said, “You know, I could give you a discount.”
Eyes was mortified. All he could say was “Ummm, okay…” He imagined the owner’s hand on that red button under the counter, and figured best to just take the man’s offer. From that day on, he bought his paint over the counter, but he bought it by the case. And, true to his word, the owner gave him a pretty good deal on it.
Like I said, those Canadians are a civilized people.
It had to happen eventually.
When I named this site, I was kind of groping for words, and stumbled on a phrase that seemed to capture this whole timelapse photocollage thing: “Graffiti Archaeology”. It seemed like a good fit, since it conveyed a sense of history, study, and attention to detail. And I felt the work I was doing was at least analogous to the most well-known aspect of what archaeologists do: carefully removing newer layers of stuff to reveal the older stuff underneath, and studying it. I did wonder, though, what real archaeologists would think of the project. Would they scoff, or would they gush, or would they engage critically with the idea?
The answer, apparently, is all of the above.
A few weeks ago, I got a wonderful email from Sarah May, a contemporary archaeologist working for English Heritage. Her field of study, she wrote, was railway lines, and our site had inspired her to start documenting graffiti as well. I asked her what her specific interest was, and she wrote “My interest in railways is rubbish.” I thought that was awfully self-effacing of her, until I read on and realized she was being literal. “The distinctive nature of rubbish on railways, its distribution patterns and what these things tell us about railways as place and non-places. Yes archaeologists are odd.” Odd indeed, but my kind of odd!
Today, Alun, a Phd student specializing in archaeoastronomy, brought a different perspective. He critiqued our site for its lack of discussion and evaluation, saying that without that, it can’t be true archaeology. (Others don’t seem as bothered by this: Alexandra Mack, an anthropologist, thinks it’s a fair term, and Savage Minds agrees.)
Alun’s critique highlights what’s currently missing from the site: a way for us to add metadata to our layers, beyond just place names and dates. Utimately I’d like the photocollages to act as a foundation on which to build all kinds of narratives: for example, the story of one writer’s career, told chronologically by jumping from spot to spot; or the story of an epic battle between crews; or just the story of what it was like the night a certain piece got painted.
This is something we’ve always intended for the site, but it’s not a simple task and we haven’t had time to do a proper job of it. In the meantime, various threads of narrative are spinning into existence over in our Flickr group. I hope some day soon we can weave it all together.
Our Flickr group keeps growing, and its members (all 249 of them) are continuing to submit interesting photos from all over the world. The fine folks at Flickr have provided some very handy new tools, such as a photo “badge” that shows the most recent photos added to the pool. I’ve added one to the sidebar of this blog, so you can easily check what’s new.
If you have digital photos you’d like to submit to Graffiti Archaeology, it’s pretty easy: get yourself a free Flickr account, upload your photos, and add them to the Graffiti Archaeology group. If you’re old school and only shoot on film, don’t let that stop you. We’d be happy to scan your classic flicks. Just drop us a line (info “at” grafarc “dot” org) and we’ll set things up.
Our traffic hit another major spike as a result of the New York Times article. If you’ve tried to view the site today and got turned away, don’t worry, nothing has crashed. We just have a throttle on the bandwidth to keep the costs in line. We’re looking into ways to serve more data to you. In the meantime, we appreciate your patience!
I particularly appreciate Ms. Boxer’s honest critique of the design choices we made. When she references a “battle for the soul” of our site, she’s getting close to the truth. The underground imagery is no accident. The fact is that graffiti, as much as we may love to look at it, is still illegal. So the real battle is between my desire for openness and a very real need for obscurity. The challenge is to shed some light on the wonders of this underground scene without digging it up completely and destroying it.
Thanks to all this good press, Graffiti Archaeology has become more popular than I ever would have expected. Four million hits in the month of May, from over forty thousand visitors. I’m psyched to see that there are so many other people out there who dig this stuff enough to click through it all.
The downside is that our bandwidth usage has gone through the roof. We’re serving up hundreds of high resolution images, to the tune of around 5 gigs per day, and the cost of this is substantial. So, as an experiment, I’ve added a PayPal donation button to the site. It looks like this:
If you enjoy the site and feel it in your heart to help us cover the costs, then by all means, use it!
Trainspotters take note! Tomorrow, June 18th, marks the 50th anniversary of the abandonment of the Pacific Electric Subway in Los Angeles. This evening at 7:30, the Electric Railway Historical Association’s monthly meeting will commemorate the anniversary with videos from their archive. For more information, see the ERHA website.
The closing of the subway had many negative implications for the city of Los Angeles. But the silver lining was that it provided some amazing empty tunnels in which to film scenes for TV and movies, and of course, paint graffiti. One of those is the famous Belmont tunnel, featured on our site. To read more about the Belmont tunnel and the area around it, see Save Belmont Art Park.
Tonight’s new layer is a production on the legal wall at 19th Street and Mission, from November 6, 2004, featuring TENFOLD, JASE and BLISTER.
I just need to make a plug for fi5e, a student at Parsons School of Design in NYC who’s doing some brilliant graffiti-related geekwork.
His Graffiti Taxonomy project does with graf what Douglas Hofstadter did with typography in Metamagical Themas, and what Bernd and Hilla Becker did with coal tipples and water towers in Typologies. Small multiples rock my world. (Coincidentally, Adam Greenfield has been tracking one of his posters as it disintegrates over time. Here’s a detail of the same poster from fi5e’s blog.)
In fi5e’s most recent and ambitious project, Graffiti Analysis, he tracks a writer’s movements in 3D using a kind of light pen, manipulates the data, makes crazy videos out of them, and projects them onto walls and monuments. I think he’s just scratching the surface as far as what could be done with that data. But the videos have a tight esthetic quality about them that I like for its own sake. Check out his blog for more details and lots of moving pictures.
Hats off to you, fi5e! (And thanks, Mike, for the latest links.)
I’m finally starting to get through my backlog of photos. Tonight’s addition? One new layer for the harveys wall, dated December 26, 2004, featuring GIANT, BLISTER and JASE. Word on the street is that there’s something new there already. With any luck I’ll check it out this weekend. Stay tuned…