When I was a teenager there was a powerful creative force in my neighborhood called the Scribble Crew. “Scrib” was this dude at my high school who had intense design aesthetic and who could pull together people around graffiti, if nothing else. The Crew’s work was spread around my area of the city, with random gang tagging happening over and around it. Until I came along. When I was 14 I took the tag name “Paz”, and at 19 I became Modem Chi. Now, I wasn’t an accomplished artist, and I wasn’t that prolific. But I had a little talent, and with some targeted art I made a little bit of a name for myself. Oh, in the late 80s I watched Wild Style and Beat Street, and took what I was doing seriously enough to practice in the back yard, on the margins of school books, and by doing tags of friends names for $.50 a piece for a long time. It paid for extra milk and candy bars at the pawn shop. I was into it. But I never got busted – I had teachers who suspected me, and people in my neighborhood who tried to catch me, and a girlfriend whose name I scrawled across more than one wall figured out my secret identity quick. But never once did the flashing lights catch up with me, and when the search beams peeled across our house they weren’t looking for me.
Grafitti can represent one form of what I call “inconvenient youth voice.” These are the voices of young people who are urgently struggling to be heard, and whether or not adults like or appreciate what is being said, these young people are going to be heard. The kid markering on the bathroom stall, that crowd outside the class complaining about how bad that teacher is, the girl who drops out because she hated school, and the dudes throwing bottles at the old church because they’re pissed off at God are all examples of inconvenient youth voice. The youth member who says the “wrong thing” at the meeting, the young representative who brings 10 friends instead of one, and the 19-year-old who insists on starting that school despite being told no a million times… all of these are examples of inconvenient youth voice. I shared a lot of it myself when I was young, as we all did – because we all want to be heard. The general inconvenience of my youth was that I didn’t believe I needed to be heard – instead, I just wanted to get the words or art or action out there, no matter what. Sure, some people spent time painting their personal property after I tagged it, and taxpayer dollars were spent cleaning up the streets I scrawled on years after I put it down. But I wasn’t thinking about it – I was doing it.
People who are committed to the meaningful engagement of young people throughout society need to work with young people to find and create and explore and examine new ways to engage disengaged youth, and new ways to make inconvenient youth voice constructive, if not always appreciated or “appropriate.”
The argument about the legitimacy of grafitti continues still today, more than 30 years after the art began in earnest. Luckily, some headway is being made. According to today’s New York Times, recently in New York City, a strange collection of police officers and grafitti artists sat down for a conversation. Check that out. In the meantime, think about the ways you can embrace inconvenience, no matter what. That’s our job.