Posts Tagged ‘aerosol art’

After reading my joint review of Stations of the Elevated and Style Wars, Tony, a longtime friend of mine, asked me a very good question (I bet you thought I forgot about it!). After assuring me that he understood my stance on graffiti and street art, and the importance of various artistic modes of expression, he asked where we should draw the line between self-expression and vandalism. This question actually made me pause, because I didn’t have a good answer that didn’t make me sound like an anarchist trying to overthrow the government or a complete hippie who believed that we should just do what makes us happy, man.

With illicit forms of self-expression, it’s hard to logically explain why I’m such a proponent when clearly it’s both illegal and will need to be removed at the taxpayer’s/owner’s expense. Especially now, as I am training to be a conservator (and taking a masonry conservation/architectural restoration course), I find it more and more difficult to justify my passion for an inherently illegal and aesthetically damaging mode of expression to my colleagues.

Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to both murals and graffiti. However, as a child, it never occurred to me that the artists who created these beautiful works had never gotten permission to paint on the walls that they covered. Even then, I abhorred toys and tags, thinking that they were childish attempts at self-glorification. When I first started this blog, I wanted to draw a line between street art and graffiti and stay as far away from the subject of graffiti as possible, instead sticking with the works resulting from the street art scene (hence the name of this blog), as these were the more “acceptable” and usually more “artistic” form of guerrilla art.

But, as I started researching the roots that street art had in graffiti, my understanding of graffiti’s history and culture evolved, and so did my acceptance. Not only did I come to accept and appreciate graffiti as a valid form of urban expression, I came to look for it in my own life and love its presence as well. The truth is that my dialectic has been based on a constantly evolving personal opinion about the importance and significance of how these guerilla acts of expression affect our urban visual landscape. Now, I want to differentiate between graffiti artists (those who create elaborate burners) and tagger/toys writers (who typically practice aerosol scrawl), even though I feel that their presence is still a significant mark upon the urban visual landscape (even if for the sheer reason of “brand name” recognition), I think that it is no more than a self-absorbed indulgence by disenfranchised or egotistical youth rather than artistic expression. So I suppose that tagging and sticker slapping is now where I draw the line in terms of urban guerilla modes of expression that I am not a proponent of.

So, even though my opinion is constantly evolving the more I learn and am exposed to, I think that ultimately taggers and sticker slappers must learn some form of restraint. Gone are the days of “more is better” and the irony of being a ubiquitous brand name is dated. Now, graffiti artists are experiencing the pressure of being just that: artists. But as we push for legality as a means of justification for illicit forms of self-expression, a different question is raised, which is that of legitimacy. Does taking the illicit out of an inherently illicit form of urban artistic expression affect the authenticity of the artwork?

Artists like Swoon, who work with inherently ephemeral materials face less controversy and public animosity specifically because the works they put up are made of ephemeral materials. As I have written previously, Swoon’s prints can most frequently be found in the forgotten corners of otherwise obvious public spaces. She does not consider what she is doing illegal, and instead pastes her prints up unabashedly, sometimes in the middle of the day, which allows passersby to interact with her as she is hanging them. In spite of this impermanent aspect of her work, is it classified under the same category as permanent defacement of property and is still considered as illegal as art made with more permanent materials, such as aerosol spray or markers. Even street artists who work with less ephemeral materials, face less scrutiny than graffiti artists, if simply because what they do oftentimes just seems more artistic. This degree of acceptance is less felt towards graffiti artists, even if what they put up are artistic burners (which do require a lot of skill). This could be because of the remaining anti-graffiti sentiment resulting from the late 1980s, when former NYC mayor Ed Koch argued the Broken Window Theory in order to promote stricter anti-graffiti laws.

When UK artist Hush was in New York City during his weekend debut exhibition “Found” at the Angel Orensanz Foundation back in November, I ran into him by way of crazy random happenstance as I was out and about searching for some of the other work he had put up on buildings around downtown Manhattan (seriously, it’s a good story, you should ask me about it sometime). Once introduced, we got to chatting for about half an hour about his experiences and the whirlwind time he was having in NYC while I desperately tried to repress my desire to hop around squealing like a fan-girl. When we started talking about the issue of authenticity and whether showing in a gallery would de-legitimize his work, Hush said, “people ask me that all the time. I don’t think that it needs to be criminal to be authentic. Sometimes I’ll feel naughty and pull out a pen and tag something up, but I rarely do anything illegal. I’m not a criminal. It’s not like I ruin property- I revitalize areas that are already ignored and wrecked.” And indeed, Hush had gotten permission from the three locations that he had put up his work up outside the gallery.

And his is a sentiment I can get behind. I think to justify an inherently illegal act, it is the first instinct of the connoisseur to frame these works and put them into a gallery or cut them from the wall and auction them to the highest bidder. Many argue that removing a form of expression so closely tied with the urban environment and putting it into a stark white setting undermines the legitimacy of the piece by destroying its context. However, like Hush, I do not believe that this is the case. In recent years, as graffiti has started to become recognized as a legitimate form of artistic expression, and as street art (as I mentioned before, the “third generation graffiti”) has coming into prominence, it is more common for artists to seek permission, take part in legal exhibitions, or show their work in galleries. Even public opinion has started to ease up somewhat in regards to this form of expression.

I have previously written about the revitalization of third spaces (areas clearly owned but otherwise unkempt), the rationale of making art available everywhere everyday to everyone, and the importance of reclaiming the urban landscape from the corporate machine. Permission is sometimes obtained for murals and more complex and artistic-looking graffiti. However, whether due to the aversion of the public to accept graffiti as an authentic means of artistic expression or to the aversion of grafiteros to find legal alternatives or the futility of attempting to separate urban art from the urban situation that it usually arises out of in the first place, permission is not usually granted or even asked for.

Once it is understood that legality is necessary to legitimize this body of work, the main concern becomes authenticity. After all, separating these pieces from the environments that spawned them and putting them into sterile environments that may destroy the intent of the work becomes a worry. However there is another alternative available for consideration. In fact, I think that a true solution for both these issues can come from grafiteros asking permission to practice their craft as well as through the generation of legal projects and creation of more legal spaces to work on.

Legal walls and spaces have been around for as long as graffiti has been in existence, though it is important to check if the location is curated and requires a submission for consideration or only open to locals. Two very interesting sites have worked to document the legal wall spaces around the world and the USA. I have seen and experienced a variety of spaces, from mutually understood spaces for street art, such as Wooster Street, closed wall spaces, such as the 106 Street Wall of Kings, institutions showcasing multiple artists’ works, such as 5 Pointz and ABC No Rio, institutions that offer outdoor space to one artist at a time, such as Deitch and Woodward Gallery, and institutions that have exhibited the works of street artists in interior spaces, such as 112 Greene Street and Angel Orensanz Gallery (to name only a few of each!), as well as the host of privately and public owned walls that have proudly exhibited murals and artists’ works. Additionally, organizations such as No Longer Empty work to revitalize third spaces with artwork and make art available to a wider public by connecting owners of derelict spaces with artists. Each type of space has its pros and cons, but I think that it is important to have these types of spaces for artists and writers to exhibit their work on.

So in the end, I suppose the best argument I can come up with is that since graffiti is here anyway, why not embrace it and push for legal spots rather than relegating it to the rooftops and alley, or worse, the starkness of an institutionalized space? No matter what, I remain a proponent for the legitimization of this urban form of artistic expression and will continue writing in my own attempt to legitimize this form of urban outsider art as a well-received and widely-recognized form of artistic expression. Therefore, I strongly urge artists and writers to keep expressing their creativity, but to ask owners for permission or seek legal projects. By moving this form of urban expression to the light of day, we can work to legitimize this beautiful art together.

Trainyard still from Style Wars

Like most people, I had always thought that Style Wars, a documentary film about the hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, first aired on PBS in 1983, was the first to deal with the graffiti scene in New York City. But, also like most people, I hadn’t heard about the movie Stations of the Elevated, released in 1981. Stations of the Elevated is a independent film produced, directed, edited, and photographed by Manfred (Manny) Kirchheimer. Presented by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1981, it’s set to the music of legendary New York-based experimental jazz musician Charles Mingus and the sounds of urbana (such as the shrill screech of the trains, horns blaring in traffic, police car sirens wailing, and the indistinguishable sound of crowds) lend itself to the authenticity of the work.

Elevated bombed train stopped still from Stations of the Elevated

This was perhaps one of the first cohesive attempts to document the phenomenon of graffitied trains in New York City and present it as a cultural phenomenon rather than an act of vandalism. Because there is no commentary, it tries to create a narrative about the urban environment using the elements of the urban visual landscape as brief respites from the monotony of everyday city life. Footage of painted trains rolling along the elevated lines are interspersed with shots of Technicolor billboards and stern brick facades inherent in the corporate landscape, as well as the decaying urban neighborhoods and ghettos that spawned the youngsters who partook in the movement. Stations of the Elevated attempts to give its viewers the experience of living and moving through New York City by relating sights and sounds that are common to its urban setting. The images, experiences, and juxtapositions that tend to stay with viewers at the end of the film are the same that those that would remain at the end of the day walking about town.

Heaven is Life train still from Stations of the Elevated

Earth is Hell train still from Stations of the Elevated

Because it was never widely released, Stations of the Elevated is incredibly difficult to get a hold of, especially in its entirety. Despite my extensive combing of the internet, I’ve only been able to download a 27 minute version of it, and if you do as well, I strongly advise that you DO NOT watch it because it’s a total hack job (as in, it features very abrupt cutaways) and a pain to get through because of it. Rather, watch it streaming in five parts starting here. Although I tend to abhor watching streaming movies, especially in parts, Stations of the Elevated is definitely one worth seeing, especially if you want to experience New York City in the early 1980s.

Crime train still from Stations of the Elevated

Style Wars was a documentary film co-produced and directed by Tony Silver, and co-produced by Henry Chalfant, who provided the background research as well as photo-documentation throughout the movie. It’s almost as if Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant wanted to expand on the idea of Stations of the Elevated. In actuality, Chalfant had been taking pictures for three years and had probably not known about its development. Rather than presenting assumptions and drawing conclusions about the spawning of a new expressive art out of urban decay, Silver and Chalfant worked to present graffiti as the controversial form of expression that it is, providing viewpoints from all sides, including then New York City Mayor Ed Koch, Head of MTA Richard Ravitch, various MTA personnel, parents, random citizens, conventional artists, art collectors, as well as the graffiti writers and graffiti artists themselves.

Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch looking at graffiti proof still from Style Wars

Style Wars works to introduce its audience to the entire blossoming hip-hop culture of the early 1980s, not only graffiti. If graffiti was chosen means of written communication, then rap was a new means of verbal communication, and break dancing served as the new means of body language. Style Wars moves seamlessly between these the branches of the hip hop movement, and documents them as a new method of communication developed by the youth population to communicate with each other.

Convening at the writer's bench still from Style Wars

Much like Stations of the Elevated, Style Wars opens in a train yard under the cover of darkness (much like graffiti). Poetically, an elevated train passes under a lone street lamp, first at a distance, then closer, illuminating some indistinguishable markings on the side. However, instead of jazz, Style Wars opens the movie with a Wagner orchestral composition which had been made popular by the movie Excalibur, released only a few years before. This choice is a rather poignant one (that may not be appreciated as much by the film’s younger audience), as the composition was one that could be associated with glorified action and adventure. And admittedly, glory and adventure were the two objects of the graffiti game in the 1980s. Then, in the full light of day, tagged-up trains burst forth into the full and the music cuts to hip hop.

Streetlight spotlight on bombed train still from Style Wars

There is no doubt that Style Wars is a well-made film. It is both informative and appealing, both graphically and audibly. It is also exciting, following graffiti writers into underground tunnels and into train yards. The film follows and features interviews and works from graffiti writers and artists such as Iz the Wiz, Seen, Zephyr, Skeme, Mare, Case, Doze, Mean Dez, Duster, Dondi, Min, Case, among others, and perhaps most controversial, Cap (a toy tag bomber). Additionally, Style Wars comments on the importance of knowing the roots of graffiti writing (Taki 183) and predicts the future of the movement and its appeal to the art world. Not only does the film explain the incredibly diametrically opposed philosophies of the government and the graffiti artists and writers, but also the difference of opinions between those who consider themselves graffiti artist and those who write/bomb/tag. This dynamic documentary draws the viewer into the tensions that exist between the differing viewpoints exhibited in the films, creating a plot worthy of any feature length film.

Going into the tunnels still from Style Wars

Dondi painting a train in the yards still from Style Wars

Perhaps among the most poignant of questions the viewer might have once they’ve watched these two awesomely engrossing films is “why did it take so long for the next graffiti/street art documentary to be produced?” Over the next 20 years maybe only half a dozen mainstream feature-length films based loosely on graffiti writers or crews have been made, and it wasn’t until 2005 that appreciation for graffiti and the documentation of the movement was renewed in full force. In fact, in 2005, no less than six graffiti documentaries were released, including Infamy, NEXT: A Primer on Urban Painting, Piece by Piece, Rash: Scratch it and it Spreads, Friendly Fire, and the Stolkholm Subway Stories.

Writers admiring handywork still from Style Wars

However, it is no coincidence that over a generation had to pass before the retrospective importance of the roots of the graffiti movement, now global, could be realized. Even after numerous government counter-measures attempted to stifle the creative expression of the first generation of graffiti writers out of Northeast America, the movement nevertheless spread throughout America and the rest of the world. Since the 2000s, a new generation of graffiti artists and street artists, inspired by the urban visual landscape of the 1980s (especially that of NYC), have taken up the mantle and are continuing the self-expressive tradition of graffiti in the urban setting, and the importance of the movement is being recognized by the main stream contemporary art world. In fact, Kirchheimer returned to broach the subject of New York City graffiti in his 2007 documentary Spraymasters, which featured Lee Quiñones, Zephyr, Lady Pink, and Futura, who reflect on their own youthful adventures, their development, this new generation of writers and artists, as well as the world-wide interest in the graffiti and street art movement.

Seen just a kid growing up still from Style Wars

An interview with Stations of the Elevated’s Manny Kirchheimmer can be found here and an interview with Style Wars’ Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant can be found here as well as in the extra features of Style Wars. Check out my featured films page for more documentaries and films about graffiti and street art.

Police in bombed train still from Style Wars

About this time last year, I sat down and made a list of all the art sites that I had always heard about but had never visited in the Lower East Side in downtown NYC. I had mentioned it to my friend Ryan, who graciously agreed to accompany me and take pictures. And so, I, armed with my pen and notebook, and he, armed with his camera bag, set out one chilly morning to go on a quest to see and capture as much street art as we possibly could during the few hours of daylight that were available to us. We wandered on foot through much of Chelsea, SoHo, and down Wooster Street, making stops at a number of small contemporary art galleries and alternative exhibition spaces (including Deitch Projects, Woodward Gallery, and 112 Greene Street), stopping to take pictures of any interesting stickers, tags, and murals that caught our attention along the way. The Os Gêmeos mural on the corner of Houston and Bowery was one of our last stops, and by the time we reached it, we were tired, cold, and possibly hungry. However, even the act of walking towards it was a revitalizing one.

When I first returned to NYC after graduating university, one of the first pieces that I was excited to see was the Deitch wall on Houston and Bowery, which at that time was painted with a fantastic mural by Os Gêmeos. Os Gêmeos (Portuguese for “the Twins”) is a Brazilian duo consisting of identical twin brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo (b. 1974). On the streets, they’ve created giant figures several stories tall, drawn life-sized characters engaged in everyday activities such as hugging each other or writing graff, and have spun detailed narratives populated with their characters inside sprawling muralscapes. In the gallery, they create everything from paintings to sound-system installations to giant interactive sculptures. Together, they have helped to define the visual landscape of São Paolo and their unique visual language has become internationally synonymous with Brazilian street art.

Back in 2009, I had seen the pictures of the wall that they had recently completed, but nothing could prepare me for seeing it up close. Those of you who’ve been to the Deitch wall on the corner of Houston and Bowery will know that there’s nothing too much to see in that general area. A sea of grey concrete, some fences, and drab and dilapidated buildings are really all that line the wide street. After seeing it from afar, so starkly juxtaposing its bland surroundings, the sheer act of walking towards it was like walking towards an oasis of color and movement. We must have spent nearly half an hour at the wall, me taking notes and Ryan snapping dozens of pictures. Perhaps it was the girl laying on the back of a whale with a serene smile on her face as she slowly dissolved into bubbles and drifted up into the atmosphere. Perhaps it was the boy laughing as he playfully leaned over the edge of the waterfall, holding onto a fish for support. Perhaps it was the figure with the outstretched arms who served as the mast of the boat perched atop the N Train (and looked like he was travelling down the tracks to give you, the viewer, a great big hug). Or, perhaps it was how they all came together to seamlessly populate the wall, but after quietly contemplating each character and each scene of the mural both individually and as a cohesive unit (with a slightly bemused smile on my face, I’m sure), I knew that I wanted to learn all I could about the creators of this extraordinarily vibrant landscape.

What all Os Gêmeos works have in common is that even from a distance their work is very distinguishable as Os Gêmeos creations. Much like mural they completed on Bowery and Houston back in 2009, their work tends to be both colorful and fantastical, and is inhabited by thick yellow people with matchstick-thin limbs and angular, expressive eyes that are set widely apart. Each piece they do holds some sort of commentary on love, hope, poverty, or political dissent. Their murals are so detailed and filled with movement that they will almost make you dizzy. But there is no doubt that you won’t want to look away for regret of missing something. Still, you could look at one for hours and still only pick up a fraction of the details and a fraction of the narrative that the Pandolfo brothers have illustrated for you to see.

Originally the Pandolfo brothers were break dancers who were greatly influenced by the New York City hip hop culture of the 1970s (which hit Brazil in the mid-1980s). Although they had been using latex and rollers to tag their names, by 1988, they had made the leap into street art. As they started to mature as street artists they drew upon their experiences as well as local styles such as Brazilian folk art and pixação (a cryptic straight-letter style of building writing unique to São Paolo that is associated with heavy metal and the disenfranchised lower class). However, the Pandolfo twins had began developing their visual language together in shared sketchbooks as children as early as the age of 4, creating and capturing a brightly colored world shared in their dreams that they call “Tritrez.”

Their works simultaneously evoke the world of their dreams and the favelas (ghetto) in which they were raised. In this sense, both pixação and Os Gêmeos draw upon the same political and social discontent felt by much of the population in São Paolo. However, Os Gêmeos also strive to represent their culture, the beauty of Brazil, and the positive aspects of Brazilian family life, and through their vibrant images, hope to add color to and enhance everyday life. This makes their world and the characters who inhabit it just as complex and exciting to follow as those found in any well-written story. Familial love, national pride, and the desire to precipitate change are represented with equal importance as political unrest and extreme poverty throughout each of their works. Perhaps this is why, almost unanimously, viewers are attracted to their work.

Their method of painting is just as unique as the world they’ve created. They are adamant about painting only during the day in extremely public areas. When they paint a mural, the Pandolfo twins plan the visual story before they start drawing on the wall. Each twin starts at one end and they continue to paint until they meet in the middle. It is a very intuitive process between the brothers because no talking is involved.

Although Os Gêmeos continue to paint in São Paolo to this day (both sanctioned and unsanctioned works), since their first show in the United States in San Francisco’s The Luggage Store in 2003, they have been extremely busy with legitimate work outside of Brazil as well. Os Gêmeos have painted frequently in NYC, including a large mural in 2005 in Coney Island. They’ve participated in several collaborations with Deitch Projects in NYC, including a show in 2005, the Armory Show in 2006, a show in 2008, and the aforementioned mural in 2009 (which remained up for a year). This past summer, they returned to NYC to paint one of their iconic figures onto the side of P.S. 11 in downtown Chelsea in collaboration with Futura2000 (an internationally acclaimed street artist who got his start bombing subway cars in NYC in the 1970s and pioneered abstract street art). Most recently, Os Gêmeos returned to Maimi Beach to take part in Art Basel (a Deitch-sponsored project in which they also participated in 2005).

They’ve been huge on the West Coast, in Cuba, and in Europe as well. Over the past few years, they’ve painted in Portugal, Germany, Holland, Lithuania, and the UK (including the Kelburn Castle in Glasgow in 2007). In 2008, Os Gêmeos was invited to create a mural for Tate Modern Gallery in London as part of a larger exhibition of street art on the façade of their building. Hailed as the first major display of street art at a public museum in London, it led to a significant re-evaluation of their work by their native city of São Paolo.

Two years prior to the exhibition, Mayor Gilberto Kassab of São Paulo introduced the “Cidade Limpa” (Clean City) law aimed at eliminating all forms of what he calls “visual pollution.” This official clean-up campaign led to many sanctioned images being lost or irreparably damaged. Because there were no official objective guidelines given other than to paint over anything “irregular,” much of the works are judged subjectively. Following the exhibition in 2008, a 680 meter long mural painted by Os Gêmeos, Nunca, and Nina Pandolfo (Otavio’s wife) on retaining walls along the 23 de Maio expressway was half-obliterated with gray paint (despite having been officially sanctioned public art).

This effort by São Paulo is a cross between New York City’s graffiti reform of the 80s and 90s and the efforts Grey Ghost, an anti-graffiti vigilante in New Orleans (LA) who white-washed many great pieces of street art out of existence between 1997 and 2008. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch’s vigorous subscription to the broken window theory promoted an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign in New York in the early eighties, resulting in a strenuous zero tolerance policy ever since. In 1995 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York set up the Anti-Graffiti Task Force, a multi-agency initiative to combat graffiti vandalism in New York City. In terms of the introduction of this legislation, São Paulo is echoing the political reform that took place across the U.S. a decade earlier. However, because of the subjective nature of these laws, the real parallel can be drawn between the Cidade Limpa laws and the work of New Orleans-based vigilante Grey Ghost and his non-profit organization Operation: Clean Sweep.

The Grey Ghost, also known as Fred Radtke, has been painting over street art in New Orleans under the cover of darkness with gray paint since 1997. Known by the signature grey smear of paint his rollers left in the stead of tags and art alike, his works had long been the cause of contentious debate within the New Orleans community. But, that is another story for another day. You see, in 2008, tensions with the street-art loving community in New Orleans peaked when the Grey Ghost painted over a newly-completed mural on Burgundy and Press Streets. Much like the mural along the 23 de Maio expressway, the mural on Burgundy and Press Streets shared many of the characteristics with graffiti. However, there was one important distinction: the artists had gotten permission to paint it.

Since its inception, graffiti and murals have been misunderstood and underappreciated forms of art. Within the past few years, it has slowly begun to gain appreciation from institutions world-wide. Deitch and the Tate Modern are some of the many renowned institutions that have legitimized not only the work of Os Gêmeos, but other street artists as well. This appreciation has started to affect the way street art is viewed by not only the general populace, but the government (and although there is still a firm divide between those who whole-heartedly support street and those who lump it in with mindless tagging, there is a raised awareness). In São Paulo, this newfound recognition abroad of Os Gêmeos’ work stimulated a public discussion of what constituted art, and the creation of a registry of sanctioned street art in São Paulo was established by the city for preservation.

Although Os Gêmeos have said multiple times that they take things day by day, I, for one, cannot wait to see what the future holds for these immensely talented grafiteiros. You, too, can keep tabs on them via their website (which although in Portuguese has enough pictures so that visitors of any language can appreciate it). Definitely keep your eyes out for what seems to be their next project: a full-length animation (the teaser was released in September)!

For more insight into Os Gêmeos, here are two great interviews from 2000 and 2003 which have been translated into English and here’s a recent one from STYLEFILE, a graffiti magazine. If you want to read more about the mural on Bowery and Houston, Roberta Smith of the New York Times did a great review wrote a wonderfully detailed description in her review. However, a picture says a thousand words, so again, I would like to extend a very special thanks to my friend, Ryan, who braved the cold with his massive bag of camera equipment to take such beautiful pictures of the Os Gêmeos mural in the Bowery on our epic street art adventure last year. Pictures other than the Bowery were taken from various places around the internet. There is no shortage of Os Gêmeos pictures, so just Google images if you want to see more!

In 1985, a well-known graffiti artist known as Robbo colorfully tagged the underside of a bridge running over Regent’s Canal in Camden, North London. One of the first pieces to go up in London (and certainly the longest standing piece in London), Robbo’s piece has become known as something of a landmark piece for graffiti art enthusiasts and taggers alike. Many graffiti artists and taggers are considered lucky if their piece endures for more than a few months. However, for the past 24 years, aside from some toy graffiti and over-tagging, Robbo’s name has remained largely untouched.

Just this past December, change affected not only the scene along the Canal, but this towering testament to King Robbo’s legacy as Bristol-based street artist Banksy returned to London to continue his street art projects. Among them are his rats (a commentary of how the artist is the lowest form of being), a witty phrase evoking political commentary, a boy fishing, and a city worker.

It is the latter of these four project has generated the most amount of controversy lately. This is because Banksy has actually grayed-out a significant portion of Robbo’s locally familiar tag, leaving only strips of it to act as wall paper. The city worker, rather than removing the piece, is pasting it up using tools that traditionally refer to wheatpasters and in fact carrying additional wheatpaste rolls under his arm.

While some have said that this might be Banksy’s way of paying homage to the Robbo piece, from a territorial perspective, this modification comes as a rather biting slap in the face to Robbo- not only because Banksy has painted his own piece over the original, but because he has turned Robbo’s piece into a wheatpaste, a form of street art that is in general very much disliked by aerosol artists. Perhaps it’s in response to the actual slap in the face that Banksy received from Robbo, made public this past year in the book London Handstyles. In it, Robbo described a “tense encounter” between the two. Recalling how he was introduced to Banksy, Robbo claimed: “He asked what I wrote and I told him. He cockily replied ‘never heard of you’ so I slapped him and said, ‘you may not of heard of me but you will never forget me.’”

While internationally renowned street artist Banksy is busy premiering his new film at the Sundance Film Festival, graffiti legend Robbo came out of retirement on Christmas to again defend himself against the slight dealt to him by Banksy in London at the tail end of 2009. (Here it is important to remember that most street artists have teams, so what is going on may not directly deal with a single person.) Not only has Robbo eradicated the last traces of the original Robbo tag (including the rolled up paper under the worker’s arm), but he has written King Robbo (king being the term used to describe a graffiti legend, or one who has earned a considerable amount of street credit) so that it seems as if Banksy’s city worker is painting the tag rather than pasting it up.

A few days later, and the boy fishing along the Canal was altered as well. Rather than pulling out the slimy words “Banksy” from the Canal (originally meant to imply that Banksy was garbage in the way that his rat project implies that artists are vermin), a white sign now hangs from the fishing pole reading “Street Cred,” implying that this is what Banksy has lost by confronting Robbo.

Not since the days of Picasso and Matisse has the art world been so shaken by such a bitter rivalry. It was even said that Picasso hung “Portrait of Marguerite” in a room and threw (fake, thankfully) darts at it with his friends. Similarly, this most recent artistic exchange has caused many in Team Robbo and Team Banksy to take up arms against the other by taking to both online forums and the streets to battle it out. While many graffiti aficionados have lined up in either the Banksy camp or the Robbo camp (mostly arguing art and purpose vs. respect and territory), many are questioning whether the recent modifications are in fact the result of deep seated conflict or if they are simply the product of witty banter. (Some even suggest that this might be a publicity stunt, what with the recent publication of London Handstyles and Banksy’s venture to the Sundance Film Festival to release his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”)

Despite the story presented in London Handstyles, it’s rather hard to say. After all, despite Picasso and Matisse’s bitter rivalry, they spurred each other to new levels of creativity through their competition. Robbo didn’t respond by simply wiping out the Banksy piece and retagging the wall. Rather, Robbo (much like Banksy did for him), left a portion of the original piece by Banksy up while modifying the overall work to his liking (having the artistic “last word,” as you will). From the perspective of this street art academic/critic, Banksy did something that was not only natural in the world of street art and graffiti, but a big favor to Robbo by transforming the piece.

If you Google Robbo, Robbo tags, or Robbo graffiti, you will be hard pressed to find something either on the web or in images section that mention him solely, or provide an image of his tag other than the Regent’s Canal piece. Because Banksy is such an internationally-known name, it can be argued that he has brought Robbo to a more main-stream audience, and therefore inducted this piece (and, indeed, Robbo himself) into the international graffiti and street art scene.

If something becomes a permanent fixture in the landscape, it runs the risk of being taken for granted, and therefore leaves its viewers unaffected and unimpressed. While I recognize that the lifespan of this tag might be impressive to graffiti artists and taggers, once something becomes an accepted part of the landscape, it becomes fair game to street artists. This is because the true definition of street art is to challenge the way we think about our visual landscape through intrisically ephemeral and thought-provoking pieces. By revitalizing this relic, Banksy has forever immortalized it by giving it a new life and a new meaning. Because Banksy breeched the taboo of territory, he made it one of the current hot topics in the graffiti and street art world. Finally, by responding as he did to Banksy, Robbo crossed from the realm of graffiti artist and tagger into the world of street art. In this sense, Banksy has invigorated the environment of Regent’s Canal by changing the dynamic by initiating this creative dialogue and competitive exchange.

Many, including myself, will be tracking Banksy’s movements following the Film Festival and eagerly await to see what (if anything) happens when Banksy returns to London from Park City.