Digging Down Deep for Graffiti

In the mercurial world of graffiti, even the most eye-catching art can disappear, almost instantly. Building managers often sandblast any evidence of perceived vandalism – no matter how nice it looks. City “beautification” projects wipe adorned walls clean. And in clashes of street egos, graffiti writers relentlessly scribble over each other’s best work.

The result is that, over the course of a few years, a single wall or tunnel can hold hundreds of spray-painted renditions of the artists’ names, known as “tags.” And nearly all of them vanish, with barely a memory left behind.

A new website is trying to change all that. Graffiti Archaeology cobbles together a history of the walls of San Francisco, showing how the tags can spring up, mutate and vanish on a single concrete canvas in just a few months’ time.

Websites have been displaying pictures of graffiti art for nearly a decade. Graffiti Archaeology is the first to show the work’s evolution, and its context.

“Anyone who’s looked at all those peeling layers of paint has wondered what’s underneath. And they’ve thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of slide show to show us this space over time?'” said Susan Farrell, founder of the pioneering spray-paint site Art Crimes, which serves up more than 6 GB of street art a day. “But this is the first time it’s been done in any kind of methodical way before.”

In a Graffiti Archaeology image taken from Nov. 2, 2002, a slithery orange-and-white tag, “CHI ELITE,” adorns the center of a thoroughly vandalized wall. To the left are three bald silver heads. “FTL” lords above, in giant, white block lettering.

By Nov. 20, CHI ELITE and the heads are gone. The left side of the wall is now completely white, the right salmon-hued. Drawn on the pinkish color are new tags, “REXS” and “SUNK,” in baby blue. To their right, on a column, is a ponderous, blood-orange face.

By Dec. 5, the face has been defaced, and now wears the round, black eyes and pointy eyebrows of an early cartoon. The tags have been crudely crossed out, presumably by the same perpetrator. On Jan. 12 of this year, REXS and SUNK return, painting over their crossed-out images. And by Feb. 2, the whole wall has been washed white again.

Cassidy Curtis, the 32-year-old New York City native behind Graffiti Archaeology, said he’s been “obsessed with the alphabet, and the evolution of the letter form, for as long as I can remember.”

That’s mostly because he witnessed the golden age of spray-can art first-hand. First were the subway cars, every inch ornamented with another tag or mural. Then came the relentless writers like “Sane” and “Smith,” for whom no ledge was too remote, no bridge was too high to serve as a graffiti frame.

The immersion in spray-can art seems to have given Cassidy an odd form of synesthesia.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this implicit sense of a relationship between letters and colors. To me, every letter seems to have a color of its own,” Cassidy writes on one of his many websites devoted to things alphabetic.

On another, Cassidy teamed with online artist Golan Levin to produce the Alphabet Synthesis Machine. On the Java-based site, users create their own sets of letters – and then watch them morph over time.

With the help of his Stuyvesant High School friend, Web designer Eric Rodenbeck, Cassidy has built an application in Macromedia’s Flash that stitches together photographs from a dozen contributors into a time line of a single wall, or a single tunnel.

Piecing together the images was tougher than the trickiest jigsaw puzzle. The photographs Cassidy got were often unlabeled – no location, no date. Often, a snippet of color or a hint of an archway would be all he would have to go on to place them into his historical record.

“It’s like digging up clay shards, and having to put them all together,” he said.

The results, like every first cut at history, are uneven. The site’s navigation is opaque. It’s slow to load. And there are still plenty of bugs.

“It’s annoying,” shrugged “KR,” one of the best-known writers featured on Cassidy’s site, after a quick look. “Too techie.”

“I know this wall. I’ve hit this wall a million times,” KR said. “It’s an interesting thing, because so many people come through here. It’s a Sunday spot. Very enclosed, so on a Sunday, you can take your time.”

KR hooted, finding a tag of his own. He groaned, seeing that someone had painted over it. And then he said, “That’s cool, watching it go through the progression.”

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