We're All Borf In the End

(Marvin Joseph/twp - The Washington Post)

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By Claude Willan
Sunday, July 24, 2005

It was after braving the crush at Kramerbooks to buy the latest Harry Potter novel that I sat down on an enormous concrete planter in Dupont Circle and noticed that I was staring straight at a black stenciled face. It was one of the pieces of graffiti by 18-year-old art student John Tsombikos, aka Borf, that have proliferated inthe District.

Until his recent arrest, Borf produced scrawls and pictures, almost all of a scowling boy and most accompanied by a bizarre slogans like "Borf Writes Letters To Your Children" or "Borf Is Good For Your Liver." He wasn't just kooky, he was ubiquitous. He has been held accountable for vast amounts of graffiti, not just in the District, but across the whole country, and beyond -- in Raleigh, N.C., in New York, in Los Angeles, and even in Athens (that's Greece, not Georgia).

Sitting there, it hit me -- Borf wasn't an isolated guy; he was a phenomenon. People from L.A. to Europe have assumed his identity and turned it into a group endeavor, subverting popular cultural images in a practice that my twenty-something contemporaries call "culture jamming." This kind of collective identity (which is a kind of anonymity, if you think about it) is my generation's reaction to having been spoon-fed advertising and having had identities marketed to us. We've been led to believe that to be homogenous and fit into certain characteristics is safe and desirable. Even correct. Crudely put, culture jammers represent the way people my age feel about modern society: that its images don't relate to us; that we won't or can't engage with what we've been told we should be; and that all we can do to make ourselves heard is to twist these images back on themselves.

In a sense, I'd got to know Borf before I came to America from Britain three weeks ago. He's the American incarnation of British graffiti artist Banksy, who is notable, among other things, for creating pictures of Winston Churchill with a green mohawk. Banksy has been pulling much the same stunt as Borf, in much the same stencil style, and for longer; and he has maintained his anonymity (although he has an agent and a bank account). Major stores have even released posters of his images, making him rich along the way. It's commonplace now in small British towns to see what could only be described as Banksy knock-offs: graffiti mimicking his style and passed off as originals. Just as Banksy's identity has been co-opted into a collective body, so has Borf's.

Both tap into ideas articulated by the American graphic artist Shepard Fairey, whose bold, stylized pictures of the late professional wrestler Andre the Giant, which are plastered up in public spaces, are juxtaposed with slogans like "Obey" or "Giant." Fairey says that in his project (called "Andre the Giant Has a Posse") the medium is the message. What Fairey produces looks like trendy advertising but is in fact a deliberately empty message. He's therefore engaged in the subversive distribution of a meaningless thing; it's anti-marketing, anti-singularity, anti-message.

Maybe the reason why apparently empty messages like these resonate with my generation is that we don't have any icons of our own. We don't have an Allen Ginsburg, or a Jack Kerouac. We don't even have a Douglas Coupland -- the writer who articulated the idea that the main characteristic of the '90s generation was that it had no characteristic.

We have no Bob Dylan, no Bruce Springsteen. When someone recently asked me why people my age (I'm 21) listen to bands from our parents' generation, I had to explain that, with a few exceptions, we don't have any real musicians any more. Without massive advertising campaigns, a lot of the "music" you can buy today, like Beyonce, wouldn't exist.

We're a voiceless generation. We have nothing we can point to and say: "This is us, this is where we stand." We're lost and silent and we don't know what to do about it. We're sold a parody of culture that we buy because, well, what choice do we have?

Even the generational angst I'm engaging in now is stolen. This is the cry of the generation before mine, the Lost Generation, Generation X, Coupland's kids. People 10 years older than I am cornered the market in existential meanderings and, self-indulgent though it is, at least it's a flag, something to rally round. What have we got? Beyonce and Harry Potter -- both created and sold to us by people our parents' ages. Not that I've anything against Harry Potter; I enjoyed "The Half-Blood Prince" immensely. But it isn't us. It's not who we are.

Even the most conventional of magazines has recognized that something is up. Vanity Fair has an essay competition in its current issue titled, "What's on the minds of America's youth today?" It asks young writers to explain, for a prize of $1,500 and a Montblanc fountain pen, just what is going on. As Vanity Fair's editors see it:

"More than 30 years ago, young people across the country staged sit-ins for civil rights, got up and protested against a misguided, undeclared war, and actually gave a damn if a president lied to them. Today it seems as if the younger generation of Americans are content to watch their MTV, fiddle with their game players, [and] follow the love lives of Brad, Jen, Jessica and Paris. What has changed? What is going on inside the minds of American youth today?"

What's funny is that this hailing of "American youth" displays a paradoxical lack of awareness of our generation even as it tries to pin us down. There's no such thing as "American youth" -- or British youth, come to that, these days. That's exactly what we're not -- a body, a set.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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