Afrika Bambaataa, a founding figure of hip-hop culture, outlined the four pillars of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, B-boying, and graffiti writing. Graffiti remains arguably the most controversial of the four, prompting strong reactions on both sides—epitomized on one hand by the success of the landmark 1984 publication Subway Art, and on the other hand the $9 million spent in Chicago for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 2010 Graffiti Blasters initiative. American culture continues to struggle to find a place for graffiti within the history of art, free speech, and vandalism.

Through the creation of the Life is Living festivals, Marc Bamuthi Joseph found another way to frame the conversation around power, politics, and public space. The festivals, rich with collective energy, served as a means of conducting fieldwork for the text and design of red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb). One of the many axes of collaboration were the Estria Invitational Graffiti Battles hosted in Harlem, Chicago, and Oakland. Estria Miyashiro is a friend of Bamuthi and a veteran graffiti artist in the Bay Area art scene. Miyashiro and Bamuthi were motivated to collaborate by their shared desire to use their work in the hip-hop arts to empower local communities and encourage lasting systemic change.

Each battle challenged popular local graffiti artists to create work related to themes of sustainability. The theme for Chicago was “Earth,” and the murals created by the contestants were hung at different locations throughout the city with the hope of inspiring dialogue and imparting a sense of urgency around the importance of life in the midst of urban violence.

The picture below shows a portion of the group mural created at Chicago’s Clarendon Park. This highlights the opportunities for connection embedded in Bamuthi’s practice which, in turn, fed the creative process of rbGb.

Life is Living Mural 2009 - Photo by Eve Rivera

Photo: Eve Rivera