Entrospective: 'Beneath the Surface of Graffiti' by David Vanden-Eynden

March 13, 2019


As a well known practitioner and leader in the design of signage, graphics, and wayfinding programs for environments and buildings around the world, Entro | CVE Principal David Vanden-Eynden has a unique perspective on the artwork we find in our public spaces. In the commentary below, he discusses his relationship to the graffiti he has encountered in New York City.

Beneath the Surface of Graffiti

I have a love/hate relationship with graffiti. I love it because some of it is beautiful, some of it reflects my political and social views, and some of it is just plain clever.

I hate it because it is ugly visual pollution that downgrades the urban environment and can indicate a community in decline.

But, generally, I am intrigued by graffiti. I try to appreciate and understand the motivation behind the graphic. I find it to be the visual expression of a moment in time—for better or for worse. As an environmental graphic designer, I often find redeeming beauty and communicative properties in graffiti. Consider for a moment the emotional expressiveness and exuberance (or fear) of executing a spontaneous act of vandalistic expression. Yes, some graffiti is planned and executed with extreme detail, the street artist Hense, for example, but more often than not it is purely spontaneous.

New York in the bad-old-days of the seventies and eighties saw a plague of graffiti dominate building walls and subway cars. The visual chatter was horrific. Subway cars were awash in individual tags layered one upon another, larger and bolder than the tag below, and required subway riders to develop an ability to tune out the scrawled visual garbage bearing down on them from walls, ceilings, doors and windows.

Artsy Soho of the 80s was home to amazing creative expression. Artists took to graffiti with relish. Keith Haring was among the more prolific and well known graffiti artists. I remember seeing his simple chalk drawings on the black block-out paper New York City Transit used in the poster niches along the subway platforms. Eventually galleries picked up his work and he received commissions for murals around town and around the world.

Then, there was the person who painted crude full-sized shadowy silhouettes of people lurking in doorways throughout Soho. It startled me more than once!

Not to be outdone, the Chelsea neighborhood produced inspired graffiti in the form of dimensional elements affixed to sign posts. This example lasted only a few days before disappearing. I wish I had taken it for myself as it was a fabulous example of art, politics, and graffiti coming together. At least I have a picture!

In the past few years one of my favorite "graffiti-ists" drew curly mustaches on posters in the subway. The mustache was created using a hand drawn, calligraphic rendition of the word mustache. Unfortunately the police caught the poor guy and he was fined for defacing property. I was sad to see such a playful expression halted. Personally, I looked more at the mustachioed posters than the unaltered ones.

Then there is political and social graffiti like the one above, stenciled on the stairs of a train platform in New Brunswick, NJ—“No Mo Jails”. Or the one at the top of the page—rendered in a simpler, more timid style—about consumption.

Concrete is a truly tempting medium and a permanent foray into the world of graffiti. One example spotted on the campus of Princeton University clearly demonstrates a bias. The other, found on the streets of Detroit, is lighter and makes people smile (although I’m sure the property owner was not as amused as I was). I especially like the skill with which the arrow is rendered.

But the creative spirit is most at the top of its game when common street elements are enlisted into creating the graffiti message. What’s not to love about love.

Like it or despise it, graffiti isn’t going away. It’s been around since humans first picked up charred sticks and scrawled on cave walls. What most people don’t appreciate is the story beneath the graffiti. If you peek just under the surface, it tells you about time, place, people, society, politics, culture, and art.