Crime

Spray Paint the Walls

Graffiti, art, and advertising

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In Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is hosting the "first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art." Sponsored in part by Nike and Levi's, "Art in the Streets" celebrates a form of cultural expression that America has collectively spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to suppress during the last 40 years. Naturally, the exhibition has been generating controversy, and it will continue to do so when it moves to the Brooklyn Museum in March 2012.

City Journal's Heather Mac Donald has offered the most biting critiques of the show's contradictions and hypocrisies. She reports that MOCA is selling designer spray paint in its gift shop but doesn't allow visitors to bring that paint into the venue itself. She quotes former graffiti writers who are incredulous that she'd ask them whether they'd consider tagging their own homes. ("Why would you want to fuck up your own area?" one replies.) She contrasts street artists' platitudes about resisting capitalism with their brand licensing deals. She marvels that a show that romanticizes illegal behavior has so little to say about the behavior's economic and other costs.

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 that 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 defecate on your lawn. For ages, graffiti has been delighting its adherents, enraging its foes, and above all persisting, foreshadowing other aspects of our culture and expanding its scope.

In The History of American Graffiti (Harper Design), a comprehensive and entertaining look at how scribbling one's nickname on forbidden territory has evolved into a vibrant worldwide subculture, the art historians Roger Gastman (who helped curate the "Art in the Streets" show) and Caleb Neelon place the beginning of contemporary graffiti in the late 1960s. Graffiti, of course, existed for thousands of years before that, and in the 20th century various forms were flourishing well before a Philadelphia teenager named Cornbread and a New York kid who called himself Taki 183 began marking up the walls of their respective cities. Indeed, in midcentury Paris, communist-inspired graffiti was so common that chemists devised a special detergent to combat it and anti-graffiti teams equipped with ladders and alpine equipment were specially trained to remove it from the city's most hard-to-reach spots. By the mid-1960s, advertisers had started to co-opt graffiti. A popular Winston ad depicted a man leaning out a bus window and amending Winston's standard slogan with a paintbrush.

Around the same time, dissident college kids were also gravitating toward graffiti. In the French revolt of 1968, Parisians produced enough of it to fill an anthology titled The Walls Speak. But Cornbread and Taki 183 weren't interested in expressing political opinions or cynical wisecracks. They simply signed their names, as often as possible, in as many different parts of their cities as they could cover.

In The History of American Graffiti, an adult Taki 183 explains that 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," he says. "So why shouldn't I? That was my sixteen-year-old rationale."

In other words, contemporary graffiti emerged not as an alternative to advertising but as an emulation of it. And DIY advertising could be just as effective as the professional stuff. By 1971 Taki 183 had forced his brand name into the consciousness of New York so effectively that he'd spawned hundreds of imitators and attracted the attention of The New York Times. By 1972 his imitators had spawned so many imitators of their own that Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials dolefully announced that every one of the subway system's cars had been marked with graffiti.

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. "The kids of New York…quickly realized that the factory-issue nozzles that came on spray paint were not optimal," Gastman and Neelon explain. But the nozzle from a brand of oven cleaner allowed them 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 an era when most kinds of cultural expression were still tightly monitored by vigilant gatekeepers, graffiti artists faced literal gates to crash, fences to scale, dangers to avoid. In 1974 one writer 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." If you managed to get your work up on a train, people would eventually see it. In this respect, graffiti outdid the Internet. Sites like YouTube offer access to anyone, but they can't guarantee an audience.

Graffiti can. Like billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising, it's fundamentally intrusive, and that is why, even though the opportunities for cultural expression have expanded exponentially since the 1970s, and even though the penalties for drawing pictures on other people's property can be severe, it continues to proliferate. Graffiti seizes viewer attention at a time when viewer attention is the scarcest resource in the world.

Of course, this quality is also what can make graffiti as oppressive as propaganda, as mundane as car insurance ads. Take it off the streets and graffiti becomes, in terms of discourse at least, a less totalitarian, more daring proposition. In galleries and museums, in books and on product packaging, it becomes easy to ignore, easy to reject, and thus more compelling in its effort to claim a share of our cultural landscape.  

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.

NEXT: The Missing Cup

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  1. MOCA has yet to show any interest in celebrating the cultural achievements of people who let their dogs defecate on your lawn

    Why can’t people talk about art without mentioning shit?

    Graffiti is only art if it’s not in my neighborhood.

    1. Because so much “art” is shit?

  2. It’s not art unless you can tell which dog is bluffing.

    1. … or if he’s going for a bank shot.

  3. Police officer shoots dog after man attacked

    A Macon police officer shot and killed a pit bull dog after a man was attacked at about 7:45 p.m. Monday at Clinton Road and Shurling Drive.

    The victim told officers he was walking up Clinton Road when two pit bull dogs attacked, bit his legs and arms and severed an artery in his left arm, according to a news release from the Macon Police Department.

    Witnesses rushed to the man’s aid to try to control his bleeding.

    The two dogs returned and charged a police officer who drew his gun and fired a shot into the first dog’s head which sent the second dog running into the woods, the release stated.

    Police believe the deceased dog was involved in another attack last week. Local libertarians wet themselves. Nothing else happened.

    http://www.macon.com/2011/07/1…..acked.html

    1. Police shoot dead a boy’s pet chihuahua but only after tasing it first.
      Another Isolated Idiot excuses their behavior.

      1. Oh yeah, nothing else happened.

        1. Imitation is the sincerest form of me.

      2. Nice link. Is that an editorial from a high school newspaper?

    2. and the local police department claim that the officers handled the situation according to department policy

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

    Whut? “Mere” vandalism isn’t really all that objectionable to most people?

    And if its so attractive to so many people, why don’t these people have it done to their own property?

    1. Those were my questions too.

      a form of cultural expression that America has collectively spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to suppress preserve for consenting parties

    2. From the article:

      City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald has offered the most biting critiques of the show’s contradictions and hypocrisies. She reports that MOCA is selling designer spray paint in its gift shop but doesn’t allow visitors to bring that paint into the venue itself. She quotes former graffiti writers who are incredulous that she’d ask them whether they’d consider tagging their own homes. (“Why would you want to fuck up your own area?” one replies.)

  5. In 1974 one writer was decapitated by a moving train. Another burned to death after his spray can exploded. Two more were electrocuted.

  6. In 1974 one writer was decapitated by a moving train. Another burned to death after his spray can exploded. Two more were electrocuted.

    Ha ha!

    1. God again, culling the herd.

  7. In my town, if someone graffitis your building, the City will order you to clean it. If you do not clean it, the city will do it for you and add it to your property tax bill.

    1. ?

    2. You town sucks donkey sexually apparatus. Why don’t they catch the perp and make THEM pay? Lazy effing city….

    3. Sounds to me like you people should start spray painting as much shit as possible on city hall.

    4. Lots of cities have this dumb ass regulation.

  8. No matter how artisticly skilled it is, imposing your sense of aesthetics on someone else’s property without their permission is vandalism. Something can be art and a trespass on another person at the same time. Art and vandalism are not mutually exclusive concepts.

    I am not sure I understand why Reason writers cannot seem to fully wrap their minds around the idea that randomly marking other people’s things is inherently wrong.

    1. Not vandalism! Individualistic expression! Fuck the Man!

    2. Amen. Not that anyone needs to know this, but were I to catch some “artiste” attempting to “express” him or her self all over my property, I would express myself all over their head an neck regions with the nearest hammer or truncheon.

      1. Don’t tase me, bro!

      2. Nah, just chloroform them, then give them a humiliating full-body tattoo. It’s art, man.

  9. Take it off the streets and graffiti becomes, in terms of discourse at least, a less totalitarian, more daring proposition. In galleries and museums, in books and on product packaging, it becomes easy to ignore, easy to reject, and thus more compelling in its effort to claim a share of our cultural landscape.

    It also becomes something that is no longer graffiti.

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

    Huh?
    “So many” Americans find graffiti “attractive” because a handful of them visit the exhibitions? And it’s “objectionable” because it’s “more than vandalism”?

  11. Police arrest man seen painting graffiti on billboard

    A graffiti artist was caught by Gainesville police early Saturday morning after he was spotted painting on a billboard atop a building at 625 W. University Ave.

    Karl E. Boardman, 23, of 1227 NW 8th St., was charged with criminal mischief, tampering with evidence, resisting an officer without violence and loitering.

    A witness reported seeing Boardman painting graffiti in black, silver and white paint on a billboard on top of Otter Trout Trading Co. at about 2:40 a.m., police said.

    An officer spotted Boardman leaving the location and yelled for him to stop, police said. The report states he ran to a nearby apartment complex and, while trying to hide under a staircase, was seen by someone who asked what he was doing. Boardman asked the person to take his book bag and hide it in his apartment. By the time that person returned to Boardman, police had found him.

    Boardman was not tasered. No dogs were shot. Nothing else happened.

    http://www.gainesville.com/art…../110709606

    1. “Boardman was not tasered. No dogs were shot. Nothing else happened.”

      Damn it, man!

      1. Bummer, dude.

    2. Thirteen-year-old allegedly brandishing pellet gun is shot eight times by police…

      http://www.chicagotribune.com/…..3022.story

      No dogs were shot. Nothing else happened.

      1. and the local police department claim that the officers handled the situation according to department policy.

    3. and the local police department claim that the officers handled the situation according to department policy

  12. Graffiti isn’t art. Real artists buy their own canvass, do their thing, and then sell it to galleries and museums.

    Fake artists vandalize private and public property with their crap.

    Of course, since the art world is so left-wing they often act against their own best interests.

    Does MOCA receive any state-funding? I say is time to defund that welfare whore.

  13. The trolls are extra butthurt today. Oh, that’s right. It’s the end of the month and her meds are running out.

    1. But not your mom. I gave her a little something extra last night….

      1. SugarFree’s butthurt analysis is butthurtingly delicious.

  14. Rudy Giuliani had the best idea. If the city sees your name painted on something, they’re going to paint “sucks” under it.

  15. Do you think MOCA will object if I vandalize it’s facade?

  16. What he does not realize (or ignores) is that, in LA at least, the vast majority of graffiti is not frustrated “artists” expressing themselves, rather gang tagging marking territory. It’s like this guy is a couple decades behind the times. Oh, and I’ve seen the show, kind of fun, in the way Disneyland is. Total escapism and simulacra, nothing more.

  17. Thbat actualyl makes a lot of sense when you think abotu it. Wow.

    http://www.web-privacy.au.tc

    1. Thbat actualyl is graffiti.

    2. Thbat actualyl is graffiti.

  18. Two options.

    1)Pass a law that by default gives copyright ownership of any ‘art’ the the owner of the property where said ‘art’ has been placed.

    2)Put a sticker on your building that says “by altering this building you are granting the building owner full ownership to the alteration and any copyrights that may be applicable to said alteration.”

  19. This article is confused. Either the graffiti is good, and there is an audience for it, or it’s bad, and there isn’t. If there’s an audience for it, that audience should pay to host it on their own terms—property and otherwise. If there isn’t an audience for it, it won’t be supported.

    Illegal graffiti is nothing more than some teenage dogs marking their territory. We agree to be part of this nation in part because we are entitled to private property, which is protected from this kind of abuse.

    Graffiti on public property is another ballgame. I have no strong ethical objections to it, other than that democratically supported laws should be followed by everyone. If people want to vote to allow graffiti on public property, then so be it. That’s not presently the case, so I think it’s unwise to romanticize it.

  20. advertzing is a skill and i do not thinkiking it can be end.

  21. advertzing is a skill and i do not thinkiking it can be end.

  22. MOCA is selling designer spray paint in its gift shop but doesn’t a

  23. offered the most biting critiques of the show’s contradictions and

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