Graffiti as Advertisement

Look for the Spear

Photo credit: Flickr user elizaO

It’s nice to think about graffiti as a free, democratic art form. Anyone can participateall you risk is a fine or possibly jail time! But in Austin, lately, graffiti has been taken over by the big green capitalist monster (a monster, some might say, who’s slowly but surely encroaching on the town with heinous condos and hip, remodeled convenience stores that stock only local beer and kombucha).

Graffiti? I'll Know It When I See It. Or Not.

graffiti etched into bus stop pole saying love thy neighbor

Image Credit: Personal Photograph 


When approaching a situation from a place of unfamiliarity or doubt, long-standing habit takes me to the Oxford English Dictionary. According to this semi-sacred text, graffiti (noun), means “words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.” I etched this definition onto a spare wall in my brain and set out, quite purposefully, to find some street art. I knew from casual observation that some fences outside my apartment complex, the bus stations along my street, some building walls and even the backs of some signs sport small splashes of graffiti. All that remained was determining and documenting which offerings qualified as real graffiti (once again, “words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint”). Simple, right?


Oh, so wrong.

What is graffiti and who does it belong to?

A photograph of Shepherd Fairey's inaugural designs on the HOPE Outdoor Gallery in Austin.

Image Credit: Geoff Hargadon

This week on viz. we'll be exploring graffiti culture in Austin and beyond, beginning with an interactive graffiti map that we'll use to begin archiving graffiti in and around the community in which we live.  Please visit and contribute!

In this post, I'd like to introduce some issues central to reading graffiti as both a performative and political act.  I take as my primary examples the HOPE Outdoor Gallery on 11th St. and Baylor in Austin's Clarksville neighborhood and graffiti from inside a now-demolished bicycle shop that once operated in West Campus.  Using these examples, I'd like to explore definitions of graffiti and raise questions of property and ownership in public spaces.  Join our interactive mapping project and follow our posts this week as we take a closer look at Austin graffiti.

Imagined Places in Decline

Guardian Arctic Iceberg

From, "Arctic Sea Ice Delusions" 9.9.2013

I thought I’d pick up this week where I left off in my last post on place and contemporary literature. I was catching up on the news this morning on The Guardian and, several clicks later, I found myself on their Environment page. Two large photos of bright blue ice met me there, one with the headline “Arctic sea ice delusions.” Images of the arctic, especially the dwindling arctic, confront me constantly. I’ve never been above the tree line, though I did live in Vermont for a few lengthy winters, and yet I have a detailed visual construct of its terrain in my head.

Because, like me, most people will never visit the arctic, the imagined version is our only access to it, making representations of it in media and literature that much more powerful. At times I wonder how this visual emphasis on the arctic landscapeice melt being a key factor in global climate changeaffects a person’s understanding of the environment and relationship to place. When a picture like this comes up on one’s news feed, does anyone else have the same, problematic gut reaction that I have? That arctic sea melt is really kind of beautiful? What does it mean to aestheticize environmental degradation? Perhaps it’s something akin to ruin porn, like the photos that have come out of Detroit in recent years.

Part II on Memes and Political (In)action: Satire and Empathy

In November 2011 student protestors at UC Davis were holding a peaceful demonstration on their campus when former Lt. John Pike pepper-sprayed them at close range.  In the days that followed, my Facebook newsfeed became a log of collective outrage. One day, an image of former Lt. John Pike Photoshopped into Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” appeared, and the “Casual Pepper Spray Everything Cop" meme was born.

Image Credit:

Reactions to the meme were varied. Some, like a friend of mine who is a UC Davis alum, worried the humor would become detached from the message of the protest. After all, in the world of internet memes detachment is somewhat of a governing principle. Even databases like refer to the UC Davis Cop as “Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop” -- emphasizing the disjuncture of his body language with his actions in a nonspecific time and place, over his place in UC Davis’s institutional history, and in the history of the Occupy movement. I would argue that some subjects seem riper for meme-making than others because their engagement with their surroundings already suggests the kind of disconnect between an individual and his or her environment that we usually associate with the chaotic and Photoshopped world of the Internet.

The Politics of Tampon Jewelry

Melissa Harris-Perry wearing tampon earrings

Image Credit: Politix

In the wake of the menstrual pad confiscation outside the Texas senate gallery, protesters made some highly creative and intentionally jarring visual statements using, primarily, unwrapped tampons. Sanitary napkin accessories, as far as I know, haven't made a big nationwide appearance yet, but the compactness of tampons, coupled with the built-in string, makes it a relatively easy object to manipulate in craftsy projects. I noticed some bold souls stringing them together to make impromptu necklaces at the state capitol the day of the outrage, but the country tuned in when Melissa Harris-Perry daringly donned some tampon earrings on her MSNBC Sunday show. You can see a brief video capturing her demonstration here.

"That the science of cartography is limited": mapping contemporary literature

View field list: contemporary lit of place & environment in a larger map

Oh hi, viz. readers. I’m Jenn Shapland, a new contributor to the blog. I thought I'd introduce myself by showing you a Google map I made this summer.

It’s a visualization of my field exam reading list. For the last year, I’ve been compiling a list of fiction and nonfiction titles on Contemporary Literature of Place and Environment. My process for developing the list was pretty haphazard at first—I asked just about everyone I knew for suggestions, I Googled like a madwoman, I stood for hours in front of my own bookshelves and BookPeople's, making stacks of possible titles. I started to shelve the books around my house according to geographic region. But, for obvious reasons, it wasn’t long before I realized that I needed a way to see the list in front of me without tripping over it.

Political (In)action in the Meme Generation?

Dawkins playing a midi breath controller in Saatchi video. Image Credit:

This will be the first post in a three-part series in which I will explore the relationship between memes and civic discourse.

What is an internet meme? Though most young people can instantly recognize a picture of Philosoraptor, Feminist Ryan Gosling, or a Lolcat, few know the history of this ubiquitous term. Nevertheless, show a room full of undergraduates an image of Nyan Cat, and you'll immediately elicit laughter and a sense of camaraderie. In that moment of laughter, however, it seems worth asking: what exactly is bringing consumers of memes together? From UC Davis’s “Pepper Spray Cop Meme,” to China’s “Big Yellow Duck” meme, how are memes shaping their viewer’s and creator’s understanding of activism and history? Is a comical form treated with such levity an effective means of communicating about more serious matters?  

There Might Be Blood: What Can and Can't Be Seen About Women's Bodies

gun next to box of tampons. Text: One of these items isn't allowed in the Texas Senate Chamber today. Can you guess which one?

Image Credit: Facebook, NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut

On July 12, 2013, I was standing in a long, winding line inside the Texas state capitol. For hours I had been chatting with the amazing men and women around me, sharing stories, sharing space, and, quite frankly, sharing boredom as we patiently inched towards the Senate gallery, hoping to secure a seat as the Texas senate debated and voted on a bill proposing abortion restrictions. Visually speaking, I was bombarded. Abortion rights activists wore saturated or burnt orange while anti-choice protestors wore various shades of blue. Images and slogans splayed across signs and t-shirts caught my eye, inevitably drawing up visceral responses that, more often than not, ended in my grabbing my partner's elbow and chattering excitedly into a long-suffering ear. Protests have such an amazing, indescribable energy about them, and that day I became convinced that a large amount of the electricity in the air depended on the spectacle created by individuals proud to display their thoughts and feelings literally on their sleeves.

Who Wore it Better? Kimye Edition

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian pose for a red carpet photo at Monday's Met Gala in NYC.

Image Credit: Entertainmentwise

Celebrity fashion is a no-holds-barred spectators’ sport, and, like the fashion industry itself, it features and targets women as its primary audience.  Free Thought blogger Greta Christina described the language of fashion succinctly in her recent post “Fashion is a Feminist Issue, arguing that if we interpret fashion as a “language of sorts…an art form, even,” we can begin to view fashion as “one of the very few forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men.”  But, she continues, “it’s [no] accident that it’s typically seen as shallow, trivial, and vain.  It is the height of irony that women are valued for our looks, encouraged to make ourselves beautiful and ornamental… and are then derided as shallow and vain for doing so.  Like it or not, fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form. And I think it gets treated as trivial because women get treated as trivial.”

This post seeks to read the rhetoric of celebrity fashion coverage in light of remarks like those of Greta Christina.  How can we read celebrity fashion as an arena that in principle grants women more freedom than men, but in practice consistently limits the freedom of both men and women to express themselves?  How do the voyeuristic, hypercritical impulses of celebrity media intersect and inform the world of fashion, particularly women’s fashion?  I take as my case study here the much-photographed couple Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, sometimes known as a couple by their nickname “Kimye.”  

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