There is a generation of Americans who grew up viewing graffiti as art. For a while, this perspective of graffiti as a form of expression which held merit could have gone either way.
Graffiti sprung from gang culture, at least according to the nightly news, and as the evening news was as close to the truth of a nation as we were going to get, there was a fear in many a household that graffiti was the gateway drug to the other stuff.
Lawmakers did their best to warn adult Americans of the ill-effects of “tags”, low-riding pants, spray paint, rap music, baseball caps worn backwards, and hoodies.
Newscasts were dedicated to explaining hidden meaning behind words scrawled on neglected bridges, subway cars and street corners.
Officers were transferred from vice units to newly formed “gang units”. Individuals began to specialize in “street linguistics”, and were thus on-call to decipher the code of graffiti for viewing audiences nationwide.
The Great Gang Scare of the 1980s was a thing.
This era (there have been several) of ‘societal fear of the black man’ attempted to sway a generation from the acceptance of this black culture. The effort almost succeeded.
Legislation was created to provide a content rating system for music, police policies were drafted to allow searches of people based simply on suspicion, and mandatory minimums were not far behind.
But much like it must have been when Elvis rotated a pelvis on the Ed Sullivan stage, the newness of the music, the style and the swag of the culture overwhelmed any hope of parental intervention.
Teens trapped behind white picket fences or isolated in backwoods, – teens who had been subjected to 80s air rock on repeat – were ripe for something different.
And a funny thing happened on the way to the jukebox: parallel to this new music and style was political discussion about the injustice occurring on streets throughout the United States, the tension between freedom of expression and democracy, the poverty which was keeping many young boys and girls grounded on stoops at tenement door, and drugs – cheap drugs – which were flooding these neighborhoods.
The music and the culture engaged kids in adult topics, and with their respect for the artist came a sense of solidarity to the cause. The period married art to politics for a younger generation.
The irony is that despite the fear, in many ways black culture became the standard of American culture for teens throughout the world.
There is some discussion in our society about the appropriation of black culture by white Americans. There is no point in arguing the fact. It’s true – white America does appropriate black culture.
But if any consolation to the affected, as Banksy is exhibited in a museum on the other side of the world, there is an entire generation of kids of all colors who think, “there would be no Banksy, without the art of the 80s.”