"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

17 Jun 2020

The City Beneath by Susan A. Phillips — Book Review

The text and prolific illustrations that make up The City Beneath, provides a 100 year cultural history of Los Angeles and its environs from the hobos of the early 20th century to modern day taggers; an assertion of the very presence and existence of its marginalised visitors and inhabitants throughout that 100 year period. The heroes and heroines of this book have provided us with a reverse travelogue. Instead of the traveller writing about the places they have visited, their presence in the words and images left behind becomes part of the landscape for others to contemplate on the stories behind them. And Phillips does go beyond simply describing the graffiti that she has sought out, photographed, collected and documented over her twenty years of research and the subcultures they represent; wherever possible, she has sought out the individuals, their friends and families, behind the symbols and writing. 

The 16 chapters presents not only those minority groups who felt alienated from, or disenfranchised by, mainstream society: queers, kids, prisoners, etc., but also those, such as tramps, surfers, and the Manson family, who chose to exile themselves to the margins of civilisation as a lifestyle choice or for ideological reasons. Not surprisingly, the sites of hobos, migrant workers and other transient artists, are closely connected to the transport infrastructure that lined the route of their migratory passage, both between towns and cities and through them: railways, roads, tunnels, canals, bridges, way stations, and other man made infrastructure. 

Although written specifically about Los Angeles, the history of any large metropolitan city could be explored through its graffiti. But what one learns from The City Beneath is just how unique and distinctive the history of Los Angeles and its people is. As well as those marginalised groups based on lifestyle choice, neighbourhood, employment, cult, trend, music, etc., Phillips also presents a history of the racial groups that contributed to Los Angeles becoming the city it is: Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic, Afro-American, Eastern European, German, Irish, Italian, and many more.

Where others assert their presence in community or wider society through celebrity or allegiance to privileged cliques and institutions, the graffiti artist claims notoriety by challenging those same societal norms, enhancing their achievements by trespass, inaccessibility, unscalability and other such testimony to their tenacity and determination. Leaving graffiti in place is the reverse of collecting souvenirs from famous or infamous locations. Rather than taking a memento of your visit away with you, you leave a trace of yourself at the site.

An academic she may now be, but Phillips fascination with graffiti and the overlooked spaces of her home town, go back to her own childhood explorations. And so the tracks of the labour of Phillips’ writing are often a retracing of old memories but for a new destination. It is also evident that Phillips’ research has been undertaken at no little risk to herself, whether 60 foot up in the eves of Hollywood’s film studios or in the storm drains that run for miles beneath the city. Phillips does herself no justice by announcing in her book that she does not possess the skills of an archeologist. Such skills are clearly evident throughout the book, not least her commitment to continually returning over many years to the same sites for historical traces she may have overlooked, and then seeking out, at no little effort, the human stories behind them.

Phillips identifies three defining qualities of graffiti. Firstly, the name or logo itself, “always concise and compacted, and always connected to collectives or individuals.” Secondly is the location of the graffiti, for unlike the art and artefacts housed in museums and galleries for a specific and often paying audience, graffiti is fused into the natural or built environment and becomes an integral part of it. Thirdly, is graffiti’s function as a “second face” or “echo” of the artist/writer. Fixed both in time and space it outlives the individuals morality, allowing the artist to cheat death and connect with the future—at least until it becomes part of the palimpsest created by newer graffiti or the natural processes of decay and erosion. 

Put together, Phillips observes, these three factors create a time portal allowing the reader to connect with the past. As she describes in Chapter 7 on ‘Railroaders’: “Viewing older railroad writing was like entering a time warp back to the late 1950s and 60s—the portal to which was closed save for the Romotsky lens, railroaders interpretive memories and the contents of any images that remained.” 

As Phillips further observes, “studying graffiti prioritises a vernacular history, and often includes the experiences of people who remain underrepresented or unrepresented in sanctioned histories.” Another advantage graffiti has over ‘published’ material—that approved for public consumption by the guardians of art, literature, etc.—is that it comes to us uncensored. As the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk insists: "In a culture in which one is regularly told lies, one wants to know not merely the truth but the naked truth." Much of the graffiti that Phillips presents us with, for example the screams against injustice or the words and images expressing sexual fantasies, represents the naked truth in a way that other mediums of communication rarely do.  

Phillips’ approach to her subject is infectious even where one might be tempted to skip a chapter. Her description of 1950s and 60’s surfing culture (Chapter 8) completely challenged my own prejudices and stereotypes of what West Coast surfing represented. Even though it was a predominantly white, macho obsession (with some notable exceptions), my disinterest was quickly converted into a fascination to know and understand more.

Not all of the graffiti discussed by Phillips is available to the general public, nor was it always intended as such. In the chapter titled ‘Grips’, Phillips describes the graffiti left by electricians and grips (those who hauled the rigging that supported the lighting and scenery) on the beams, rafters and sound padding more that 60 feet up above Hollywoods sound studios. The graffiti that these workers left behind was no more, Phillips says, than “a residue of their labour”. What Phillips did discover though, was testimony to the gruelling, uncomfortable and unsafe lives of these unsung heroes of an industry dating back to the silent movie era of the 1920s: “workers up high used graffiti as a tool for solidarity and resistance in the workplace”. “I trust the graffiti of Hollywood workers to guide me towards nuanced aspects of Hollywood’s history more than I trust the bronze plaque outside of Stage 19.”

In addition to the numbers and diversity of graffiti artists that Phillips met during the course of her research, plus their children, grandchildren and friends—a phenomenal achievement in itselfPhillips’ signals throughout the book the work of other graffiti researchers and connoisseurs (predecessors and colleagues), a testimony to her generosity of spirit and commitment to the object of her investigation.

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