Monday, December 1, 2008


I used to bite. I tried not to. Maybe I still do. I try not to. In the quest to find our own style, we usually start with someone else. We can't help it. That's how style grows.

I don't mean style like do you rock your knotted shoelace loops on the outside or tuck them behind your tongue -- I mean style as in voice. Authorship. Every time we hear a "fresh new voice" we have to remember that voice came from an earlier place that might now seem stale. And that earlier place? Well, it was also fresh and new in its own time. Voices are echoes. Style is regenerated. Where would Mamet be without Pinter? Interpol without Joy Division-or-The Smiths-let's-not-argue? Picasso without Africa?

We all have to be influenced by another. No idea comes from nowhere. Even when a synapse occurs that seems completely random, say like, I dunno... you see a married couple being violent to each other at Carl's Jr. and you get inspired to make a film about it, what form would best communicate your idea? You could, I dunno... ask yourself, "How would Cassavetes do it?" So you go and jerk the camera around and say you were influenced by Faces. Even if you refuse to admit having watched that film, other people will admit for you and accuse you of biting Cassavetes. Or Lars von Trier. You can't hide. It's okay. That's how you find your voice.

Biting is a rite of passage. It's also a right of passage and you deserve amnesty for being unoriginal. Biting is good when you are young. Biting shows respect for those before you; it shows an understanding of lineage. It shows that you are learning. But A: don't be a Xerox and B: don't do it for too long. If you bite too long you'll commit an unforgiveable sin: being derivative. You'll get accused of being all up on someone's jock and who wants to feed on someone's jock forever? You will suck.

If you are young and biting, you will get dissed. That's okay. You have to get dissed. Welcome the dis. Check it out: Even if you are trying hardcore to be original, you will still get dissed. You can't win. You will be a dis bullseye. Getting dissed builds callouses. If you persevere, the skin of your confidence will become rough, and eventually, you'll be so good at what you do that you will become ruff. And when you become ruff, you will have found your voice. As your newfound ruffness grows, your voice might become the standard. People often say a play's dialogue sounds like Mamet when they could dig a generation earlier in their analogy and just as accurately say the dialogue sounds like Pinter. It's cyclical, the idea of influence: How he did it becomes how I do it becomes how you do it. You too could become influential. Welcome to their club. Prepare to get ripped off.

Style is an amalgamation of many influences, and if the influences are disparate, the resulting voice could be so much stronger. Monarchs learned a long time ago to mix up the blood so their precious heirs don't end up looking like the Prince of Wales. Diversity creates strength and originality. You'd better believe Mad Lib wouldn't re-gift the hott new gamelan album you crate-dug for his birthday. Would David Byrne refuse to listen to a recording of Inuit throat singing? Imagine if Robert LePage experienced no noh. The more diverse your influences, the greater chance that you will be unique -- no one can replicate your complicated alchemy. A singular voice is composed of a Lead Belly song, The Old Man and the Sea, Gangstarr's Hard to Earn, the Koran, Miuccia Prada, pork bone soup, L.A. Gear, Zach Morris, Emilio Estevez, Max von Sydow, Chan-wook Park, Talladega Nights, Bell Biv Devoe, Toblerone, Patti Smith, getting arrested, surviving a divorce, Chrissy Snow, a miscarriage, Chungking Express... If you allow yourself to be influenced by myriad experiences, if you pay attention to how unrelated events shape your sensibilities, if you respect others' tastes as being legitimate and valuable and learn from them, then your voice will become fresh and deserve our attention. You will excite us with your uniqueness because your roots are from everywhere. Hello, Mr. Obama.

In my own lofty quest to paint dope shit on walls (as opposed to becoming President), I used to bite. I looked to older, more experienced graffiti writers as a resource. How should I connect my letters? How can I kink my "S" to give it more flavour? How can I be more avant-garde so I'll get noticed? By studying the work of others. I didn't want to bite, but how else do you learn when you don't have enough of your own experience to adapt? Graffiti writers have a blunt way of calling your bluff and accusing you of biting: they cross you out with "Biter". I stayed committed nonetheless and after four years of being insecure in public (such is the masochistic thrill of painting in the street where you will be judged by everyone), I finally started painting stuff that felt comfortable. A few more years of growing comfort and I finally felt confident enough to say, "Hey, I think I've got my own style now". But the street-life of a graffiti writer is short and the learning curve is quick, so it's common for graffiti writers to find their style well within a decade. I've never heard of a novelist finding her own voice in a mere ten years. [When I started out, I had access to only two graffiti magazine titles and one VHS, and you couldn't talk about modems without saying "baud". I got to witness an international explosion of slippery glossy magazines, innumerable DVDs and websites, and the strange phenomenon of a graffiti industry; we now have over-exposure to the work of graff heads from everywhere. It's no wonder that younger graffiti writers today find their own style in a few years]. After half my life shaking spray paint cans (I admittedly regrettably paint seldom now) I've learned that it isn't even about finding your own style -- style comes to you. If you keep speaking, your voice will find you.

I'm not a biter in graffiti anymore. But to this day, when I grasp for inspiration, I return to the same source I've been relying on since I was thirteen -- opening Subway Art is like stepping back into grammar class -- and I ask myself, "How would Dondi do it? How would Seen flip his 'S'? How would Lee speak politics?"

Biting is the pattern of humanity. How do babies learn to speak? How does an apprentice learn to build a violin? By doing what the mentor does when the mentor says, "Do what I do." Take the mentor's lessons and run. After years of trudging down the path paved by your mentor, your legs will have grown strong enough to veer you off on your own direction, cutting a fresh path in your own gait. And as your calloused feet tread grass that had never before been trampled, as you dash miles upon miles away from where you started, you'll still be able to hear your mentor's voice echo: "Now you're dope!"

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