In Conflict Graffiti, literary and cultural scholar John Lennon conducts a deep study of the use of graffiti as a means of communication in areas of urban upheaval. Growing up in New York City, Lennon developed a lifelong curiosity about graffiti that began with noticing tags on trains that he saw as a child. That curiosity carried him to diverse locations of conflict—Tahrir Square in Egypt, the Separation Wall that divides Israeli and Palestinian communities, New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and Detroit, struggling to redefine itself after filing for bankruptcy in 2013. In each of these places, graffiti gave voice to otherwise silenced people. In some instances, especially in New Orleans and Detroit, graffiti was also used as a means of commodifying the creativity of those underrepresented groups.
In his chapter on Detroit, Lennon makes a crucial distinction between “graffiti”, typically understood as a marker of a declining community, and “street art”, which can indicate revitalization. This is more significantly an instance of interpretation rather than intent. Lennon’s interviews with graffiti writers at the sites he studies offer insight into the artist’s intent and how graffiti is understood by residents, protestors, politicians, and police. “What conflict graffiti shows us, when we read it as a dialect among itself, bodies in the streets, and the built environment, are the messy politics involved in expressing individual desire,” Lennon writes.
To study graffiti in conflicted urban areas is to understand graffiti as speech acts, primarily a statement by an individual that may capture and convey the perspective of others. Graffiti allows anyone to place their desires for all to see: public spaces become spaces of public discourse. As people in sites of conflict pull out their smartphones to photograph graffiti and share their images on social media, the local discursive space is extended internationally. During the Arab Spring in 2011, in particular, graffiti was a conduit to experience the conflict from afar, as the spread of images gave voice to protestors. Since graffiti is routinely painted over and therefore “silenced”, social media has provided a means of preserving graffiti even after it has been destroyed.
Like other genres of art and public expression, graffiti artists have a variety of intentions for the reach and meaning of their creations. Lennon’s provocative interviews bring these perspectives to light, although the artists, many of whom hide their identities, are often oblique about their work. Cairo-based Sad Panda, for example, asserts that he does not believe in political parties and refutes the idea that his graffiti is political. He claims only that he wants to spread sadness like a virus, yet observers make meaning of his work in the context of other graffiti nearby.
Banksy is certainly the best-known graffiti artist, and his anonymity has fueled his popularity. Through stories of Banksy’s projects and exhibitions, Lennon shows how the graffiti artist balances humor and social justice. His discussion of Banksy is in the context of the artist’s work at the Palestine/Israel Separation Wall. In 2005, Banksy and his assistants painted seven murals on the Palestinian side of the wall. One of the murals features Banksy’s now-iconic symbol of social injustice, a girl with balloons. Unlike other versions with a single red balloon, this girl is lifted by a small bunch of black balloons, appearing as if she is about to float over the ominous, omnipresent concrete wall. The murals on the Separation Wall cannot be considered apolitical, but Banksy is not among the graffiti artists who negate his political intentions.
Lennon’s concluding chapter considers graffiti in the contexts of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. In both of these situations, graffiti—typically referred to as street art—has been a sanctioned form of expression and often is created by collectives of artists and volunteers. “Black Lives Matter” was spelled in large letters on streets in Manhattan, Harlem, and elsewhere. In front of the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, the phrase was stenciled and outlined by the Department of Transportation, which rerouted traffic to allow volunteers time to paint. These projects, along with many portraits of Breonna Taylor (the 26-year-old woman killed by police in a “no knock” raid on her apartment) that were made with either paint, spray paint, or chalk, indicate a new confluence of graffiti, street art, and public works of art.
Conflict Graffiti offers an expansive view of graffiti, providing new perspectives on this complex expression. Situating his study in sites of conflict creates urgency for his insights and leaves readers with new perspectives for interpreting the graffiti and street art they encounter.