… the graffiti writer argues for … the appropriation of the street by those who primarily inhabit it.
This is from ‘Ceci Tuera Cela: Graffiti as Crime and Art’ in Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation by Susan Stewart (1994; 1991):
… This community [or graffiti writers] is structured by an explicit hierarchy: beginners (called “toys”) work with master writers as apprentices. The toy generally progresses from writing simple “tags” on any surface to writing “throw-ups” (larger tags thrown onto inaccessible surfaces or the outsides of subway cars) to writing “pieces” (short for masterpieces: symbolic and/or figurative works such as landscapes, objects, letters, or characters drawn on a variety of surfaces).
Given this social background to the practice of graffiti, the function of graffiti appears repeatedly, nevertheless, in the native scheme of things as a matter of individuation. One of the principle rules of the graffiti writer’s code of ethics is that a writer cannot copy, or “bite,” either the tag or the style of another writer without instigating a cross-out war or, more directly, a first-person fight. The reputation of the writer depends upon the recognizability of his or her style, but even more importantly upon his or her facility for “getting up,” for making one’s mark as frequently and extensively as possible.
… Writers will often make evaluative comments part of their “pieces,” leaving a history of the constraints on their work: “Sorry about the drips,” “It’s cold,” “Cheap paint,” “Too late. Too tired.” Graffiti writers plan larger pieces,and practice smaller ones, in sketchbooks called “black books” or “piece books,” and the execution of a large piece depends upon “racking up” or “inventing” — that is, stealing — sometimes hundreds of cans of spray paint and hundreds of markers before a piece can be begun.
… the head of the police gang-control unit in Los Angeles declares that “graffiti decreases property value, and signed buildings on block after block convey the impression that the city government has lost control, that the neighborhood is … sliding toward anarchy.” [in 1982]
This is graffiti as nonculture. Linked to the dirty, the animal, the uncivilized, and the profane, contemporary urban graffiti signify an interruption of the boundaries of public and private space, an eruption of creativity and movement outside and through the claims of street, façade, exterior, and interior by which the city is articulated. Graffiti make claims upon materiality, refusing to accept the air as the only free or ambiguously defined space. The practice of graffiti emphasizes the free commercial quality of urban spaces in general, a quality in contrast to the actual paucity of available private space.
… We may extend Louis Kahn’s contention that “the street is a room by agreement” to include the street as playground, ball field, and billboard by agreement — or by conflict, subterfuge, and the exercise of power and privilege.
… Graffiti writers often argue that it is ethical to write on spaces that have been abandoned or poorly maintained; it is considered a sign of amateurism, however, to write on churches, private homes and automobiles, and other clearly “private” property. Writers sometimes extend this argument to a complaint about the “emptiness” or lack of signification characteristic, in their opinion, of public and corporate architecture overall.
[line break added] To these buildings characterized by height and anonymity, the graffiti writer attaches the personal name written by hand on a scale perceptible to the individual viewer. In this sense, the graffiti writer argues for the personalization of wall writing and for the appropriation of the street by those who primarily inhabit it.
… It is not so much that graffiti are, after all, a public art; rather, graffiti point to the paradox of a public space and face, presentation and display, by which surface, space, and the frontal view are gestures of respectability and respect toward a generalized order for its own sake.
… they form a critique of the status of all artistic artifacts, indeed a critique of all privatized consumption, and carry out that threat in full view, in repetition, so that the public has nowhere to look, no place to locate an averted glance.