Cryptic Aphorisms in Chicago Graffiti

by: kate


concepts photo essay bio and site summary explore chicago


tags: Tags are the simplest form of graffiti writing. Tagging is a form of graffiti where an artist writes an artistic version of their call name or rather nickname in hip hop subculture that they work under with their tagging crew. In writing a tag the artist employs spray paint, markers, etching tools, or stickers to designate their presence in a given area. Tags can be broken down into two subcategories; the strictly social and the social political. Strictly social tags are done on an amateur level in a haphazard manor with no real attention from the artist as to placement or style. Social Political tags on the other hand are executed by artists in tagging communities, and their execution holds much more intention then the aforementioned type. The social political taggers gain recognition based upon the amount oftags that they amass in a given area.


home made sticker tag

(social-political tag)




basic tag on a road block

(strictly social)

piecing: Piecing is when an artist, many times in collaboration with others members of their tagging crew, paints a large mural. Piecing can be considered a more elaborate and social version of the tag, specifically because there is a larger amount of time and preparation nessecary then in the case of a juvenile tag. As well a writer or writers are able to demonstrate their creative and artistic abilities in such a collaboration. When piecing writers will usually prep their target wall with latex paint prior to starting the project so as to create a congruent backdrop for their compostition, this process also helps to conserve costly spray paint that would otherwise be absorbed by the brick. Unique to piecing, handmade stencils are used with spray paint to speed up the writing process, although a quicker, safer alternative to free hand painting a piece, a majority of graffiti artists scoff at the idea and consider it cheating.

a small stencil piece


writers prepping a wall


gang symbols: Gang lexicon is a form of graffiti that involves a special form of language with which many people are unfamiliar. These encoded messages exist as a widely visible form of sub-cultural graffiti in Chicago, namely surrounding groups affiliated with one of two factions, these being People and Folks. Some more notable gangs that exist under these social pyramids are Insane Duces, Latin Kings, and Vice Lords (all people), and Satan Deciples, Gangster Deciples, and Spanish Cobras (all folks). Gang graffiti is prevalent usually in the specific gangs community and stands as a designation of the groups territory. Cryptic messages are often times masked in a barrage of characters usually dictating violent activity between warring groups.


gang graffiti of the latin kings


throw ups: Throw ups can be best characterized as the medium of writing which exists between the margins of the aforementioned tags and pieces. The definitive aspect of throwing up is the 2-d tag. Less elaborate then the stylized characters prevalent in murals these throw ups still manage to maintain/ convey a higher level of sophistication in writing style then a tag. Throw ups usually consist of two toned writing in bubble letters, with a shadow or thick dark outline to add dimension. The artistic aspect of this elite form of tagging allows writers to gain more respect in their graffiti community. Throw ups are most commonly done on rooftops, alleys, subway tunnels, and train/subway/freight cars.


a wild style throw up


sign painting:  Sign Painting is usually viewed by the graffiti subculture as a less glorified version of an illegal piece. Members of tagging crews usually do this in order to gain the monetary means to obtain more paint for illegal creations. Small business owners usually solicit the aid of writers so as to make a bold, colorful, unconventional statement about their establishment. As well proprieters may seek the aid of writers because graffiti is a cheaper form of advertising and can be easily adapted, for example we could consider a business who changes the advertisement on the side of their building for seasonal promotions.

Yangos Burgers & Stuff graffiti add and regular sign

p hoto essay

photo essay summary:
In the comprehensive arena of graffiti history from the early eighties to present day, writers and other purveyors of the hip hop movement have debated the upon the matter of graffiti transcending space from the public street forum, to that of the private gallery arena. There are writers committed to the grass roots aspect of the hip hop movement that seem to object to graffiti oriented pieces being bought and sold in the art world. These writers place a large amount of worth on the illegality of their graffiti and the statement that it conveys and therefore feel as though the essence of their sub cultural lexicon is devalued and subsequently lost in the alternate goals of self establishment that the art world brings to their trade. Jean-Michel Basquait was one of the pioneers in the New York Graffiti art scene in the late seventies and early eighties who gave new meaning to the physical movement of graffiti by taking his underground epigrams from hip hop sub culture and transplanting his ideas directly into pop culture. He achieved this by peddling t-shirts and post cards that boasted the ideas of his abstract graf writing alter ego SAMO. In this photo essay I attempt to dissect the issues surrounding the constant re configuration and movement of graffiti in pop culture.




Site Summary
My involvement with the University of Hip Hop to date has provided me with a larger comprehensive knowledge of the Hip Hop culture. I became involved with this organization through my Chicago Graffiti Class, where we dissect the social, artistic, and political rhetoric that the spray paint gurus provide. Another component of this class is that of service learning, a program where students get the chance to give back and gain knowledge that correlates to the text and discussion in class. I am fulfilling my service requirement through the University of Hip Hop at one of their four branches called Alternatives. Alternatives is located on the north side of Chicago in a predominantly black neighborhood two blocks away from the lake on Sheridan Road. The building that harbors its programs is red brick and very nicely maintained, with a small patio and garden area in the rear. The inside of the center is plain at first entrance, with a reception area, seating and some restrooms, but as soon as you are through the front door you will feel an intensely wonderful energy, so thick it draws you in. These vibrations will then proceed to drag a new comer down the hall, and into the main activity area; a cavernous black room pulsing with the five elements. It is here in the main theater where the seeds of Hip Hop ideals are sewn by resident experts of breaking, graffiti art, and beat boxing.

Name: Kate
Tag: smith
Occupation: DePaul Student, Volunteer, Notebook Graffiti Artist
How Chicago Graffiti Changed Me: Throughout the duration of this class I gained a comprehensive knowledge of Hip Hop culture, learned a lot about myself as a student by incorporating unconventional forums of education into my schedule(i.e. graf field trips, service work), and most importantly found numerous new outlets for my own creative expression.