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Toxicscape: An epistemological approach to graffiti through American narrative cinema

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Why are people and institutions more inclined to tolerate a street art piece rather than a graffiti tag? Even if legally authorized, graffiti still largely epitomizes a symptom of urban decay, while municipalities hire street artists to rehabilitate poor neighbourhoods with their stunning artworks. Starting from this assumption, the aim of this article is to understand the political roots of such negative attitude towards graffiti in the western imaginary. In doing so the article addresses graffiti as an epistemological object. First, by following Jean Baudrillard, who looks at graffiti as a counter-colonial phenomenon rather than a form of self-expression, the article explores and debunks the most common epistemological attitudes towards graffiti. Second, through an accurate historical and political analysis of New York’s welfare and city planning policy, it is shown how graffiti became a pivotal topic in the politics of demonization and exclusion of the ethnical minorities during the Reagan presidency. Drawing from Craig Watkins’ notion of ‘ghettocentric imagination’ – a racial discourse produced by emphasizing images of inner-city villainy within American film production – the ideological use of graffiti aesthetics in visual communication is termed ‘toxicscape’. By displaying ‘toxicscapes’, American narrative cinema uses graffiti as fetishist visual objects that drive the audience in perceiving graffiti (and events or characters related to them) as ‘toxic objects’. Therefore, in the second part of the article, a reconstruction of the American conservative discourse involving graffiti is proposed. The text analyses toxicscapes by focusing on action-crime films of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Death Wish (Winner, 1974), Fort Apache, The Bronx (Petrie, 1981), Escape from New York (Carpenter, 1981), Colors (Hopper, 1988) and Batman (Burton, 1989). Finally, hip-hop visual narratives like Wild Style (Ahearn, 1983), Bomb the System (Lough, 2002), The Graffiti Artist (Bolton, 2004) and The Get Down (2016) are addressed as an alternative to the toxicscape for their employment of graffiti in a more progressive and dramaturgical sense. In conclusion, graffiti appear to be challenging ideological and epistemological objects. Therefore, a more accurate analysis of the graffiti discourse that stemmed in the 1970s and 1980s would provide a more critical and sophisticated perspective to the understanding of contemporary ‘street art’s’ political and cultural investment.
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Keywords: New York; bronx; cinema; graffiti; hip-hop studies; political philosophy

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Independent Researcher

Publication date: June 1, 2017

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  • Empedocles aims to provide a publication and discussion platform for those working at the interface of philosophy and the study of communication, in all its aspects. This Journal is published in cooperation with the Section for the Philosophy of Communication of ECREA, the European Communication Reserach and Education Association.
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