by Debbie Hum
Painting trains has become the big thing now, to prove that you're 'real,'" said Janice Rahn, en route to the CP train yard at the northern edge of Montreal's Mile End district, in search of hip-hop graffiti.
Rahn, a professor of art and art education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, returned to Concordia on March 10 to defend her PhD thesis in Art Education, titled "An Ethnographic Study of Hip-Hop Graffiti Culture/ Motivation: The Tension Between Individual Desire, Peer Influence, and Community Space." The next day, she revisited some of the sites she discovered during the course of her doctoral work, back in 1997.
On one side of Van Horne Blvd., two sanctioned graffiti-inspired murals at cole douard VII demonstrate how hip-hop graffiti in the 1990s has been increasingly co-opted by the mainstream. The real stuff is on the other side, in an alley where the walls are adorned with stylistic spray-painted "tags" and three-feet-high "throw-ups." Beyond a chain-link fence into the train yard are the large pieces that are considered the standard of hip-hop graffiti: multi-coloured murals of complex letter combinations that sometimes include cartoons.
Rahn, an Ontario native, arrived in Montreal in 1992 to work on her MFA at Concordia. Before this she spent several years as a high school art, music and drama teacher in the Northwest Territories, followed by two years in Spain and Italy.
She confessed that she used to think graffiti was vandalism, "no question about it." However, in 1995 she began to document signature tags that recurred throughout the city. One day, while biking along the Lachine Canal, Rahn and her husband Michael, also an artist, discovered the inner courtyard of the abandoned Redpath sugar refinery.
"It was the first time I'd seen graffiti like that. They were really bright, colourful and tightly drawn pieces. Some were weatherworn, with peeling paint and layers upon layers of images. It was like an archaeological discovery," Rahn recalled.
Over the next year, Rahn interviewed nine local writers, Flow, Seaz, Dstrbo, Gene, Evoke, Singe, Shana, Gofish and Timer. Some writers identified themselves with the 'Old School,' referring to the old styles and codes of the New York hip-hop tradition, while others adopted the 'New School' hip-hop approach that focuses on inclusion, innovation and dialogue with others.
"There are so many different motivations that you really can't generalize, but they all seem to enjoy becoming part of the neighbourhood. By entering public space, they can communicate with their peers, but they also form a dialectic with people outside of the culture, especially now with all the media attention. This causes their participation to become politicized."
Hip-hop is experiencing a second wave, Rahn said. The hip-hop movement began in inner American cities in the 1960s, gradually spreading out to middle-class urban and suburban regions. By the 1980s, contemporary artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat used graffiti to gain fame in the mainstream art world.
Rahn said that the recent revival has been helped along through the network of subculture magazines and the internet. There are even specialty stores that cater to a hip-hop clientele by selling clothing, graffiti equipment and fanzines. Ad agencies such as Murad are hiring graf writers to paint large outdoor advertisements. In Montreal, two groups of graffiti writers now compete in legitimate mural companies, Heavyweight and Urban Expressions. They both thrive on their ability to network and on their understanding of youth culture.
The increase of these legal activities has caused contemporary writers to talk more frequently about "keeping it real" -- a hip-hop code for maintaining street-culture roots and resisting being co-opted by pop culture and commercialization, Rahn explained.
"The old school ethic of 'keeping it real' means to value illegal painting as an act of rebellion against institutions of power," Rahn writes in an article in the March issue of Material Culture Review. "New school writers enjoy the rush of painting illegally, but their main motivation is to paint outdoors, where their community can view it right away," she adds.
A large piece on a freight train is held in the highest esteem by both schools. "It travels," Rahn said simply. "They love that element of surprise, the idea that their work can be in different places and that someone sitting in their car at a rail crossing can be caught off-guard as the train goes by."
Rahn explains the implications of hip-hop for education. "Institutions reward mainly those who follow the rules and the status quo. There is often little room for students to find a constructive outlet for rebellion and the legitimate questioning of authority. Hip-hop graffiti provides a structure of self-directed learning where members feel in control and can achieve a sense of accomplishment," she writes in her article.
Rahn taught at the University of North Dakota for a year
before joining the University of Lethbridge in 1998. She is
currently researching new technology and multimedia in the