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Composition Forum 53, Spring 2024
http://compositionforum.com/issue/53/

Review of Charles N. Lesh’s The Writing of Where: Graffiti and the Production of Writing Spaces

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Jonathan Marine

Lesh, Charles N. The Writing of Where: Graffiti and the Production of Writing Spaces. Syracuse University Press, 2022.

An image of the cover of the book.

In recent years, a great deal of scholarship in composition studies has focused on theories of how material environments shape writing. For instance, Kevin Roozen has urged the field to pay greater attention to public engagement with inscriptions and inscriptional practice (23), while Nancy Welch has argued compositionists should expand the scope of work in writing programs through attuning to writing taking place in the public rhetorical sphere (701). Similarly, Jordan Frith has asserted that new forms of location-based writing shape how people experience physical space. Work on spatial practice, like Roozen, Welch, and Frith’s, appeals to composition researchers and educators to account for the broader physical, social, and material milieu in which writing, and the teaching of writing, take place. Amidst these calls for greater attention to space and writing, Charles N. Lesh’s new book, The Writing of Where: Graffiti and the Production of Writing Spaces, makes a compelling case for how writing and space can mutually and recursively shape one another through an ethnographic account of how graffiti writers in Boston compose space within and across the city.

The first monograph to focus exclusively on graffiti from a composition and rhetoric perspective, Lesh’s book offers a unique narrative about how graffiti interanimates with, and within, the social spaces where writing happens. To this end, each chapter presents a different writing space, from highway overpasses to graffitist notebooks and train yards, that Lesh interrogates through working closely with graffitists engaged in the production of these venues for and shaped by graffiti writing. Drawing on work and research in composition, public rhetorics, geography, and community engagement, Lesh sketches an emergent framework which he contends can help writing studies to more sharply illuminate the relationship between space and writing.

After a fizzy, immersive introduction to the underworld of Boston graffiti writers that Lesh inhabited for four years in order to write the book, he uses the first chapter to review the city’s long history of antigraffiti rhetoric and contextualize it as a part of the larger rhetorical production of space within and across the city. Lesh argues that historically, in Boston, graffiti is regarded as a sign of larger political and social unrest, and in this way efforts to eliminate graffiti are an attempt to “project [and control] order and spatial transparency” (52). Through examples of varying place-based identities within Boston, Lesh demonstrates how graffiti is deeply intertwined within the city’s relationships with racial segregation, culture, neoliberalism, and public education. In doing so, Lesh reveals that the material space of the city reinforces efforts to control public rhetoric by purposefully situating writing like graffiti within or outside dominant narratives of place.

Chapter two, titled “Spot,” navigates the “spots” where varying genres of graffiti are produced in Boston. By focusing on two particular types of graffiti—bombing and piercing—Lesh considers the different social spaces and compositional experiences incarnated by these alternative orientations to urban life. Because graffitists face social and indeed legal persecution, efforts to “bomb”—in essence, to get your Writing up quickly and in as many places as possible—require a complex understanding of the social and legal dynamics of urban life. This, in turn, attaches varying forms of cultural currency to the spots which—depending on how hard they are to bomb—afford reputation and status to graffiti writers. In a sleek and engaging ethnographic manner, Lesh “walks” the reader through the city, vicariously narrating the many complex social elements which influence the meaning of any single graffito. In doing so, Lesh’s authentic examples of graffiti help to demonstrate how “new spots are invented and become new writing spaces that call forth different public arrangements and social landscapes” (119). In Boston, the material environment is a kinetic and ever-evolving graffiti canvas communally constructed by the many social forces at play throughout and within the city.

Chapter three, “Bible,” explores the sketchbooks often used by graffitists referred to as “bibles” in Boston graffiti culture. These bibles function as communal writing spaces, owned individually but shared socially within groups of writers. The chapter revolves around three interconnected sections within the graffiti bible: the practice page for honing skills, the traveling gallery showcasing work as it circulates, and the talismanic archive preserving significant pieces. Through conversations with and pictures of these important tomes and their contents, Lesh contends that the graffiti bible is not just a physical notebook but rather represents a vital “countergeography of writing” (131). These notebooks stand as a testament to an unconventional yet essential space within the graffiti subculture, a space cultivated by writers “between text and sociomaterial context” for the purposes of collective practice, circulation, and the archival safeguarding of urban artistry (162-163). Lesh’s interactions with graffitists as relayed in this chapter offer an authentic and immersive perspective on graffiti culture unique to this book.

The book’s fourth chapter, titled “Train,” explores how trains provide graffiti writers a “stable infrastructure for circulation to audiences near and far, affiliated and unaffiliated, interested and hostile” (178). The complex dynamics of graffiti circulation on trains are underscored by the historical events that have left an indelible mark on the sociopolitical landscape of the city of Boston. It is against this historical backdrop that Lesh draws on established theories of circulation and mobility in composition studies (such as Laurie Gries and Collin Brooke) in order to meticulously dissect the multifaceted ways in which trains emerge as dynamic canvases for writers. Notably, train graffiti circulates in ways that typical, wall-based graffiti, does not, and as a result Lesh is able to show how train graffitists construct their art to account for the circulating nature of these uncommonly mobile canvasses. In providing a nuanced and comprehensive examination of the myriad ways in which graffiti writers continually transform trains into both real and imagined community spaces, Lesh showcases how these spatial and rhetorical transformations occur within the challenging backdrop of societal opposition, providing a unique lens through which to appreciate the resilience, adaptability, and creative spirit of the graffiti subculture of urban Boston.

The Writing of Where’s final chapter, “Warehouse,” presents Lesh’s vision of the book as a transformative force in rhetoric and composition. He argues that the book’s purpose is to disrupt perspectives on writing by challenging and transcending conventional boundaries—like, for example, conceiving of graffiti as a viable and valuable source of public writing. Lesh focuses on unconventional spaces like an ordinary warehouse in Quincy, Massachusetts. This warehouse becomes a central metaphor for the book’s aspirations, as it represents not only a hope for innovative methodologies and ethical community partnerships, but also embodies the spatial coproduction of writing spaces that is the goal of the book. Lesh presents the book as a model for writing and collaboration by emphasizing spatial reciprocity and envisioning dynamic, inclusive writing spaces (and partnerships) that reflect the multivocality of the graffiti writing community. While acknowledging the book’s limitations, most pointedly Lesh’s own ethnographic (and idiosyncratic) point of view, the author confers his hope that the work is received as a transformative writing space in and of itself that contributes to a more nuanced understanding of community, public, and academic writing.

Overall, Lesh’s book makes a compelling case that “writing is elemental in the production of emergent spaces” by presenting an in-depth ethnographic account of the vibrant community engagement involved in graffiti writing (5). This graffiti writing, in turn, produces spaces of writing which are “not just where writing happens but because writing happens” (6, my emphasis). The central call within spatial work in rhetoric and composition, to this point, has been to situate writing within a more dynamic rendering of space. Lesh positions the multivalent and multimodal spaces of graffiti writing in this book—beautifully presented through his own gorgeous photos of graffiti in Boston—as not being “preexisting sites of discourse,” but rather as “consequences of rhetorical [and spatial] work” (16). In short, graffitists don’t write in alternative spaces so much as make alternative spaces by writing. The book is particularly inventive in not only its colorful presentation of the actual examples of graffiti on which the book is based, but also because of the lively “community interludes” between chapters in which Lesh invites graffiti writers who participated in his work to reflect and comment on the many issues raised in the volume.

That said, the book does have some limited shortcomings. My primary concern is what seems to be an overly narrow focus regarding what the author confusingly terms “graffiti writing.” For example, early on in the book, Lesh pointedly excludes latrinalia (bathroom graffiti) from the scope of his work despite the fact that there is a long, documented history of this written phenomena which intersects with a great many of the important points of discussion which Lesh sets out to interrogate, including issues of community writing, public discourse, and social approbation (Marine). Lesh is entitled to focus on the types of graffiti which he so desires, and to term his own object of study in the way in which he wants, but a more explicit discussion of how these different genres of graffiti intersect and interanimate with one another would benefit the volume and further the potential applicability of Lesh’s excellent work.

As a contribution to composition studies, Charles N. Lesh’s The Writing of Where: Graffiti and the Production of Writing Space, offers a newly conceived model of writing and community engagement which serves as a powerful potential framework for further understanding the spatiality of public writing. Any scholar or teacher of composition, public rhetorics, or community writing will find this book a fresh and informative discussion of how contemporary public discourse circulates in ways which shape the contexts in which citizens—and students—live and learn. In fact, graffiti scholarship has long over-focused on written products devoid of the writers (and audiences) which are such a vital part of their inscription and circulation. In this way, Lesh enacts a service to composition and rhetoric scholars in his efforts to broaden our conception of what types of writing count for and in the academy. Furthermore, graffiti researchers will also benefit from a landmark ethnographic account of the actual graffitists who produce the work on which the field fixates. Graffitists are writers, much as graffiti is writing. The field of composition would do well to give this vibrant and authentic form of discourse the serious, renewed attention which it has long deserved.

Works Cited

Frith, Jordan. Writing Space: Examining the Potential of Location-Based Composition. Computers and Composition, vol. 37, 2015, pp. 44–54.

Marine, Jonathan M. Mere Graffiti: The Pedagogical Implications—and Potential—of Latrinalia Research. Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing & Service Learning, vol. 22, no. 2, 2023, pp. 118–151.

Roozen, Kevin R. Acting with Inscriptions: Expanding Perspectives of Writing, Learning, and Becoming, The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, vol. 26, no. 5, 2021, pp. 23–48.

Welch, Nancy. The Point Is to Change It: Problems and Prospects for Public Rhetors. College Composition and Communication, vol. 63, no. 4, 2012, pp. 699–714.

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