Thursday, July 8, 2021

'Going All-City': A Vocabulary Lesson (by Johnny Coleman II)

"Going all-city was the same as a business branding campaign."
---Johnny Coleman II

Portions of this article were originally published in an Anthro21 blog dated 2014.


Anthropology teaches that language is the seat of culture, it also teaches that language is how an ethnic community expresses itself and connects with and also to other communities in healthy and positive ways. Anthropologists understand ethnic people by learning their language or select words. And now you can understand early hip-hop culture with the words...going all-city.

The spray-painting graffiti culture of African descendants in New York City witnessed highly talented artists whose work is now sold and or auctioned in the millions of dollars. The culture soon included men and women of other nationalities all speaking one culture: hip-hop. What is of importance when understanding the culture and its origins are that it began with African descendant youth.

The culture's origins are African American and also others of African descent (meaning those of African descent not in the USA).

With its origins was more than the desire to party and have fun but also resistance to oppression and injustice. You should also know that the graffiti writers of old were part of the the larger hip-hop culture that included break dance, rap (originally called 'rhyming'), turn-table scratching or scratching and also distinct fashion. This culture also had its own code or language.

The story below is an example of how an ethnic culture, and language, expanded and transformed into a global popular culture.

In 2013, the painting shown above center called "Mecca" painted by Jean-Michel Basquiat (he is shown on left) was purchased by Jay-Z (shown on right).  [Photo Source: Unlisted]


During the 1970s graffiti began to consume New York City.  It was an expression of hip-hop culture and crossed ethnic boundaries as graffiti writers soon came from all walks of life, languages, incomes, ages and cultures.  In the graffiti community there were two types of people; the writer and the tagger.  

Writers saw themselves as true artists, passionate, committed to the culture, telling stories with their paint, and activists.  Taggers were ironically seen by most as vandals and having no respect for property.  They too had a message but they operated as disrupters, and were not the 'color in the lines' graffiti artists.  However, those spending a fortune repainting walls, buildings and subway cars completely disagreed with all of them.  


In time individual graffiti writers became known for their tag or brand name.  Some writers worked alone and others worked in groups.  Breaking the law, and entering the train yards, tags were put on New York City subway car trains using aerosol spray cans.  The goal being that as the train traveled throughout the city it would be seen by all, traveling from station to station, and from borough to borough.  New York City has five boroughs and when a writer or tagger wrote on trains that traveled through all five this became known as "going all-city."  Soon the art was seen by millions.  That is how the world came to know the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Basquiat's work is now valued in the millions and is collected by leaders of business and culture.  Being seen all over New York City is STILL the desire of so many artists around the world.  


Going all-city was the same as a business branding campaign.  The techniques used by the graffiti writers were impressive to marketing experts and created for each individual artist a branding campaign that catapulted them to success.  Their bold and outlandish work included 'wrapping'  train cars to get attention.

A few words on branding...branding is when a company brands its service or product brand name into the minds of the public.  This is done in various ways.  The  motivation is vanity.  Yet the statement is that the brand is the best, the preferred, the one to be desired above all.  Branding campaigns also put into the minds of the public values, such as...saving you time...saving you you more.  These values make consumers return to that brand time and time again.  In the world of marketing when branding your company's products or services the first question you must ask is: who is my audience?  You must be specific!  Some suggestions are to start by defining their age, location, and income. 

Most important, you must know the culture of your audience...what they like, what they value, what they believe in.  When knowing these things your message will reach your audience immediately.  In a crowd of words, your message steps out and communicates.  Knowing the culture of your audience will also determine if you should advertise on radio, television, or through text messaging.  Knowing the culture of your audience gives you a personal connection, and very soon your brand goes all-city in the minds of the public.


Finally, very few graffiti writers can claim all-city fame on the caliber of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  His story is legendary.  Born in Brooklyn, New York Basquiat's art fame began first as a graffiti writer, writing with a group.  Over time his work went from the streets, to galleries and also museums worldwide.  Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27.  In 2013, fellow Brooklynite and music mogul Jay-Z purchased "Mecca" by Jean-Michel Basquiat for millions of dollars in a Sotheby's auction further adding value to Basquiat's legacy and paying homage to an early leader of hip-hop culture.