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Edward Birzin


Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

Subway Art(efact)

Dissertation in Culture

Mentoring team:
First supervisor: Prof. Dr. Martin Lüthe
Second supervisor: Prof. Dr. Frank Kelleter
Third supervisor: Prof. Dr. Raphael Schacter

The same style of graffiti, with the same traditional understanding, application, and interpretation, is found in many cities throughout the world. Most, if not all, of this graffiti shares a common point of reference: the 1970s New York City graffiti phenomenon. In this thesis, I examine three framing texts about the 1970s New York City graffiti phenomenon, which transformed the hermeneutics of graffiti and opened it up to becoming the quasi-worldwide phenomenon it has since become. My goal is to present a distinct story of how graffiti became an art.

Each of the three framing texts I examine represents a paradigm shift in the interpretation of the 1970s New York City graffiti phenomenon. These texts located (“Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals,” 1971), elevated (The Faith of Graffiti [Mailer, 1974]), and fixed (Subway Art [Chalfant & Cooper, 1984]) graffiti as a practice and an object. I will approach these seminal texts by looking at the 1970s New York City graffiti phenomenon not as something that has always been defined, but as a growing practice (and later an object), which was filled with imagination and was forged both on walls and objects and in a public dialogue captured in texts.

The primary question for this thesis is: What does a close reading of three paradigmatic texts for graffiti reveal about the process of the construction of graffiti? To cut a lens to re-view graffiti in this study, I bring together two texts: Anderson’s (1983) Imagined Communities and Hobsbawm and Ranger’s (1983) The Invention of Tradition.

This dissertation should be understood as being in-dialogue with the only deep academic study of the New York City graffiti phenomenon, Austin’s (2001) Taking the Train, asking what might be found if one highlights the imaginative aspects of graffiti instead of the “real” context. What if, instead of seeing graffiti as an “it” already there with emotional energy, one sees a “thing” that was invented. One could then ask what role certain texts had in the invention of this “thing” graffiti and the mostly imagined community it conjures.

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft