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For my “found image” I picked three stop signs that had been graffitied to photograph and transform.

Graffiti can be seen as the original act of artistic reappropriation.  The definition (see: describes the original meaning to be “scribbling on an ancient wall,” and also ties the graffito to artistic practices as part of a decorative pottery process. 

I am interested in the way graffiti plays with so many fields of expression: from art to advertising, personal stamp to anonymous commentary.  It can be political, humorous, angry, suggestive, offensive, meaningless, all of these, or none.  What is particularly fascinating is that graffiti is inherently authorless.  As a transgressive act, “drawing” graffiti is something done in secret, at night, such that no one knows whom the author was in the morning.  It is meant to be seen by all, yet created by no one--at least, no one with a specific legal identity.  Indeed, when graffiti consists of an authorial stamp, the specific writing style developed by graffitists consists of making that stamp illegible.  We may recognize a symbol seen around the city, but cannot know to whom it refers (and therefore, no one can be punished).

Of course, graffiti as an “art” has developed over time, with the term including the practice of performing the creation of spraypainted art on the street, ultimately for sale to passersby (in which case it isn’t part of the urban landscape, transforming someone else’s property, so it isn’t “graffiti” in the traditional sense).  It is also performed as art for public benefit when condoned as part of “reclaiming” urban spaces projects.  In both these cases, graffiti loses its transgressive function and abides by a purpose beyond the act itself.

Traditional understandings of graffiti are as much or more about the process itself, the act of “defacing” (aka reappropriating) public property, than about the product (though not, perhaps, in the case of advertising stickers).  And with urban projects such as Providence’s “Graffiti Task Force” (see: on the lookout, as well as competition from other graffitists, graffiti is best understood as ephemeral expression.  The more prominent the placement, the more egregious the message, and/or the more complete the reappropriation of the surface, the more likely the work is to be destroyed, particularly by “the authorities” (dun dun DUNNNN).  Thus, for graffiti to last, it must be as tolerable as it is noticeable. 

This is why I chose to look at stop sign graffiti.  For the most part, it is low on the priority list for clean-up, since the sign can still be said to function even with the text partially obscured---and after all, as long as the sign is still red, what driver would actually not know what the octagon meant?  However, it would no longer truly be a “stop sign” per se because the stop sign functions as a combination of text and image.  Graffiti, too, straddles this ontological boundary, usually functioning as graphic text or textual image (including in the case of advertising stickers). 

To reappropriate these reappropriations for myself, I first chose three signs that seemed typically graffitied (including one that reappropriates the “STOP” text for its own message, a popular practice).  I photographed them as the best way of documenting them.  The only change I made was simple: switching the colors of the signs themselves.  Because a stop sign’s functionality lies in both its form and its content, and the content had already been altered by the graffitists, I chose to alter the form in the simplest and most radical way possible.  The colors chosen are meant to be very different from the original red, and are intentionally reminiscent of Andy Warhol's pop art.  The signs are further transformed by reducing their spatiality when I printed them out on plain paper.  I then chose a different method of street expression, one typically used for conveying information, by stapling the images to telephone poles, intentionally covering other posters.  In doing so, I hope to make people wonder: Who made these?  What do they mean?---questions that might be asked of any graffiti.  For myself, I think this simple translation changes the ontology of the stop sign entirely and reflects the ambiguity of graffiti as image and text, art and destruction.  

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