Graffitti and Archival Construction


courtesy of author's computer
Screaming BlackFace (from a wall in Rio de Janeiro)


As a new school year gets underway, I find myself more excited about my course offerings than usual. This is largely due to the fact that I will be teaching a course in the spring that I have been trying to conceptualize and organize for almost 3 years: A history of graffiti in the Americas. Starting with wall paintings in Cuba and Jamaica and ending with a focus on train murals and museum installations in New York City, the course will be centered as much around the study of Caribbean migration to the US as it will on historicizing visual representation. Of course the class will of necessity cover other issues, such as the relationship between art and race; the intersection of criminality and art; the occasional transformation of graffiti from illegal to legal form of expression; and evolving definitions of private property.

How best, then, to create some sort of scaffold for a course that cuts across such a wide array of intellectual spaces and disciplinary practices? Should I anchor the history of graffiti to the history of migration and build upward and outward into these other areas of study from this solid baseline? Or do I privilege the sociology of crime and deviance and build the course around these motifs? Or perhaps the class could be built around anthropologies of urban space or more generally around Black and Latino youth’s engagement with physical geography.

While the possible approaches to teaching the course are numerous, and can thus present some anxiety about having to become a jack-of-all social science and humanities disciplines, the fact remains that the subject matter itself is held together by the practice of writing and drawing on public or private walls that are visible to the public. Very often these writings and drawings are transgressive, and thus are often susceptible to being erased or covered over. Or on the contrary these works are commissioned or installed in museums in an inverse attempt to preserve and make permanent a form of art which is typically decried as vandalism. Thus each disciplinary approach that I have named springs from giving critical attention to the same archival format: an archive that is either constantly under erasure or that is constantly trying to keep erasure at bay. Small wonder then that while I will be trying to cover many of the topics related to graffiti that I have raised so far, what currently holds it all together for me personally is a fascination with what the proliferation of graffiti in the Americas might have to tell us about the construction of archives.


My interest in graffiti as an academic topic of analysis dates back to the year 2004, when I made my first research trip to Rio de Janeiro. I was then a master’s student working on the impact of the Haitian revolution on Black rebellions in Brazil. My days would consist of Portuguese lessons in the early morning, reading and studying about race and ethnicity in Brazil in the afternoons, and spending significant time at clubs that played hip-hop, or what was called locally “Black Music,” at night. Happy to have found a vibrant hip-hop scene in the land of Samba, my attention to music was soon overtaken by the attention I started giving to the numerous paintings and drawings that covered the public walls and bridges of the city. Everything from the “tags” of different graffiti crews, to murals of military police shooting civilians covered walls, and while I was unsure how to process all of these images I was very aware of how marvelous some of the drawings were.  So I began to take pictures of graffiti that year.

Fast-forward 11 years and my collection of images of graffiti from not only Brazil, but also from Cuba and Mexico, has continued to grow without rhyme or reason, other than the fact that I liked a mural here or a “tag” there. I feel no more certain today about what many of the images mean or to what they referred to than I did 11 years ago.  As I look back over the images, however, I am more struck than I ever have been by what these images may have to tell us about the relationship between archives, youth, and power.

Take the above image, for example, a black face almost leaping off-the-wall and screaming at a passing viewer. There is no telling what has elicited the scream- The face stands alone without words or any accompanying ornamentation. Is it frustration with work, fear of another, racial injustice? One can never be sure if it is any or all of these, and it is perhaps this mystery that compels scholars and tourists to snap pictures of this face to bring back and show others. In fact, the very reason why I have included the image in this post is because it is an image of graffiti in Rio that I have seen in the picture collection of several friends who have visited the city. Thus while the mystery of what the scream signifies may never be resolved, it has recently led to me posing a more intriguing question: what does it mean to be young and documenting the contemporary atmosphere of Brazil in a medium that may or may not survive on the canvas it was intended to live on (i.e. a wall) but that may continue to live on photo prints, hard drives, and on Ip addresses in foreign countries?  Does the young artists’ voice paradoxically reach farther and with more power once he or she relinquishes control over not only the meaning of the image but also over it’s location and circulation?

While issues of intellectual property rights certainly animate the question that I am asking, I want to spell out a little more deliberately what interests me here. We are accustomed to thinking about archives not just as immobile spaces where documents live, but also as irreplaceable and definitive locations, so much so that digitizing archives does not mean that we eradicate or forget where the original documents are housed.  Despite the fact that we are able to do more research than ever from behind the keyboard, this has not freed us from the practice of citing, naming, and thus reifying certain powerful institutions and locations that historically have been more responsible for suppressing radical black thought and activity than preserving them. The photography and circulation of illegal graffiti may, then, be the formation of a more loosely regulated and less bounded set of archives.

Yet this is not all. Graffitied is by and large, though not exclusively, a form of art that attracts young participants. Once we cross a certain threshold somewhere in the 30s the idea of running from the cops or a hanging from a billboard or of lurking near live train tracks to finish a mural is no longer as thrilling or as carefree as it was in our teens and twenties. Consequently if we are looking at the formation of less bounded and less regulated archives, the principal creators of our documents are young people. Just like the idea of a set of documents or images being unhinged and forever separated from their original location seems antithetical to our citation practices, the notion of an archive generated and maintained by many nameless young folks is quite antithetical to our conception of document preservation. Similarly, just as archives are often synonymous with physical locations and carefully controlled and catalogued pieces of paper, they are often synonymous with being old and with thus being overseen by elder statesman (or at least by individuals who have acquired the mantle of seniority due to years of experience or years of living with a set of documents). Even when we consider nontraditional archives, like statues and monuments, or like shoeboxes found in the attic of someone who lived through a particular historical moment, such archives fascinate us not only because we “discover” something previously unused but also because they have been unused and lying dormant in the same place for so long. In other words when we think about nontraditional document collections we still privilege the familiar features of old age and immobile, original location.  Considering the archival dimensions of graffiti may offer a pathway out of this static understanding of historical preservation where hierarchies of generation and physicality structure many young black and latino perspectives as little more than anecdotes that must be tempered by the use of more recognizable archival sources.

Thus although we have spent the last twenty years talking about the digitization of archives and the concomitant democratization of information-access that is assumed to come with digitization practices,  graffiti images have remained largely unconsidered in such discussions.  This, then, is something that I absolutely intend to stress with my students this year.  However, it remains to be seen whether my fascination about graffiti as an archive can be translated into productive classroom discussion. Let’s check back in the Spring and see what happens.



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Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.