Arguing the validity of graffiti and street art as a legitimate and acceptable art form.
|Considering he was alive today, what if the renaissance artist Sandro Boticelli were to paint a gorgeous six-foot tall portrayal of the Madonna and Child in a dingy old alley without permission? Would this still be considered vandalism? Can you imagine the pity of removing such a marvel? There are thousands of similar situations worldwide when awe striking graffiti is disposed of and exchanged for an even more offensive blank void. Is the beauty of street art not recognized by modern society simply because of its illegality and subversive nature? In a world that discourages self-expression, the chances of being heard are slim. Ask any graffiti writer and they will tell you that street art’s artistic merit and value far transcend the proclamations of any possible law.
Unfortunately, graffiti is an art that is misunderstood. The local New York government crowns graffiti with the definition “etching, painting, covering or otherwise placing a mark upon public or private property, with the intent to damage such property.” (Combating Graffiti.) This is an incorrect allegation that contributes much of the animosity placed against graffiti writers. If there is intent to damage something, there is intent to decrease its value. Most street artists have little desire to do this. If anything, their graffiti increases value through its raw voice, power, beauty and exposure of cultural passions and anguish. As a genuine graffiti artist, I can tell you that I have absolutely no intention of “damaging property”. If I wanted to do that, I would hold up a match before I sprayed. Spray cans alone are not capable of damage. In fact, they do quite the opposite. They are the chisel to a sculptor, or the brush to a painter. They are tools of creation, not destruction. The anti-graffiti coalition “Graffiti Hurts” claims a good way to prevent graffiti on a wall is to paint a mural on it. Why is this? Why do graffiti artists rarely hit up murals? The reason is simple. It is because murals increase value of an area through art, and street artists appreciate this. All we want is something to look at.
The very act of graffiti is an art form in itself. Creating just one piece entails a cocktail mix of stealth, intelligence, innovation, planning and very often improvisation. Even people who idly observe the completed art receive a reflection of the adrenaline which must have been present at the time of creation. Traditional artists do not worry about scaling walls or gaining access through drainpipes. They do not worry about getting arrested or broadsided by subway trains. It is through these extra complications and challenges we are free to witness great artistry and allure. Sometimes the genius of graffiti lies not in its aesthetic appeal, but instead in something as subtle as its placement. Using the environment as an unlimited canvas, we are able to perceive something that on traditional canvas art is impossible. An excellent example of these possibilities was displayed on the main page of Wooster Collective. (Schiller and Schiller) Amidst what is left of Brighton’s west pier, stands a rust coated pole coiled with barbed wire around the top. Directly under the circling coil is a solemn and very simple single layer stencil of Christ’s face, using the barbed wire present to symbolize the crown of thorns present at crucifixion. This binding marriage between environment and art is a key element specific to urban art, a unique quality shared by no other genre.
Like anything displayed in an art museum, graffiti shares many of the same attributes and common misunderstandings. Graffiti instills many emotions and reasonings that vary among individuals. Most often these feelings are negative, spawning frustration, confusion and agitation when the graffiti writer’s motives and perceptions behind his or her work are not fully interpretable. Many good works of art are misjudged, written off and dismissed when the poetic and aesthetic creativity cannot be understood. Frustration over determining artists’ hidden meaning has long been synonymous with gallery art as well. Just because you do not understand the motivation behind the writing on the wall doesn’t mean that work should be immediately dismissed, or that it is worthless rubbish. Visitors to modern art museums often become agitated when there is no information provided concerning the ‘meaning’ of the work. It would not be uncommon for a visitor to step back from an art composition as intense as Adolph Gottlieb’s “Man Looking at Woman” and struggle to decipher the message Gottlieb was trying to convey. Because of this many visitors to modern art galleries have expressed attitudes of exclusion, frustration and confusion. These are the very same feelings which are expressed when graffiti is present, which lays out the idea that graffiti has a solid argument backing it for being categorized as a modern art.
At the center of these misunderstandings and dismissals is the pioneering cornerstone of graffiti, the tag. Tags are a primitive form of signature, a stylized equivalent of writing “I was here”. Taggers have been accused of being selfish vandals, defiling pristine walls with vulgar marks and scribbles. Online blogger “Mazman” describes tagging as “ugly vandalism scrawled by the artistically uninspired.” ("Copping a Spray...") However, this accusation is incorrect. Like any form of art, tags have the potential to be unique and breathtaking. Looking at their typography we can tell if someone has adequate knowledge of letter structure and manipulation. We can see style, form and technique. Good tags can often border calligraphy in their discipline. From composition, balance, line width, consistency and technique, there is much to appreciate. A lot can be said by simply analyzing a signature. Be it on a receipt or on a wall, the basic properties remain the same. If this is not considered art, I do not know what is.
To say that graffiti is ugly and that it is not art goes beyond the fringes of ignorance and ventures into hypocrisy. Business owners selling products ranging from shoes to candy bars constantly use the lure of graffiti to reach consumers. The tragic comedy of buffing urban art and replacing it with an advertisement for t-shirts boasting graffiti designs is now a mind-boggling reality. Advertising companies would not employ the style of graffiti to reach consumers if it were unsightly or not considered art. However, this is not to say that there is no unsightly graffiti. Even in my eyes there is plenty of unsightly graffiti. Does this go against my argument that graffiti is art? No, it does not. However unsightly it may be, I respect these amateurish scribbles and their artists for simply performing the act, which as stated is a challenging form of art in itself. In fact, I would rather see a sorry looking cartoon phallus scrawled on the wall than nothing at all. However, amateur graffiti art is not the main focus of this essay. This is about all of the Boticellis, Raphaels, and Michaelangelos whose masterpieces are continuously buffed by people who fail to understand their merit. Society will continue to thrash in it’s plethora of clashing beliefs, but fortunately, the battle for the streets will rage on.
"Combating Graffiti." NYC.gov. 2007. NYC Business Solutions. 14 Nov. 2007
"Copping a Spray..." The Age. 2007. Fairfax Digital. 21 Sep. 2007
Schiller, Sara, and Marc Schiller. "Jesus On The Streets." Wooster Collective. 2007. 14
Nov. 2007 <http://woostercollective.com/>.