Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Brand Names and Graffiti


As I read Pelevin's Homo Zapiens, I find myself increasingly fascinated by the concept of brand names, a subject he explores in great detail. The hero (or we might call him an "anti-hero") of the novel is an advertising copywriter in post-Soviet Russia. The story uses the comic exploration of the advertising industry as a window into the psyche of Russia at this historic juncture.

Tatarsky, the novel's protagonist, invents slogans and advertising concepts to promote Western goods in the Russian market. In his writing of spots for television ads, he endeavors to translate the Western name and concept of a brand into a uniquely Russian one. In what appears to be a dream or vision early in his days as an advertising copywriter, Tatarsky ascends a mythical structure which, it transpires, is a sort of tower of Babel, a spiral shaped tower called a ziggurat (a structure he has read about in a book given to him by his advertising boss). Finding himself in a room with "lingering traces of a soldier's life", Tatarsky spots some racy photographs of naked women on the walls. In one poster, a naked woman with a golden suntan runs across a tropical beach. "It wasn't even so much her face and figure," we read, "but the incredible, indefinable freedom of her movement, which the photographer had managed to capture." Transfixed by the beauty of the poster, Tatarsky sits down at a table. He examines an empty pack of Parliament cigarettes that he has found on a landing in the tower:

"The palms on the empty Parliament pack and on the photograph were very similar, and he thought they must grow in the same place, in a part of the world he would never get to see- not even in the Russian style, from inside a tank- and if he ever did, it would only be when he no longer needed anything from this woman or this sand or this sea or even from himself. The dark melancholy into which he was plunged by this thought was so profound that at its very deepest point he unexpectedly discovered light: the slogan and the poster for Parliament that he had been searching for suddenly came to him. He hastily pulled out his notebook - the pen turned out to be inside it - and jotted the ideas down:

The poster consists of a photograph of the embankment of the river Moscow taken from the bridge on which the historic tanks stood in October '93. On the site of the Parliament building we see a huge pack of Parliament (digital editing). Palms are growing profusely all around it. The slogan is a quotation from the nineteenth-century poet Griboedov:

Sweet and dear
Is the smoke of our Motherland

Parliament slogan:

THE MOTHERLAND'S #1 SMOKE! "

Coupling the verses of a nineteenth-century Russian nationalist poet with the aggressive promotion of Western advertising, the slogan epitomizes the ironic fusion of Western culture and ideology (the promotion of the concept of being "number one" and devoting oneself to consumerism) with idiosyncratic and anachronistic Russian culture. What emerges from this bizarre experiment in advertising is a portrait of the Russian mentality at this juncture, when it is both steeped in the Zeitgeist and cultural meanings of the past - one wonders when the quintessentially Russian experience of place will not be to see it "from the inside of a tank" - and the uncertainty and compulsive consumerism of the present.

A few years ago, while traveling in Argentina, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a young graffiti artist from Brooklyn. As two ex-pats wandering among the antipodes on the other side of the world in the great and mysterious city of Buenos Aires, we quickly stuck up a friendship based on mutual interest in the place and people around us. We met many a time at a place we referred to as "the spot," a local bar whose name I have forgotten that stood on the far corner of the Plaza Serrano in Palermo Viejo, in the middle of a trendy and upscale neighborhood where I once witnessed a knife fight between two young men doubtlessly involved in some dispute over a woman. We gathered there to sit among the small and closely-spaced tables, eat peanuts and drink beer. We talked about women, sex, growing up, and our dreams for the future. Trevor was a photographer as well as a graffiti artist, an activity which, although a kind of serious hobby, occupied much of his time. In a coincidence of fate, we shared the same name. Our lives had unfolded on seemingly opposite but parallel tracks until they coincided. While he had been born and raised in Brooklyn, left home at the age of fifteen, and been in and out of schools and trouble, I had attended a prestigious and exclusive private school and gone on to college. I saw him as my alter-ego from Brooklyn, and I sought, by means of association with him, to experience vicariously those pleasures and experiences which my life had yet to afford me in its conformity.


As I got to know Trevor, he initiated me into the world of graffiti - a demi-monde that I had known nothing of until his introduction of it to me. What I had so often overlooked as garbled non-sense scrawled on walls, bridges, and railways depots, was in fact a secret language of hundreds of writers communicating with one another. Each writer possesses what is known as a "tag" - their identification of sorts, their call-sign and their code-name. Graffiti writers go their entire lives writing the same tag on buildings, trains, tunnels, and gates. The tag serves as the vehicle and sign-post of the writer's unique identity. The essential secrecy of the code - the fact that its meaning is known to the writer alone - forms a crucial part of grafitti's anthropology. To let the meaning out would be akin to a magician divulging the secret to his act.

To Be Continued ...

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