The book of bad graffiti

As a counterpoint to the coffee table books of gallery-friendly graffiti art, a new collection records the more familiar – and less refined – writing styles as seen on the streets of Detroit

As a counterpoint to the coffee table books of gallery-friendly graffiti art, a new collection records the more familiar (and less refined) writing styles as seen on the streets of Detroit…

While the artistry may be suspect, the figures badly drawn and the lettering unremarkable, the scrawls featured in photographer Scott Hocking’s Bad Graffiti perhaps say something more direct about the state of the places they appear in than some clever stencilling ever could.

And in this sense, both the settings and the graffiti make for a fairly bleak book. Abandoned house follows abandoned house; flooded warehouses and urban wasteland all provide a canvas for the frustrations (or in-jokes) of those armed with a spray can or marker pen.

Only a few of examples are genuinely funny – “Get Well Larry – Fuck Them Cats” – being one of them. And the jazzy directive of “freeballs in your mouth” is offset just a little by being rendered in the most refined hand-lettering in the book.

Tags by “Dirty Ed” and “Freaky Al” are little more than visual stamps by people who happen to be in a particular place at a particular time. Often the most interesting graffiti here is a simple one-word exclamation (“Vanity!”, for example), presumably replicating the tagger’s state of mind; and their take on the state of the world.

But aside from recording the rawness of the cityscape, what is a book about terrible graffiti trying to say? That in print an audience might find something more interesting in all this, something amusing even – unlike, quite possibly, the residents of the neighbourhoods who have to pass this stuff everyday?

Perhaps that’s a little alarmist but having looked through the book several times, I’m not sure the photographs really just represent the work of “the little guy,” as Hocking writes in his prologue. His take toes the ‘so bad it’s good’ line – hence ‘Bad’ Graffiti – but even if he is a native of the city he’s photographing, that stance still seems like it comes from a detached, outsider’s point of view. (Hasn’t Detroit generated enough ‘ruin porn‘ by now?)

Amid the grimness, however, there are glimpses of dark comedy. Take the appalling flourishes in “7 Mile Breadwinners” – the ‘B’ an unsuccessful attempt at something a little flashier. Or the cobra that adorns the book’s cover. When a gang paints “an adorable cartoonish snake” on a building, as Hocking writes, any attempt at ‘badness’ comes across as, well, just plain bad.

Bad Graffiti is published by Black Dog; £9.95. All images courtesy the artist.


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