TILT: It's what graffiti and wool blankets have in common


During his TILT talk, visual artist, educator and historian Samuel E. Vázquez used some intriguing terminology linked to tagging subway cars with spray paint (such as referring to subway cars as "pages" in a book). But the responses that he gave to audience questions after his talk were even more intriguing.

TILT, jointly sponsored by the Arts Council of Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities, places two speakers from two different disciplines side by side to talk briefly about their respective disciplines after a mixer fueled by boozy drinks and hors d'oeuvres. In the Q&A that follows, unexpected linkages just might be found between two seemingly divergent disciplines.

On Tues. Oct. 11, Vázquez was paired with Fiona McDonald, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Arts & Humanities Institute. Her topic was the 400-year-old history of woolen trade blankets.

"The woolen blanket was something I knew growing up," McDonald said. "My parents were immigrants to Canada from Ireland and had woolen blankets from Irish mills."

Such blankets were objects of trade and practical necessity.

"They're one of the most heavily distributed materials and objects globally from the 17th century," she said. "They were sent on missions on a lot of ships, and eventually became a trade item."

On the other hand style writing, as Vázquez made clear in his talk, was something that began without tangible economic benefit.

But style writing, believe it or not, had many benefits that might be discussed in terminology widely used in the human resources and self-empowerment spheres. These are terms like time management, and confidence. After all, it takes both confidence to mark a subway car and time management to do it quickly enough to get away before the police catch you.

Before getting to the history of New York City style writing, however, Vázquez had to dispose of a certain moniker for style writing that has come into common usage. That is, when an audience member asked if Vázquez might just be referring to the term graffiti, he replied:

"That's one word it's known by nowadays: graffiti. But that was a term that the media put to the art form to basically label it. The word in Italian is graffito, basically, a 'rude mark.' This was something that the media was saying was something that basically had no value. But those in the early days, we called it writing, because that's what you did in the early days: you wrote your name on the wall."

This activity was something that was rooted in the need for self-expression in the New York City of the late '70s and early '80s where social services and schools had essentially collapsed, according to Vázquez, who was among the style writers of the time. "So if you were a young person and creative, you're going to find a way to express yourself," he said.

Woolen blankets might not seem like the most obvious candidates for self-expression, but an indigenous arts movement incorporating the woolen blanket began to arise in the early '80s — employed by indigenous artists — around the same time style writing began to come into notice as a commercially acceptable art form.

"The blanket starts to shift from being an object of wealth to being a colonial object of repression," said McDonald. "And you start to see artists using blankets not as object of representation but as a canvas. They're manipulating and moving it. They're transforming it into something that has a different meaning and a different heritage."


Arts Editor

Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.