Thursday, May 8, 2008


We read the world. We name plants and animals. We navigate city streets like they were pages in a book. We interpret signs, discern faces, fathom others’ intentions.

My project aims to learn the ways different people read the same realities, or the many ways we by our readings create different realities. I suppose that is anthropology’s task, to discover the codes people use to interpret their worlds.

I study people in cities – Asheville, N.C., now, and eventually Cape Town, South Africa. Rather than try to discover the particular “culture” of residents of these cities (I don’t suppose there is anything singular about culture in cities, or anywhere else for that matter), I want to tease out the varieties, the different ways people in a city interpret it.

I hope, by understanding the different ways people understand places, to understand their different social identities: to use “place” as a way to gain insights about people in places. I assume a relationship between spatial and social worlds.

As I walk around town, as I walk around my own rather genteel neighborhood, I notice graffiti. And I notice the different sorts of places where graffiti artists work, where they create murals or just scrawl their own or someone else’s names, or tags.

While I’ve noticed graffiti all my life, and even as a journalist written about it, I’ve never really given it much thought. I’m new to this. I’m looking for artists to show me around, explain things.

But I have noticed that graffiti tend to fall into at least two categories: there are marks that seem, in the making, to have been risk free, often in hidden places, like the concrete balustrades under a bridge, and there are marks that must, in the making, have involved great (or at least greater) risks, either because in physically inaccessible or dangerous places, or because so public the artist might have been discovered and arrested.

This distinction leads me to wonder how graffiti artists "read" space in the city differently from people who don’t make graffiti. Graffiti artists, I think, must see the urban landscape much as a climber sees mountain ranges with peaks to climb and ledges to practice upon.

How might a map of the graffiti artist’s landscape be different from mine or my neighbor’s?

And how might an anthropology of this city go about representing the different cities inhabited by its residents? How do these cities shape each other? How do the different cities define different communities within the city?

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