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Writings on the Wall: Piecing together graffiti art and culture

From park benches to art galleries, graffiti has moved into the mainstream, but along the way has cultivated risk, fame and controversy.

Much of the controversy about graffiti and graffiti art stems from a lack of understanding about it as culture. Luis Hernandez, a former graffiti artist, explains that, “Graffiti is an art form; that is all it is.”

The allure of getting recognized for their artwork pulls a lot of graffiti artists into the scene. Graffiti artist, Disk One explained that many artists do this to get their name out.“Artists aren’t there to threaten the government; they are out there to promote their art,” said Disk One.

Graffiti’s transition into mainstream culture has also increased its bankability.“The dream and motivation of one day becoming a rich artist or designer inspires many to tag,” said Hernandez.

Banksy uses a Westwood wall as his canvas Photo: Maria Esmeralda Renteria

Although there are many artists out there trying to make a name for themselves, there are few prominent artists who have obtained international success. British street artist, Banksy, creates art pieces in locations all over the world.

Currently, Banksy’s signed aerosol stencil of Abraham Lincoln on cardboard is being auctioned for $20,000-30,000 at Sotheby’s auction house. That is just a modest example of what his pieces go for; several of his art pieces have been sold for millions.

Graffiti art isn’t just art; there are standards and a culture that develop around it. Disk One explained that what differentiates true graffiti art from tagging is the purpose that it serves. The meaning becomes compromised when art mixes with different motives.

For some, it becomes a form of rebellion. Hernandez explained that the pull factor is being a part of a culture that deviates from mainstream society. “[Tagging] is everywhere just like rock used to be all over, kids wanted to be rock stars. Now graffiti is all over, now kids want to start tagging,” said Hernandez. He adds that when kids start tagging, they know the criminal risks involved, but this contributes to the excitement.

Graffiti’s relationship with crime and violence differentiates it from other art movements. The dangers not only come from people outside the culture, but also other artists. Graffiti artists are often part of a culture that can turn on them. Hernandez recalled that a few years ago, a member from a tagging crew he was a part of shot at him because Hernandez created a piece, which covered a portion of his artwork. The relationship between this subculture and violence still doesn’t prevent people from attempting to create what they feel is art.

The risks they take appear reckless to observers, yet the idea of rewards and recognition keeps graffiti artist active. “When you strip [graffiti] down it’s all art, it’s beautiful,” said Hernandez.

Mexican Students Fear Corruption (Palanca) More Than Drug Wars

New America Media, News Report, José Luis Sierra, Posted: Oct 18, 2010

AHUACATLAN, Mexico — In Latin America, according to conventional wisdom, most of the unemployed are uneducated. But in Mexico, roughly three-quarters of the country’s 2.5 million unemployed workers possess high school degrees or higher.

This is a grim statistic for young Mexicans considering their life choices. For teenagers and twentysomethings without access to the wealthy and powerful cliques that dole out favors in Mexican business and government, the future seems a struggle.

“If you don’t know somebody that knows somebody, you get nowhere,’’ says Naya, a 21-year-old  who studies business in this small municipality in Nayarit state.

And real unemployment is thought to be double the laughably low official estimate of 5 percent (the Mexican government counts anyone over the age of 14 who works more than 6 hours a week as “employed”). Millions of Mexicans with high school degrees are jobless or underemployed, and many will not escape poverty. Of Mexico’s 34 million people under age 30, roughly half are poor, according to official figures.

Of course, the drug cartel–linked violence and crime is always in the background, especially in Nayarit, a Pacific coast state where drug trafficking organizations are powerful.

Crime is a universal worry, but the anxieties of many young Mexicans focus most on whether or not they will make a decent living.

Naya, the business student, along with classmates and a teacher with whom she sat near Ahuacatlan’s main plaza recently, agreed that only one thing could help them achieve security and prosperity: a “palanca.” The word, which translates to “lever” in English, is Mexican slang for someone highly placed in government or business who has the leverage to help a relative or acquaintance land a job.

Students pursuing studies after high school are supposed to be the lucky ones in Mexico, since less than 17 percent of the population goes on to post-secondary education.

The fear of students like Naya pursuing professional and vocational degrees is that without a palanca, their striving will result in no more than dead-end jobs that offer little real stability. Many jobs obtainable with job market-oriented degrees pay as little as $1,000 a month (roughly 12,000 pesos). Twelve thousand pesos is enough to provide a single person in this country with a fairly comfortable standard of living, but not enough to support a family.

The fact is that a post–high school degree no longer represents a route to financial stability and personal fulfillment in Mexico. That’s a major shift compared to the experience of previous generations, for which such a degree guaranteed a measure of prosperity.

“I think that as a country we have lots of possibilities, but we haven’t learned how to take advantage of them,” says Elizeia, a 20-year-old who is studying for a technical career in the food industry.

The government could help steer Mexico’s economy to provide more opportunities, she adds, but “government officials just look out for themselves.”

Elizeia’s degree focus, mainly on preserving and packaging food items on a large scale, speaks to where the jobs are in Mexico: in the export industry. Many degree programs are oriented around the need of transnational companies for technically competent employees to staff their operations oriented to international markets.

Like Elizeia, many young Mexicans are tempted by new fast-track degrees in these novel specializations that are supposed to get them into the job market more quickly and easily. They are discouraged from more traditional degrees in the law, engineering or medicine by the feeling that only a palanca would guarantee them admission, and later, a job.

Also, the new vocationally-oriented degrees such as those in business and food industry—which are offered at private and public universities alike—require only a handful of years of study and can be done part-time, since the workload is fairly light.

In any case, once Mexicans finish their university studies, they are often funneled into futures that fall far beneath their expectations.

“If I could, I would leave this country,’’ says Rafael, a 32-year-old who graduated with a degree in psychology, but is barely making ends meet with a job as a high school teacher. “Life is not what it used to be and there are very few opportunities to raise a family in this country if you don’t have palancas.”

If you live in Mexico and have no palancas you are pretty much a nobody.

If you want your kids to go to a good school, you need a palanca because spots are limited. If you want to avoid paying taxes, you need an even better palanca. If you want to avoid paying a traffic ticket, you might be able to get away with a 50 to 100-peso purchase of a one-time palanca—in other words, a bribe to buy the police officer’s influence.

Sometimes, you even need a palanca to get married or baptize your child.

Palancas in Mexico are a commodity and those who have them use them because at the end of the day, they are the fastest, cheapest, and most effective way to solve a problem and overcome life’s challenges.

“We have lost track of our own values,” says Elizeia, the food industry-bound student. “Honesty has very little meaning.” She says honest citizens are prey for scoundrels in positions of power, who sell their influence in an endless cycle of patronage, nepotism, and influence peddling.

True, she says, friendship is still alive, family is still sacred, but beyond these boundaries if you want to be at the head of the line, whichever line that is, you need a palanca.