Understanding Graffiti

Some graffiti writers have some strange ideas about who can understand, speak/write, or even properly appreciate the work. The claim that it is anathema for the uninitiated to ‘understand’; that is not only are their explanations wrong but damaging. Street art tours conducted by graffiti or street artists; would you expect all art gallery tours to be conducted by contemporary artists?


R.A.D Grant points out “to claim that a belief can be ‘understood’ only by its believers is to use the term ‘understanding’ somewhat oddly, since understanding is normally thought to follow upon explanation rather than to be precluded or destroyed by it.” (A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992 p.103).

However, the English word ‘understand’ means both to comprehend and to be sympathetic. Can only the empathetic comprehend? For it is empathy and not sympathy that is expected. It is about the magic of initiation and spirit. Part of this is a need to maintain control of what is considered ‘understanding’ in order to maintain their power.

‘Understanding’ is connected to notions the person being ‘true to the spirit’ as Philip Brophy explains in “What is this thing called ‘Disco’” (Art & Text 3, Spring 1981, p.64)

“To perform jazz, blues, rockabilly, soul, power pop, Middle-of-the-Road , etc., is to evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act of performing the particular music style. There, a notion of ‘truthful’ performers and ‘false’ performers exists, establishing a productive difference between ‘artists’ and ‘charlatans’ – and, it is interesting to note that in the realm of popular culture, the institutions that we call the recording industry can profit from both the ‘artist’ and the ‘charlatan’.”

Likewise the graffiti writer is expected to ‘evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act’ of doing graffiti.

Here is some old graffiti from Brunswick to look at.




About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

7 responses to “Understanding Graffiti

  • Phil

    Mark, I eagerly read all your pieces. This is a useful one. I lived for too long in a milieu of grafftitiists who rejected all my efforts to praise their work.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks Phil. I know the feeling but who would have thought that the answer would come from the study of disco music?

    • Phil

      Mark, I’ve followed you for quite a while, so I”m not surprised that your inspiration and reflection might derive from diverse pop cultural sources. What is fresh about you for me is that you refrain from putting your own opinions down – you open up a topic, or some art you have found interesting, and you just let that sit. Also, you lack snobbery. Being literate in matters creative doesn’t mean that commentators have to “dumb up”. and disdain the relevance of any societal or cultural feature which they feel impacts on their discussion.. Too many words I fear, but you’ll get it.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thank you, that is what I’m hoping to achieve especially with the diversity of sources and general tone. I do worry about how it comes across, so it is great to get this feedback. Cheers.

    • Phil

      Mark, it comes across as accessible and conversational, yet you always seem to make a few succinct points which are not didactic. I love particularly when you concentrate on a venue, or locale – and the art which might be found there.

      Now this is getting to be a bit cock-sucky so I’ll shut up now until i have a complaint haha.


    • Mark Holsworth

      Cheers Phil, that is sufficient praise.

    • Phil

      but wait there’s more haha. I’ve just come back from hearing two friends play Spanish influenced Jazz (my label) in an old record shop/cafe in Glebe. I saw your short reply and while gigglilng, (I’ve had a few red wines) I double clicked your photo.

      So now I have a picture of not only a writer on art matters whom I trust, but an artist himself, a musician and philosopher. Mark, I will be demanding a lot more from you soon enough – with THAT pedigree

      Smiling here. All the above is said seriously but not extractively.


      ps It is an indulgence of mine to message freely to you and I’ve got some nerve, I know. Please don’t be polite and reply just for the sake of it. My reward is simply in your writing,

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