Recently, I engaged in some guerilla photography (get in-shoot-get out) under the Wright's Ferry (Route 30) Bridge. I took lots of shots of graffiti murals on the bases of the bridge piers. In a way, the images scrawled there reminded me of the cave paintings of Chauvet in France, yet these were different - more modern, not as pure. Since then, I've been trying to sort out some mixed feelings I've been harboring about graffiti.
In many ways, graffiti is a schizophrenic art form. It doesn't always know what it's trying to be. It's the poor, bastard, stepchild of American art. No one really wants to claim it as their own. Not in the light of day, anyway. It's as if the style materialized out of thin air, with no legitimate parents stepping forward or keeping watch. It's done furtively, almost invisibly, often by anonymous artists or artists known only to each other. On the one hand, it's the defacing of public - and increasingly, private - property, which puts it squarely in the category of vandalism. If poorly done - and a lot of it is - it's ugly and distracting. On the other hand, it's street art, and as such is an outlet for political, social, and artistic expression. A lot of Columbia yokels who engage in the practice, however, don't seem enlightened enough to have been inspired by any of the loftier ideals, at least judging from their work. The anemic, uninspired doodling on and around the bridge piers at Columbia River Park, for example, looks like the scribblings of bored teenagers, in that there's no depth or inventiveness to the work. In fact, it detracts from its surroundings and is an example of art as destruction rather than art as creation. It mars what it touches. It is meaningless. It says nothing, is nothing.
The graffiti I discovered on the underside of the Wright's Ferry Bridge is somewhat more engaging, due to the quantity (there's a lot of it) and quality (a few steps above mindless doodling). Obviously, a lot of time, effort, and spray paint were expended over the years. The vistas seem to be the work of numerous artists, and some individual sections show a respectable level of draftsmanship and imagination, although there's no evidence of any budding Basquiats or Harings. I also don't sense that any of it is gang-related. Of course, a few of the less talented found it necessary to fall back on spray-painting the f-word and the n-word.
The odd mixture of styles creates a peculiar aesthetic appeal in the use of varying textures and line quality, choice of color, and so on. I didn't detect any underlying political statement, unless you consider the mere act of graffiti a statement in itself. Generally, I appreciate graffiti's rebellious, anti-establishment character, even without an overt political message. Maybe it's as Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message."
In my opinion, modern graffiti has the contradictory distinction of having descended primarily from dadaism (due to its absurdist, anarchistic nature and its refutation of tradition), and also from folk art (because it expresses and perpetuates tradition). It's this contradictory nature that, at least in part, lends graffiti its tension and energy. Either that, or its very presence just somehow pisses people off for some undefinable reason. In addition to dadaism and folk art, however, I'd throw 60s hot rod art (e.g., Big Daddy Roth) and primitivism into the mix of influences. I occasionally saw crudely drawn figures and faces that look as if they're borrowed from such styles. Some took a more narcissistic approach and simply painted their own names, albeit in stylized fashion. I'd venture to say the works under the bridge were created by artists not formally schooled or trained in the halls of academia. And that's ok. Too much indoctrination in art history can lead to preconceived, inbred ideas and execution. I get the impression these artists spurred each other on through a mutually respectful rivalry. Some even painted over others' works. (I could take a stab at levity and call them practitioners of the Bridge School of Graffiti - or does any sort of labeling, serious or not, contradict and negate the free-form nature of what they're attempting?)
Overall, the jury is still out on many aspects of graffiti, at least for me. I do think it's an art form, on some level. It's not high art. As a matter of fact, a lot of it is decidedly lowbrow, although it doesn't need to be. It is also vandalism. I wouldn't want someone spray painting my house or car or person, even if I agree with the message. Then again, any message powerfully rendered and accurately aimed so as to help "dislodge the wealthy, powerful, and titled from their flagpoles," as Harlan Ellison puts it, is sometimes necessary and welcome (preferably on public property). At any rate, what I saw is authentic artwork from Columbia's underground art scene. None of the works were approved or commissioned - except by the artists themselves - and they are currently on display in the open-air gallery under the Route 30 Bridge, more or less permanently, or at least until the elements wear them away - or Norfolk Southern whitewashes over them. Of course, the exhibition is on private property, so if you choose to make the pilgrimage, trespass at your own risk. If you get caught, you might get arrested and fined. Barring that, admission is free. You may even want to leave a message of your own.