I haven’t indulged in a while at this point, but I was once a graffiti kid. Graffiti not in the broad sense of painting walls in some “urban” style (I did not grow up urbanly anyways), but in the sense graffiti people, “writers” as they call themselves, are very protective about: choosing some short name and putting it everywhere, “bombing” or just “writing”.
All writing, not just the graffiti kind, is very obviously somatic whenever someone writes. Writing is one of the ways in which the word is embodied and this can itself happen in many different ways. One of the most apparent and probably most relatable ways of words being inscribed in our flesh and our limbs being headlessly dictated by them is when signing our names: it is pure muscle memory. Writing as a motion becomes very visceral here, even if, or rather because, one might not think much of it. This is a sort of somatic abstraction which I like to experiment a lot with with my signature, altering the the motion itself for different appearances instead of trying to execute some visual idea. The key to distilling out that abstract motion is of course repetition, having to sign so many documents (doctors are the prime example), or in my case mostly busy hands in boring classes. Although I personally try to resist this effect to some degree, what happens here usually is that our writing becomes one big ligature, the letters lose their organizing function and are often fully unrecognizable or practically omitted. It makes complete sense that signatures by themselves move in the direction of sigils because they literally are seals.
From a qabbalist point of view this is a loss however. We are also interested in the decay of words and how they lose information and fall together in the process, but in a way which needs the letters retained, which is where graffiti becomes interesting. Although always pushed to the edge by egotistical style-maximization, graffiti writers are interested in preserving readability, because all things in graffiti serve the names. All street cred is primarily attached to the name, to the person only in so far as they are attached to the name. Names and people also do not correspond one to one: some writers often change names or have several, few only ever had one, many names belong to crews no one knows the number of members of, sometimes not even the crew members themselves. Of course there is always insider knowledge to the relation of names and people, but for many reasons the graffiti game of a city or region can never be completely comprehended. First of all because a city or region is hard to define in graffiti terms. Even when a crew is associated with a city it will want to grow outside of it, stretching it out, or on other occasions it will shrink to make claims of being “all-city” easier. Rural writers might go all-town in one night and are required to do road trips from that point onward completely ignoring what kind of region they belong to. And even when graffiti is attached to territories, when it is a means to an end of gangs or football club hooligans, these territories can, in the realm of graffiti, only be a swarm of singular instances of a name and never a bordered area. It can only be territorial in the way of wolf packs, which functionally mark their territory the same way; and not by the logic of a state, to encircle the range of a central agency. All this is not even accounting for the huge impact the internet had on the connectedness of graffiti writers.
Even if one did the impossible job of finding a closed graffiti system with comprehensible complexity, it would hardly be possible to get a holistic view of it because of the dynamics of secrecy that are inherent. Firstly because writers find themselves in a criminal position for not respecting property relations, and because of hostilities within the graffiti game itself. Sometimes tensions get so harsh among writers and crews on the level of graffiti, that people have to fear for their physical integrity. And even if unrealistically you became friends with everyone, once you arrived at that point a new pack of anonymous 14 year-olds will pop up with stolen spray cans and make your picture incomplete.
Besides all the impersonal forces that move the writers, the act of writing still remains personal in that it is the movement of an individuals body. In graffiti personality is expressed through style. Style is directly determined by the consistency of movements between units of graffiti of a writer, it is the way a writer likes to move when writing. Signatures maximize style over readability. However, in style we have not found the beacon of creative genius: although personal, style is still emergent. There are several factors in the emergence of style. First again: the name. The writer can only learn to like moves that functionally and aesthetically work with the letters that are in what they write. Furthermore: what input a writer pics up in their city, region or on the internet, which tools are accessible and preferred. And there is a wide range of tools: spray cans of different pressures and sizes (big and fast projects need big, high pressure cans), with different caps to put on them for different paint output, to suit different styles of painting, uncountable different kinds of markers, stones, screws, any sharp object really for scratching, paint in fire extinguishers and shampoo bottles, plain old paint rollers and brushes. It is easy to imagine the various ways these tools demand different movement. But a writer will usually not have one style for each tool they use. What makes it interesting that a writer might have a style dominated by straight aggressive lines when they use a marker or spray can because they started out scratching, or that another might never pick up scratching because other factors made them love round shapes which are not doable in scratching. Style affects tool-choice and tool-production, tools affects affect style. As is the condition for emergence, none of the factors work unidirectionally: Letters shape style, style shapes letters, writers are affected by their surroundings and affect their surroundings. Style emerges from these factors, emancipates itself from them and also becomes scalable. Graffiti is a rare case where a human’s movement get’s abstracted from the scale at which the body conceives of it. Skillful writers are able to execute their style on the level of their fingertips, wrist, arm and whole body.
A lot of writers have been entering the world of fine art. There are different directions for them to take, the one that interests us is the calligraphic/typographic one. The most basic difference between graffiti and calligraphy is in what is written. Graffiti hones in on a very specific string on letters, seldom longer than six letters. It explores this string on its own terms, in its own logic, to find all the frictions and resonances within the different ways of writing it. The given letters are formed to work particularly well in that specific formation. In calligraphy however all sorts of things are written. Letters are set in all kinds of relations with each other. This completely different task calls for standardization, scripts or fonts are created, making every letter work with every other letter, the whole alphabet is made uniform. This is not a personal affair anymore, it is where the art of calligraphy differentiates from simple handwriting. We are tapping into the monastic history of script, we find different schools of writing. Although emergence can not be completely ruled out, script has had a more design-heavy history. Here writing is something that is taught and learned, exists for teaching and learning and the act of writing mostly serves to copy existing texts. This explication does not serve to discredit calligraphy. Script simply maximizes for or different kind of consistency besides style: flow. As the units of writing grow in size, from single words to whole books, consistency of movement has to happen more within a unit of writing than between units of writing, which is the idea of the seal, the signature. Script maximizes legibility over personality. Instead of merging the letters together, they are broken up into their parts to make the strokes line up with each other.
In graffiti flow is just as important as style. The way letters are broken up into parts is one of the first things one hears when asking to be taught graffiti, making the parts work with each other is the next step. This is sometimes proposed to be a complicated, head-heavy thing, but that is only the case when it is approached from a didactic angle. Things become simple when seen as a consistency of motion. Graffiti exists between signature and script, where one merges the letters and the other dissolves them, it holds them to their highest standard. It is the realm where two kinds of movement-consistencies become undifferentiated, where inside of the written units and their in-between coincide, work on the same plane.
PS: This post was supposed to go on a little more. When I originally wrote this draft back in April I had a couple more ideas to develop about this analysis and wanted to make more apparent what I take this to mean, into what broader ways of thinking this fits. But that is usually the part where I get unsure and struggle to make statements I can stand behind. Instead I just wanna get this out just because I need the writing-machines to start running again and feel like I need to put something out to not get clogged. So do with this what you will. I’m always super happy about feedback, and am not attached so much to any idea of mine that I don’t enjoy devastating critique.
Although I got to explicitly connect this to Qabbala, this is not numogrammatical content in the most direct way. If I actually get to put out some more writing in the future it might generally be about all sorts of things. The good thing about not ever having been consistent is that I have no audience to disappoint. Still I hope someone gets something out of this. I will not promise continuing with this line of thought but if you wonder what I think would be the next step from here, I would look at what this analysis says about Gutenberg’s printing press with movable letters and the QWERTY keyboard.