Spray Paint the Walls

Does graffiti count as art?

In Perris, California, the local authorities use talking surveillance cameras to discourage cinderblock Picassos strapped with Sharpies. In Chula Vista, California, city officials recently declared they can no longer afford to spend $360,000 a year to combat the local graffiti problem. The $139,000 anti-graffiti vehicle the city purchased five years ago to instantly vaporize outlaw scribbling now sits idle in a city garage, another art critic silenced by budget cuts. In Los Angeles, California, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is currently hosting the “first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art.” Sponsored in part by Nike, Levi’s, and various well-heeled foundations and individuals, “Art in the Streets” celebrates a form of cultural expression America has collectively spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to suppress over the last 40 years. Naturally, it’s generating some controversy.

City Journal’s Heather MacDonald has offered the most biting critiques of the contradictions and hypocrisies that characterize the show and the graffiti 
world at large. She reports that MOCA is selling designer spray paint in its gift shop but doesn’t actually allow visitors to bring that paint into the show itself. She explains how vigilant the many security guards on hand are as she flirts with adding a few scribbles of her own to the displays. She talks with former graffiti writers who are incredulous that she’s even asking them if they’d ever considered tagging their own homes. (“Why would you want to fuck up your own area?” one replies. “That’s why you go out and mess up other people’s cities.”) She notes the platitudes street artists often utter about resisting capitalism and reclaiming public space from corporate overlords while simultaneously plotting their next brand licensing deals. She marvels that a show that romanticizes illegal behavior has so little to say about the economic costs of graffiti and the other negative effects it can have on communities.  

But if it’s true that “Art in the Streets” paints a phenomenon as charged and multidimensional as graffiti in the standard monochromatic hue of rebel deification, it’s also true that graffiti is a phenomenon major institutions like MOCA ought to be taking on. After all, if graffiti really were nothing more than vandalism, it would neither be so attractive nor so objectionable to so many people.  Nike hasn’t sponsored any exhibitions devoted to the art of smashing mailboxes. MOCA has yet to show any interest in celebrating the cultural achievements of people who let their dogs shit on your lawn. For 40 years now, graffiti has been delighting its adherents, enraging its foes, and most of all, persisting, foreshadowing other aspects of our culture, expanding its scope.

In The History of American Graffiti, a comprehensive and entertaining look at how scribbling one’s nickname on forbidden territory has evolved into a vibrant worldwide subculture, authors Roger Gastman (who also helped curate the “Art in the Streets” show) and Caleb Neelon place the beginning of the contemporary in the late 1960s.

Graffiti, of course, already existed for thousands of years before that—the stuff at Pompeii reads a little like a Twitter feed—and in the 20th century, various forms were flourishing well before a Philadelphia teen named Cornbread and a New York kid who called himself Taki 183 began marking up the walls of their respective cities. A 1934 issue of The New Yorker noted one early exercise in self-promotion on a bridge near the Metropolitan Museum. “Millie the best kid in town,” her inscription read. By mid-century, communist-inspired graffiti was so common in Paris that chemists there had devised a “detergent that whisks paint off stone walls in a jiffy” and “specially trained acrobatic teams with ropes, ladders, and alpine equipment” were already being deployed to remove messages like “U.S. Go Home” from hard-to-reach spots around the city. In 1961, photographer Larence Shustak exhibited a show of graffiti-related photographs at the Village Camera Club in Greenwich Village. A few years later, advertisers began referencing the common practice of defacing ads in their campaigns. A 1966 Winston ad, for example, depicts a man leaning out a bus window and amending Winston’s standard slogan with a paintbrush. In 1968, graffiti had apparently become so widespread in Sweden that the city of Stockholm erected a giant chalkboard in an underground shopping concourse to “provide all-weather opportunities for self-expression.” In 1970, graffiti-resistant paints and coatings with names like Vand-L-Shield began to appear on the market.

While graffiti had grown popular amongst dissident college kids—Parisian students involved in the revolt of 1968 created so much of it that an anthology, The Walls Speak, was eventually published—Cornbread and Taki 183 weren’t interested in expressing political opinions or crafting bon mots like those collected in Robert Reisner’s 1967 anthology, Great Wall Writing. They simply signed their names, as often as possible, in as many different parts of their cities as they could cover.

Graffiti had always been a terse, populist medium. Anticipating our eventual migration from magazines to blogs to Twitter, kids like Cornbread and Taki 183 made graffiti even terser and more populist: Anyone with a nickname and a pen could enter the conversation. In The History of American Graffiti, Taki 183 echoes sentiments he originally expressed in a New York Times profile 40 years ago. Part of his inspiration came from the campaign stickers, posters, and placards that politicians used to saturate the subway with. “They’re putting it everywhere. So why shouldn’t I? That was my sixteen-year-old rationale.”

In other words, contemporary graffiti emerged not as an opposition or alternative to advertising, but rather as an emulation of it. And DIY advertising could be just as effective as the professional stuff, maybe even more so. By 1971 Taki 183 had forced his brand name into the consciousness of New York so effectively he’d spawned hundreds of imitators and attracted the attention of the Times. By 1972, his imitators had spawned so many imitators of their own that Transit Authority officials dolefully announced that every one of the subway system’s cars 
had been marked with graffiti. The scourge was so extensive that even some gang members had grown disgusted by the spectacle. “I like a clean New York,” the president of the Savage Skulls told a Times reporter on a day when he and dozens of other South Bronx gang members had volunteered to clean the trains. “I guess I’m just a clean outlaw.”

Part of graffiti’s remarkable proliferation was due to technological breakthroughs rather than cultural breakdowns. In that 1966 ad for Winston cigarettes, the graffiti 
writer is altering the ad with a paintbrush. Magic Markers and spray paint made it possible to write faster, more legibly, on more surfaces. When Taki 183 showed that you could tag endlessly, openly, without getting caught, graffiti went viral.

The subsequent competition for space and attention prompted rapid innovation. Writers began to work on a larger, more ambitious scale, with the intent of creating pieces so dazzling they could not be lost in the deluge. They started making their letterforms more stylized, adding colors, modifying their tools. “The kids of New York….quickly realized that the factory-issue nozzles that came on spray paint were not optimal,” The History of American Graffiti explains. To improve their artwork, they harvested nozzles from other kinds of aerosol products. The nozzle from a brand of oven cleaner allowed to achieve broader paint coverage. The nozzle from a brand of clear coating provided finer control when doing detail work.

Pretty soon, writers were covering entire subway cars, inside and out. Their audacity was amazing, their compositions increasingly sophisticated. Or at least some of them were. In the 1970s and 1980s, most kinds of cultural expression were still tightly monitored by vigilant gatekeepers. With graffiti, there were literal gates to crash, fences to scale, dangers to avoid. In 1974, at least four writers died in New York’s subway tunnels and yards. One was decapitated by a moving train. Another burned to death after his spray can exploded. Two more were electrocuted.

But at least there were no editors, no label executives, no gallery owners saying, “Sorry, kid, your work’s not fit for public consumption, maybe think about a career in sales.” If you managed to get your work up on a train, in a stairwell, on a mailbox,  people would eventually see it. In this respect, graffiti offered us an early glimpse at how the Internet would work, only it was actually more powerful. Sites like Youtube and Twitter offer access to anyone who wants it, but they can’t guarantee an audience.

Graffiti can. It’s as coercive as traditional billboards and other forms of deliberately obtrusive outdoor advertising, and frequently more persistent. Indeed, billboards get rented by the month, but a piece on a hard-to-reach overpass might last for years. This, of course, is why, even though the opportunities for cultural expression have expanded a great deal since the 1970s, and even though the penalties that are meted out for drawing pictures on other people’s property can be fairly harsh now, graffiti continues to proliferate. It compels viewer attention at a time when viewer attention is the scarcest resource in the world. When it’s rare, it can be surprising, instructive, challenging, a pleasure. When it’s everywhere, it’s oppressive, mundane, a blight. Take it off the streets and put it into the museums! At least that way, people have the choice to engage with it or not.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.

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  • PublikDoleArtsyCraftsyKritik||

    I like the shade of government-institution beige they use to paint over the non-governmental colors.

  • Otto||

    Wow. It's hard to imagine the usual suspects were worried that movie would lead to more gang activity.

    Also, nice Black Flag reference.

  • ||

    Warriors, come out to play...

  • ||

    Damn...too late

  • ||

    What's the matter Mainer, going faggot on us?

  • ||

    CAN YOU DIG IT?

  • ||

    No faggots at a tractor pull. C'mon, man, everybody knows that.

  • Shrieky||

    There are christfaggots at a tractor pull!

  • Dagny Tagger||

    Nike hasn’t sponsored any exhibitions devoted to the art of smashing mailboxes.

    What's a "mailbox"?

  • Pip||

    It's the folder that collects and stores your incoming emails.

  • GroundTruth||

    Inane crap. Vandalism is vandalism. Give the punks, students, or whatever a bottle of the appropriate solvent, a toothbrush and tell them to get to work.

  • GroundTruth||

    oh yeah, and if they seem really contrite, maybe a pair of cheap gloves.

    maybe...

  • GroundTruth||

    Better yet, let them buy their own frakin supplies; if they've got money for paint, sharpies or whatever, then they've got money enough to clean up their mess too!

  • ||

    You should change your handle to "Grumpy McOldman"

  • ||

    :D

  • ||

    :D

  • "Grumpy McOldman" GroundTruth||

    Better?

  • ||

    What happens if you spray paint "get off my lawn" on your lawn?

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    It's more effective when you're pointing an M1 Garand and scowling.

  • Rich||

    Just curious. If you were the judge, what would be your sentence for these guys?

  • WTF||

    Chain them to the rock and don't release them until they have scrubbed it clean with toothbrushes.

  • Zeus||

    While eagles eat their regenerating livers...

  • WTF ||

    Zeus|4.29.11 @ 1:22PM|#
    While eagles eat their regenerating livers...

    Nice

  • FLAPPY THE EAGLE||

    I HAVE EATEN THE LIVERS OF MANY MEN.

  • sarcasmic ||

    Three days in the stocks.

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    Clean it off with products the perps have to pay for, or go bang rocks at a muni lockup.

  • ||

    What, no picture?

  • Zeb||

    Its being vandalism does not exclude the possibility of it being art.
    Also, in many cities it is illegal to graffito your own property as well.
    I think that a lot of graffiti is pretty interesting art. And I really don't see much of a problem with it on public property like bridges and train tunnels. Of course, painting someone else's property is vandalism and is appropriately against the law. But that still doesn't mean it isn't art.

  • cynical||

    "Its being vandalism does not exclude the possibility of it being art."

    QFT. Two separate questions.

  • ||

    As long as you put a canvass behind them to catch the splatter, then it's art.

  • DLM||

    Its being vandalism does not exclude the possibility of it being art.

    I've seen 'art' that vandalised the whole concept.

  • Federal Dog||

    It's taking a shit on someone else's property.

  • Jess Asken||

    Does capping a graffiti maker count as art?

  • ||

    Performance Art yes. And good performance art at that.

  • Brett L||

    Eh. Death Wish I-III were on AMC this month. I wouldn't go so far as to call it good art.

  • sarcasmic ||

    Come on! Those are the best movies EVER!

  • Max||

    A more interesting question: Does libertarianism count as a political philosophy or a politcial cult?

  • Pip||

    Who keeps farting?

  • Max's Mom||

    Max, have you been into my hair spray again?

  • Old Mexican||

    An even more interesting question: Does the pet yorkie bark at moving cars, or stationary ones?

  • Fire Tiger||

    I keep hopping for cult. But so far no body has offered me unlimited access to sex in exchange for all my worldly possessions.

  • Fire Tiger||

    I take that back, no body not named Steve Smith.

  • sarcasmic ||

    Remember this guy?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osho_(Bhagwan_Shree_Rajneesh

  • ||

    Is tagging public property really vandalism?

  • Fire Tiger||

    Only if you don't get the right permits and government funding.

  • Observer||

    Is attention the sole goal of an insult?

  • Fatwa Issuer||

    the sole goal of an insult

    I see our shoe business is catching on.

  • ||

    Does graffiti count as art?
    Doesn't matter if is or isn't. It counts as crime. A graffiti artist may be a great artist, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be thrown in a cage.

  • ||

    You can run afoul of many city laws by doing graffiti on your own property.

  • ||

    There are bad laws. Laws that say "If you vandalize my property, we throw you in a cage" are not bad laws.

  • Sku||

    "This, of course, is why, even though the opportunities for cultural expression have expanded a great deal since the 1970s, and even though the penalties that are meted out for drawing pictures on other people’s property can be fairly harsh now"

    You mean they cane people in the U.S. now for grafitti, like they do in China? I'm rather surprised we still have so much of it then...

  • ||

    Is that Sugarfree in the middle? The one who looks like he likes being bent over?

  • Old Mexican||

    After all, if graffiti really were nothing more than vandalism, it would neither be so attractive nor so objectionable to so many people.


    Many people are attracted to shit. That still does not make shit gold.

  • DLM||

    Many people are attracted to shit. That still does not make shit gold.

    Inflation.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    I was a writer. True story.

  • Vance||

    Ditto what Otto said, I always appreciate Reason for its oblique punk references.

  • prolefeed||

    It's art if the owner of the property decides it's art and chooses to keep it.

    Otherwise, it painting on property not your own without consent, aka vandalism.

  • ||

    The Warriors. It is like West Side Story only if straight people made it.

  • Pip||

    You got a newsletter? :0)

  • ||

    How does putting art on your walls make it not art? It's still art and it's still vandalism. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  • ||

    Oh Grego, your lack of reading comprehension always puts a smile on my face.

  • Hank||

    Every time I'm convinced you're a spoof, you take a step back and say something exactly like my dad would say.

  • ||

    It's a spoof.

  • rather ||

    Epi are you an artist?

  • rather retarded||

    I make paintings with shit.

  • Gregory Smith||

    You should listen to your dad then. Father's aren't always right, but they've been alive longer so they've seen plenty.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    Perhaps we could try the singapoorean approach, you know, CANNING!

    Are you suggesting we require them to work at putting fruit and veggies into cans, or are you suggesting that we put them into cans?

    I'm just not understanding how canning is a form of punishment.

  • Gregory Smith||

    Maybe I meant caning, I'm talking about beating people up with a bamboo stick. Jesus, why are libertarians so compassionate towards lawbreakers?

    Hey fellows, what part of "your freedom ENDS where my nose/property/wall begins" you don't understand?

  • ||

    We're not your fellows, you humorless trog.

  • sarcasmic ||

    It's not whop, it's WOP (without papers).

    And it ain't hispanics, it's Hispanics or spics.

    Sheesh!

  • DLM||

    Buildings, walls, etc., are generally designed to have a degree of aesthetic value. Graffiti is 'art' that is destroying the architect/designer's art, that was purchased with the understanding it was not dynamic in nature.

  • Federal Dog||

    You should definitely go for that canning plan.

    Maybe you can collaborate with the guy upthread who's hopping for a libertarian cult?

  • Neu Mejican||

    It's art if the owner of the property decides it's art and chooses to keep it.

    Otherwise, it painting on property not your own without consent, aka vandalism.

    There is no category conflict. It is BOTH art and vandalism.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Neu Mejican

    There is no category conflict. It is BOTH art and vandalism.


    It's both art AND a lawsuit!

  • Neu Mejican||

    It's both art AND a lawsuit!

    Here's the lawsuit I would love to see. A graffiti artist suing a property owner for copyright infringement when they sell the image to a collector.

  • ||

    but does ART count as Graffitti?!

    ZING! I am on today fellas.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Graffiti is "the application of a medium to a surface". Any sign, billboard, engraving, or painting meets the literal definition.

  • Trespassers W||

    Is it art just because you hang it on a wall? YOUR MIND = ASPLODE

  • DADIODADDY||

    Art, a guy with no arms or legs who hangs on your wall.

  • One and Done||

    No

  • Trig||

    Sure you can call it art if you want, just keep it on your own walls.

  • Comment Tater||

    Of course it's art: crappy art created by hooligans that defaces other people's property. Its practitioners are petty criminals.

  • ||

    Here's something for the folks who find no economic value in graffiti:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/arta.....NTCMP=SRCH

    In brief, the graffiti artist Banksy did a Pulp Fiction-inspired piece on a town building (I'm assuming it was private property).

    The city ordered it removed, causing an outrage amongst the surrounding businesses, as people from all over the world were flocking to the neighborhood to view the piece and spending a lot of chee$e in the local shoppes.

  • ||

    You can do a Google Image search "Banksy Pulp Fiction" to see it.

  • Trespassers W||

    Huh. I used to drive past that all the time, not realizing it was Art.

  • rather ||

    I love Banksy's work

  • Zeb||

    Something is art if the creator calls it art. Any other attempt to define art is just a statement of personal preference.

  • Zeb||

    I heard about some guys in Brazil or some place like that who were creating graffiti by removing the buildup of dirt and soot from walls. I thought that was very clever. They are creating an image, but what are you going to charge them with, theft of dirt?

  • Man||

    I'm not in favor of vandalizing private property. But public property in the form of bridges, storm drains, awful prefab concrete government buildings, university campuses...

  • DLM||

    Just don't vandalize the share of public property I happen to own.

  • Pierre||

    If the question is between it being art or vandalism that's a false dichotomy.

    Pierre

  • Bob||

    Reason's really scraping the bottom of the barrel with articles like this.

  • Dr. Doofenschmirtz||

    Based on the Wal-Mart story isn't really just the fault of the person who put walls up to begin with. Not the person actually doing the vadalism

  • Emperor Wears No Clothes||

    I don't care whether it's the Mona Fkn Lisa. It's vandalism when a person without permission tags private or public property. I'm amazed there are people who see public property as some sort of canvas-without-consequences. The same rationale, I suppose, justifies stealing because "the store won't miss it."
    I once asked a young tagger who worked at the same place I did whether he would ever consider tagging his own (i.e. his parents') garage. His response, "Are you kidding? My dad would kick my ass!"
    To which I said, "Now you know how the rest of us feel about graffiti."

  • puma ferrari femme||

    nice job!

  • ||

    Of course graffiti might have an element of art, but it is also criminal. If the property owner finds it to be vandalizm, then the little spray can vandals should have their spraying fingertip removed.

  • gucci on sale||

    In my opinion it's just one step short of the "one party democracies" many dictators and so-called communist countries employ.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

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