Iconoclastic Subcultures: Computer Hackers and Graffiti Artists

Analogous Agendas, Varied Methodologies


by pankaj bengani


I. Overview & Purpose
II. Hackers & Hacking
III. Graffiti Culture
IV. Ideological Similarities
V. Unorganized Thoughts
VI. Works Cited
VII. Hacker Philes
VIII. On-Line Graffiti


I. Overview and Purpose

The subcultures which exist within the cultural paradigms of a society are comprised of people who reject the basic organizational structure of that paradigm. This disagreement with the unspoken rules and lifestyles of the establishment causes a disrespective marginalization of the creators and members of the subculture and movement. While this estrangement and segregation is often the result of misinformation, ignorance and fear, it nevertheless results in the creation of dangerous stereotypes and ignominious generalizations. The most applicable of examples to support this argument are born through understanding the modus operandi of two seemingly disparate communities: cyberworld computer hackers and urban graffiti artists.

The best way to dispel myths about a community is to understand it. Given this enlightenment, it becomes easier to comprehend why subcultures exist, what their purpose is, and who their perpetuators are. Upon examination of the above mentioned groups, it becomes clear that they are not as dissimilar as one would imagine. Although it would be difficult to acknowledge that there are no differences, it is safe to suggest that these differences are minor compared with similarities in the higher purposes which the groups strive to disseminate and maintain.

The methodology used to show the ideological similarities between hackers and graffiti artists will take on a three step process: describe and analyze the hacker subculture; describe and analyze the graffiti subculture; and attempt to compare them by way of critical evaluation. Interesting examples and demonstrations will be provided at the end of this document as an appendix.

II. Hackers and Hacking - CypherIngenuity

"I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool. It does what I want it to do. If it makes a mistake, it's because I screwed up. Not because it doesn't like me.(...)

"And then it happened... a door opened up to a world... rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addicts veins, an electronic pulse it sent out, a refuge from day-to-day incompetencies is taught... a board is found. 'This is it... This is where I belong...' "I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again... I know you all... This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons, and you [society; government] call us criminals. We explore... and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat and lie to us and try to make us believe that it's for our own good, yet we're criminals.

"Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for." [1]

What is a Hacker? The image that comes to mind is that of the proverbial suburban computer geek who has toyed with his (and, occasionally, her) computer for too long. The life of this geek-turned-Hacker is geared solely at causing massive destruction and wreaking havoc on the lives of as many people as possible. The truth is, as always, not as clear cut and well defined. There may in fact be some people who comfortably fit into this stereotypical categorization, but there are many more people, a vast majority, who do not.

A good lesson to learn is to know that there are many varieties of Hackers, each with their own goals, motives and names. To start with the most basic description of all, a Hacker can be defined as, "any person who derives joy from discovering ways to circumvent limitations" [2]. A postscript addition can add a degree of specification to the definition: that these very limitations are often circumvented through electronic means by people who are experts at being able to understand, use, and adapt computer technology and telecommunications. As specific as this definition of the term sounds, there still remains a large amount of connoted ambiguity: does a Hacker hack for social amelioration, personal pleasure, or mass confusion? Clearing these ambiguities requires the development of a few important cyber-dictums:

Hackers who predominantly engage in cyber-terrorism, that is, attempt to create dangerous viruses, crash major networks, or corrupt public/private property (which can be defined as files, data, etc.) are referred to as Crackers - CRiminal hACKERS. Similarly, the ancestors of the contemporary Hacker are called Phreakers or Phone Phreakers, because they were limited by their technology to only be able to poke holes into the telephone networks of AT&T (Ma 'Bell, as it was popularly known before its break up). Phreakers mainly did this to talk to friends and relatives continents away. The term Phreaker is still used today, but it is used to describe those Hackers who are less interested in using the technology, and more in meeting other like minded people (a social Hacker!).

It will be beneficial to understand the social structure of the Hacker communities to facilitate an improved understanding of their actions. In a nutshell, one would not be too far from the truth to claim that very little structure exists amongst the members of the this community. Perhaps the only clearly defined concept is that of sharing sensitive information for the purposes of gaining kudos and attention; restricted knowledge is the only currency in this subculture. People who are able to find and post new forms of information (classified files and data from government organizations and large corporations) are credited with having the knowledge to deal with sensitive and delicate systems. This is critical to their reaching a higher "rank" - yielding more respect and seniority. Often times Hackers will form groups, which provide a closer knit community for members to learn from each other and take strength in the groups actions as a whole. An interesting characteristic about the community is that Hackers rarely use their real names. Instead, they always use a pseudonym (like EyeQ). This ensures privacy and secrecy, and at the same time permits them in joining and falling out of a variety of groups. Because of the nature of the technology, Hackers are able to flow smoothly, digitally, and voicelessly from chats to telephone switching centers to secret supercomputers with relative ease and from the comfort of their bedrooms. Novice Hackers need to publicize themselves by completing daredevil tasks such as cracking the CIA homepage or by posting information on how to crack a certain telephone code. Becoming a respected Hacker does not entail bringing the nation's stock market to a halt; rather, it entails showing -- and sharing -- that this can be done with relative ease with a certain code or program. In a certain sense, Hacking is about information, not action. This anonymous and open sharing causes for an environment where entry and exit is limited only by the technology know-how of would be computer aficionados.

The most erroneous misconception permeating society is that all Hackers are bad Hackers. An attendee of a Hacker's Conference once said that, "trying to explain to others that the Hacker's Conference is not a Gathering of Nefarious Criminals out to Wreak Havoc upon Western Civilization does get a bit wearing at times..." [3]. Why is there such widespread misinformation about Hackers? Simply put, it is because Crackers have been making news, while Hacker's have not. "For every irresponsible fool writing a virus program, there are at least twenty software engineers earning a living '...discovering ways to circumvent limitations'." [4].

What exactly is it, then, that Hackers are trying to do?

Hackers are anti-technocrats. They are attempting to seek an electronic utopia of limitless self-expression. They are attempting to challenge the constrictive rules of an alienated government in order to exercise their rights of self-expression and the First Amendment. To paraphrase Steven Levy, who published the pioneering book of the genre, Hackers, in 1984, Hacking signifies the unbounded intellectual exploration of the highest and deepest potential of computer systems. It can describe the resolve to make access to computers and information as open and free as possible. Hacking can involve the heartfelt conviction that beauty can be found in computers, that the 'fine aesthetic in a perfect program can liberate the mind and spirit'. "Attempts to make them [Hackers] obey the democratically established laws of contemporary American society are seen as repression and persecution. After all, they argue, if Alexander Graham Bell had gone along with the rules of the Western Union telegraph company, there would have been no telephones. If [Steve] Jobs and [Steve] Wozniak had believed that IBM was the be-all and end-all, there would have been no personal computers. If Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had tried to 'work within the system' there would have been no United States." [5].

Hackers often post manifestos on bulletin boards and hacker magazines which justify their actions (either to themselves, or to an outside community). One notable manifesto, vastly empowering, was published in Phrack magazine:

"To fully explain the true motives behind hacking, we must first take a quick look into the past. In the 1960s, a group of MIT students built the first modern computer system. This wild, rebellious group of young men were the first to bear the name 'Hackers'. The systems that they developed were intended to be used to solve world problems and to benefit all of mankind.

"As we can see, this has not been the case. The computer system has been solely in the hands of big businesses and government. The wonderful device meant to enrich life has become a weapon which dehumanizes people. To the government and large businesses, people are no more than disk space, and the government doesn't use computers to arrange aid for the poor, but to control nuclear death weapons... The businesses keep the true state of the art equipment away from the people behind a steel wall of incredibly high prices and bureaucracy. It is because of this state of affairs that hacking was born

"Of course, the government doesn't want the monopoly of technology broken, so they have outlawed hacking and anyone who is caught...

"Hacking must continue. We must train newcomers to the art of hacking. And whatever you do, continue the fight. Whether you know it or not, if you are a hacker, you are a revolutionary. Don't worry, you're on the right side." [6] .

The manifesto discusses, at its heart, a deeply held belief that the government is being unfair and unjust. Is this much different from Kurds demanding justice from the Turkish government, or the natives of Chiapas fighting for equality in Mexico? It is important to remember, however, that many Hackers take this type of rhetoric and reasoning as justification to become Crackers and commit acts of indecency against innocent people... "some hackers have learned to steal, and some thieves have learned to hack." [7].

While it is important to acknowledge the existence of Crackers, it is equally important to acknowledge that Hackers do more than Crack [pun to narcotics unintended]. Examples of socially conscientious work that Hackers have engaged in abound. For example, below are screen shots of pages that were hacked. An important concept to understand is that, whereas the techniques hackers use are almost always questionable, the outcomes are not. Looking at the relevant sites the following pictures are linked to, the motives emerge as being more than coincidental desires for money, glory or attention.

Example 1: Hacked pages originally owned by a Fur Manufacturer & Dealer

This is a picture of the original, unhacked page of Kriegsman Fur. Click on it to see the HTML page This is the Hacked page. Click on it to see the full HTML version. Explore the links!

Example 2: Pages of the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Office, hacked by sympathizers of the East Timorese Independence Movement

This is a picture of the original, unhacked page of the Indonesian Government This is the Hacked page. Click on it to see the full HTML version.

Example 3: United States Department of Justice (adults only, please)

The original DoJ Page The Hacked page. Click on it to see the full HTML version.

These types of actions result in the realization that hackers aren't necessarily thieves or deviants, but rather, they are dissidents. These dissidents operate without any formal rules, per se. The true nature of a Hacker is to explore the extents of the cyberworld which has been created in-between those tubes which connect phones and computers together with each other. With little spatial resonance, this is a netherworld which is being increasingly trafficked by the lay person. Hackers are yesterday's cowboys in this new digital arena; they are today's astronauts and satellites; the questions is: will they be tomorrow's bastions of freedom, or scourges of peace?

III. Metaphysical Graffiti

"To a graffiti writer, a blank wall in the city represents many more bad things than any writing on it could. Blank walls are ugly and repressive..." [8]

Contemporary graffiti culture parallels prehistoric wall paintings in many ways: they both are representations of their relevant environments, they both serve as communicational art forms, and they both tell stories. However, whereas the cuneiform on pyramids and animal depictions in underground caves are considered materials worthy of scholarship and debate, today's graffiti art connotes vandalism, rebellion, and a hoodlumistic nature. Why such polar attitudes on aesthetics which, in substance, share many of the same purposes and nuances? The answer can be found by examining the environment in which graffiti art was conceived, developed and perfected.

To understand "Graffiti-Concept" it is necessary to analyze Hip Hop culture. Both Hip Hop and Graffiti sprung up in tandem with each other around the mid seventies in New York City, specifically in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Bronx and Manhattan. Hip Hop began as an alternative to the expensive and increasingly commercialized discos which were monopolizing the entertainment scene and night life. Would be Hip Hop musicians congregated on street corners and in basements to make music by "beat-boxing" (making rhythms with their mouths and hands), and used lyrical verse to describe their lives and culture. Eventually, turn tables were employed through which music from other genres could be sampled, and the records themselves could be "scratched" - the sound created when the stylus of a record player is repeatedly passed through the grooves of a record. Scratching became the trade skill of the DJ (Disc Jockey), while the vocal portions of the song became the responsibility of the MC, whose main tool of choice became the microphone. These new Hip Hop songs were in direct opposition to the disco materialism and commercialism that was seen all around; eventually, the songs became commentaries on many other aspects of life, from racism to poverty to politics.

"I have come to the understanding that these [Hip Hop and Graffiti] artists are yelling out, not as immature youths, but rather as mature modern thinkers during a period of history when artistic dissent and creativity is stifled by an art world filled with dogmatic tradition and a media culture pathetically addicted to the consumption of messages and images designed to propagate the sales of consumer products." [9]

The techniques these new Hip Hop artists were creating to share their talents, and the messages that they were broadcasting, were of a revolutionary nature, going against the grain of the dominant sociocultural paradigms of the time. It is crucial to remember that Hip Hop was a uniquely ghetto concept at inception - it was created and promoted by those who had little or no money or resources (although, Hip Hop today may not be much different from what disco was in the seventies).

Graffiti ties with Hip Hop because it gained popularity as a mode of expression around the same time that Hip Hop was being formed, and in the same location - NYC. Not coincidentally, both subcultures were being frequented by the same people. Although Graffiti itself is not by any means a new concept, the particular forms of visual expression that were being employed were of a previously unseen aesthetic. Graffiti was being employed as tactic to let others know about the artist, to create social commentary, and as a mode of artistic freedom.

Understanding the vocabulary and linguistic derivatives of graffitniks (term used to define serious graffiti artists) can lead to a smooth segue into the nature of the subculture, its purpose, and its relevant inner-developed organizational techniques. Novice graffitniks tend to start their work through careful observation and elementary tagging. Observation is important to learn the art: who the masters are, the creative and artistic styles which are employed, and the best locations for displaying the art. Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper write in Subway Art, the definitive Graffiti Bible:

"Every hopeful young writer owns a sketchbook in which he practices piecing [reference to creating masterpieces of quality graffiti work]. In addition to his own work, the book contains pieces that other writers have done for him, which he can then use as models. And, of course, he spends many hours watching trains [graffiti culture was developed on New York City subway trains]. According to Dez, a sixteen year old master, there is no easy way to learn the complicated wildstyle, and no substitute for time. Rather, the best way to learn is through recapitulating the entire history of graffiti art from the simple to the complex." [10]

Learning also involves perfecting can control, which refers to the ability to use the spray paint can professionally so that no drips and unintended stains are caused (these would mark a novice or incompetent graffitnik). A good artist will also employ various caps on their cans so that a desired spray thickness, speed and intensity can be obtained. An artist will also create a "graffiti name" for himself which he can use as an identifying tag. These tags can be "thrown-up" (painted) by themselves, and can also be used in conjunction with larger works of art (we can add, as a postscript, that the first tag to hit the New York subway scene in the early seventies and become extremely popularized -- spawning many copycat artists -- was done by a Greek teenager by the name of Demetrius, who was able to tag up his 'TAKI 183' identifier profusely over public subway property. TAKI was the given diminutive to his real name, and 183 referred to the 183d street where he lived) [11]. As a tagger (synonym for graffiti artist; graffitnik) steadily improves, he is able to take his art out into the public. From simple tags, he is able to paint complex lettering and pictorial representations of his liking. One important role that the graffitnik fulfills for himself is to show the world his artistic skills and creativity. This display serves the crucial functions of reinforcing his confidence, giving him recognition, and increasing his ability to garner laurels from other graffiti artists.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about graffitniks is that their work is used to propagate the messages of a particular gang. Gangtagging (tagging done by gangs as warning to other gangs) is a very small, limited, and relatively mediocre form of graffiti. It functions mainly to mark territory, gloat exploits and cause mischief by publicizing sensitive facts and vitriolic insults. The vast majority of graffiti artists generally have no connexions with gang related tagging. However, the misinformation about the art form has given it an undying reputation of gang affiliation, and this has been a large factor in recently publicized anti-graffiti campaigns. While gangtagging is a relatively isolated component of graffiti culture, many graffitniks do tend to operate as teams and crews. This gives them a sense of community and an outlet for social expression. Edmund Feldmond emphasizes the social functions that this art form satisfies in a discussion in his book Varieties of Visual Expression, "(1) it [graffiti] influences the collective behaviour of people; (2) it is created to be seen or used primarily in public situations; (3) it expresses or describes collective aspects of existence as opposed to individual and personal kinds of experience." [12]. Teaming and profuse, quality tagging work hand in hand: the better the art and the more inaccessible yet easily viewed the location of that art, the more fame the artist and his crew attain.

While social recognition and artistic expression are important causes as to why graffiti artists tag, perhaps the most important reason is that of social exposition and commentary. Artists, whether they all realize it or not, are participating in an acutely critical rebellion against the suffocating laws of the society around them, which attempts to control their actions with complete disregard to the graffitnik brand of culture and expression. A very evocative manifesto was published in the second issue of Xylene, a graffiti magazine published in Vancouver. While its author is anonymous, he (or she) is able to pen many of same concerns which other members of the subculture harbor (note: please skip this quote if you find crude language offensive. The continuity of the paper will not be broken):

"[The purpose of the major meeting in New York in the year 2000 is] to bring [writers] out of stagnation and figure out how to bring [graffiti] art to the next level and stay true to the game. Elimination of negative ideas by reeducating writers who teach hate, racial segregation and self ideologies... In the next 20 - 30 years the people who had fucked us up... will be slotted into power and they think graffiti art is cool?... The spray can is a symbol of our generation. It is an icon... Art is very, very powerful, and should be for the masses not the elitist... we have a situation here where the blind [society] has been leading the blind [graffiti]. We must break from the art world and create our own separate identity... [many expletives]... Graffiti will be on every surface except your television." [13].

While many graffiti artists consciously, and subconsciously, rebel against authority, they are -- strangely -- not demanding legal provisions for their art. While legal walls do exist for the purpose of graffiti painting in many cities, these are scorned upon by true graffitniks because they are inherently designed to impose limitations and also attempt to sequester a historically free community. Indeed, many artists are not even interested in having their work sanctioned by society, as that can result in commercial exploitation of the art form. This type of thinking, while uniquely understandable and ideologically reinforced, does present a catch-22 type dilemma: if artists are content with being a non-sanctioned part of society in order to maintain their freedom, their very existence remains questionable - under the scrutiny of an unfriendly government and media:

"Those that rebel against the demands of a capitalism bent on selfproduction face punishment at the hands of the capitalist state, whether in the form of fines or imprisonment. No matter how vociferously the mainstream media trumpets its 'objectivity', it works in unison with this capitalist state, serving to disseminate capitalist ideology. It wins public consent and compliance with the repressive laws that prohibit graffiti and other acts of meaning - creation that fail to conform with the overarching commercial logic that dominates our public space." [14]

Graffiti culture has long been viewed at a very shallow level, akin to seeing something in the warped mirrors of a fun house and trying to piece the true characteristics of the object from the tenuous reflections which are seen. Is all graffiti gang graffiti? or, is gang graffiti all graffiti? Are all graffiti artists malevolent in nature with no purpose except to deface public property? These questions all raise one critical issue: that contextualization is extremely important. The analysis of a subculture must be done with respect to the motives of its members, the rules of that system, and the methods of acceptable expression of ideas and thoughts. With this type of analytical application to the graffitniks, it becomes evident that they are not all a bunch of hoodlums, but many are exercising, through art, their free rights, and creating lasting, historically significant social exposition.

IV. Ideological Similarities

"People who wear Halloween costumes are sometimes mistaken for monsters"[15].

On the surface, there is little in common between computer hackers and graffiti artists. Look at their tools: one group uses computers and modems, bits and bauds; the other uses spray cans and notebooks, felt and paper. Look at their profiles: one group is made up of technically educated (albeit self educated), middle class suburbanites who work from their bedrooms; the other comprises of urban youth who roam the streets in search of good walls to paint and tag. Look at their methods of congregation: one meets in the indefinitive world of 10mm wires which provide boundless regions of cyberspace; the other group lives in vast city landscapes where there is always a shortage of good space to draw. However, it is important to note that these are only peripheral, almost inconsequential differences. In substance and essence, there are more similarities between Hackers and Graffitniks than one might expect. How is this possible? Let's scratch the surface, and forage a little deeper:

V. Unorganized Thoughts

1. What does a subculture become when it successfully overthrows the mainstream, dominant culture?

VI. Works Cited


Quotations used in order of appearance in document:
  1. "The Conscience of a Hacker" by 'The Mentor' from Phrack, Volume One, Issue 7, Phile 3.
  2. Taken from Robert Bickford's "Are YOU a Hacker?"
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Taken from Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown
  6. "The TechnoRevolution" by 'Dr. Crash' from Phrack, Volume One, Issue 6, Phile 3
  7. Taken from Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown
  8. Taken from an interview with Schmoo, a graffiti artist, http://www.gatech.edu/desoto/graf/faq/graffiti_questions.html
  9. Taken from Kevin Element's Hard Hitting Modern Perspectives on Hip Hop Graffiti
  10. Subway Art, by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1984, pp. 32.
  11. Ibid, pp. 14.
  12. Varieties of Visual Expression, by Edmund Feldmond. pp. 48.
  13. Xylene Magazine. Vancouver, Issue 2, pp. 18.
  14. Taken from Jeremiah Luna's Eradicating the Stain: Graffiti and Advertising in Our Public Spaces
  15. Taken from Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown

Hack-Philes

On-Line Graffiti

And now, you shouldn't have any problems reading this next work of art, if you've diligently read this entire document...