In Jet Set Radio, while you're zooming around spraying graffiti, you are simultaneously being chased by a bunch of heavily armed goons who fire weapons at you and disrupt your painting. If you take enough hits, you'll run out of life and have to start the level over, but that's actually pretty rare. They mostly just annoy you and slow you down.
I'm not entirely sure what the point of this mechanic is. The closest I've come to a conclusion is that this overwhelming and disproportionate military response exists purely to make you miserable. I don't mean this as a complaint, or even as comic hyperbole. I mean literally.
See, it all has to do with the meaning of graffiti. At first, I thought it was just a silly thing. A narrative conceit where something rather frivolous in the real world is imbued with an awesome cultural power. Like, this is just a world where a variety of personal and political problems are solved with graffiti. It's a form of comedy I enjoy (and honestly, probably the best way to interpret the game's plot), but the more I thought about it, the more I entertained the idea that Jet Set Radio was using graffiti completely seriously.
In libertarian political theory, there is a concept known as "the homestead principle." The idea is that if you find something in nature that is in a raw and untouched state and you transform it with the application of labor into something that is personally useful to yourself, then in a real, moral sense, you come to own that thing. Mostly, this has to do with land and farms and houses and whatnot, but presumably, if you chopped down a tree and made a boat out of the wood, you would own the boat and someone else could come along and transform the stump and own that.
The purpose of the homestead principle is to establish an ethical basis for a society-wide private property regime. It posits an initially empty world, in which human beings spread out naturally and in spreading out, managed to carve out chunks of personal property without victimizing their neighbors. It is a vision of accumulation through ingenuity and industry, and it is the rhetorical keystone in the argument that redistributing, taxing, or regulating property is fundamentally unjust.
However, there are several major flaws with the homesteading principle. Some, like its anthropocentrism, or its indifference to common goods are beyond the scope of this post, but there is one that is especially relevant. Namely, what happens to homesteading when the world fill up?
And that's where graffiti comes in. Painting graffiti is an act of creation. It is taking something that exists in the world around you, and transforming it through ingenuity and industry. By the homestead principle, if you painted a rock in the middle of the woods, you would own that rock, so why is a wall in the middle of the city any different?
On the surface, it comes down to prior ownership. The rock is not already owned, but the wall is. Except, what if you're born into a world with no more rocks? What if you're born into a place and time where everything around you is already owned, and you have no opportunity to change that? If you start your life trapped in a cage of paper, where not even the space you physically occupy belongs to you?
Is it intrinsically wrong, then, to change the world around you? To alter the environment to be more to your liking? To, basically, homestead an urban space? To assert ownership of your first and natural home, even over the objections of those who have title and deed to the place where you live?
Because the moral basis of the capitalist property regime is a series of contracts with provenance tracing back to the original homesteading (and another criticism of the homesteading principle is that there are, more often than not, gaps between now and the "original" transformation, and these gaps, almost without exception, are filled with the most horrifying sort of violence), but put in such stark terms, it becomes apparent that there is an injustice in subjecting modern people to a contract they were not party to.
Especially when the original "improvement" might well have been as simple as sticking a few flags in the earth. And if the first owner built a shack and then sold the land to someone who tore down the shack to build a cottage. And then that person sold the land to someone who tore down the cottage to build a villa. And then later the villa was torn down to build a skyscraper, that's another avenue of unfairness.
A modern person can build a shack just as well as the original homesteader, but we've long since passed the time where a shack can be enough to claim the land, because the land is now worth as much as a skyscraper. But more perversely, some would find fault in these children born in exile, because they cannot, as individuals, acquire and save enough wealth or expertise to build a skyscraper on their own. Their lack of property is held as a strike against them, despite the fact that they never had the opportunity to build what a single person can build. Their exclusion is the justification for their exclusion.
Which brings us back to the violence. It makes a certain amount of emotional and moral sense that an alienated-from-birth city-dweller might assert ownership over their home through the medium of street art. It is a way of saying "this place is my place, I belong here, even if I don't have my name on a piece of paper." However, for property to exist in an ecosystem of contracts, that cannot be allowed. It is not merely extra-legal, it is criminal. The paper-owners don't have this sort of native possession, so they must resort to mobilizing the violence of the state to assert and defend their claims.
Seen in this light, graffiti is a radical act, one which threatens the very underpinnings of capitalist power, and one that understandably provokes a reflexive immune-response from the existing power structure. One might almost think that the contrast between the exuberant and playful pacifism of the player's gang and the over-the-top and disproportionate violence of the NPC enemies (seriously, it starts with a cop just flat-out trying to murder you with his service revolver and escalates from there to tanks and attack helicopters) is a deliberate attempt to critique the ways in which capitalist class relations are decidedly non-voluntary, except . . .
The start of the game features a very stern warning that graffiti is illegal almost everywhere, even while attempting, in that anodyne corporate way, to praise it as a culturally valuable form of self expression. Considering that the end of the game has you chasing after a supposedly magical record that is said to contain a means of selling your soul to the devil, and eventually takes you to the top of a sky-scraper that has been turned into a giant turntable where massive golden rhino statues breath fire at you until you stop them with graffiti somehow, it is more likely that this is just a silly game that was capitalizing on some popular 90s trends.
Which, you know, is fine. Jet Set Radio may not be the banner of a new revolution, but it is pretty fun . . . when those jetpack-wearing corporate security goons aren't knocking me off a roof for the fifteenth damned time in a row.