What does the increasing transnationalism in the graffiti subculture mean for the local graffiti writer? As the graffiti subculture is a complex phenomenon, this essay will focus on the illicit train and metro graffiti writing scenes in Helsinki. Through the researcher’s ethnographic fieldwork, the intention is to articulate some of the ways of constructing graffiti masculinity in the Helsinki metro. The author looks at how local identities are influenced by the digitalization of graffiti.
TEXT Malin FransbergPHOTOGRAPHS Patrik Rastenberger
METRO AND GRAFFITI HISTORICALLY. Trains and subways have been seen as the main targets of graffiti writers ever since graffiti art originated as a youth culture in 1970s Philadelphia and New York. Painting moving objects can be considered as having a hegemonic position in the graffiti subculture, and guarantees a subcultural belonging almost anywhere a graffiti writer is present. In Helsinki, painting graffiti on trains began by the end of the 1980s, after certain North American hip hop documentaries were shown in Finland. During the summer of 1984, Wild Style (1982) was spread via video rental shops, and Beat Street (1984) had its premiere in movie theatres. As was the case with many other European cities, the graffiti revolution arrived in Helsinki and became an active youth phenomenon.
Today, graffiti and street art are some of the most important contemporary youth cultures performing resistance and contesting the society’s boundaries for youth creativity in urban milieus. It is, therefore, not surprising that there have been attempts to control graffiti in many western cities’ through harsh politics. As in other Nordic capital cities, during 1998–2008 the municipal-led campaign “Stop Töhryille” (Stop graffiti) in Helsinki introduced zero tolerance as a means of eliminating the whole graffiti phenomenon. All graffiti and street art were prohibited and many young offenders were given harsh sentences in court, including imprisonment and obligations to pay large sums in compensation for vandalism. Ten years after the end of the zero tolerance era, Helsinki City is more liberal towards graffiti than ever, and promotes domestication of the urban youth culture through encouraging young people’s engagement in art projects and by offering legal walls for graffiti painters. Moreover, many of the city’s significant museums and galleries have had graffiti thematic exhibitions, for example Helsinki Art Museum’s Graffiti (6.4.–9.9.2018) and Kunsthalle Helsinki’s Egs: Writing My Diary (13.1.–25.2.2018).
Despite the recent celebration of graffiti and its cultural legitimization, it seems to be rooted in its untamed character, as illegal graffiti continues to construct the essence and foundation of the movement itself. In Helsinki, some graffiti writers still desire to paint on the city’s metro. The Helsinki metro has been globally defined by graffiti writers as one of the most controlled systems, making it hard to paint there, and it is, thus, seen as an attractive and challenging objective.
Furthermore, in research the graffiti subculture has been documented as an extremely male centered youth culture, making it a lucrative space for performing hyper masculine identities through the fight for local urban spaces. In addition, the recent celebration of graffiti has challenged the ideals of local belonging and locally performed ‘authentic’ identities. In the era of the media city, graffiti subculture has been moving on from a locally spatialized subculture to a globally mediated and digitalized subculture, where sharing video clips and pictures of painted metros online can reach everyone, regardless of one’s geographical location. In this process, the locally constructed graffiti subculture is less controllable from a ‘localist’ perspective and becomes more transnational in its definition.
Street cultures have typically been cultivated by young men. With their own particular social relations and practices of recognition, they provide an important platform for performing diverse masculine identities. In graffiti studies, graffiti masculinity has typically been built on ideas of ‘protest’ and ‘outlaw’ masculinities, where young people construct a rebellious identity through graffiti, resisting the authorities in the city, taking risks in challenging the surveillance of the urban space and thus gaining status in their own community. Moreover, graffiti masculinity has been noted to embody white ideals of ‘black’ hiphop and working class masculinity, which opens up some important perspectives on the globally contested graffiti masculinity today.
The global and transnational graffiti subculture represented in various digital and online forms shows how graffiti writers travel all over the world and conquer foreign subway systems in distant and ‘exotic’ locations. The most typical example of such graffiti writers would be Utah and Ether, sometimes known as graffiti’s very own ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, a white American couple who travel the world to paint on different subway systems and frequently post online documentaries of their conquests. Their adventures around Asia, ‘hitting’ the metro systems and ‘cracking’ the nets of cities’ surveillance, can be read symbolically as acts of subcultural colonialism and graffiti heroism.
These ‘cosmopolitan’ graffiti writers present a very different perspective on the graffiti subculture compared to many of the locally active graffiti writers I followed in Helsinki. Since 2011, I have been doing ethnographic research on the train writing scene in the city among a group of young men. Their lifestyle is not defined by labor, but by graffiti, and they are passionate about painting trains. These men construct identities that embody a certain type of masculinity and that are characterized by the knowledge of train writing, that is knowing how to paint trains. The graffiti subculture in Helsinki is clearly male dominated, and the performing of their masculinities should be understood in relation to the city’s specific time, space and history. Moreover, the increasing digitalization of graffiti contests the boundaries between global and local identities, sometimes understood as ‘glocal’, and thus produces complex cocktails of graffiti masculinities.
During the field observations, I often sat with the graffiti writers in their cars, driving from one train station to another, in order to catch and photograph graffiti painted trains. These men were mostly focusing on old commuter trains in Helsinki. However, painting the metro was occasionally brought up in discussion as a rare and sanctified subject:
VANDAL SQUAD is a unit in security/police that is specialized in catching graffiti writers.
“Usually people think that it’s impossible. Or that it’s hard to do. Yes it is, but it’s not impossible. It’s just such a small system, there are not so many spots, but if you know what you are doing, then it will work out”, Kari, my informant, explains to me.
The car driver explains to me that in other parts of the world people believe that it’s impossible to paint on the Helsinki metro. I wonder why, because I have seen pictures of metros in the Finnish graffiti magazines.
“Yeah, but they’re usually pretty old pictures, it used to be easier. People have just heard some horror stories, that if you just take a picture on the station, you will for sure end up in a cell for a few weeks. Tourists don’t wanna take that risk, and when they don’t know what’s up here, they don’t dare do anything. They’ve just heard that we have a really bad vandal squad and that nobody even does the metro here.”
“Well how often is it done then?” I ask.
The guys fall silent and just stare out the window. Eventually the driver says that within one year we would talk about a few dozen cases, as the commuter trains are done in hundreds.
The actual group of local graffiti writers who have painted the metro in Helsinki is small and hard to find, and as Kari explained, the chances to paint the metro are scarce. Thus, it is interesting to look at how the local graffiti writers interact with a transnational scene of metro graffiti writers, or “graffiti tourists”, as Kari defines them. The concept of graffiti tourist can be understood as persons who travel to other countries in an attempt to paint graffiti or enjoy graffiti in other ways. Often graffiti tourists meet local graffiti writers through common networks, but sometimes graffiti writers travel alone. It is when they travel alone and without a local contact that they are treated as intruders by the local graffiti writers. , Even if the Helsinki metro has a bad reputation, some graffiti tourists have traveled to paint the Helsinki metro and documented their achievements in train graffiti documentaries, such as I love trains (2011), Interrail (2012) and Papas 4 (2018). Even if the Helsinki metro is a small system, knowledge of the possibility of painting it has reached the transnational scene of train writers.
I asked why they did not want to have any tourists here to do the metro.
Kari says:“Fuck, none of those tourists need to come here, if one of them makes it, then soon everyone will be here raping this spot. The crowd has seen a small scene in some movie where the Polish guys do a fucking hasty panel which is not even finished, and then they even brag that they are ’making the impossible possible’. Fuck, there’s just so few opportunities that others don’t need to come here.”
The graffiti movie Kari was talking about is called Hamaz 2. There is a short scene of graffiti writers running towards a Helsinki metro train which is standing on a reverse track, and the graffiti writers quickly paint a graffiti piece on the side of the train.
It is this kind of local ‘graffiti knowledge’ that becomes valuable when doing acts that represent identity and masculine ideals in particular scenes. Graffiti knowledge is utilized in the everyday practice of performing graffiti masculinity on the Helsinki metro. That is to know how, when and where to paint graffiti on the metro. However, local scenes are losing the mastery of their knowledge in the emergence of new, fluid and virtual subcultural scenes that become not only city-wide but transnational in the processes of digitalization. Now it is not only the locals who represent graffiti in Helsinki, but many graffiti tourists, too. As the local graffiti writers are no longer exclusive performers of this specific type of masculinity, in other words, to be able to paint the Helsinki metro, they lose their sense of authenticity and uniqueness. The local ideal becomes contested and negotiated within the transnational and ‘online’ ideals of graffiti masculinity. These negotiations are presented here in the following sections that illustrate the ongoing symbolic struggle for the hegemony of the Helsinki metro.
Train graffiti writers collect systems. “He is a true system collector”, my friend Jan once explained when a visiting graffiti tourist was on his way to Helsinki. To collect systems is to paint graffiti on different train and subway models, and to document these by photographing and filming. These documented collections of graffiti pieces objectify a graffiti writer’s cultural capital and are deposited in graffiti writers’ private archives. Thus, the online/offline publication of graffiti pieces represents the achievements and produces subcultural fame for the writer. But there are different perspectives on ‘fame’:
I asked Lauri, another informant, what he thought about social media and what it had to do with graffiti and especially with fame.
“I think the word fame is actually quite stupid. Maybe it used to be a reason for why I started, but it really doesn’t mean that much to me anymore. It’s a thing that is repeated in the media.”
Lauri explains that there are different approaches to fame in different countries, and that there are so many different writers in the subculture, that everyone forms their own practices.
The concept of ‘fame’ is often said to be a core reason for graffiti writing; it acts as a measure for how well-known a graffiti writer’s name is on the streets, and how much respect and status one gains within the subcultural scene. Gaining recognition on the streets has moved into the digital world and out of the local context. There is no longer a need to experience the graffiti ‘live’ in its physical milieu, as pictures of graffiti are published, re-blogged and distributed on the Internet. Thus, the understanding of fame and its definition is more complex today than it was in the 1970’s New York or in the 1980’s Helsinki. Now there are informal rules on how, where and when to publish graffiti pictures, as labels such as ‘digital-fame’, ‘insta-fame’ or even ‘selling out’ can be attached to people who publish too many or the wrong type of pictures. Moreover, controlling pictures that produce certain type of graffiti knowledge becomes relevant. As a Helsinki based graffiti writer explains in the book Graffiti in Helsinki (Tuulikangas 2018, 69): “Through social media you can easily identify the location of a piece and exactly when it was painted, which tends to attract more writers to the same spot.”
Documenting and collecting pictures of graffiti pieces is particularly important to graffiti writers, as illegal graffiti is often a temporary piece of art that is quickly washed off. The policy of the local transport company in Helsinki is that graffiti painted carriages are removed as soon as possible, as it is believed that visible graffiti invites more graffiti writers to paint the metro. Thus, very few citizens actually witness graffiti on the metro offline, as painted carriages are taken out of traffic quickly. In graffiti writers’ mind, the invisibility of metro graffiti serves the sense of locality and control of locally produced graffiti knowledge, as only a few are aware of when and where graffiti is painted on the metro. Therefore, publishing pictures of the painted metros was not typically done by local graffiti writers, but by ‘outsiders’ or ‘tourists’:
I told Hessu, an informant, that I saw a picture of graffiti writers posing in front of the Helsinki West metro in a subway tunnel on an international graffiti Instagram account. His happy mood changed and he became all red in the face, although he already knew about the picture. He was almost screaming:
“I got so mad when I saw that picture! I told the guys a million times not to put pictures out on the Internet, and what happens when the guys get home? All of a sudden you have those pictures out on the net! I called them straight away and asked them: what the fuck is that, take that shit away! Yeah, they apologized and yeah the picture disappeared from the internet.”
Many graffiti writers I met tended to avoid online publishing in favor of keeping knowledge of the painted metros only within the subculture. In this process, visibility becomes less expedient, as the struggle for unique subway graffiti becomes more important. The personal collection of pictures and movie clips is therefore concealed and kept away from the public eye. The visibility loses its importance, as its authenticity becomes discordant. But, as graffiti is a phenomenon that in the end always exists through its visuality, Lauri points out the harsh reality: “If you don’t want to be seen, then you should not paint”.
The graffiti movie Kari was talking about is called Hamaz 2. There is a short scene of graffiti writers running towards a Helsinki metro train which is standing on a reverse track, and the graffiti writers quickly paint a graffiti piece on the side of the train. The concept of graffiti tourist can be understood as persons who travel to other countries in an attempt to paint graffiti or enjoy graffiti in other ways. Often graffiti tourists meet local graffiti writers through common networks, but sometimes graffiti writers travel alone. It is when they travel alone and without a local contact that they are treated as intruders by the local graffiti writers.
The invisibility of metro graffiti was a benefit for the local underground metro graffiti scene. Therefore, showing the global graffiti audience that it is ‘possible’ to paint the small metro system in Helsinki was not received as a favor. The aim to control the ownership of the local graffiti scene was expressed through language that reflected xenophobic discourses, as the local graffiti writers explained that they needed to ‘protect’ their metro as it would otherwise be ‘raped’ by ‘foreign’ graffiti writers. Guarding the Helsinki metro from graffiti tourists shows an ethos of regarding it as ‘our’ metro that only belongs to the locals.
However, not all graffiti writers in Helsinki share a fully hostile attitude towards graffiti tourists. Many graffiti writers stated that without graffiti, they would never have so many friends in different countries. The network of graffiti writers worldwide provides them with a local contact and a couch to sleep on wherever they travel. Although, nothing comes for free, as some graffiti writers stated. The use of local graffiti knowledge was transferable capital that enabled mobility in the global graffiti scene:
The tourists asked if it would be easy to paint trains in Helsinki.
“Yes, it’s possible. But inform me maybe two weeks before you come, so we can organize everything,” said Hessu. The tourists said yes and promised to send a message at least two weeks before they would arrive. They didn’t say much about their country, except something about prejudices against graffiti. Nothing about Hessu visiting them. Hessu told me afterwards that he expects to be helped by them in return, and if not: “well, at least they should not expect any further help from me then.”
Who belongs to the Helsinki metro graffiti scene? Who has the right to represent local graffiti masculinities? These questions arise due to the increasing mobility of young people in the West, not only through social digitalization but also because people physically travel more. This situation reveals interesting perspectives on gender identities in local scenes and globally defined youth cultures. Graffiti writing on the metro is today both local and transnational, and as discussed earlier, the graffiti knowledge becomes particularly important in practices that construct graffiti masculinity in Helsinki. The old-fashioned outlaw masculinity based on violence and physicality is replaced by intelligence and cleverness in increasingly digital information exchange.
However, there is one characteristic that remains from the somewhat stereotypical graffiti masculinity that refers to traditional working class ideals. It is the sense of locality and territoriality. Here, there are context specific nuances that may be typical of certain local scenes. In Helsinki, the metro system is small compared to many other global cities, which makes it difficult to paint trains. Local graffiti writers tend to protect their metro from foreign writers, thus representing a type of subcultural localism, even to a patriotic extent. In performing graffiti masculinity, authentic identification and being unique compared to others become important. As the graffiti subculture becomes commodified and celebrated, not only by cultural institutions, but also by the subcultural practices of digitalization, the actions that signify the subcultures as authentic are challenged. The authentic is something sacred within the subculture, as the Helsinki metro is seen to be for the local graffiti writers. In this process, the visibility and the fame become secondary in the battle of performing authentic identities, as graffiti writers literally aim to stay underground.
Names of interviewees are changed for anonymity.
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