Graffiti: Art or Vandalism?
What is Graffiti?
When people today talk about graffiti it is most frequently thought of with some negative connotation. Some consider it to be synonymous with vandalism or even property destruction. But for all intents and purposes graffiti has existed since prehistoric times and has also given us great insight into more recent cultures and civilizations as well.
From the earliest Paleolithic cave paintings in France to more recent relief sculptures in Ancient Egypt, humans for thousands of years have made works of art in public spaces. Whether or not these works communicate understandable messages, the thing they do say is “We were here. We existed!” For the purpose of this exhibit, I would like to place a somewhat narrow definition on the term ‘Graffiti’, so as to distinguish it from the broader term “Street Art.” The type of Graffiti we will be looking at is a relatively modern invention. Before we discuss some of the contemporary issues surrounding Graffiti, its effects on cities and how different cities are responding to it, let’s start by giving a brief account of where modern-day Graffiti comes from – but in order to do that, we have to look back at what happened in the mainstream art world just after World War II. In 1947 the famous abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollok (1912-1956) made his first “drip” painting. This was a significant shift in style and technique from other types of artwork up until that time. Pollock’s abstract works had no figurative imagery in them whatsoever and so the idea of an image was replaced with the idea of expression and thus turned any notion of meaning or interpretation towards the perception of the viewer. Pollock’s work during the Modern era is considered by many to be a kind of high-watermark that created a pivotal turning point in painting, one that turned away from recognizable forms, and even questioned the integrity of what fine art was considered to be.
Modernism and Graffiti
So how are we to define Graffiti for the sake of this exhibition? The Graffiti we are discussing comes from New York City in the early 1970’s. In that time, Graffiti artists started writing simple names or “tags.” It grew rapidly as an art movement between all five of New York’s boroughs and became competitive as well. As Modernism was coming to a close in the institutions of fine art, Graffiti was coming up as an art form within itself outside of the mainstream museums and gallery spaces. Born mainly in low-income areas the Graffiti movement could be said to be a reaction to Modernist architecture. After World War II, housing projects were built outside of city centers and were designed mainly as utilitarian living quarters, often lacking in open spaces or playgrounds. These housing “projects” separated people, not only from city centers, but also from economic opportunities that existed within them. Social divisions were primarily a consequence of the widening gap of disparity due to economic inconsistency. By the 1970’s many project housing developments began being viewed as failed social experiments or, more severely, as part of systematic oppression of the lower class. As a form of protest Graffiti artists began fighting back with spray-paint and permanent felt-tipped markers. Graffiti artist call themselves “writers” because words and letterforms were the most common type of imagery represented within the movement. Words have power. But almost as a reflection of the abstract forms being heralded as genius by conventional critics in the upper echelons of the fine art world, writers of Graffiti art abstracted words and letterforms into an unrecognizable, illegible fashion.
Graffiti Culture and Art Institutions
To continue with a rough form of a definition of Graffiti as the term is applied in this exhibit, we will call it “the writing or spray painting of words and letterforms whether legally or illegally.” One reason for this restriction is that there are other types of street art (murals for example) that might obscure the ideas that we are exploring in relation to Graffiti and its effect on cities. A second reason is that this abstraction of letterforms is a relatively new style of art and it began as a genre all its own. Just as Graffiti was becoming a time-intensive craft with new techniques and styles being explored by highly skilled artists, Modernism gave way to Post-Modernism. More of a philosophy than a bona-fide movement, Post-Modernism began to question and critique the arts as a whole. Not only were the institutions of art being criticized (museums and galleries), but also this: the fact that white-males dominate the fine art community, the idea of art works or objects being treated as a financial commodity, and the portrayal of women as objects of beauty throughout most of art history, are just a few of the issues discussed by Postmodernist art critics. Other forms of art such as performance art, conceptual art, and minimalism began to hit the mainstream art world and many of these movements called into question the very definition of what art is. Meanwhile in the Graffiti world, writers continued to hone their skills, form crews and “tag” just about anything that was city-owned.
The Fine Art of Vandalism
In 1984 the New York Transit Authority estimated that 80% of its subway trains had some type of Graffiti on them. This contributed to a feeling that the city of New York was out of control. City officials started a massive campaign to clean up the city and take back the trains. And, by the middle of 1989, NYC celebrated a Graffiti- free transit system. Currently in every city in the United States there are projects aimed at Graffiti removal. But while our definition of Graffiti is quite broad in scope there are distinctions to be made. ‘Tagging’ is considered by most cities to be a form of vandalism; its purpose is focused on the writer gaining recognition by tagging a pseudo-name in as many locations as possible. Taggers use easily concealable tools such as paint sticks, industrial ink markers and even scratching or etching devices to deface everything from courthouse elevators to truck stop bathroom mirrors. Tags can be applied with aerosol paints also in places where more time can be taken to finish a piece. Tagging is arguably the most prevalent type of Graffiti and cities all over the world have passed laws with strict fines often accompanied by community service-hours that offender’s spend cleaning up graffiti. Other types of Graffiti still within our definition are large colorful mural-like works that take many hours to create. In most American cites this type of art is still considered vandalism, and so the same laws and consequences apply. Usually the defining factor on whether or not Graffiti art is considered legal is based on permission. For example, a business owner could potentially give permission for artists to put up pieces on her property. This is not a universal rule and every city will have its own process for determining where and what type of Graffiti art is acceptable (if it is at all). As a whole, Graffiti is generally viewed as having a negative impact within communities where it is prevalent. There is a basic idea or feeling that a highly tagged neighborhood has been overrun by criminals or street gangs – or that it is simply an area of a city that is not worth caring about. This can lead to less business in commercial or retail areas and also devaluation of property value in and around affected areas. Many cities have adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards all types of illegal street art and have even created Graffiti task forces to try and combat its proliferation.
The What-is-Art Debate
An interesting thing to consider when discussing Graffiti is the fact that whether or not we agree with it Graffiti is a form of art. If we focus our view through a postmodern lens, who gets to say that a thirty-second tag is not a work of art? And furthermore, when the city sends its paint crew to cover up new Graffiti, it is usually applied with a roller using a color that is relatively similar (yet far from exact) to the original surface (assuming it is a blank wall rather than a street sign). This almost always leaves blocks of rectangular mismatched paint. And though it is effective at covering whatever mark the artist had created, can we really say that it looks better? In a sixteen-minute film by Matt McCormick titled “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal” McCormick argues (with tongue-in-cheek) that the removal of Graffiti by painting over it is an art form that has “secured its place in modern art history” and that it is being created “by artists who are unconscious of their artistic achievements.” He goes on to liken the “work” to that of Mark Rothko, another artist from the abstract expressionist movement. And though the film (shot in his hometown, Portland, Oregon) is meant to provoke the city’s officials, whose zero-tolerance policy sends paint crews out to cover the same areas on a daily basis, there is no question that this is in some ways a form of censorship. It also raises the question: is it possible that the money funding this mundane action might be better spent on art programs within the city?
Where Are We Now?
The art of Graffiti and its practitioners are not going anywhere any time soon. So what does this mean for cities? At the website legal-walls.net there is a worldwide map of places that have legal Graffiti walls and a comment section for people to report on the status of the walls and add new walls as well. In a Helsinki Times article dated March 8th, 2014 Tommi Laitio, the director of youth affairs at Helsinki City claims that previous experience with legal Graffiti sites has been quite promising.
Other innovators in Europe are cities such as Stockholm, Sweden, which passed legislation in 2007 to make Stockholm the city with the most legal walls in Europe. Here in the US, the Street Museum of Art is working with The GOOD Cities Project using billboards as a way of sharing the perspective of the city of New York as seen though many street artists. Another interesting topic that is too lengthy for this discussion is the role that Street Art has played in the uprising in Egypt in 2011.
Where Are We Going?
Sustainability is a topic that can no longer be ignored neither globally nor locally, from governments to neighborhoods the future of our lives depend on decisions that we are making everyday both as individuals and as communities. But what does this idea of sustainability have to do with Graffiti?
NOTE: The Museum of the City has recently received an article about a new kind of graffiti in Strasbourg, France. In a project called Tag Clouds, artist Mathieu Tremblin is updating grafitti into a more legible typeface. His recreations replicate the original taggers’ content, scale, layers, and even the colors. Learn more here…