Behind the letters and images sketched, scrawled and painted on a train or public building, hides the message and the artist behind graffiti — what some call vandalism, others call art.
People may believe they understand graffiti because they see it every day, but geography graduate student Stefano Bloch said there is much more to the act.
“Like any other social, political and art movement, [people] have no idea about the different intricacies and the different motivations of doing graffiti,” he said.
Looking to provide students and community members the opportunity to learn more about graffiti, Bloch will kick off the Global Graffiti Documentary Series on Thursday at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis with the premier of the new graffiti documentary, “Bomb It!”
Bloch described graffiti as the specific placement and style of messages in urban settings, but he said the meanings behind the messages go deeper than a layer of paint.
The series, which Bloch teaches, is offered through the Experimental College, an alternative teaching and learning program that began at Macalester College in 2006 and came to the University in fall 2007. The course will show a variety of documentary films about graffiti from the 1980s to the present, Bloch said.
Bloch, who does his graduate research about graffiti and is featured as a graffiti expert in “Bomb It!,” said growing up in Los Angeles without much supervision at home allowed him to become a graffiti artist at a young age.
Despite a 12-year absence from actually producing graffiti, Bloch said he still considers himself a graffiti writer. Attending college has shifted his focus to researching and writing about the subculture.
“There is no better way to understand the city than to talk about the alternative practices that take place in the city,” he said.
Already interested in graffiti, cultural studies senior Daniel Falch said he is taking the class to be a part of the dialogue.
Falch, who is writing his senior thesis on graffiti, said he’s interested in comparing graffiti to advertising.
He said the conflict between advertising being allowed in certain public spaces while graffiti isn’t is significant.
“Advertising is allowed to put its brand everywhere in our faces,” he said. “Graffiti is a way to take back the public space.”
Architecture student Dallas Gray , who is currently deployed with the Air Force National Guard in Afghanistan, will be taking the course online and through the mail.
Unable to talk by phone, Gray said in an e-mail that his interest in graffiti began as a kid growing up in Elk River, Minn., looking at the graffiti written on passing train cars, often wondering what it meant.
Gray said since coming to college and serving in the military he has photographed graffiti all across the globe.
For those who will be participating in person, the first film, “Bomb It!,” will explore the history of graffiti, from cave paintings to interviews with current graffiti artists around the globe, producer and director Jon Reiss said .
“There is so much history and culture of graffiti that you don’t really think about or know about when you look at it on the street,” he said.
Bloch said he takes a controversial standpoint in the film about graffiti’s definition.
He said anyone who gets paid for doing graffiti or does it in legal locations is not truly producing graffiti, something not everyone in the graffiti community agrees with.
Environmental design senior Eleni Christoforides , who is attending the series, said she understands why graffiti is illegal, because her parents, as business owners, feel frustrated when their building is tagged.
The fact that it remains illegal, she said, also seems to drive the art form.
“I don’t think graffiti would mean as much if it was legal,” she said. “There is an aspect of it that is thrill-seeking.”
Reiss said he hopes those who view the film leave with a different perspective of public space.
Bloch, who Reiss said was an inspiration for the direction the film took, said regardless of whether people love or hate graffiti, it is important to be informed about what it means.
“People can rightfully not want it or rightfully not like it,” Bloch said. “But, being ignorant about it is unacceptable.”