Wall Art – Hunter Riley studies the political meaning of graffiti
For Hunter Riley, an honors college senior majoring in economics, political science, and international relations, sidewalks and city walls have become the best places to not only find art, but to observe a rebellious form of political self-expression com-monly known as graffiti.
Riley, who has based his senior thesis on the political nature of graffiti, has devoted himself to the understanding and appre-ciation of this underground art form.
“The first time I really noticed graffiti was on a spring break trip to London my senior year of high school,” said Riley.
While he was outside by Big Ben, Riley noticed some stenciled graffiti that read “This is not a photo opportunity.” Struck by the irony between one of London’s greatest landmarks and the subversive text, Riley felt compelled to snap a photo.
“From then on out, when I was traveling, I would look around in alleys or streets to find graffiti and take photos of it,” said Riley.
Now, having documented graffiti in 20 countries, Riley’s collection of photos allows him to map what he believes to be a globalized phenomenon, which crosses cultural and political boundaries.
“People in general feel that graffiti is graffiti and that’s that,” said Riley. “Really, there’s always a cultural or political message to found.”
While others have argued that graffiti is not always aimed at the powers-that-be, Riley views any decision to engage in the illegal defacement of public or private property as inherently political.
“It’s not just the message that’s political, it’s the action,” said Riley. “If we assume that spray painting a wall flies in the face of a law, then at least at its core, it’s political.”
The gesture in question doesn’t necessarily have to be epic in proportion — even the smallest act can make a statement.
“The other day I found another ‘war’ sticker on a stop sign here on campus that I hadn’t noticed before,” said Riley. “I like the idea of someone putting a cause first and trying to speak out.”
Riley sees his time in the field as something of a history and art lesson mixed with a good dose of secrecy.
“Really, what I want to get out of this research is a better understanding of what I’m seeing,” said Riley. “I’m jealous of older generations who get to be in on the secret and understand the hidden message.”
There are signs that suggest Riley is reaching his goals. While studying abroad in Argentina, Riley began to suspect that one of his professors was actually a Mendozan graffiti artist known as Glam Icon. About two weeks after he first noticed the artist’s graffiti, Riley approached his instructor and asked if there was any credibility to his theory.
“She admitted to it, but she definitely didn’t want me saying anything to the people she works with,” said Riley. “She’s definitely underground.”
What Riley was able to get from their talk was instrumental in his research.
“Of all the artists I’ve talked to, she told me the most about her work,” said Riley. “She wants to change the way people view their life and really speak out against their local government. She was adamant in her belief that the spaces she covered were meant for the people to use.”
Riley hasn’t always had as much success getting his subjects to open up.
“Some of the artists will talk to you about what their work means, but you also get lots of rejections” said Riley. “So, the search goes on.”
Though he loves to travel, Riley knows he’s never that far away from the urban art form.
“I know I can walk around anywhere and see graffiti,” said Riley. “Any city I’m in, I’m looking for it on the sides of buildings and along alleyways.
“Even though I might know what I’m looking for and I’m more familiar with the area, I think Fayetteville has a great deal of graffiti,” said Riley. “I would even say that Fayetteville has more graffiti per-capita than New York or some of the other large cities I’ve been to.”
Well aware that there are some people who will never see graffiti as more than vandalism, Riley still wishes more people would stop and look.
“I know everybody has seen graffiti. I just wish more people would think about what it means.”
Riley’s adviser is Ted Swedenberg, a professor in the department of anthropology in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
From left, “I bomb New York” in Mendoza, 2006. Gas guzzling cars in Buenos Aires, 2006. A portion of the Berlin Wall, 2003. “Resist” in Fayetteville, 2006.