The Faith of Hashtags

You hit your name and maybe something in the whole scheme of the system gives a death rattle. For now your name is over their name, over the subway manufacturer, the Transit Authority, the city administration. Your presence is on their presence, your alias hangs over their scene. There is a pleasurable sense of depth to the elusiveness of the meaning.

Norman Mailer, The Faith of Graffiti

In 1974 Norman Mailer put words to Jon Naar’s photos depicting what some people considered a disturbing trend in the New York City landscape—graffiti art. The article, titled The Faith of Graffiti, challenged white hegemonic notions of what graffiti was, and eventually helped to reveal its dominant understanding as a bias against people of color and then to reconfigure it to a painful but productive means of artistic and political communication.

But I study Twitter activism, so why mention graffiti? Well, it’s simple: I think that graffiti and Twitter hashtags have a lot in common. I know that there’s a physicality to graffiti that doesn’t by necessity transfer to the hashtag, just like I know that hashtags don’t have the stigma that graffiti once did. But there’s something connecting them, regardless.

The thing that connects graffiti and the hashtag is homological in nature. And in this case, the homology that connects them is rhetorical. “A homology,” Barry Brummett says, “is a pattern found to be ordering significant particulars of different and disparate experiences,” or, a homology is a pattern that can be identified on the level of form rather than content. But what makes a homology rhetorical, what makes that formal similarity meaningful, Brummett tells us, is that it communicates something in a similar manner, despite the obvious differences between the two things being compared. But what’s the formal pattern linking graffiti and Twitter hashtags together?

The rhetorical homology that connects graffiti and hashtags we might call a ritual of naming. Naming formally links the hashtag and graffiti in varying ways. For instance, both their ability to be identifying is reliant upon their mobility, not merely in the sense that hashtags move across cyberspace in a flash the way that graffiti moved across cities on subway cars, but also in the sense that the hashtag and graffiti have both crossed traditional boundaries such as the nation-state to create new cultural boundaries based on shared values, aesthetics, and practices. It stands to reason then that their mobility is intrinsic to the communities that use them to signify—simultaneously rooted in Black American culture, yet cohesive across racial boundaries to include artistic communities, activist communities, etc. But perhaps most notable among the formal linkages between graffiti and hashtags is the way that both lend their artistry and inventiveness to those who wish to use them for the sake of political and artistic critique.

Take the remarkable, perhaps embarrassing, artist hack of the popular Showtime terrorist drama Homeland earlier this year. The way the story goes, the Homeland production for this season paid local German artists to design a set that looked like war-torn Syria, part of which included graffiti on bomb-damaged walls; the artists noticed that the set designers were unaware of and unconcerned with the meanings of the graffiti messages being crafted (i.e., they only wanted the aesthetic of the graffiti); so, the artists chose to write their own messages to subvert Homeland’s dominant readings. A short video of their explanation can be found here.

The messages the German artists wrote were political, partly because they were recognizably obscured. The lines delineating form and content blurred to create a wonderful, political, act. The form that the messages took was that of graffitied Arabic. So it was simple, really, to make the form recognizable. The artists sprayed graffiti tags on tanned walls, but then signified an exoticized, rubbled Middle East through its use of Arabic rather than English. But the content of the messages proved to be formal in themselves, their obfuscation clarified only after the episodes had aired. When translated, after they were aired to a worldwide audience, what seemed just part of the scenery that is Homeland’s Syria transformed into a playful form of protest: the graffiti, it turns out, carried messages such as “Homeland is Racist” and “Homeland is not real,” but most importantly for this post, “#BlackLivesMatter.”

#BlackLivesMatter may at first seem out of place as graffiti fit for a political prank on Homeland. After all, Homeland is a complicated text to engage with, but it’s politics are centered around problematics of global scale, i.e., terrorasthreat/asIslam. But using #BlackLivesMatter as a means of protest and power on the level of form is wonderfully powerful. That’s because #BlackLivesMatter is the name that this generation has given to racism, whatever its form.  It’s mobility as a major signifier on the internet is easily assimilable to the style that graffiti affords the material world. And the translation of the #hashtag into Arabic, making it something that resembles a piece of Homeland’s televisual presentation, is both inventive and politically artistic. In short, the inclusion of #BlackLivesMatter into the critique of of Homeland isn’t out of place; it’s intrinsic to and endemic of the means of protest as they exist today.

40 years ago, Mailer helped to nudge the perception of graffiti from a reckless and destructive eyesore to an artistic form of political protest, a means of tagging and naming spaces worthy of the presence of people of color and cultures outside the more visible mainstream, members of which were confronted with their own sense of aesthetics, politics, and visibility simply by graffiti’s presence. Today it’s the hashtag that does the work of graffiti. Hashtags name, they spread their meanings through the politics of influence, they work themselves playfully into political and artistic settings. But what’s more, by working rhetorically, they question the distinction between form and content. The result is that they have the malleability to be worked into almost any setting, even settings no one would expect them.

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