why Graffiti Archaeology doesn’t have maps

December 5, 2011 on 8:08 am | In events and press | Comments Off on why Graffiti Archaeology doesn’t have maps

A student in the New School’s Urban Media Archaeology class has written up an interesting critique of Graffiti Archaeology. It amazes me sometimes that our little project, now a decade old, still holds enough interest to merit this type of critique.

The critique calls out several contextual features that are missing from the project. Some of these are missing simply due to our lack of time to implement them. For example, labeling each writer’s work with their street name is standard practice among graffiti photographers, and I always do it when I post photos on Flickr. But implementing a system of artist-name tags would mean adding a host of interface features to make the system truly functional: a way of authoring, displaying and interacting with highlightable sub-regions of each layer, plus features to access the index of tags by artist name, search, etc… the list goes on! It’s been on my to-do list for years, but the implementation is just a bit beyond my present skill set. So yes, it’s a valid critique. And if you have the technical chops to help me make it happen, I’d love to hear from you!

But let’s talk about the lack of maps. This is not “missing” in the sense that it should be there but we haven’t gotten around to it. It is explicitly absent from the project at a conceptual level. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. I touch on this briefly in our FAQ page, but my answer is not much of an explanation. A full explanation would mean a long discussion about graffiti abatement and enforcement, but the short answer is: I won’t tell you because that information is private.

Some of the walls we cover on this site are “legal” or “permission” walls. Others are not. My experience has been that the unauthorized walls are consistently the most interesting to study. On those walls, there are no authorities or gatekeepers. The only force that drives change on those walls is the force of graffiti culture itself. It is on those walls that the “why” questions are most fascinating. However, those walls only persist as long-running graffiti spots because their locations are a closely kept secret, known only among those who paint there and the people they trust.

When a location like that gets publicized, it’s called “blowing up the spot”. The metaphor of destruction is fairly accurate. Blowing up a spot threatens its integrity in various ways: it attracts toys (writers of little skill). Too many toys will drag the quality of the wall down, and discourage the really skilled artists from painting there. Graffiti abatement crews can descend on the spot and whitewash away years of history. Land owners can put up fences, local politicians can try to show they’re “tough on crime” by cracking down. But even tourists and photographers can cause trouble: too many people walking through an otherwise abandoned area can attract attention from police, posing a real physical danger to the people who paint there. Any combination of these things can permanently damage the unique character of a secret spot.

Urban Media Archaeology’s critique concludes with a description of an “ideal world” in which Graffiti Archaeology’s historical layering is merged with the crowdsourced geography of projects like OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers. I love both of those projects, but merging them with this one is a very bad idea. It would mean, essentially, the end of all secret spots. To me, this would be an intolerable outcome. It seems to be trendy these days to assume that sharing everything with everyone all the time is always a good thing. The “end of privacy” is often portrayed as inevitable, or even in the past. Facebook has certainly made a lot of money off of this naive view. I disagree. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still believe in privacy. And if I catch you putting secret spots on your Walking Papers, we’ll have to settle our beef the old fashioned way too.

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