Archive for March, 2011

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.

Advertisements

Over the past few months I’ve been focusing more and more on graffiti and stickering, and perhaps as a result have been seeing less and less street art. In fact, I had almost forgotten that street art is not just a form of artistic expression in response to the urban environment, but an act capable of generating interaction with the environment. More than that, this interaction can work to actively engage the public with not only their environment but each other, creating a greater sense of belonging within the community.

One night about a month and a half ago, I went to a Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival on the lower West Side with my good friend Max and his friend Dan. At the end of the night, sill merry from the copious amounts of booze we had imbibed and the flavorful meat we had devoured, we started our trek back to the train station. On the way there, I became distracted by a shuttered newsstand that was plastered with stickers, and my friends paused so that I could stop to take a look at who had gotten up (of course there were a few stickers courtesy of BNE). I was about to continue on when I noticed a white poster with two black handprints next to the stand.

Living Exercises wheatpaste at first glance

At first glance I thought it was a political statement about the treatment of black suspects apprehended by the police (there were, after all, two black handprint shoulder-width apart placed against a wall). Stepping forward, I could see the instructions “place your hand here” printed over one hand and “have stranger place hand here” over the other. Then, underneath both hands were the words “remove hand when no longer strangers.” In the lower corner, Living Exercises was cited as the creator of this project.

Now, it’s been a while since I’ve seen such an innovative and fascinating campaign on the streets of NYC, and this particular piece took me completely by surprise. Not only was it a completely wonderful idea, but (and I don’t meant to sound pretentious, I just mean to say that I spend quite a bit of time researching for this blog and I’m subscribed to a number of them myself) I had never heard of it before! I begged Dan to take some pictures with his phone, and immediately set to investigate this campaign when he sent them along. I quickly found the site of international installation and performance artist Ryan V. Brennan.

According to Brennan’s site, this particular series intends to “initiate public social interaction.” And indeed, theoretically, if the instructions are followed by two relatively agreeable parties, a new connection can be made in an otherwise vast sea of nameless faces. In a city where it’s pretty common for people to pass by each other with barely a glance, Brennan has created a series of personal and social experiments in the form of both performance and street art.

And, joy of joys, this isn’t the only project created by Brennan in his attempt to promote friendship and community! In fact, he’s created a whole book of “activities to be done alone, with friends, family, or strangers” in “hopes of facilitating introspective, cathartic, and enlightening experiences.”

Living Exercises, the book

There are quite a few activities to be found in each handmade book. One of my favorites to do with strangers is “Hold Hands with a Stranger,” and yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like. The initiator asks to hold hand with a stranger for one block, but continues to ask at the end of every block until refused. Although it can come off a bit creepy, I believe that this is a random act of affection can go a long way in improving someone’s mood (or at least give the recipient an interesting story to share with their real friends). However, “Ten Minute Communal Solitude and Silence” is definitely my favorite activity (and not just because it reminds me of the Depeshe Mode song “Enjoy the Silence”). The activity requires two people who know each other to lie together in silence for 10 minutes, then to make a sandwich together, cut it down the middle, and eat one of the halves each. I’m definitely an extroverted person, one likely to fill up silences with silly chatter consisting of random stories and sarcastic banter. With tendencies like these, it’s quite easy to forget that a comfortable silence between friends can be just that.

Living Exercises is described as “an ongoing project consisting of a hand-made book of written performance instructions and DVD documentation of the performances. The exercises are personal and social experiments designed to broaden ones perspective on various aspects of life. The exercises range from the ritualistic and the introspective, to ways of reinterpreting rules of social situations.” However, the link to buy the book is broken, unfortunately. Please check back, I know that Brennan is working on fixing it!

So, dear readers, it seems like I was a bit late with this one, as this book had been published in 2009 and the prints went up around NYC in the summer of 2010, catching the eye of many a New Yorker. But, thankfully some of these wheatpaste prints have endured and are still around to be enjoyed. In retrospect, I wish I had participated in this wonderful activity with Max’s friend Dan, who I barely knew. Then again, it was extremely cold, and we did bond over booze and bacon earlier that day. But, if you ever run into this, I strongly urge you to have some fun with it! And, hey, you never know, you might just make a new random friend!

Living Exercises: "Remove hands when no longer strangers"

A few weeks ago, I had written about the importance of knowing the roots of the graffiti movement in reference to some early films from the 1980s which had documented the start of graffiti in NYC. Usually once I write something, I get it out of my system (at least for a little while). However, despite my efforts to lay off the subject of graffiti and return to street art, my mind has kept wandering back to the topic of early graffiti and its development.

For this, I blame the 7 train. For those of you who aren’t native NYCers, or have never ridden that particular line, the 7 is an elevated train that runs through northern Queens. Not only does it pass the legendary graffiti mecca 5 Pointz (a warehouse located in Long Island City), but as I ride the 7 train every day through Corona, I see a lot of old-school graffiti styles, ranging from scrawled tags to latex rolling to stylized pieces. Maybe this is why I can’t stop thinking about the development of graffiti, the appeal of tagging, issues relating to destruction of property, and the implications of anonymity in graffiti (the last of which I will discuss in a future article). However, despite what is still exhibited along the 7 line, graffiti has evolved immensely since it first swept NYC in 1970. It no longer solely constitutes the idea of simply getting ones’ name out there (often termed “hitting,” “bombing,” or “tagging”), but has come to represent an entire genre of urban expression.

Graffiti along the 7 Line in 2009

In the 1970s, the name that started it all was TAKI 183. Almost overnight, his simple scrawl produced imitators across the five boroughs and gave birth to the first generation of modern graffiti in New York City. While not the first writer in NYC, TAKI 183 quickly became all-city due to his job as a messenger, and by the end of his short career had successfully hit stations in all five boroughs. By 1971, the New York Times had picked up on this burgeoning phenomenon with the article “TAKI 183 Spawns Pen Pals,” which brought the now widespread urban phenomenon of graffiti to the attention of the mainstream in a largely nonjudgmental manner.

Only a few short years after TAKI 183 began bombing the train stations, competitive creativity soon saw the development of stylized writing, including new lettering and design elements. By the 1980s, large, colorful, and stylized pieces (called “wildstyle,” “burners,” and later, “abstract graffiti”) with multiple creative design elements, such as clouds, arrows, perspective, and 3D lettering, had emerged onto the scene. If TAKI 183’s tagging were to be considered the start of the modern graffiti phenomenon, this development of stylized graffiti could be termed the second generation of graffiti. However the change was not only in the aesthetic stylings of the work but the mindset of the writers, who were less concerned with just getting their names out there to the general public than they were with creating complicated and intricate designs to gain respect and become known specifically within the graffiti-writing community.

Despite the respite caused by the sweeping laws and heavy penalties set in place by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch in the late 80s, graffiti and street art returned full force by the late 90s. Currently, we are in what I consider the third generation of graffiti, aptly and commonly termed “street art.” This term usually includes more of (but isn’t limited to) wheatpasting and stenciling. Oftentimes the focus is more on spreading ironic, playful, or socio-political messages or to utilize previously neglected elements of the public landscape with artistic intent.

(Here, it is important that we don’t mistake generation for a strictly linear development, because many graffiti writers to this day practice both multiple generation graffiti styles, depending on personal preference and purposes. Rather, it important to understand that the term generation is used merely as a chronological and developmental marker to distinguish these radically different methods of urban expression.)

Like TAKI 183, BNE is known simply for his moniker. BNE, who used to write graffiti, considers ubiquitous tagging to be part of the effectiveness of global ad campaigns. He has said that his competition is not other graffiti artists or taggers, but “the Tommy Hilfigers, Starbucks, Pepsi.” To contend with the legacy of corporate logos, BNE had long ago stopped spraying and started using stickers to aid him in his own campaign. (For more on BNE, check out this interview article from the New York Times in 2009)

Not only has the ease of sticker-slapping helped BNE to quickly and effectively disseminate his name on the street, but the uniformity of the print on a sticker has helped BNE create an easily recognizable logo, which is the point of his campaign. Using the font of Helvetica Nueu Condensed, BNE’s stickers are often misinterpreted as official intrusions into the visual landscape. And indeed, the argument can be made that they are using otherwise unutilized spaces to create visual stimulation.

While my thinking tends to be that it is nothing more than juvenile egomania that compels taggers to write their names over ever available surface, the argument can also be made that the way these bombers have created their own logos and saturate the landscape is just another way to rebel against the consumer culture. These days, we are so bombarded with visual stimulation that our eyes tend to slide from one image to another, whether it’s corporate or guerrilla. At the end of the day, they’re all just logos competing for our attention. The only real difference being that taggers aren’t trying to sell you something. So, if that is the case, why does it matter whose logo we’re seeing if it’s all visual pollution in the end?

Taggers and sticker-slappers like BNE are bringing graffiti back to the roots that TAKI 183 had originally intended because the idea behind first generation style graffiti was to be everywhere, and to be instantly recognized by your moniker. Can actions such as tagging, rolling, and sticker-slapping be considered art? I would say definitively that no: these forms of getting up usually so not constitute art the same way that company logos don’t constitute as art. Most first-generation graffiti is about proliferation of the name more than it is about style. Now don’t get me wrong, I sympathize with owners and managers of private property who have to deal with the shenanigans of those who decide their name is important enough to go anywhere and everywhere, whether it’s wanted or not (but isn’t that what legal ad campaigns do as well?) and I am by no means an advocate of tagging. However, both tagging and stickering definitely constitute a significant part of our urban visual landscape, which makes it worthy of mention here.