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Ministry of Information

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor makes things happen and watches people in New York City and Budapest. Founding member of the Open University and of Think Tank X, artist and situation-maker, she teaches anthropology at Hunter College and Cooper Union in New York.

[Ministry of Information] vol.14



What is urban communication?

Urban communication is a manner of intervention that uses the city in unexpected, un"planned", and sometimes even illicit ways. It opens up new spaces for and styles of, and media for communication, using the city as its backdrop and tool.

In 2007 the Open University Oakland held a lecture inspired by Graffiti Research Lab.  After viewing the short film prepared by Helen Park for the event and assembling LED "throwies", we went out onto the street s of Oakland, distributing our LEDs across the urban landscape.   The inspiration that evening was of the dérive, a term popularized by the situationists in the Paris of the 1960s. The Dérive is an attempt at analysis of the totality of everyday life, through the passive movement through space. It is translated as drift. Situations arose from using of the city in ways other than what the planners had in mind.

Sociologist Henri Lefebvre, friend and enemy of situationists, proposed the moment as opposed to the situation, stressing the temporal aspect of such acts. "The political moment, as Lefebvre wills it, is a pure and absolute act of contestation: a street demo or flying picket, a rent strike or a general strike. Streets would be the staging and the drama might be epic or absurd or both"(Merrifield, 29).

Surely many of the youths (and the not so young) around the world who tag walls with names and symbols, paint pictures, and affix stickers do not often refer to French philosophers. They are nevertheless taking in their own hands the making of the city-what Lefebvre would have seen as an expression of the right to the city.

Graffiti is an old word-it literally means "scribblings". Writing on urban walls has long been used for political purposes. But the way in which urban communication manifests in any situation has to do with political-economic conditions (property rights, laws, police power) and the availability of specific technologies.

In New York City, for example, graffiti thrived as a form of expression in the post industrial environment of burnt out buildings, abandoned lots in places like the Bronx and Brooklyn in the 1970s and 80s.  First appearing on the streets, writing then moved to the subways.  In the beginning writing "consisted of mostly tags and the goal was to have as many as possible. Writers would ride the trains hitting as many subway cars as possible. It wasn't long before writers discovered that in a train yard or lay up they could hit many more subway cars in much less time and with less chance of getting caught. The concept and method of bombing had been established." (

In the competitive milieu that ensued, "The next development was scale. Writers started to render their tags in larger scale, limited by the fact that the standard nozzle width of a spray paint can is narrow.   The first larger tags did not have much visual weight, until "writers began to increase the thickness of the letters and outline them with an additional color." Writers the "discovered that caps from other aerosol products could provide a larger width of spray.", resulting in the development of the masterpiece." (  Writers eventually started to render these masterpieces the entire height of the subway car. Tags rendered in this form were termed top-to bottoms.

A curious thing had happened with Graffitti, though, already beginning in the 1970s.  Even as it thrives as a medium for free, unregulated expression, it has been reframed inside the gallery (already in the 1970s), part of the result of the search for respect for vernacular Black and Latino creative expressions and tamed by the efforts of property owners, creating distinctions between "vandalism" and "murals", good graffiti and bad graffiti.  This history of his taming is tied with the Gentrification.  Staring in the 1980s, white artists, intellectuals, and avant garde moved into neighborhoods that had seen "white flight" in 60s and 70s, where rent was very cheap.  As these folks and the people who followed in their tracks began to buy property, they sought to protect their homes from being palettes for graffiti.
The thing about most urban intervention is that it involves practices quite different from those of a gallery artist. Urban intervention is much closer to everyday life.  Although many artists get permits to engage in urban interventions, countless citizens just do it, in myriad ways. Those who do those things that are unconventional, even when not illegal, often put themselves on the line legally and socially. They also engage in making the city their own.
Efforts to curb graffiti artists were aided by a step up in legal developments and in police efforts, as the interests of the new urban class become central to policy beginning in the 1980s.

The crack cocaine epidemic was taking its toll on the inner city, and the "War on drugs" targeted small scale dealers and runners, rather than the big shots or the middle class clientele. With powerful firearm readily available, "the climate on the street became increasingly tense. Laws restricting the sale of paint to minors and requiring merchants to place spray paint in locked cages made shoplifting more difficult. Legislation was in the works to make penalties for graffiti more severe." (

As cities like NY and have gentrified through a process in which public space has been privatized into the hands of a few, the defense of private property has become paramount, making crime of graffiti more strictly punishable. In stepped the sticker.  Many people now affix ready-made stickers with their tags, political messages or images on various surfaces in cities.
But there are other technologies for urban communication.
On its website, Graffiti Research Lab simply tells us is dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication. The brilliance of this open source technology is that Graffitti Research Lab is not just making technologies for urban communication available to anyone who wants to use them, but is inventing new ones  that allow new approaches and often also circumvent legal problems.  Who, after all, would arrest me for sticking a magnet to a wall? Has it hurt anyone? Isn't it removable? It is a gift, in fact, and you may reuse it if you like.
In a world in which mass communications are in the hands of corporations, urban communication promises more than your name in big letters.  Graffiti Research Lab offers you the technology.

A few urban interventionists.
Graffiti Research Lab
Yes Men (,
The Situationists
The Motherfuckers
Krzysztof Wodiczko
Madagascar Institute
Picture the Homeless
Black Panthers
World Cant Wait (  (
Urban Homesteading Project
Guillermo Gomez Pena

Thinking about urban intervention and the transformation of society
Henri Lefebvre His idea of the right to the city: (right to the city
The coming insurrection
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (trans. Brian Massumi), London: Athlone Press, 1988, p.270 (on their ideas of transversality, see  (
Brian Holmes
David Graeber
"Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction". A. Merrifield, London, Routledge, 2006

On Graffiti Research Lab

Histories of Graffiti