Bad Graffiti (London: Black Dog Press, 2013) published in a handy 15 x 22cm size, is the no-nonsense title of Scott Hocking’s new collection of photographs depicting graffiti in situ (both scribbled words and icons), announcing that his inquisitive eye has been snared, not by highly skilled urban tagging or guerilla stencilling, but backstreet often elliptical homey messages from the decaying inner city and ‘burbs of Detroit City, a place where admiring wrecked buildings – evidently there are 70,000 in Detroit – has generated a new category, “ruin porn”, in James D Griffioen’s telling phrase.
Many of the surtitled targets are boarded up houses, garages or industrial brick facades, often slowly being subsumed by rot, vegetation and vandalism. Be it tumbledown carpenter’s gothic or derelict warehouse, the entropy itself seems to have encouraged the writers, either spraycanners, or stoned daubers with chunky marker pens to decorate this terminal architecture, since who could be offended by their crass sentiments when the whole hood is going to rack and ruin? So Hocking’s images (he himself is tattooed with a six of spades) are a record not only of inscriptions, but also their precarious context.
But the scrawled messages really provide the entertainment here, everything from “SS Little Mermaid is a Whore” to “Koof”, “Buzz I’m A Human Fly” to “Dr. Strangelove Do You Feel Me?” and the classic “Sea Horses of the Aopopolyp”, a low life litany of complaint, denunciation and self-advertising. Nowadays when so many electronic interfaces are available, it’s a wonder anyone still feels the need to write on walls, but this would be to ignore the skanky charm of many contributions, a charm deriving from both their anonymity and scale. Not unlike pheromones left behind by wild animals, these linguistic traces define turf, more to do with psychic survival than the codes of art, the authors not so much dead as in hiding.
The photos in Bad Graffiti, build on Hocking’s earlier Detroit based projects, such as ‘Relics’, 2001-10, ‘Detroit Midden Mound’, 2008, ‘Signs, Symbols and Ciphers’, 2007, and ‘Scrappers’, 2000-4, the latter a powerful sequence documenting the lives of homeless men trading in salvaged metal and other junk. In effect he is anthropologist and archaeologist rolled into one, although perhaps still using the camera as a means of distancing himself from tough surroundings, and well advised to bear in mind the words of local spokesperson Marsha Cusic, that “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project, it’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.” (New York Times, 9 November 2012).
Strangely in our topsy-turvy era, where ‘wicked’ has come to mean ‘desirable’ in teen back slang, its harder edged synonym ‘bad’ still connotes variously ‘genuine’ ‘lawless’, even (and whisper it) ‘poor quality’. Frankly much of this commentary is absolute dreck, scarcely better than outdoor latrinalia on enter-at-your-peril crack dens, yet also a salutory reminder of graffiti’s roots, since if not as an activity, but as a product, it has gradually become semi-legitimate, and institutionalised, indeed thanks to the Banksy phenomenon virtually one of the fine arts.
The noise caused by Vladimir Umanets’s defacement at Tate Modern of Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon painting of 1958, a gesture given a thin coating of neo-avantgarde respectability by Umanets and Co’s Yellowist manifestospeak, showed however that the urge to write where you shouldn’t still runs deep. Needless to say the counter forces of law and order opposing the practice can be just as busy – viz his two year jail sentence – when it comes to the sanctity of a masterpiece. Hocking’s survey of Detroit’s Basquiat-like stream of consciousness reveals him to be more interested in wit than discourse, in the secret meaning of “Celestial Gang Glyphs”: a doodled frieze including runic stars, candelabra, and a Martini glass with a cactus swizzlestick, or in schizophrenic utterances such as “Chedda AV –It’s Dinner Time’ and ‘Moose Balls!”. It’s unlikely that his photo of a whitewashed brick wall adorned with a stark one word message “Vanity!” is referencing Ezra Pound’s famous line from The Cantos “Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down”, but as an indictment the declaration carries force, revealing the critical state of credit crunched America, Detroit’s demotic underbelly read through the continuing adventures of stickman, and the ubiquitous penis glyph. Motor City may have lost its industrial mojo but this haul of bad graffiti reflects the nightmare obsessions of its illiterati.