Links to the Future

Hip-Hop Graffiti as High-Tech Dialect

Though Third Voice puts an intriguing new legal spin on graffiti, the underlying tensions it creates between free speech and ownership are as old as writing on somebody else's wall. But don't let the revival of graffiti demonization fool you— though the scrawl is mostly gone from New York subways, it went online long before Third Voice appeared, and it gets a lot more sophisticated than mere Web site commentary. Indeed, according to Ron Eglash, author of the recently published African Fractals (Rutgers University Press), hip-hop graffiti can be considered a kind of "vernacular cybernetics."

From the chromatic styles of Futura 2000 and Blade to its figuration as an alien language in John Sayles's The Brother From Another Planet, hip-hop graffiti has always inhabited a postapocalyptic imaginary space— and always been a high-tech dialect. The influence of its abstract hieroglyphs on the wigged-out fonts of the digital typography explosion can be traced from Kase 2's '80s description of his "fifth-dimension parallel step" writing as "computer style," amenable to being sectioned off and recombined at any given point.

Internet theorists in search of historical precedents have tended to obsess over various avant-garde formal strategies, but the Web is more realistically viewed as one big virtual city wall. The impulse that makes people publish home page diaries is the same impulse that makes graffiti artists tag their names on every available surface. As Futura 2000— who started out on trains in the '70s, broke through to the art world in the '80s, and in the '90s works primarily on the Web— puts it: "The essence of graffiti is one's identity . . . and the promotion of the tag or logo of that individual."

Hundreds of graffiti sites are currently online, originating everywhere from San Francisco to Scandinavia. Most are devoted to archiving images from around the world, distributing scene reports and event information, and connecting dispersed communities of artists. The more inventive make clever use of real-world metaphors; run by '70s veteran Kel 1st, www.voiceoftheghetto.com's main interface is a subway car whose windows open onto images at the touch of the cursor, leading to information on the Young Lords, memories of storied writers like Dondi, and a flash-heavy interactive display of Kel's latest exhibit, "Metallurgy."

Art Crimes (www.graffiti.org), the most comprehensive of all, used to host a virtual wall that all comers could spray a little computer paint on; though the wall is gone, it's still the best introductory site out there. But, in remaining strictly supplementary to real-life practice, even Art Crimes misses the deeper-rooted sympathies between graffiti and the Web. Futura's site takes matters to the proverbial next level, expanding graffiti's flow-motion aesthetic into a multimedia experience that incorporates original and borrowed images, text, Flashanimation, and a labyrinth of links. "I am a machine," he says. "I am programmable. All I have done of late is transfer power to other engines . . . recycle old technologies and introduce new theories."

Like so many hip-hop artists of his generation, Futura has constructed a worldview out of comic-book heroes, martial-arts films, and Star Wars­style cosmologies. Invoking the military terminology of reconnaissance missions, special ops forces, and high-tech weapons experimentation, the site draws you through its multiple pathways in search of secrets, but ultimately defies interpretation. Image grids form central crossroads; meta-pages act as warehouses for the newest URLs; you find yourself confronted at dead ends by surveillance imagery and snipers.

On one level, this is an extension of the guerrilla tactics— writing on seemingly inaccessible spaces, breaking into yards, operating under threat of discovery— of graffiti's early days. On another, it's a translation of graffiti into the new terms of information warfare. Physical graffiti is already an encrypted information system whose styles constitute a code decipherable only by those initiated in street mathematics of pattern recognition; transferred to cyberspace, it is equivalent at a certain point to hacking.

Or, as Rammellzee put it in his classic 1979 manifesto, "Iconic Treatise Gothic Futurism": "The elevation of Wild Style knowledge is concluded as a SYMBOL DESTROYER, ARMORED, MEDIEVAL MECHANISM." For Rammellzee, graffiti was nothing less than a return to a universal language capable of restructuring society from the electromagnetic level; in the language of computer code at least, where symbols take on pseudo-magical powers of action, his prophecy has come true.

Nevertheless, it's a little too easy to romanticize graffiti's rebelliousness. As Eglash points out, community is as important to writers as defiance of authority; graffiti is "not only a claim to ownership of coding, but coding as a claim to ownership." It costs a lot more money to scrawl online than on a wall; Futura, 43-year-old father of two, has managed to parlay his work into a minimedia empire that includes a store and a clothing line. In cyberspace, his tag translates directly into property: www.futura2000.com.

African FractalsPage: http://www.cohums.ohio-state.edu/comp/ eglash.dir/afractal.htm

Blade Page: http://www.bladekingofgraf.com

Rammellzee's "Iconic Treatise Gothic Futurism" Page: http://www.strano.net/snhtml/ ipertest/metanet/ txt2/text16.htm

 
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