The Importance of Empathy

Understanding Graffiti’s Pipeline to Conspiratorial/Cult and Fascistic Thinking.

President Trump walking back to the White House. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

I generally like discussing the positives of graffiti. For the most part it has played a really positive role in my life at least. It gave me a sense of purpose, helped me feel self-worth and allowed me to build lifelong friendships locally and internationally. Today I want to discuss some of the negatives as a framework for understanding some of the overarching issues prevalent in the world today.

Graffiti writing as a culture is undoubtedly male dominated and most of it’s active practitioners are young so the embedded toxic masculinity is rife. Through this lens you can understand so many of the tensions that exist within it. As much building and reinforcing of self value and worth was going on amongst my peers and I there was (and is) often a strong delusional sense of self importance and entitlement necessary to thrive. A lot of crews are built around one charismatic figure that can motivate others to move in unison. Not always but fairly often they are malignant narcissists who are adept at manipulation. 

In the Auckland scene we had a number of these characters but there was one in particular who absolutely seized the moment and played havoc. In the early to mid 90’s we had a naive scene and most of us were extremely eager for any knowledge. If an older writer or someone came from abroad, from a city with a thriving scene we would all gravitate towards them in hope to gain insight. For the right person this naivety could be leveraged to pit young people formally civil if not friendly against each other for their own twisted enjoyment. 

I learned a lot about social pressure and cult thinking during this time. By creating a precarious sense of an IN and Out group where people would be rewarded for their loyalty or alternatively shunned sometimes for no discernible reason we could be motived to scramble for approval. This kind of divide and conquer approach created long lasting rifts within our scene, the residual effects can still be felt some 25 years later. It’s the politics of Us vs Them and it’s a core dynamic within graffiti.

Narcissism is of course an undeniable aspect of graffiti. Not all narcissism is malignant, a certain amount of narcissism is even arguably healthy. At the heart of painting graffiti and being a crew are the ideas that “I am the best!” “We are the best!” “Everyone else is not as good as us!”. This is motivational, it becomes a rallying cry to keep going, keep pushing and believing in yourself and your peers. It’s an attitude conducive with being young and needing to feel important. It often doesn’t translate well into other areas of your life or living in a functioning society at large.

Your own narcissism can be weaponised against you and this is a recurring dynamic in exerting social pressure and group think. We’ve all been compelled at some time or another to do something we don’t feel comfortable doing. Falling in line with a group or the wishes of a charismatic individual and doing things that fall outside your usual moral centre. The fear of disappointing the group or it’s leader, not being real enough, tough enough, being perceived as a weak link. This is how toxic masculinity factors in graffiti. Beyond that feeling a strong sense of entitlement, believing that you are under-appreciated and your own greatness is not recognised is a common sentiment amongst writers and deeply rooted in narcissism. It’s a victimhood mentality.

I’m speaking from personal experience when I say I have felt all of these feelings and had these thoughts. I’m not above it. I have felt competitive if not anger towards other crews. I have refused to acknowledge people who have disrespected someone from my group. I have battled a lot of people, clashed and fought with them. I view the crews I’m in as special and was vocal about distinguishing those of us from graffiti from the other people working outdoors like street artists and muralists (eventually the lines got pretty blurry though). I’ve felt frustration that the art establishment won’t recognise my peers and I as important. In one context that is being loyal and defending my subculture and in another context aka the real world it’s toxic and immature behaviour. As a 41 year old I can finally acknowledge it and how these attitudes have held me back. They are in total contrast to my natural disposition which is mostly open and diplomatic. I learned those behaviours through graffiti and trying to fit in.

There are a lot of vulnerable and damaged people in graffiti not least the malignant narcissists. I’ve spent enough time around this personality type, learned enough about their upbringings and traumas to understand this and view them with empathy. Graffiti is a subculture that exists within a low trust outlook. We don’t trust authority of any kind, don’t trust other crews or individuals. It’s a survival mechanism. We only develop trust within our small in-group and if that centres around one charismatic individual that too can be fraught. Furthermore, a lot of graffiti writers I know come from societal groups with warranted distrust in authority and society in general. Friends who have been marginalised due to their ethnicity or socioeconomic position. Friends who have grown up in abject poverty. Friends who are Black, immigrants/children of immigrants or indigenous who have experienced repeatedly how society’s power structures are weighted against them. Friends who have been caught within the system and incarcerated. I really enjoyed this article written by Tina Ngata entitled “What I Wish People Understood About Misinformation and Māori”. She writes with the complexity and nuance often missing from this discussion and so much of this relates more broadly to the graffiti scene as well.

I did feel initial shock when I started to see much more far-right conspiratorial attitudes within my scene. I guess there was always an assumption that graffiti was as far removed from conservative thinking as it comes. Typically it has always been conservatives that rallied against us with impunity. The types of people that called talk back radio and suggested we should have our hands cut off. Conservative judges that dished out heavy jail sentences to make an example of us. The rhetoric from the right-wing sphere has always been one about ‘bootstrapping’, ‘personal responsibility’ and that structural injustice doesn’t exist. It always felt like the counter to the lived realities of so many from within my subculture.

Graffiti is though, a true American art form because it espouses the values of self promotion and narcissism and the ability to leverage your criminality through being a ‘loveable bandit' or a ‘cheeky Machiavelli type’. I guess if I’m honest the Donald Trumps, the Roger Stones, the Rudy Giuliani’s, the Alex Jones’s, The Milo Yiannopoulos’s, Mike Cernovich’s and Gavin McInnis’s of the world have exploited this strategy with little repercussion. Perhaps I can at least understand on some level what the appeal is within our movement and why some people feel hypocritical critiquing them without lodging that critique at ourselves. 

If the so called ‘Alt-Right’ has become a pipeline towards embracing fascistic and cult-like thinking is it so inconceivable that graffiti could too? Within our subculture we have all the vital ingredients for this. Low trust, Us vs Them mentality, toxic masculinity, malignant narcissists, a perceived position of victimhood, distorted perceptions of importance and a history of criminality.

It’s a hard thing to say but it’s been on my mind a lot over the last 4 years and especially during 2020 while I’ve taken the time to read so much more on the subject. Jason Stanleys great book How Fascism Works, Timothy Snyders books On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century and The Road to Unfreedom, Sarah Kendziors incredible book Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America, Isobel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents, Andrew Marantz’s Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation and Christopher Wylie’s Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America have all been incredibly insightful and made me look at my own scene through this specific lens.

What the solution? Empathy. I will never tolerate fascism and will call it out when I see it. I will be firm but I will also strive to be empathetic. Allowing ourselves to see things through the eyes of others is the pathway to understanding. It can be testing sometimes to maintain patience with people close to you going off the deep end but I assure you, if you ever knew the good in someone then you know it exists. Shunning people only isolates them more and leaves them more vulnerable. Being empathetic is part of fighting modern day fascism. Find a way to be firm while still being caring. That’s the antithesis of fascistic thinking because it refuses to dehumanise anyone.