4.1. Entering the Mnemonic Community
This theme investigates how middle aged male graffiti writers remember becoming part of the graffiti community in their youth and considers the shared horizons within this mnemonic community. Podcast narratives typically depart from reconstructions of the biographies of the guests. These temporal narratives seek to arrange events in a linear sequence often starting with questions about the guest’s first memory of graffiti. In the following quote from Svenska Graffare Podcast (SGP) the writer, Core, testifies about the impression a book with graffiti images made on him when he was an adolescent:
I was really kind of a table tennis and wind surfing guy [laughs]. […] And then I was hanging out with […] this guy called Måns who had got a book from his parents, […] Danish Wildstyle [Graffiti]. And I was falling off the chair. You know [...] when I opened up the pages it was like boom [...]. When I saw it, it was like instant. I understood, this is what I will be doing. It just was a kind of mega-experience. [...] It was absolutely magical, damn how much we looked in that book. [...] It made a very strong impact on me and then we started sketching right away.
The graffiti writers participating in podcasts remember their first impressions of graffiti as intense and life changing moments. Writers recall being carried away by graffiti and often express that they lost control over their actions, Jeks recollects:
That’s interesting, how something just comes across so strong. You just have to do it […] It was really so evident, everywhere, it wasn’t that graffiti came along, it was all around you, right, it was everywhere, once I got […] my eyes […] on it.
Writers remember encounters with graffiti in the 1980s as turning points that gave their life course a new direction. These turning points can be understood as processes of “cognitive transformations” of the self where unconscious influence is combined with conscious reflection and then intentional action [52
] (p. 1000). Embarking on a graffitied life course is remembered both as a reflective decision and as due to unconscious influences through situated practice—an interplay between daily conduct and reflection over one’s own biography that Giddens associates with human reflexivity [36
] (p. 57).
These memories construct writers as participating in the early formation of European graffiti culture. As Zerubavel states, narratives of beginnings create shared meaning or “horizons” within a mnemonic community [3
] (p. 287). Pioneers within a group receive status and thus narrate the shared past that creates social cohesion [3
] (p. 291) [37
] (p. 168).
The narrative exemplified by the quotes above can be summarized as: When I was young I was overwhelmed by a different aesthetic practice and I knew I could not resist entering its community. In response to the research question: when middle aged writers share similar memories in podcasts they construct collective memories resulting in social cohesion and reaffirmation of subcultural identity established in their youth.
Several writers recollect thinking similarly to Core about their future: “this is what I will do.” The word “this” represents a “sacred” distinction where the subcultural is constructed as different from the “profane” mainstream [32
]. “This” also signifies adopting a new identity as a graffiti writer in contrast to the identity before the epiphany of graffiti. The memory of following “this” different path will be further analyzed below as a collective representation that constructs subcultural identity and cohesion [23
]. When Jeks recollects being ten years old in 1986 and seeing graffiti for the first time, it sounds like he is entering the gate to a cave of treasures, or like he has found a new sacred world:
I’ll never forget going down to the subway platform with my mother […], it had been open for a week […]. I remember it was my first impression of graff, I remember clearly that when you went down into that new station there was graffiti absolutely everywhere.
Middle aged writers recollect their younger self as standing at a crossroad. Their previous identity was associated with mainstream activities, such as table tennis. Such activities prior to experiencing graffiti would now be discarded or put outside of the “horizon” of what is relevant for the mnemonic community between graffiti writers [3
] (pp. 286–287).
Jeks’ statement illustrates a change of mnemonic community and consequently is boundary work that constructs group cohesion and self-identify. He was still a child accompanied by his mother when he saw the images that would direct his future life course. Change of group, such as when an adolescent leaves home, involves junctions between different mnemonic communities and these memories tend be particularly pregnant [34
]. According to Mannheim, attaching to a new group entails a “fresh contact” and as such it demands re-evaluation of our mental “inventory” and renders a specific notice in our individual biographies [45
] (p. 292–294).
Podcasts are memory sites within which narration of graffitied life courses is a mnemonic practice that constructs collective subcultural memory of shared experiences and temporal horizons. Intense recollections of graffiti as a life changing experience represent shifts of self-identity from the social community of family, school, or neighborhood to the subcultural community. Memories are narrated according to shared understandings that make them relevant to the group that shares them [34
] (p. 38) [3
] (p. 289). As adults looking back on their youth, graffiti writers reaffirm their identity with the subculture through recollections of a shared origin. Memories of youth are active fundaments for present middle age identities [26
]. Biographies are retrospective reflections where events are presented as meaningful from the present horizon which also enables future action [3
]. While much of the previous literature on subcultures has taken retrospective statements as facts, this article intends to bring attention to these memories narrated in a present situation [3
]. Here memories of youth are approached as insights to construction of middle age identity rather than seen as facts about past youth identity.
4.2. Following A Different Path
This theme will look closer at how collective mnemonic practices construct narratives of graffitied life courses as paths through life that are different from the expected and ordinary, involving narratives on youth, progress, agency and crime. As described above, middle aged male graffiti writers remember the subcultural as something that gave their life course a certain direction (compare Campos [16
] (p. 162), Giddens [36
] (p. 5), Macdonald [10
] (pp. 101–124)). In SGP the writer Brain reflects on how his life course and mind has been formed by graffiti:
Yeah, I kind of chose a different path, […] graffiti, the concept, the whole mentality. […] So, my life is kind of defined by graffiti. It has followed me, it’s kind of, it has always been around. […] I’ve found myself, in what I’m doing and I’m so grateful for that every morning when I wake up. [I]’m still thinking in graffiti terms.
Recollecting a life course “defined by graffiti” constructs a consistent subcultural identity from youth to adult life. These memories construct self-identity and support an “aesthetics of existence” where one elaborates one’s “own life as a personal work of art” and gives it “a certain form in which one could recognize oneself” and others [51
] (p. 49).
Several writers describe growing up under vulnerable socio-economic conditions, graffiti is predominately associated with working class neighborhoods and recollections of poor school results are common. An exposed situation is often used as explanation for starting a career in graffiti writing, the narrative of the writer Moral is an example of this:
If you go a little deeper into why ... it was fun, to scribble and it was beautiful with graffiti, but the whole thing for me! Now I know it was a way to express, to find your expression, something you function with, because I did NOT function in school, like, in the expected way. […] I could never sit still or be like silent. So school was like an impossible way to get in, in some way. And club activities—football, hockey, that was… no! That wasn’t possible. However, writing graffiti, which you did by yourself. […] If there had been a coach, an adult trainer who had been out on [the subway station] and been like “yes now the trains come in guys, now you should do this…. It would not have been interesting at all. […] Then it would have been: “eh this, eh what did he say, no I didn’t hear what he said, but this seems boring, let’s bounce”.
In Moral’s biography, distance to the adult world is constructed based on him not meeting the expectations of prescribed behavior. This interpretation is reflexively arrived at when constructing his biography some 35 years later [3
]. The subcultural community among youths is emphasized by Moral as distinct since it allowed him to express agency and ability and gave him recognition:
Yes, and it is self-chosen, […] that was the core of it for me and it actually worked for me […]. I kind of found love within this. I mean community and warmth, along that path into the society, and that has since made up a foundation for my whole life. It made me feel that I was functioning and hence I could work [and] function with other stuff too.
- Mm, you could perhaps have ended up in any subculture, where you find a context, a community and fellowship and all those bits or?
- Exactly, […] when you don’t function in normal situations, you kind of have to find your own path. You cannot just sit in school and not function and get the worst results, and settle for it, then you have to find an alternative, an alternative path into life, really.
- Then we are there again, about finding purpose in life. And several [podcast] guests have described that they were messy, chaotic, and creative as well. Then graffiti came as a perfect thing, that happened to fit you, and then they just went along.
Moral’s recollection shows distrust towards the adult world. Examining his biography he argues that he needed to go his own way, in this case the path of the subcultural. This reoccurring narrative among middle aged graffiti writers can be summarized as: I was a youth astray that found recognition within the subcultural community through which I achieved a sense of direction and ability to move further through life. Through subcultural practice you can get to know yourself, your abilities, and your limitations [44
] (p. 64). The subcultural is remembered as offering recognition and a remedy to the shame of not meeting expectations, of not fitting in, and of not being seen [47
] (p. 152) [48
] (p. 137). While arguing that the subcultural was something separate and distinct, the narratives about personal development paradoxically draw on broader normative cultural prescriptions to speak about difference and change over the life course [46
As indicated previously, memories in podcasts construct graffiti as a sacred world – a community of youths contrasted to the adult world, and several writers recollect a generational mistrust [4
]. Writers who adopt this narrative tend to interpret subcultures as solutions to problems. As Moral argues, he needed to follow the subcultural track to eventually function within society. Perspectives on subcultures as solutions have been criticized for drawing on structuralism and not acknowledging subcultural autonomy [10
]. However, these recollections are not objective representations of previous events, they are performances of “communicated difference” that have meaning and function within the presently situated mnemonic practice where life courses are examined [3
]. Through graffiti podcasts, writers construct narratives where they have overcome obstacles, and hence present their life courses as successful and graffiti as precious. These writers utilize podcasts to narrate individual biographies and shared subcultural timelines. When many individual biographies are presented in a sequence of episodes through podcasts, they are braided into a fabric constructing the meaning of aging within the subculture. This shared subcultural memory results in social cohesion between the members of the mnemonic community.
Another aspect where writers’ narratives associate subcultural difference with agency and transformation of the self is in recollections of explorative, dynamic, and transforming relation to the urban landscape:
- Something is reflected, it’s us that shape societies, like, they’re formed by people who express themselves. […] And that’s kind of what I like about graffiti, and when I listen to the other guys you [the SGP host] have interviewed, and I realize that they’re out there painting trains and that, it’s somehow as if they try to prove some kind of reality out there. It’s as if it’s not only about just sitting at home dreaming or anything. It’s actually about realizing yourself out there.
Following the subcultural path is remembered as different from conventional life - it is constructed as active and in motion, an engaged relation to their environment that molded their individuality and identity [5
] (p. 76).
- [Graffiti is] a journey of discovery and it’s how you make life richer by discovering new things. If you don’t do that, you’re just stuck in the same pace all the time and life is too precious for that.
Writers recollect graffitied life courses as active and thus different from mainstream life that is constructed as petrified (compare with Hannerz [23
] on punks). According to cultural sociology and subcultural theory the difference between the subcultural inside and its outside is not objective but rather symbolically created [23
] (p. 15) [54
]. The aesthetics and practices of graffiti are constructed as sacred and different from ordinary profane uses of cities and landscapes.
- You get out there and discover the city.
- Yeah, that’s what graffiti’s all about, now that you’re 40, a backpack with spray cans, going into the woods looking for a wall, shit, it’s like being a child again.
- It’s still there, the desire for discovery, it’s always part of the desire to discover and explore […] It’s just [like] when we were younger […] you learned to, like, work towards something, you had a drive because you have a vision.
The narrative of life-long uncovering of the urban landscape builds on memories of youth, “being a child again”, and still having the “desire for discovery.” Youth and exploration are remembered as essential to graffiti and these middle aged writers present themselves as still “being young” [46
]. Consequently, through their memories they construct the social meaning of age and perform cultural aging [26
In the narratives analyzed above, graffiti is remembered as something that offered direction, movement, progress and meaning to life. A common way writers use to associate subcultural difference with this movement is to argue that illegal activity is central to graffiti.
- [W]e were looking for the thrill, it was never legal to write in the subway, if it had been I don’t think we would have done it. We really wanted to fuck up the bloody subway and make sure that everyone in Stockholm could see that […] here [we] come like. The more the better.
A mnemonic community share a “social framework for memory” [34
] (p. 38). This framework is a “system of collective representation” within which the norms, authenticity, and boundaries of the subculture are constructed, reaffirmed and diffused through performances of difference towards an “undifferentiated mainstream” [23
] (p. 102) [54
] (p. 530). The claim that authentic graffiti should be done without permission (illegally) can be understood as a normative script within the mnemonic community. In the memories of graffitied life courses, one of the most distinct patterns scripting how difference between graffiti and mainstream society should be narrated, is that of painting without permission as well as other types of crimes in relation to graffiti.
- Yeah, it has to blaze, or rattle and crackle. That’s what graffiti is to me, not necessarily a nice image. That’s graffiti too, but, you know, well … er, it comes right out and assaults you.
- Exactly, a lot has been said about it, that graff has to be illegal for it to have a soul, even though styles on a legal wall can be nice too, but it’s not the same, really.
- Yeah, yeah, yeah, it was only then you’d get that “aaah” feeling in your stomach. […] [C]rossing the line, that’s what did it, that’s what you got into, that’s what made you think “wow this is so cool”, I just have to do it.
Here, Moral and SGP remember subcultural difference as “crossing the line” of the law. Subcultural consistency and identity over several decades is constructed on youth memories from the 1980s and 1990s. In podcasts, writers manifest what Baldini calls subcultural “subversiveness” not through unsanctioned writing on walls in the present but through recollections of doing this in their youth [14
] (p. 31). Through this, they construct middle age identity, drawing on a particular version of masculinity emphasizing risk and rebelliousness [18
To be able to share memories where graffiti is “a riot” that “blazes, rattles, and crackles” is a way for middle aged male writers to dramaturgically perform identity with the subcultural practice and its subversiveness (compare Alexander [54
], Baldini [14
], Campos [16
] (p. 162)). Hence, it is not necessary to actively paint without permission in the present to remain a part of the graffiti culture. Furthermore, legitimate activities that are “holistically” [14
] part of the art world of graffiti and its “field of cultural production” [66
] (p. 19) can be seen as ways to do graffiti in addition to illegal painting.
As reflected by the above excerpts, writers dramaturgically perform graffiti through narratives in accordance with the shared “social framework” of the subcultural mnemonic community [34
] (p. 38) [54
]. As analyzed above, progress, agency and crime are central ingredients in these performances. Individual memories of youth get their meaning as collective representations of difference towards an undifferentiated mainstream.
4.3. Middle Age Masculine Identities
The previous two themes analyzed how male graffiti writers collectively remember entering and following a different path through life. This theme further investigates the meaning of memories for middle age masculine identity and for norms about present and future conduct. When writers describe their present relationship with graffiti, they state that graffiti continuously occupies their mind (compare Macdonald [10
] p. 68). However, in contrast to recollections of their young selves many middle aged writers claim that they less often realize their ambition through actual spray painting. In the excerpt below the host at SGP asks the writer News about the meaning of graffiti in his present life. This question is stated in relation to a long conversation about history and memories.
- How much emotion and mental activity do you have concerning [graffiti]?
- It still takes, well I wouldn’t say it takes time from me but I look at it constantly and it occupies my mind even if I don’t, like, practice it. […] You know, there is big drive and an interest all the time, even if you don’t go along painting yourself.
News is an example of how youth experiences of graffiti have life-long influence on self-identity. Graffiti writing is inscribed in the self as a form of subcultural habitus. However, for many the way graffiti is practiced changes with age. In contrast to how middle aged writers recollect their youth, they argue that they as adults can control their impulses to paint. A common statement is that graffiti threatens to take more time than what seems reasonable in relation to other obligations (compare Campos [16
] p. 163). Several writers describe painting as something they would like to do, or envision doing in the future, but often other things are more important. Similar to News, Ligisd shares that he is intrigued by seeing paintings by others, but says that his duties as a father reduce his actual graffiti writing:
You kind of have to try find a balance, it’s like I would like to paint every day […]. When you see others have been out painting or bombing then you get stoked. [...] [Y]ou think, tonight I might [be able to paint], and then when you come home – well not really, […] you have to prepare gruel [for the baby] and other shit. […] If you’re in a relationship then you are in a relationship, then you must honor your own choice.
Writers claim that with increased age, they have achieved the insight that life includes more than graffiti and they argue that graffiti is not as important as it was in their youth. Similar to the quotes above, Moral often has the impulse to paint but like many others he qualifies this motivation as regularly being limited to an idea. This is due to the reflection that graffiti does not fill the same function in his adult life as when he was young.
- I always have a feeling […]. That you see a wall and think “ouff! Here you could [paint]”. […] But then you don’t bother and you don’t really have time to. And no motivation.
- Ah! That you love graffiti but it’s not your whole worldview in that way?
- No, no, no, and even if it should be your whole worldview, it wouldn’t matter. If I would paint every day, it wouldn’t fill the same function for me.
Graffiti writers’ gaze on the city is formed by life courses with graffiti occupying their minds, they see urban structures as possible sites to achieve fame and recognition [4
]. However, as middle aged adults, they construct self-identity where painting graffiti is not allowed to be that central. Still, these writers’ extensive reflections and recollections about graffiti illustrate that graffiti remains very important, but it has, for several of them, shifted from the execution of tags and pieces in the city towards recollections in podcasts and elsewhere. Through their narratives these graffiti writers reflexively construct the social meaning of aging. Through reflection on their biographies they connect past experiences and future aspirations with present conduct (compare Giddens [36
] p. 54). Like many other podcast guests Brain argues that reflexivity increases with age:
Well, you know I think this is quite interesting because like later in life you start to kind of look at the paths you followed […] and that’s what I find interesting with your podcast […], because now you have, like, time to reminiscence. It is sensitive as hell, when you embark on this […] To tell your story […] and kind of make sense of, how in hell did I get by […]. And sometimes, I don’t have a clue.
Brain’s statement discloses that how to narrate your biography is not a given – as Hall argues identities have a fictional character [54
] (p. 4). In middle age, writers express an increased need to reflect on their life course. They understand themselves as individuals who have different obligations and needs than when they were young. Adult identities that are in charge of the self are constructed in contrast to memories of younger less organized selves. The host of SGP expands on this topic, reflecting on his own challenges of self-control throughout different stages in life, first as a youth, and then a few years past, as an adult:
- When I was younger I don’t think I reflected over whether [graffiti was a choice or a need]. You know, I had a break. And then in adulthood a guy at my work found out [that] I had been painting […]. He just said, “now we’ll get some cans and paint”. Then I knew, that if I take this step now, […] well I was like a junkie with a shot of heroin in my hand, I knew that if I start now then I will fall down into it, devote a lot of time to it and maybe get into trouble again […]. Then I had that insight, and I was correct, I am manic. I sit here with my graffiti podcast, but it’s fun. […]. [N]ow when you are an adult you can be responsible for your [graffiti] writing in a different way.
In this statement the overwhelming force of graffiti, previously discussed, is remembered as consistent since youth. Writing graffiti is here presented as a threat to the sanity of the adult subject. However, the shape the obsession takes is different to the recollections from youth, it is narrated as more internal and reflexive. For SGP, graffiti is now less about writing on walls, instead it is executed through obsessive production of podcasts where memories are narrated. Similar to other statements graffiti is increasingly something that occupies the mind.
Moral further expands on why graffiti does not fill the same function in middle age life as in youth. He contrasts the stable mid-life identity he has with the fragile identity beginning to take form in youth:
[T]hat hunger and devotion that is graffiti, for me, that I could only have then, when I was a child you know. And that is what I find to be interesting with graff. […] [Now] I can be a nerd about style as well, the shape of the letters and forms. […] Because of this I can go to a legal wall […] a couple of times a year with like some old writer friends, but then it is not at all about “ouff, what if everyone sees this, wow, here I am, just wow”.
Moral constructs his present identity in contrast to his youth struggles of becoming someone. His statement indicating that contemporary graffiti is a social community that is, to a great extent, built on collective memories of life courses shared with “some old friends” and aesthetic tastes to “be a nerd about”. These aesthetic tastes can be seen as “generational demarcations” of a “particular cultural milieu” [26
] (p. 258).
When middle aged male writers in podcasts express personal development towards more self-control, their discussion involves norms for future behavior and how to be role-models for younger writers and for their own children. Writers present two ways to exercise self-control, which they argue have developed with increased age. First, to show consideration for others, primarily to their loved ones as Ligisd previously related. Second, to show consideration towards one’s own well-being through knowledge of, and care for, the self [50
]. While authentic graffiti is constructed as part of the outlaw life of young writers, the suggested ethos for middle aged male writers is to follow the path of the golden mean—or ‘moderation in all things’.
- [M]aybe moderation in all things is the best, when it comes to, like, medium dangerous and fun stuff like graff and booze and…
- If one shall make any conclusion out of it, yes, but at the same time I am of the opposite opinion, graff was about being so illegal, so un-moderated as possible. […] But this is not advice I give to others […]. To my kids on the other side of the door I say “moderation in all things is good, do some graffiti on a legal wall, that’s balanced”. However, on the other hand there is a need for writers that are all but balanced, if graffiti should have any value so to say, […] there should be some riot in it.
Moral contrasts bombing and illegal graffiti writing with painting with permission. Many of the most emotionally charged memories from youth that writers share in subcultural podcasts are from the illegal painting that they describe as authentic graffiti. When middle aged writers recollect and interpret their life courses, it is important for them to present graffiti as a productive experience while simultaneously not question the subcultural difference achieved by graffiti’s subversiveness. Consequently, the narratives in graffiti podcasts present middle age masculine identities as results of subcultural youth experience leading to personal development and increased self-control and reflection. Critique against the practice of graffiti and its illegal acts are not within the normative boundaries that define which memories are relevant for this community (compare Zerubavel [3
] p. 286). Constraints and social norms privilege memories that confirm social bonds within a group and discard memories that can be disruptive [34
] (p. 223) [43
] (p. 95).