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Monday, May 1, 2006

Advertising Anarchy

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with those self-important spray-painted graffiti slogans seen around St. Louis, most often on abandoned buildings in poor neighborhoods south of Delmar (we presume the taggers are among the many members of the No-Go Club). The lines include chauvinistic slogans like "work is terrorism" and more cryptic poser lines like "pouvoir assasains." (Probably a good thing that the tagger doesn't go north of Delmar.) Most often the tagger leaves behind the single anarchist "A" in a gesture of iconographic masturbation. The hand on these lines seems similar, so I assume that the same person or group is responsible for the graffiti.

Disturbing has been the recent trend of this tagger to jump from marking abandoned buildings to occupied or under-rehab houses and cars. Using abandoned buildings for tagging is itself problematic, especially when the tagging comes from outside of the neighborhood. The sloganeering is close to advertising in its style and tone, and is not much different than the Jesus billboards and Seagrams ads one can find all over the city on streets like Florissant, Gravois and Natural Bridge. The aim is to incite poor people to do something that would serve a middle class ideology, be it the expenditure of pocket money on booze or fast food or enlistment into the anarchist or Christian armies. Either way, the message is a command from without and, in class terms, above -- a sort of semiotic attempt at colonization.

The new tags spotted on buildings being rehabbed by do-it-yourself owner-occupants and on people's sidewalks marks a new tactic: warfare on the supposed "yuppies" who are "gentrifying" the city. The tagging presumes that these people are wealthy, which is quite a stretch for people trying to fix up shells neglected by years of ownership by oh-so-lumpen neglectful owners. Nevermind that spray paint really doesn't come off of brick without damaging the brick; that'll show the rich to stay out of the city that rightly belongs to the black-clad sons and daughters of the middle class who are playing at revolution for a few years.

The silliest tag has to be "Smash HR 4437" written on the Montessori school on South Grand (see photo here). Most passers-by don't know the bill, which would restrict immigration, by number. The kids at the school can't "smash" the bill by voting against the bill's supporters in Congress (although I guess the taggers probably hate voting). What's the point? Defacing a school? Scaring kids and parents and making them feel bad about their school?

Do the taggers even care what the point is? This is an act of selfishness that is a diversion from real social change, which involves consent as well as consensus -- not force and ignorance. Real social change also comes unexpected and strong, because it springs from within a society. Change is mass action, not unitary proclamation that assumes there is an audience ready to be lead.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Having had friends involved in the living wage fight at Wash U., I've done a lot of thinking about what constitutes an effective form of protest these days. Even protesting itself seems to be variable in its effectiveness - certainly something as massive in number as the "Day Without Immigrants" has the possibility of making a difference, but in general, it seems like the act itself is at this point written off (particularly in the media) as the folly of people more interested in the act of protesting than the cause they champion, a development that seems to me to more or less be equally the fault of protestors and their establishment critics. It's got me wondering - what, in the 2000s, could constitute a reasonable form of protest against societal ills without immediately being written off by most of the population? (It certainly isn't vandalism, and I don't think that petitiononline.com is gonna do it either.)

This all said, people, this ain't 1920s Latin America, and anarchism has little to no political viability here - what do you intend to accomplish? (And if the state gets smashed, then golly, who's going to clean it up?)

MH said...

I live in the neighborhood of this "tagged" school, and it really pisses me off. I have seen it all around Shaw and pretty much all around Tower Grove.

I understand the message, but this type of advertising just makes these people look like idiots and pisses people off, which doesn't help the cause.

Anonymous said...

For anarchists, isn't the act of protest the point? If you advocate the destruction of the state, then every act against its forms (against property, against the police, against pop culture, etc.) is an end in itself.

Personally, I can live with a little grafitti (though if my house were tagged, I'd probably be asserting my property rights). I also liked the anti-Bush posters that people scattered around town in 2004. Sure, the messages don't effect much social change. But, like anonymous says, what is a reasonable form of protest in this day and age? For instance, the public has pretty much forgotten the Lohr truck drivers. Wasn't their cause just - the more equitable distribution of profit? Weren't they reasonable in asking the public to boycott Budweiser? But, I'd say 95% of City residents simply ignored the drivers, if residents even knew of the strike. It was an impossible mission to beat the Budweiser media machine. Faced with those odds, doesn't protest in the form of vandalism seem the only alternative?

Anonymous said...

What's worse is that one of these anarchist groups doing such graffiti call themselves "John Brown's Army." John Brown was, of course, a white man who led a slave rebellion. What does that say about how they think of themselves in relation to those they are trying to "help."

frippy said...

My concern is that tagging old, abandoned buildings in poor neighborhoods also furthers the image of the targeted neighborhoods and buildings as neglected trash heaps worthy only of destruction. Why is it that I see "Work is terrorism" sprayed on shuttered buildings in McRee Town but not on skyscrapers in Clayton -- I'm not saying someone should, but damn, that would be far more punk rock.

Anonymous said...

How big a jump is it from destroying property with spray paint to pouring a little gas and flicking a match.

Anonymous said...

Well, considering what constitutes anarchy in the U.S. these days, pretty big. Spraypainting a decades-old slogan and running and/or complaining on stlimc.org would be more comfortably passive a gesture, I'd think. The current state of anarchism in the U.S. seems to be more that of peaceful, occasionally protesting lefties prone to dabbling in Marxist concepts than the more traditional Bombs 'n Revolution™ variety. But hey, tell that to the St. Louis police...

And for the last time, if you're gonna deface property, would it kill you to at least do something original?

frippy said...

Another FPSE tag job: The building on the southeast corner of Chouteau and Newstead has been tagged -- and I imagine it's the work of the same people. Bright yellow paint saying "Fall in love, not in line" and then an A in a heart. On an older building with green glazed tiles.

Margie said...

The billmclellanmofo tags may be original, but they are still a selfish act.

Speaking of which ...

When I was president of the Downtown Residents Association, I had the pleasure of meeting with a tagger whose ID you would all recognize. He alleged he controlled most of the tagging downtown and offered to stop it in exchange for an incentive. Yes, cash. This punk was absolutely unashamed. He proved to us that he was the tagger in question by pulling up his shirt and showing us the matching tattoo on his fat white belly.

We declined, politely of course, because this guy was a friggin mobster. If I'd been wearing a wire, we could have gotten him on extortion or better.