The Writing on the Wall


Style: Writing From the Underground, (R)evolution of Aerosol Linguistics. 1996, Published by Stampa Allernativa in association with IGTimes, ISBN: 88 7226 318 2. Bilingual: English & Italian, price: Italy Lire 25,000 / US $20.00, paper. (IGTimes address)


No sooner were the words out of their mouth than some fifty of us soldiers clambered up and overturned the idols, which rolled down the steps and were smashed to pieces. Some of them were in the form of fearsome dragons as big as calves, and others half-man half-dog and hideously ugly.

  • The Conquest of New Spain


It must happened earlier than the sixteenth century, that those who controlled the men with the guns also established control over culture by effacing the public icons of the people’s art, but this account by Bernal Diaz is the first record of it in the New World. The conquistadors were more than soldiers. They were also practical semioticians and imperialists who knew that control over their people’s minds, their loyalty, their wealth, meant control over their culture, beginning with control over the communal signs. Imperial Rome had perfected the system of colonialization through cultural appropriation: the Spanish, centuries later, still had lots to learn. They couldn’t control their own cops.


While Cortes was at Coyoacan, he lodged in a place with white washed walls on which it was easy to write with charcoal and ink; and every morning malicious remarks appeared, some in verse and some in prose, in the manner of lampoons.


Another said that he [Cortes] had dealt us a worse defeat than he had given to Mexico, and that we ought to call ourselves not the victors of New Spain but the victims of Hernando Cortes.


Sometimes, and this must have also happened often in Old Europe, the soldiers understood that they, too, had been used. Promises were not kept. They were not compensated for the sacrifices they made. They were only the tools of politicians and generals. Now the Gulf War Veterans use the Internet to form a community of protest. Then, 400 years ago, there was a wall.


But the couplets and sentences they scrawled up became everyday more scurrilous, until in the end Cortes wrote: “A blank wall is a fool’s writing paper.” And the next morning someone added: “A wise man’s too, who knows the truth....”

... Cortes flew into a rage and publicly proclaimed that they must write no more libels or he would punish the shameless villains.


The New York City cops have yet to take up the can of paint and write. The mayor has used them, but they are unlikely to ever understand how or why.


If you wanna see a real writer send him over to Singapore and see what he’s gonna paint over there (SPON, 9).


It’s understood. You breaks the law because the law breaks you (AKA/TISLAM, 13).


It is understood by these writers because the understanding was necessary for survival. It is not understood by those who the law considers unnecessary to break. The writers always know more than the critics and the collectors, the predators. The writers understand the nature of space, what is public, what is private, what is property, what is the nature of public & private property. During revolutionary times it is especially clear just how much depends upon the control of public space and how much freedom is defined in terms of private property. Art that was once considered revolutionary is now used as advertising; the aerosol artists maintain the revolution through times of peace (a.k.a. low intensity warfare).


The liberation through language is also a liberation through images.

- Carlos Fuentes, Forward to Fire From the Mountain, by Omar Cabezas


Style: Writing From the Underground, (R)evolution of Aerosol Linguistics is a record of a war, a literary war and an art war waged primarily in New York City, but spread throughout the world (witness Singapore, the caning and the media celebration of law & order of the spectacle, the politicians’ call for more law & order).


New York City is, without question, the Mecca of the aerosol and writing phenomenon (11).


And in New York began this record, culminating in this book, of how the war is fought and why. This book is a rescue operation as well as an education.  Mayors Koch and Giuliani, conquistadors in suits, destroyed the icons but not before a record was made of the loss. The victors spoiled, not the spoils of victory. They didn’t get any, didn’t want them, and that is their loss as well. So the editor of this handsome book, loaded with photographic images of trains and walls before the Cortes’ applied the paint, or scrubbed, or sanded, effaced them, attempted to return the surface to nothing but a space for advertising, the public art of capitalism, the editor salvaged the memory of what was and thereby inspires new writers to keep the art alive.

This book is a history from the inside, a story told by the writers themselves, of how a style developed and maintained itself under duress, during the war years. They called themselves writers. “Graffiti” was used by critics who uncritically adopted a word inappropriate for black marker or spray can. This is aerosol art now. And it is an art. These writers map out their styles, that we may follow the evolution within the revolution. And we may also follow the development of the style as it progresses through the danger that adheres to the line. How much time does it take to develop style when time = death? How many writers or artists are under this kind of pressure? Style becomes more than a personal quirk or an identifying mark something like a brand name. It becomes a characteristic of Self. And the Self is defined in terms of art, writing as appropriation of public space for communal good, and a direct challenge to art and writing as sub-systems of commercial semiotics. Like he said, “If you wanna see a real writer send him over to Singapore ....” Or, “They couldn’t catch me. I was one step ahead of them. Untouchable and I had to get mine” (SKI, 13).


We have in this book an art history unlike any other than I’m aware of: an intimate record, told from within, of the evolution of a revolutionary art form. There are not cops involved in the production of this book. It has become a classic already among the people who have participated in, the writers themselves, or those who closely have followed, the fleeting manifestation of the coloring of the city before the whitewashing. Now anyone can see some of the extent of the loss by seeing some of the beauty created by these writers. We can hope that there will be another volume, Style Two. And then perhaps a new flowering of images, not only in New York, but here where I write, Ashland, Kentucky, even here, and everywhere, even Singapore.