Thursday, January 22, 2009

P.A.R.I.S.: Metro Graffiti

I’ve always been a big fan of graffiti. Keith Haring is one of my favorite artists. I tried to design a tag on several occasions, each as unsuccessful as the last. One of the first things I noticed on my way into Paris (via Roissybus) was the graffiti on the walls next to the highway. It is pretty hard to miss, since a lot of it is in six-foot-tall block letters. What strikes me now is that you really only see graffiti in one place in Paris proper—on the walls of the Metro tunnels.

Unless I’m very much mistaken, graffiti is meant to mark off territorial boundaries. Tags are put in locations to indicate that the person who tagged that location has some sort of command over that space. This is reflected in my observations of similar tags repeated in highly concentrated in between three or four stops, then other tags taking their place to repeat the cycle. What I don’t understand about subway graffiti is that there’s no reason to assert dominance over uninhabitable, non-useful space. To me, this renders it ineffective to that said purpose.

Graffiti could also be considered as an artistic statement, meant to be a widespread public distribution of an artist’s work. In this manner, graffiti is one of the best media (non-technologically aided—like TV, CDs, internet) I know of. It’s somewhere you can’t avoid it. Everyone in Paris rides the Metro, so everyone sees what you’ve made. However, despite its permanence in location, viewing time is kept to a minimum for everyone except the subculture of graffiti artists. Tags, no matter how beautiful, are essentially never seen for more than a second at a time. Artistic purpose number two is also somewhat unsuccessful. The one exception to this (in my observations thus far) is an artist I identify as COAD. I’ve seen his (or her) work spanning multiple stops on multiple lines, and though the tags are neither the biggest nor the fanciest nor the most colorful, they are clearly legible and strategically placed at bends or near stations where trains go slower.

I should acknowledge that a lot of what I’m writing about is based on assumptions of the artists’ intentions, because artists’ statements don’t often accompany the graffiti they produce.

My response to Parisian Metro graffiti is as follows.

Graffiti is widely considered as a form of vandalism. I would agree for the most part, since it disrupts the original structure of whatever it covers. However, in the case of the Metro graffiti, I would argue that it is productive rather than disruptive. The Metro lines are not interesting in themselves. There are lights spaced every few meters, and tubes running along the walls, but they are otherwise bare. Graffiti produces a feeling of life and vitality down the tracks. Whether or not it was intended, the fact that there is graffiti in the Metro system makes what would otherwise be a simple, dull tunnel into yet another aspect of Parisian culture. Despite graffiti’s poor reputation, what I’ve seen on the walls of the Metro tunnels has no negative value. It is colorful and relatively clean-looking, covering the otherwise-dingy walls with an artistic form. The tags, mostly nonsensical, don’t contain any sort of vulgarity (within my comprehension), and even if they did, they’re pretty hard to read in a fleeting second of observation.

The problem I find in the graffiti is that, more often than not, I don’t know what it says. Legibility is a huge issue. If the Metro were to move slower, providing more viewing time with each piece, I probably could figure out what each one of them says, but the manner in which they are written and the length (in number of letters) forbids comprehension. Most tags longer than four letters are unreadable in the span of a Metro passing. I understand not wanting to be limited by constraints on word length, but at a point it becomes inefficient. Certain tags, which I can’t even read, are beautiful, but I’m never going to figure out what they say because they’re simply too long. This would also seem to present a problem in the intention of representing one’s work, because nameless art cannot be credited to anyone, let alone the artist. What I find particularly interesting are the few pieces that are images rather than words. For instance, there is a cartoon-style portrait of a man and a woman on line 10 near la Motte-Piquet-Grenelle, which I have not been able to attribute to any artist because there is no visible signature. It seems to be art for the sake of art.

I just noticed recently that the graffiti on my route between my house and the center seems to have gotten much more colorful over the weekend, which leads me to believe that the graffiti is a very fluid art form as well, constantly being erased, added to and recreated. Graffiti is a living art form.

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