Conferences · graffiti · Uncategorized

Graffiti, media & the commodification of resistance

This week I presented ‘Instagraff – How the rich kids of Instagram killed the graffiti writer’ to the British Sociological Association annual conference at Manchester University. This was picked up by a number of press outlets, including a Radio 4 interview on the Today show and an interview and piece in the Times. In the same issue of the Times there was a piece examining the disaster that is the new Pepsi advert staring Kendal Jenner.

The crux of my argument about instagraff is that graffiti subculture has become commodified. By presenting a graffiti writer identity online, individuals can build a reputation (subcultural capital) which is then being exchanged for economic capital in the form of the creation of urban brands, galleries dedicated to urban art, and graffiti artist as community changemakers.

There are positive implications for this. City of Culture Hull 2017 demonstrates the impact of grassroots arts and culture that urban graffiti writers can have as community changemakers. My research in Stoke-on-Trent showed a similar trajectory for urban arts and culture. Therefore, it is hardly unsurprising that Stoke-on-Trent is now in the bidding process for City of Culture 2021; for it was urban graffiti artists who instigated key cultural moments in urban space way back in 2013-14 that have facilitated this cultural growth.

However, graffiti is replicated and commodified by brands, advertisers, design agencies and now social media users, constantly. Producing images dislocated from the subcultural origins of graffiti, ignoring the complex values and history of resistance attached to the practise of graffiti writing. These images project urban street cool, but are dislocated from any deeper meanings of resistance to authority; they have become merely a stereotype.

The heavily critiqued advertisement by Pepsi starring Kendal Jenner is an example of the commodification of resistance. The advert shows a protest with Kendal handing a can of Pepsi to a front-line riot police officer, bringing peace.

Fusion offered this video in response to the Pepsi advert: this highlights the issue with brands appropriating grassroots forms of protest and resistance for financial and capitalist gain. In their video Pepsi flattens a series of social problems, and resistance to subordination and violence, in to a stereotype. A stereotype that erases state violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty and other key ways that the ruling classes use institutions and structures as social control. It is no accident that the model used within this video is a member of the Kardashian family, a family which is considered by many to personify capitalism and a distortion of the ‘American Dream’.

That Pepsi recognised social movements and tried to commodify their popularity for financial gain is not new, it has been happening for many years and began with subcultures such as graffiti. In fact, Pepsi has used graffiti to advertise many times, see this video. The reality of the situation is that this practise is so shocking for so many because the practise of appropriation has moved in to mainstream spaces of everyday life. Unable to resist, graffiti culture has responded and developed to negotiate commodification. With appropriation of resistance now focused upon recent protest such as ‘Black lives Matter’ and the women’s march, this should be a call to arms for all to reject capitalist society. However, I suspect that this critique of Pepsi will be merely a blip in the road for a practise that, whilst critiqued on this occasion, will only become more popular and face less resistance in future manifestations.

Picture credit: Artist Yuliya Vladkovska.

This research would not have been possible without three key influences and support in my academic studies. So I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Andy Zieleniec, my undergraduate supervisor and the guy who found and facilitated the funding from Santander to go to Chile and research Latin American graffiti. Dr Tony Kearon my Masters supervisor that helped me tease out Instagraff from tons of data, self doubt and a passion for visual criminology. And Dr Rebecca Leach for not only starting this whole obsession with consumer culture and resistance through her lectures, but the additional support and mentoring she offered as a woman in academia. I’m certain without that I would not be carving out a career in research now. Keele University is very lucky to have you all, just as I was to be your student. Thank you. 

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