University of Chicago Press, 1999

Review posted June 2011.

Perhaps the first interesting question is why this book, written by a faculty member at UCLA and covering graffiti in the Los Angeles area, would be published by the University of Chicago. Maybe the answer is that the subject has become sufficiently interesting nationally. She talks about various art galleries sponsoring graffiti as art so one could assume that art is the subject here, but it is more likely that the L.A. gang markers have spread east enough to touch the lives of Chicagoans.

It is hard to recognize as art the repetitive initials and abbreviations, the smudgy slashes and overwriting. It is easier to understand the skill represented in the block printing or Old English script she photographs. Chicano graffiti pays more attention to style and form than does Black graffiti which is more aggressive. The abbreviations themselves are curious and seem to stem from a lack of interest in the written language -- although Mexican-American kids are probably the group most interested in making drawings and writing stories.

Hip-hop, which is not apparently gang-related, is closest to art work, with cartoons, drawings, exaggerated lettering styles.

Perhaps her most important point is that graffiti is not used to claim territory; it is used to mark territory already inhabited and controlled (at least temporarily) by the writer or the writer's gang. This makes more sense of our observations of graffiti on buildings and train cars and other structures away from town centers and inhabited buildings (generally speaking). Whether this is true outside of Los Angeles, anyway, is unclear; we saw graffiti all along streets in many European cities, as high up as a quickly moving kid with a spray can could reach. Maybe the claiming is wishful thinking, or the territory metaphorically belongs to the gang.

It will be interesting to see if there are noticeable differences between U.S. and Canadian graffiti styles.