From the beginning, graffiti has been a dirty word, as it became largely regarded as an act of vandalism — a crime. However, like many concepts, graffiti can’t be simply classified as one thing or another. I have to admit, I grew tired of the seemingly lifelong debate about whether graffiti is a form of art or just plain vandalism. Let me settle this for once and for all. Yes people, graffiti is art! Well… at least some of it is. Like with things that are generally perceived as art, graffiti can be put in galleries and museums, where it’s sold for thousands of dollars. And like this ‘normal’ art, there is good and bad pieces. The only difference is that when someone screws up a canvas, no one really cares — it probably won’t even be clear whether it’s a screw up or not — however, when someone screws up someone else’s wall with graffiti, it seems to be everyone’s problem and all graffiti artists suddenly become terrorists. Of course, art is always a matter of taste, but as I said before, graffiti can’t simply be classified as art or vandalism. Different motivations drive different types of graffiti, which may lead to different interpretations of its value. It is important to try and understand the current graffiti scene first, before we are able to state our conclusions.
From scribblers back then…
Using public space as a medium for graphical depictions is as old as mankind and never stopped existing. However, the modern types of graffiti we have come to know and love (or hate) find their roots in the late 1950s in America, where it became a way of expression and communication for youth and different ethnic groups. Graffiti, back then, was closely associated with hip hop culture, along with break dancing and skating, which is still noticeable today. As graffiti became increasingly individualized in the late 1960s, it then started to be practiced as an art form for the first time. Yet, graffiti wasn’t practiced that much until the now famous ’71 article on tagger ‘Taki 183′ was published, which really set things off for the graffiti community. In the early days, graffiti was namely primarily about writing one’s (nick)name — a tag — on as many surfaces as possible to get renown; ironically enough, hereby underground subways were particularly popular.However, graffiti rapidly evolved and people started using spray cans, whereby they went from doing tags to doing throw ups and pieces. A throw up is used as the bigger, more detailed version of a tag, but still for fast execution, while a piece (short for masterpiece) is even bigger and far more elaborate.
The harder-to-reach a certain spot, the more respect you got if you put your piece there. Hereby, the fact that doing graffiti was, and is, illegal made it even more of a challenge — which, of course, has been part of the charm for the practitioners of the controversial art form. Since the 70s, many different groups and styles started to emerge within the movement. A lot of groups primarily used graffiti to ‘bomb’ the system and put their tags and throw ups on as many surfaces as possible, while other groups were only in it for the art and to improve their graffiti skills and/or to get away from the ghetto, and even others, such as gangs, solely used graffiti to mark their territories and command respect. Most people that belong(ed) to one of the first two groups state they would only write on public property (paid for by taxes), but that it is primarily kids, gang members and ‘toys’ (the ones with low skills) who write on personal property, sadly destroying the image and the originally intended purposes of graffiti.
…To artists now?
Nevertheless, as graffiti developed across the globe even more forms emerged. Hereby ‘writers’ no longer limited themselves by markers and spray cans, but they started using a much wider range of tools and their surroundings. For example, they would use traffic signs, stickers, stencils… and mosaic tiles, like Space Invader, a famous French street artist. Great name by the way, since he ‘invades’ public spaces by illegally placing space invader tiles anywhere he wants. It’s pretty cool, because the invaders don’t determine the view of an entire location like most street art, but instead they serve as a small and funny reminder of the blurred lines between art, commerce and ownership. A lot of contemporary graffiti artists are concerned with these things. They think “Who owns public space?” is an important question people should ask themselves. It’s payed for by taxes, so it should be everyone’s right? Shouldn’t it?
With continued urbanization, and more walls and advertisements to look up to, graffiti could vastly improve the overall street image. Instead of grey, boring walls and lots of ‘annoying’ ads, both financed by big corporations or governments, graffiti writers could make the city a little more from and for everyone. This brings us to the more meaningful pieces of graffiti, usually referred to as ‘street art’. This type of art typically means a complete move away from letters, into a less limited form of art, whereby socially relevant themes and originality are regularly deemed important. So, certain types of street art often depict a message; perhaps political, or it could make people aware of something, make them think for a second, but it could also make people laugh — or it could be a combination of all those things. But even without a message, something can definitely be regarded as street art, as Edgar Müller greatly illustrates. Despite the many forms they occur in, the terms street art and graffiti are used indifferently. Though, I think when referring to something as art it should be more about the arousal of emotions and about the people that look at it. When I think about graffiti, it sometimes feels like it has existed within a vacuum, on an artist-to-artist basis. Even though this seems to be changing, the negative connotation of graffiti isn’t, which would indicate the need for a change in terminology; street art as the ‘new’ graffiti. And someone else appears to feel so too…
Brainwashed by Banksy
In preparation for writing this post I read a bunch of articles and I saw three documentaries on graffiti, because I wanted to provide you with an exhaustive, up-to-date and decently objective view on graffiti. The documentaries I saw were ‘Style Wars’ (1984), ‘Bomb It’ (2007) and ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’ (2010). The first documentary depicts the early days of the modern graffiti movement in New York, while the second documentary shows differences within the development of graffiti worldwide. The final documentary (trailer) is about how a French ‘film maker’ turns into a successful graffiti artist overnight, while showing developments of graffiti towards art and the commercialization that comes along with it. I would recommend all of the documentaries, but the latter is definitely the most interesting, since it’s surrounded with controversy. I just finished a thorough analysis for one of my classes on the popular movie ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994) and after seeing ETTGS, I have to say the resemblance is striking. Thierry Guetta, an odd, somewhat clumsy and ignorant Frenchman accidentally becomes involved in the world of graffiti and gets to know all the major graffiti artists within the scene under the false notion that he’s making a documentary. Then the camera is turned on him as he starts making street art himself. Against all odds, within just a few months, Guetta — or Mr. Brainwash — is the next major street artist, selling his work for thousands of dollars. This is, to say the least, quite unlikely to be a true story. Especially if you consider the real-world mystery and vagueness surrounding Guetta and the one who claims credit for the documentary; Banksy — currently the most famous street artist around the globe.
Banksy is an English artist — or perhaps a front cover for a collective of artists — who has done his best to remain as unknown and mysterious as possible, while spreading his art. Banksy’s art is characterized by a distinctive stenciling technique, and it has always had some kind of satirical/social message. In a way, one could say that what 2Pac did for rap, Banksy is doing for graffiti; he’s giving it a message with meaning — a purpose — instead of simply portraying a name in an arty way. He is even transforming the entire image of graffiti in something more positive. Just like Bernays transformed propaganda in PR, Banksy is transforming graffiti into street art. Just like with propaganda, the art of repetition is also often important for graffiti practices, and Banksy has proven himself to be a master of propaganda. Not solely through his art on the streets, but also by surrounding himself with controversy — making society spread the message for him –, adding to this with ETTGS. People never know what to believe when it comes to Banksy, not even after reports that he’s unmasked. Herewith, he remains to be a hot topic in and out of the graffiti scene around the globe, and partly because of the messages behind his art, which is often artistic and funny too, he seems to have won over the support of the public. In a utopian light, one could even state Banksy is today’s urban Robin Hood, claiming public space and the capitalistic foundations of society, only to give them back to the people. The only difference is, Banksy gets to make a lot of money from it.
Besides the seemingly noble side of the coin, ETTGS also gives Banksy the chance to depict himself as THE major figure in the street art scene, which people have now come to believe is true. Whenever I talk to someone about graffiti, one of the first questions that usually pops up is “Oh, do you know Banksy then?”. Furthermore, the movie also allows Banksy to show and criticize the shift in medium from wall to canvas — in other words, the commercialization of graffiti. It appears that he wants to say that this shift is not necessarily good, but not necessarily bad either, as he participates in it himself. In terms of propaganda, this shift is used to legitimize graffiti as an art form, worthy of galleries. Hereby it doesn’t hurt that everyone in the movie seems to love his art; random people on the streets (e.g., in the phone booth scene), art critics, stars, Guetta… et cetera. So, I guess we better love it too.
Within the graffiti scene, though, the shift to commercialization is a big issue. On an increasing amount of occasions, graffiti writers are ‘pulled’ from the streets to go from writers to entrepreneurs — from vandals to the ‘heroes’ of the current consumption society. Herewith, street artist Shepard Fairey, for example, became famous to the general public for his now iconic posters of Obama. The graphical image of these posters was so strong that Fairey was hired for Obama’s election campaign to mass produce the posters, reaching people well beyond his original scope of distribution. Even in the Netherlands, this image is now well known. Besides the rather logical move to (ad) campaigns, former graffiti writers also help to produce clothing, many types of accessories, games and of course some, like Banksy (link) and Mr. Brainwash, can make good amounts of money from selling their art on canvasses from galleries. However, many graffiti writers see this move ‘free art’ to commodities as a move towards the end of ‘true’ graffiti, since it destroys its original purpose. Graffiti has been originally intended to go against the system and society (bomb it!), instead of becoming part of it. This is why many former true graffiti artists, like Fairey, are now no longer accepted and respected by many within the current graffiti community. Is it a shame that graffiti is losing its original purpose? Perhaps, but the new economic angle does have its perks. Besides some interesting new shoe and bag designs, commercialization is likely to create a more general feeling of acceptance towards the art, which could cause a shift to higher percentages of beautiful pieces and true street art, and thus less tags or throw ups. For example, graffiti writers can be commissioned by local governments or other organizations to improve the overall street image (examples by Daim), while still being able to use the same medium to express themselves — only now in a legal way.
Either way, if some form of graffiti is going to remain, other forms will too. So, even though it is preferred it to look at graffiti as a combination of many different types, these types do not exist in separate from each other. Therefore, I’m curious how you would prefer graffiti to occur in the future. Do you think it adds value to the overall city image and thus it should remain? Or would it be better if it’s purely applied as a commodified art form — like most art — on display and/or for sale in galleries, museums and in your average shopping mall? Or maybe do you think we’re better off without graffiti at all? Vote for the option you prefer below and don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section! Thanks.