Twenty years ago this fall, Susan Farrell created Art Crimes, the first webpage devoted to street graffiti. What began as a photo gallery with “no explanations offered” soon became the hub of an emerging conversation, complete with how-to guides, interviews and manifestos. Through Art Crimes, Farrell became a well-known figure among teenaged urban writers and anti-graffiti vigilantes alike. Over the past twenty years, she’s faced death threats, befriended some of the greatest graffiti artists of all time, and (in the early days) consulted with countless organizations about the significance of the Internet.
I recently sat down with Farrell at a diner in Portland, Oregon to discuss the legacy of Art Crimes. Though Farrell is close to six feet tall, you might not notice her on the street. She met me wearing blue jeans and sneakers, her long brown hair parted down the middle, no makeup. Her speech was low and unfailingly measured. This neutral presentation is no accident; Farrell uses a male persona online and has worked hard to keep details of her identity, including pictures, off of the Internet entirely. In short, she’s the most invisible famous person I’ve ever met.
Over the course of our interview, she talked about her early experiences with graffiti culture and technology, their legacies as autonomous zones, and how those landscapes have changed thanks to commercialization and the rise of the surveillance state.
Lisa Wells: Tell me about your first computer.
Susan Farrell: My first computer was a Packard Bell that I bought in 1986. I started out using other people’s computers in 1983 when I went to college. I was an English student at Georgia State and had to write a paper per week. We were allowed to have three corrections per sheet of paper, and I wasn’t a great typist, so it would take me a ridiculous amount of time to produce a paper. Having a word processor made my life so much better. I realized that everybody younger than me was going to have to be a computer user, but that I had a choice.
The web happened while I was in grad school. I took one look and thought, Wow, this is so much more viable as a cross-platform medium for publishing. I’ll leave this Macromedia Director thing in the dust and go be a web developer.
I made that decision in 1992 when I learned HTML. It turned out to be a really good idea.
There weren’t any classes on web topics and nobody really knew about it at the time. There was a brilliant hacker at Georgia Tech, Michael Mealling, who worked in the computer system machine room. He offered to teach any faculty member or student on campus about the World Wide Web and how to write HTML. He wrote the code out for us on a chalkboard.
I got very excited about it and told the people I worked with that the Web was going to change publishing, change business, change people-to-people communication—and my boss laughed at me. That was 1992. Three years later I got a job in Silicon Valley and joined the brave new world.
How many women were in your program?
I’d say it was at least half women. Women were the big web developers in the beginning. Web design and development is a really good job for women; the pay is good, hours are flexible, everybody needs the work. Women are often quite perceptive and empathetic toward users.
This computing professor at Georgia Tech, Laurie Foley, saw what I was doing and said, “There’s a whole field called human computer interaction you might be interested in. Here’s 600 bucks, it will get you into the conference. Go see what you think.” Because she was willing to risk $600 of her project money to send me, I got a whole new life.
Why do you think she helped you?
The discipline we call user experience is concerned with making the world a better place. I think it was an altruistic act.
When you say “make the world a better place,” do you mean by making these devices more accessible to regular people?
Yes. It’s very important that everyone have access to computer technology. It’s important for people to be able to communicate with each other. It’s important to flatten hierarchies so that we can do smart things about the big problems in the world. The best way to do that is to promote literacy. Computer systems have to adapt to be more usable by humans. Solving a problem in my work may make life better for tens of thousands or tens of millions of people, depending on the system I’m working on. If I can enable people to do their jobs better, who knows what they might be able to do. If I can free up some of their time by making systems more efficient, then who knows what creative work they can be freed up to do. It’s very rewarding work.
…One weird thing about being an early adopter: I gave the first talk at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) about the World Wide Web and why they should care about it.
In 1994 I was trying to convince the environmental scientists I worked with that they should collaborate online with other scientists in other countries, and they were very skeptical because we were just coming out of the Cold War and there was a lot of fear about sharing information with Russians.
I was drafted to give a talk to the Georgia Tech Research Institute, about the World Wide Web and why scientists should care about it. I was drafted to go to Venice, Italy and give a talk to La Fenice Opera House, who had a couple warehouses of centuries-old opera artifacts. They were trying to figure out how to digitize that, to make a database of it all, and make it available to scholars. It was my second trip out of the country… Before that I went to Prague. That was where I first saw graffiti outside the U.S. and got the idea to do Art Crimes, in 1994.
Were you interested in graffiti before you went there?
I’d been taking photos of graffiti in Atlanta since about 1986. Everybody I showed them to got really excited about the artwork. That’s how I realized it wasn’t just a weird personal taste of mine, there was something universally interesting in the material. When I saw there was a cross-cultural component, during my visit to Prague, I kind of got obsessed.
Your impulse for documentation is interesting because—while obviously some pieces stay up longer than others—it’s almost like Tibetan Sand Painting; so much energy and effort is put into making this art that is obliterated in an instant. Unless someone is photographing it, of course.
I was a pedestrian in Atlanta, and I would walk by these building foundations—they would raze the building but the basement would stay and people would paint it. I’d take some photos and then the next day it would be different graffiti. They were changing that fast. I realized that probably nobody was documenting them and it was my duty to try to preserve the work. Later I realized that the artifact was always going to be the photograph, and that it was inherently a multiple—
What does that mean?
One of the things that makes artwork precious is that there’s only one of it. We don’t think a lot about this concept now, but at the cusp of the digital era it was a very big deal. When I worked with museums in the ’90s, one of their main concerns was: “If we make a copy of this work available digitally what will that mean about the value of the original?”
The graffiti artists had a different set of problems than fine artists. They had personal-safety issues, they had a terrible public-relations problem and they had an audience-feedback problem. They had an art-preservation problem, and they had the problem that art historians would not take them seriously because their artwork was too ephemeral.
I thought, I can solve that problem. I can create the repository of work and then no one can ignore it anymore. I can attack the public-relations problem because I can help interpret the work, I can showcase the work as important, I can help show the value of it aesthetically, and I can stand in the middle between the public and the artist and create communication both ways.
So, photographs are multipliable, unlike canvases and sculptures. Some photographers will make only one print in order to retain its preciousness, but graffiti writers never did. They took photographs and immediately printed copies to trade like baseball cards. That’s why graffiti art was able to colonize the Internet before other kinds of art, because graffiti writers had a very open attitude toward creating digital copies. The only way for the artwork to survive was to make a lot of copies and distribute them as widely as possible and hope that other people would save them, and that the act of saving would preserve them through whatever kind of environmental or technological crises. That’s how all art history comes to us from the past. In the digital world, the mechanisms are different and the possibility for survival is greater.
What are your thoughts on graffiti artists having gallery shows? I guess I’m wondering about sanctioned vs. illegal work, and how being sanctioned affects its power to be subversive?
As a fine artist—and then suddenly an archivist and curator—I wanted to see graffiti artists exhibit in galleries, to have that opportunity. I aggressively published gallery shows and events globally and I was the only one doing it for a long time. I felt strongly that it was a big part of my mission. Not because I believe that’s a better course but because I thought they deserved a level playing field.
It turns out a lot of graffiti artists don’t consider themselves artists.
What do they consider themselves?
For graffiti artists, painting is a verb. It’s all about the activity. It’s about the adventure, the competition, about getting together with your friends, hanging out by the wall, painting all day, and the fact that you have an artifact at the end to remember the day by is important, but it isn’t the main thing. The ephemerality is in some ways a relief because everyone is competing against each other but also against their personal best. It’s often convenient to have your old work disappear so that your reputation can rest on your more-recent work.
It took me a long time to embrace that reality, because as a preservationist I was working against that particular aspect of individual careers. Every once in a while someone will come to me and say, ‘You know that page that you made for me x-number of years ago? I really want you to eradicate that from the Internet and put this new stuff up.” I argue about it for a while, but I do it if they insist.
I get the sense you’re motivated in part by class-consciousness, talking about empowering these artists to make a living.
A lot of the guys—and most of them are guys—are working-class, self-trained artists. Sure, there’s a contingent of art-school students, but there are an awful lot of people who do not connect with the museum and gallery world at all until that world takes an interest in them.
A lot of the writers come from hip-hop culture or from skateboard culture, or from heavy-metal music culture, and they consider white-wall galleries middle class, sterile environments that aren’t available to them on any level. A lot of writers are introverts and autodidacts, and would prefer to be entrepreneurs rather than work for companies. I saw the Web as being an opportunity for artists and designers. Graffiti writers were a natural fit for these new kinds of creative jobs. I wanted one of those jobs for myself, and I wanted to help other artists learn those digital skills. I also saw a chance for me to showcase graffiti art in this new online world, and to help graffiti artists get the recognition they deserve. People heard “graffiti” and thought they knew what that meant. But they didn’t know about the spray-painted masterpieces. That these paintings were not even being seen by the art world was just unbearable to me.
I’m interested in your earlier comment about flattening hierarchies because there seems to be some resonance between autonomous Internet communities and graffiti. Maybe this was truer twenty years ago?
Back then Internet community and online content was a revolutionary endeavor. A bunch of stateless technologists and scientists and artists interested in information were providing it and consuming it. There was endless talk about how to take advantage of this new networked world in a way that would benefit the human species, and how to make sure it didn’t turn into the kind of Internet that we have today: ubiquitous surveillance, state and commercial control and so on.
Everyone was asking themselves the question, how can I add value, how can I make the world a better place? For me it was digital archiving.
In a way it’s like graffiti because there’s a huge burst of innovation happening, right? Were people trying to best each other?
There was a certain amount of competing for coolness, there were awards given out every week. “Cool site of the day.” “Cool site of the week.” “Cool” was the operative word there.
Were you nervous about what your exposure might be in putting so-called illegal work online?
Oh yeah. Immediately after I put Art Crimes online I started getting death threats, from people here and in other countries, police officers and anti-graffiti vigilantes. It was very scary. They were threatening whatever they could think of to threaten me with, because I think they thought I was a kid and that they could scare me off the Internet. They believed that graffiti art was a contagious idea they needed to suppress entirely. Any publication would cause it to spread and the best way to keep it from spreading was to keep it off the Internet.
Were they sending these threats via email? So you knew where they were coming from?
Yeah. It was a lot harder to find people from IP addresses at the time. It wasn’t illegal to threaten people with death over email, there was no jurisdiction in which you could convince a prosecuting anything to take it seriously, it was just too messy and unknowable.
How many threats do you estimate you received?
Probably fewer than 100.
That’s a lot.
It was enough to make me worry about my personal safety, my personal information, my job, my ability to stay in school and so on. I worried about having my photos and camera confiscated because that happens to graffiti artists all the time. Police have the very best collection of graffiti art because they regularly seize it. Or seize it and destroy it. So many archives have been lost that way in the analog world. That’s another reason why it was so important to digitize it, that was the only way we could save it from being confiscated or burned or lost to flooding or whatever can happen to one’s personal archive.
How did you protect yourself?
I made sure that my personal information was not on the net. I tried to keep my photo off the net. I was careful not to tell reporters exactly where I lived. I was very careful about what kind of information I gave to people I didn’t know. And I warned my friends, family, faculty and coworkers about social engineering calls and things that might occur.
I was getting a lot of attention from the press, and it was a new, shocking, weird, unique thing every day, like riding a rollercoaster, you just never knew what would come in over the transom, what would be in the inbox, what wild and interesting kind of opportunity or threat would present itself next. Eventually a vigilante got the website thrown off Georgia Tech’s servers by writing a personal letter to the president of the university about how the website promoted crime. He was pretending to be somebody he wasn’t, but the damage was done and the website was kicked off. We had a redundant mirror server in another department, so the website itself didn’t get knocked off the net, but I had to change email addresses and it was kind of a blow, you know? The bad guys took that round.
It still goes on today, anytime people try to publish information that somebody else thinks shouldn’t exist. If you’re a female blogger it’s just part of the daily weather now to receive death and rape threats. That doesn’t happen to me much, anymore, partly because I’m not presenting as a woman online in most places.
What about navigating the world of graffiti writing as a woman?
It was actually a benefit for me to be a woman and to not be a writer, because I wasn’t directly competing with anyone I was trying to show. I was seen as an impartial outsider, to some extent.
But I needed not to be a naïve outsider. I needed to understand the aesthetics that were important to the group, so I had to be educated in graffiti history, aesthetics, and values so that I could effectively curate. Just like in Art History, in order to judge an original work you have to understand the milestones of the various techniques and aesthetic developments, so you can tell by looking at a piece of graffiti in what year it was produced and who that person was able to see before they produced that work, whose work they were building on. It takes a great deal of observing and learning and reading and visual understanding…and being schooled by a subject-matter-expert in order to develop that context.
You had face-to-face relationships with these guys?
I’ve met thousands of graffiti writers over the years. After the first few years, many of them were familiar with my work because they had Internet access. So that gave me entrée to more people and more material, and to this day gives me nice tours of the great parking lots of the world. (Laughs) Everyone has shown me a lot of love. Graffiti writers are my friends, my community… I consider many my family.
How secretive are the communities now as opposed to when you started?
It was more secretive then because there was an imperative to keep the cultural information secret. Like any closed society, there’s ritual, lore, literature, process and pecking order, education and apprenticeship. As an outsider, you can’t just jump in the middle and make a mess. It’s a delicate matter, like any anthropological or documentary venture.
There were always a lot of chafing points. It wasn’t as if there were no documentary efforts before me – there were. There were a few books, a few theses, there were videos and magazines produced by the community, but the culture was still pretty insular—it had impenetrable jargon, it had a dress code, and graffiti writers were understandably tired of the way they had been treated by the press, and other people with agendas and no clue. So despite being some kinds of artist myself, I was a weird outsider and it took a few years for people to figure out what I was doing there, and why. Also, in 1994 when I started Art Crimes and tried to find writers to discuss that with, I was older than the guys who were producing the artwork, so it was difficult to connect at first.
That’s still true today, of course. Most of the graffiti writing is done by guys who are 11 to 19 years old. There’s a big drop off when it becomes hard time felony territory for doing illegal work. When graffiti writers become adults, they often find ways to work as professional artists and designers, and that’s often when they start to promote their work outside the community. The Internet provides opportunities to become famous while invisible, which is just the kind of thing graffiti writers have always wanted.
It took a while to build bridges and get some credibility, to know enough to have an intelligent conversation that’s mindful of community values and not just embarrassing to everyone. It was in everybody’s best interest to bring me up to speed so that I wouldn’t cause trouble.
What initially struck you about graffiti, why did it speak to you?
Well, it was subversive. It looked political to me, in that it was done without permission. The writing was in English but I didn’t understand the messages. It was being done for reasons I didn’t understand although it was obvious that there was a great deal of enthusiasm and skill. I thought, “There’s something really important motivating this, what could it be?” The more I guessed, the more wrong I was, and the more interested I became in getting to the bottom of it.
There’s something very refreshing about people doing work divorced from monetary value—doing it because it was a wonderful day, a perfect spot—even if no one would ever see that wall but the people who painted it. The work was being done for people in the community based on values outsiders couldn’t understand. What’s not to like about that? It was the purest form of art I’d seen.
Are there more female graffiti writers now?
When I started asking that question 20 years ago, it was maybe 2%. I feel like the needle might have moved a little bit, but I bet it isn’t 5%.
Often women writers aren’t taken seriously as contenders because they’re given that “girl push-up” status. You don’t have to try so hard because you’re a girl, or we’re not going to compete as hard with you because you’re just a girl, you can’t stay out all night because you’re a girl, or we’re not going to beat you up because you’re a girl. There are very realistic problems for women to overcome. Staying out all night is a big deal. Very few teenage girls are in a position to do that. And if you are in a position to do that as a teenage girl then you have a whole other set of problems.
Whatever kind of safety concerns the guys have, the girls have more, so that cuts a lot of women out. By the time they have autonomy to pursue the hobby, they are older and the guys their age have been doing it now for 9 or 10 years. Or they’re only able to do it while they have a protector in the community and if that’s the boyfriend and they break up with the boyfriend, they may be out. So the number of women who rise to the top is a pretty small number. It happens, and they’re really really good. Everybody knows who they are.
In recent years, MadC comes to mind. She’s a German writer who did one of the largest murals ever. Faith47, from South Africa, now travels the world painting. Miss Van is very popular in both street art and graffiti worldwide. Lady Pink is the most famous of the women writers from the ’80s. In the ’70s, Barbara 62 and Eva 62 made their names. And there are many more great women in the scene around the world, especially now.
Are you a hero to these writers or what?
I don’t feel like I’m an unadulterated hero in any camp. It seems like everyone in the community has a very nuanced, granular view of every single thing that I’ve ever done with Art Crimes, and they have opinions about it. I’m hoping when it’s all said and done, I’ll come out on the positive side of the ledger.
Any broad stroke comments on the surveillance state?
I’ve been talking about ubiquitous surveillance since you could get made fun of for doing it, but I don’t think anybody’s laughing anymore, post-Snowden.
I’d be asked this question in relation to graffiti and I’d say, “I think in a few years it’s going to be impossible to do graffiti because of surveillance, because of the miniaturization of cameras.” Now I would add to that: your cell phone is ratting you out, your Internet connection is ratting you out, cameras are everywhere. I’m not sure it’s going to be impossible to do graffiti but I think that we live in a very hostile environment for anything clandestine.
Another problem is that graffiti jargon is bellicose. People talk about “bombing the city,” “bombing trains,” “crushing” and “destroying” and “blowing things up.” It’s all figurative, but those are keywords that interest security services. The only reason it’s possible to do graffiti today is because security services aren’t interested in arresting people for it. If the NSA decided they wanted to go to war with graffiti it would be eradicated overnight.
As for net neutrality, I’m very concerned. The corporate takeover of the conduit is always bad. Do you want Comcast or Time Warner? Oh gee, they’re merging.
I think graffiti writers have a big role to play in this. As a peer-to-peer publishing mechanism graffiti is unrivaled in its ability to say the truth on a wall in public. That’s one of the reasons I really love Bansky.
How about that phone booth at Sotheby’s?
His work is so valuable and so sought after that people are stealing walls in order to be able to sell the work. There have been walls stolen out of the U.S. and auctioned off in London and there have been walls in the UK that have to be defended so that people don’t remove the part of them that has the painting. There’s a wall in Detroit that was painted in a destroyed factory that homeless people started guarding and charging admittance to see.
Yeah, it’s gotten very interesting. And he laughs it off.
The reason that it became commercially attractive is because it’s so accessible. It’s funny and political and you can look at it and understand what it is right away, unlike graffiti art in the raw, which often benefits from some interpretation. His work is pictorial and it depicts realistic subjects— it’s not abstract.
What about radicals working on the Internet, clandestinely?
I think about the Arab Spring in various countries organizing itself on Facebook, for example. Countries pulled the plug on the Internet temporarily to try to stop it. It’s hard to even define “clandestine” when so many companies and system administrators and phone companies get the information by default. We now know they sell it to spy agencies and advertisers too. Hiding information online is a lot harder to do than anyone realized. It must be encrypted, for starters. When Snowden released the first information, a lot of people (including the NSA, ironically) learned that many of the things they were doing for operational security are completely ineffective.
What about Anonymous? Were they not so anonymous in the end?
I don’t have any personal knowledge of people who are Anonymous, but from where I sit it looks like you have to be pretty computer-savvy to have any information security at all. A lot of the people who have been arrested for allegedly participating in Anonymous activities either made a tiny mistake with their security or they were ratted out. Today, almost nobody can be anonymous online, and we should all assume that everything we say and do online (and on phones) is being stored in case someone more powerful wants to hassle us later
Do you think we’re going back to analog, those who wish to speak privately?
There’s going to be a lot of that I think. There’s also hope that the tsunami of information will produce so much noise and so little signal that the people who are able to eavesdrop will be forced to pay attention to the stuff that matters over the noise, and most of us are noise.
So, what are your predictions?
It’s difficult to make predictions and it’s easy to be wrong. I’ve been wrong a lot. A lot of people I talk to are aware that their privacy is in serious danger, on every level in every situation. I see a lot of people being very concerned about these things. And that’s good, right? The more people understand the problem, the better our chances are of trying to solve those problems. But like politics, there’s a bunch of money involved, and the money is working against technological and legal goodness, and it’s going to be a tough fight. People are going to have to vote with their dollars before we see traction.
You sound a tiny bit optimistic to me.
I think it’s important to be as optimistic as possible. I’m alternately called a terrible cynic and a ridiculous optimist so I don’t know what that means. It makes sense to be hopeful; if you lose hope you can’t make change.
By Miedo12 of Valencia, Spain, via Art Crimes.