Sunday, August 2, 2009

Criminal Identities, Culture and (Street) Art

Photo by Ivan Corsa (2005)

The website Global Graphica is subtitled " Street Art Photos + Videos + More: Daily Pix from New York City and the World." I like the idea of considering street art as a part of the shifting cultural landscape of a city. A couple of years ago I did a photo series that had a similar context when I was performing in Vienna. Instead of focusing on statuary and monuments on my days off I became fascinated with Viennese graffiti, which seemed to me like the city talking-- and sometimes arguing-- with itself. And for a city like Vienna, where anarchists and liberals, and once and future Nazi's rub shoulders on the street, that conversation was complex. In the blocks around my family-run pension there were Indian restaurants and shops, many of which had the words "Fuck Nigger" scrawled on their fronts in angry black pen. I followed this racist graffiti around the neighborhood like breadcrumbs and noted the places where it had been crossed out and replaced with anarchist/anti-racist messages. If the South Asian population whose presence inspired these tags had any reaction to the debate between warring Viennese street factions, it wasn't apparent. But the graffiti --both pro and con-- remained on the sides of Indian businesses the entire time I was there: a fact of life. There was other graffiti too, of course, a lot of which was inspired by U.S. hip hop culture. So I appreciate Global Graphica's project, which traces the shapes in the air left by people as they move through cities, it is culture in action.

We like to put qualifiers on culture like "Pop" or "Street" or "Sub", but that is just another way of saying "High" and "Low", a separation that, like colonialism, is a legacy of the 19th century. Arguably, those separate categories were always an illusion, but never more so than in post-modernity, when a celebrated street artist like Neck Face shows work in galleries and the sides of buildings (as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat did before him). But if culture is a flow that cannot be contained inside museums, theaters and galleries and spills out into the street and all over the walls, then prejudices, ethnic hatreds and social hierarchies are carried along with it. The photograph above, captured on Global Graphica a few years ago, shows a tag that says, merely "Arab." In a city like New York, which is home to many ethnic groups, a graffiti tag like this is not unusual. But this tag merited special attention on Global Graphica not because of its artistry but because it articulated a dangerous, political identity and not a neutral, ethnic one like, say, "Irish".

The caption for the photo, posted by , reads,

"This tag is jarring, not so much for its style or boldness or scale, but because of the moniker itself. Given current events in the U.S. and globally, the tag resonates with New Yorkers and, perhaps makes us pause to think, in a way it wouldn't have several years ago, before the events of 9/11/2005 (sic). Which, whether the intention of the writer or not, is the importance and value of art (whether or not you consider Krylon tags art)."

So, in other words, simply announcing yourself as an "Arab" is enough to make New Yorkers and, by extension, the world, pause and think.


Think about... what, exactly?

It is the unsaid here that disturbs. As an Arab/American New Yorker who lived through 9/11, this cocktail of vague nationalism, melancholic nostalgia and barely withheld anti-Arab racism tastes very familiar. After 9/11, we were supposed to excuse and even forgive such biases because of the tragic circumstances. And we still are, these many years later. Of course the fact that 9/11 also happened to Arab and Muslim New Yorkers is always obscured by this demand, as if we exist outside of the pain caused by the felling of the Twin Towers, because we are somehow responsible for causing it. Although if 9/11 is the justification for singling out this tag for its potential to disturb that makes the misstatement "9/11/2005" even more laughable. (Uh, dude? I know your heart is heavy and all, but you are a couple of years off there...) And the timing of this original post, on July 4th, hardly seems coincidental, given the sentiment expressed.

The fact is, this tag could not be more ordinary. It doesn't even have any of the lame, hip-hop boasting that often accompanies ethnic graffiti: It doesn't read "Arabs Rule" or "Arabs Invented Higher Mathematics" (although, how awesome would that be?).

It just says "Arab".

As in "We exist."

But that alone, absent some sort of apology, is "jarring".


  1. I agree with you. It is interesting that the term "Irish" would be seen as neutral as well, especially in a place like New York or Chicago.

    It ignores the fact that the Irish communities in the US, for years, raised money for the Irish Republican Army which was fighting a war in Ireland and the UK using tactics that are often very similar to Islamist terrorists.

    Now I must state here that I used to be very active in the Irish Republican scene, both here in the US and Europe. I also must state that as a rule I do see the benefits, in certain situations, of armed struggle. My point in this case is how the fact of an ongoing armed struggle, whether legit or not, is able to "taint" the perception of Arabs in the USA when an armed struggle in Europe involving the Irish was not.

    A clear double standard.....for many reasons.

  2. Abu Sinan
    Yeah, I remember that you'd written about your interest in Irish politics before. You are right that "Irish" isn't universally neutral by a long shot, but in New York its about as close you can get. Although even other ethnic minority identities (Like "Boriqua" for e.g.) that aren't "neutral" in other circumstances, wouldn't merit this sort of response. The thing that struck me here was that simply writing "Arab" would be enough to signal potential danger.

  3. Joseph, well done. And you're right, the word is read as "jarring" precisely because it doesn't apologize for itself. (And why on earth should it?) Sigh. World, get better.