Gangs of Graffiti Q&A with Clinical Psychologist Mandy Kok – Editorial

We spoke to Clinical Psychologist and artist Mandy Kok about the psychology behind graffiti art, vandalism, authority’s response, art and more…

Why Get Up? from Amehlo Productions on Vimeo.

We hear plenty of talk about the “rebelliousness of youth”, even to the point where we have commodified it, in some cases even celebrating it. Could you talk to us about what this impulse is, where this impulse comes from?

Each developmental phase is characterized by certain growth processes and tasks or imperatives.  The psychological task of adolescence is to separate from our parents and establish our independent and distinctly unique persona. We do this by switching our reference focus from parents to peer group, by pushing the boundaries of previously respected norms of being that have been established by authority figures, by experimenting with new ways of being that challenge “the folks” but earn acceptance into the new “in-group” or “gang”.  Two interesting points are that adolescence is now acknowledged as being significantly protracted.  It has always referred to the period from the onset of hormonal changes to the establishment of functional (including financial) independence….so in my parents day, that was about 12 to 16; in my day 12 to 18 for some and 21 for those fortunate to afford tertiary education. Today, however, we are looking at earlier average hormonal maturity(developed countries with good nutrition, about 10) ‘til late 20’s (due to greater percentages of post-school education and training, high levels of youth unemployment, and a changing youth dynamic). It used to be that teenagers could not wait to leave home to gain behavioral freedom. In current society, they have relatively far more freedom, far greater privilege, much less restriction, access to much more of everything  (mostly supported by parents and family) and therefore far less drive to “grow up”, move out of home and support themselves. The second point is that we live in a time when latter-day “extreme” is totally normalized.Early and multiple sexual encounters are par for the course, pregnancy “out of wedlock” is mostly not an issue, frequenting clubs with fake ID’s and having nobody notice or care is seen as a prerogative, experimenting with hard core drugs is a rite of passage, drinking alcohol is no longer a social lubricant but something to be imbibed hard and fast to the point of near unconsciousness as frequently as possible, people are adored, rewarded and “followed” for being outrageous, out of control and breaking both laws and social mores, rehab is fashionable, selfishness is desirable, etc. Therefore, pushing the boundaries takes on new dimensions. (Let’s face it, what is actually regarded as scandalous these days?).

How do you think this impulse has come to be aligned with Graffiti Art, in both its legal and illegal forms? 

Graffiti is one way of doing several things…it pushes the boundaries of what is seen as acceptable by virtually all authority figures (including the law) so it certainly “separates you “ from authority systems, it is a visible and public way to make your unique mark, it offers entry into a relatively exclusive and secret “gang” for youths who are generally not very successful at making their mark in more mainstream ways, who are not driven by person-orientated destructive impulses (on the scale of “acting out”, graffiti does not harm people), but who feel a significant need to be noticed and to register their discontent without being caught. There is a special thrill in engaging in low-risk, highly ritualized, antisocial behavior that also offers  territorial and artistic competition, has massive impact of a largely negative kind (the very aim of adolescence is to” give the finger” to “the ballies” and society at large), to “damage” that which is held sacred by all of us who buy into the dream of assets, possessions, the supremacy of individual rights. Of course, here I am referring to “bombing” or illegal graffiti, and more specifically, repetitive tagging of a code name. This is passive-aggressive, non-violent, generally unskilled vandalism (compare it to recent vandalism in London).  Graffitti art is a subversive art-form practiced mostly by  more skillful and ambitious ex-taggers who promote themselves as “artists” who exhibit their work in self-claimed spaces. As in all genres of art, a few come to be considered masters of their art form as well as insightful social commentators, some will impress sufficiently to be commissioned or to be donated spaces, but most are compelled to make their art even though no-one is “buying it” (Just like the majority of all artists). The difference is that the “pieces” are not contained in closed spaces called galleries or private collections where Mr. Public would have to deliberately choose to view them.Graffitti artists argue that we are constantly bombarded with images that are not of our choosing in the form of advertising and that we rarely squeal about that, even though research repeatedly demonstrates that these images powerfully manipulate us…let’s face it, it’s a good point! Anyway, once we are talking about legal graffiti…. That is, where permission has been obtained to paint a wall, we are no longer talking about rebellion in any way.

Your exhibition “Dis.Location” currently up at The Corner Cafe deals with your impressions of modern society, more specifically the daily existence of city folk.  Could you comment on the relationship between the society you speak of in your work and Graffiti Art?  Is there a connection between our “dislocation” as a society and Graffiti Art? 

For sure, the most common “dis.ease” that Mr. Public in the modern urban world suffers from is a sense of “dis.connection” from feeling, from self, from other, from community, from locus of control, from freedom, from safety, from just about everything that we need to make us healthy, happy, hopeful, helpful humans. I know I have a biased view as I specifically deal with folk who are “dis.tressed” but all you have to do is look and listen around you to know that virtually every “dis.order” (physical, psychological, civil, environmental, societal) is on the increase…so symptoms of this widespread “dis.content” are more widely and more dramatically evident.

How would you describe your own relationship with Graffiti Art?  You allowed us to “Get Up” on one of your paintings, can you talk about your intentions with that piece? 

To be honest, I strongly object to any act perpetrated upon me or my stuff without my prior knowledge and permission.. I hate that my car is scratched and dented by careless others in parking lots, I equally hate that my view is blemished by ugly adverts in the bus-stop opposite my house and the use of said bus-stop as an ablution facility by all passers-by, by newspaper headlines on public posts designed to inflame and unsettle us, etc. Graffitti, I’m afraid, falls into the same category… the will, act and product of someone else being thrust at me whether I like it or not.And mostly, I don’t like it…. The “art” I mean. ( Just like with all art, our response to it is highly personal) But in the grand scheme of things we have little choice over, or that we are going to throw precious personal and public resourses at, graffiti is an irritation. As to why I allowed guys to “get up” on one of my paintings, it served to make the depiction of Mr. Public’s alienation from Everycity more “real”. At another level, having had my house be the victim of a repeat teenage tagger (who I caught and dealt with eventually!) it was nice to be in control of the “artistic intervention”. A third reason was to acknowledge and support the constructive progress in philosophy and practice being made and disseminated by an ex-tagger turned legal graffiti artist that is close to my heart.

The City seems to think that arresting and convicting anyone found guilty of Malicious Intent To Property (the official charge) will stop this type of crime occurring.  Would you agree that this is a valid method of solving the problem?  How would you address this issue?  

In their dreams!!! It is a paltry attempt to do something (make their mark, claim a victory over public territory), no matter how pathetically small and ineffective in the scheme of civil ills (albeit expensive in every which way, to many). Though they are not managing to make their mark on serious crime that actually hurts people, they get to feel momentarily important and potent…. OMG… they’re starting to resemble, dare I say it, graffiti artists! The solution is extremely complex at one level… how do we cure our ailing society, our world, our leaders, our human race?

At another level there are some really simple steps….. ask, don’t assume; be curious, not accusatory; seek to include, not exclude; look for ways to add value, not demand; make peace and place for everyone, not war.

Okay, so call me a latter-day hippy or a hip-hop granny…either way, I don’t mind.


Posted on August 30, 2011, in Editorial, Mandy Kok and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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