GRAFFITI IS CELEBRATED AS ONE OF THE ESSENTIAL FOUR ELEMENTS OF HIP HOP, BUT THE WORK OF SOME OF ITS EXPONENTS IS OFTEN COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE WHEN IT COMES TO THE MUSIC ITSELF BEING GIVEN A LIVE FORUM TO SHINE IN. LIZ GALINOVIC EXPLORES THE SOMETIMES STRAINED RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN VENUES, PROMOTERS AND TAGGERS OFF THE BACK OF A FLOOD RELIEF GIG WHICH ALMOST COST THE SYDNEY SCENE ANOTHER VENUE.
Def Wish Cast’s 2006 album The Legacy Continues… features a track with an interesting breakdown between verses that goes something like this – “Aww ya kidding. C’mon I want ‘em now. Oh my god, where are the guys? I need Def Wish Cast on now! Have you seen the tags at the back?” This gruff, angry voice concludes the track with a proclamation that has become famous around the hip hop traps: “Right. No. More. Hip hop.”
The owner of this voice is most likely a member of DWC, but the person the voice pretends to be is the owner of a Sydney hotel who called an end to the various hip hop events his hotel had played host to because of the tagging scourge these events brought with them. He is neither the first venue owner, nor the last, to close doors to hip hop specifically for graffiti-based reasons.
In late January, a debate erupted on a social networking site over a hip hop show held at Sydney venue Tone as a fundraiser for Queensland flood victims. The event had been a large success, organisers raising $11,000 while the venue donated a chunk of their bar money to the cause. Unfortunately for the venue and the organisers, some of the punters donated an abundance of ink to the toilet cubicles and scratches to the mirrors.
“This has been going on for years unfortunately,” Sydney-based hip hop publicist and promoter CJ York says. “Where promoters try to bring these niche events to the public, and the punters do get out there and support, there always seems to one or several dickheads that feel the need to deface an area of the venue and as a result, the venue closes its doors to hip hop.”
While the organisers of the benefit gig raged at this lack of respect, one particular point continued to resurface – that graffiti is an integral part of hip hop culture and tagging is an integral part of graffiti. You can’t have one without the other.
Graffiti and hip hop music are symbiotic – they’re bound to each other. Seus, a Sydney-based graffiti artist and MC tells that when the two cultures were taking off in the States they were destined to enter into a life long love affair as they came out of and raged against the same socio-economic struggle.
“Once established as an underground movement in New York during the 70s, graffiti writers were naturally drawn to rap and breakdance as it appealed to their existing sensibilities. It was made in the streets for the streets and it didn’t cost a cent. This common ethos brought together like minds from three tangible art forms and hip hop was born,” he says. But Seus also says that in Sydney in particular, graffiti could be considered the backbone of the hip hop scene.
This is Australia’s hip hop history that Rivals, a Sydney artist manager and promoter who has been involved in the scene on all levels since the early 80s, elaborated on. “Graffiti is the primary element that helped form Australian hip hop as we know it today. When hip hop was first brought to our shores by the likes of Malcolm McLaren and Blondie, graffiti and breaking were the first elements we were exposed to,” he says.
“As the number of practising B-boys dwindled to a handful across Australia, graffiti grew stronger and stronger as our artists grew in skill and tenacity. At one point it was nearly the only element of hip hop practised in this country… It was the graffiti artists that first began unifying hip hop fans around the country and building networks across states, sending photos, outlines and mixtapes to each other via the mail way.”
Every graffiti artist begins their career with a tag and a tag is every property owner’s nightmare. As Obese Records Operations Manager Fern Greig-Moore points out, in the eye of the public tagging has a bad reputation “due to the fact that it’s more often than not done on public property”, and seen to be senseless scribble. But, as Rivals points out, there’s an in-house aesthetic and progression to tagging. “All pure graffiti is based on letters and as the art form progressed, the disassembling and reconstruction of letters in their own distinct and unique style is the primary focus of every traditional graffiti artist. This always begins with their tag. To me, a well thought out and executed handstyle tag is just as pleasing to the eye as a fully-fledged, full colour piece.”
Tagging is what Seus describes as “the architect’s blueprint and the basis of the grand structure. The tag is to graffiti what the endoskeleton is to the human body – without it the entity would cease to exist.” But there is an element to the practice of tagging that may help to explain how it happens in the toilets at hip hop gigs. It’s something Jason Dax Woodward (aka Brisbane’s Kasino) bluntly labels “ego”, while Brisbane’s Tommy Illfigga calls it “free marketing”. “It is basically guerrilla advertising – getting up the most and getting up in the most prolific and daring spots so you can be noticed. Exactly the same as any corporation would do to advertise their product, minus the multimillion dollar budget.”
When it comes to tagging the streets, tagging as an egotistical form of free marketing makes sense, but why leave your mark amongst the stench of the gents? The reasons given are many. They’re cowards, they want to be noticed, they’re drunk, they’re in their ultimate cultural environment, they’re letting other writers know they’re there, they’re toys or they can’t control the urge. Whatever the reasons, the tagging is damaging the scene they are so much a part of because, for a couple of hours a night, they can’t keep a Posca in their pants. So what can be done to reconcile the issue between these two lovers?
Combat and compromise measures have been launched. Greig-Moore claims signs asking punters not to tag saw clean toilets at the 2010 Obese Block Party; Rivals and the people he works with have had butcher’s paper slapped all over cubicle walls and doors while Tommy Illfigga went for canvasses. There have also been threats to raise drink prices. But as they all point out, it only takes one person to give into their urge for the damage to be done and it doesn’t help that graffiti by its very nature is anti-authoritarian. Which means it’s not what the organisers say, it’s how they say it. “Threatening writers with excessive drink prices is only going to fuel the act of vandalism at a venue,” says Seus.
Ben Peterson, who owns Tone nightclub and describes himself as a part of the hip hop community, claims that he “expects” and “tolerates” tagging. Because of this, Tone has plain black walls so that tags can be painted over easily. But he admits that most venues simply ban hip hop and without a change in attitude the genre will have to “get used to dodgy corner pubs and substandard venues.”
The organisers of hip hop gigs profess a profound respect and love for graffiti – they don’t want to get rid of it, but they’re at war with the venues who don’t want to clean it up and the costs of the clean-up range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. As Randy Glazer, artist manager and hip hop promoter points out, “We don’t stand there while you throw up on a train and scream for the police/graf squad to stop you. We love and respect what you do. Please show that same respect back to us.”
It seems a compromise must be reached with this much loved but unruly element for the local hip hop scene to continue to thrive. Many organisers provide activities and/or areas at gigs where graff writers can fulfil their urge; they’re not compromising, they’re embracing and those writers who choose to ignore the pleas of the people who bring them the music they love are, in Glazer’s words, “shitting where they sleep”.
When it comes to the debate about tagging in the toilets of venues hosting hip hop gigs, Rivals puts it best – “it’s All City, not All Cubicle”.