It would be truly a solipsism to suggest that graffiti in non-Western nations has come about solely as a result of the spread of American popular culture – graffiti certainly existed long before its modern incarnation as an art form emerged in the 1970′s (as any visitor to the Temple of Dendur in New York’s Met can attest to). Nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that at least in many cases it was this American cultural image, that of the bad-boy tagger, leaving his mark and dodging cops on the streets of New York City or L.A., that the young graffitists of Mongolia had in mind while applying the paint themselves. It’s a compelling scene to consider: the lonely streets of any of Mongolia’s Soviet-built cities, where one can wander for hours at midday and hardly see but a soul, the youth of any of these towns, alienated by poverty and geography from the youth culture of a greater world – with little opportunity for education, work, or change, darting from one empty building to another, leaving a mark in whatever way they can, their vision full of subway cars and spray cans and rap music, full of images they’ve never seen firsthand, but which somehow, in some way, through third hand fashion and late-coming media, worked its way in.
Of course, one has no way of knowing just what was going on in the minds of Mongolia’s taggers – yet a look at their work suggests that at least some parts of the above image must be true. And it’s precisely an unexpected sense of familiarity which makes the graffiti of any country, but especially a developing one, such an interesting study. In terms of craft and sophistication, it may lack in comparison to its Western brothers, but in Mongolia, as anywhere in the world, graffiti is an outlet for the frustrations of society’s most disenfranchised, a theater in which a disaffected youth play out their anger, their fears and their dreams or simply assert the validity of their existence. The motifs are familiar ones: money, names, declarations of love and heartache, while the materials may vary – more often liquid paint and brush than a spray can. The language, surprisingly, may also be familiar – as in many conservative societies, English is often used an alternative space for counter-culture movements or the youth – a way to express oneself that betrays discontent with one’s society and position. Solidarity, the message left behind by an unknown passerby on the statue of a Russian soldier outside an abandon Soviet barracks in the Gobi desert – what was its author’s intent? Who was he or she? Why this word, in this place, in this language? – one can only imagine the answers to these questions, but the message’s content describes precisely its effect – solidarity with the faceless ghosts in a dying industrial landscape that left these marks behind.