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ART 408: Visual Culture
Professor T. Melchishua
Bowie State University
Breaking Down These Colorful Walls
The art world is not a simple thing that can be held in one’s hand or be described in a few simple words. The art world is vibrant with many genres and forms of media. The outcome allows an artist to push the boundaries, to create unique pieces not just for themselves, but also for others and to produce pieces that can motivate or inspire a generation. The styles in art all have their own importance and value and yet it seems that one art form is fighting for some type of appreciation and recognition. The art form is known as graffiti. Graffiti is known in many terms, such as street art, wall art, or underground art. In any case graffiti is an art form that is just as unique as the people who create it. The pieces created are similar in some ways to art created by Jackson Pollock, Pop Art, or Picasso and yet graffiti has to defend itself more than other art forms. Underground art does not receive the same recognition as other art genres, despite the growing interest and strides that critics, artists, and collectors in the art world are making to bring this genre to the mainstream.
There are many art forms and with each art form comes countless critics either supporting and defending the art or criticizing without giving beneficial feedback. Graffiti is no stranger to that. Graffiti seems to be a new art form, coming primarily out of New York in the late 1970’s. It started off on subway cars and back alley walls. But consider the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian walls. That was an ancient form of graffiti. Graffiti came about as a way for an artist to leave their signature, name, or “tag” for others to see. The tags were left on subway cars, bridges, walls, wherever the artist thought to leave it. To some people this is seen as pure vandalism. The stigma behind this art form of artists freely leaving their mark on subway trains, bridges, walls; people could not initially view this as a form of art. Merriam-Webster defines vandalism as the willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public of private property. Many graffiti artists do not go out creating art in a malicious manner or to be malicious, so this is why there is an argument against graffiti and vandalism and why the word is not a part of their vocabulary.
“Graffiti is a vernacular art. The remoteness of City Hall and the anonymity of socioeconomic power are confronted by in-your-face tagging, whose anarchic purpose is to register individual identity. It its crudest form it blurts, “I exist!” its more imaginative forms also shout, “And I’m fantastic!”(Knight.) Christopher Knight, an art critic of The LA Times, reviewed the latest showcase of graffiti at the MOCA in California. Art in any form is created first for self, and second for others to notice self. Not necessarily in a conceited fashion, but in a manner that the art or artists just wants to be noticed and appreciated. A critic can make or break a show and with commentary from individuals like Christopher Knight, it gives readers a sense of what to expect, what to look for, or if they should avoid the show altogether. Mr. Knight may not be a full supporter of the art show that took place at the MOCA, but he still gives graffiti art its due props. “Having lived in Hollywood for more than a dozen years in the 1980s and ’90s, I’m pretty well convinced that urban graffiti doesn’t drag down neighborhoods, but instead erupts in areas already largely abandoned by civic forces. Graffiti scrawls a name on hitherto faceless social realities, instantly becoming a convenient target for blame.”(Knight). Graffiti is the black sheep of the art world, trying to be good like Pop Art, trying to make an impression like the Renaissance movement, but yet artists and critics know the deal; that because of the nature of the style of graffiti, it is easy to point the finger and lay blame. “They should be lockin’ up rapists, gangs, drug dealers, real fuckin’ crime. Not no graffiti writin’ easy shit,” says SKUF, a graffiti artist. (Martinez). Realistically, some of the energy spent on finding these spatially unbiased artists as opposed to searching out killers, robbers, and drug dealers, at some times does seem a bit out of hand. Even in areas where the art is commissioned and approved, the artists still may get harassed and bullied by law enforcement.
There are countless graffiti artists who support mainstream recognition and want to share the genre. The OG graffiti artists that started out were simply tagging and sharing their name with anyone who wanted to look. Over time, graffiti artists were sharing bombs and tags as a form of expression. Today artists share graffiti to evoke conversation, to speak out about topics that affect the world, and they are sharing their work worldwide. An artist known as Cornbread, “Cornbread is considered the first graffiti writer because he was the first “bomber,” the earliest example of a person going out on the streets with no other purpose than to write his name on everything.”(Gastman.) “Twombly was one of the first American artists to interest himself in graffiti. Forty years ago, the term didn’t suggest city kids’ spraying their aggressive colored tags all over subway cars and buildings. It wasn’t bound up with the seizure and degradation of public space. It was, so to speak, more muted and pastoral: harmless scratches, small obscenities, chalk on Roman distemper. To adopt graffiti to the painted canvas was to pay homage to European art informal — Fautrier, Wols and especially Jean Dubuffet.”(Huges). ‘Whether you love his work or not - and I’m well aware of the criticism of his work as lightweight socio-political bumpf - it’s hard to deny that Banksy is an artist of sorts. He may well be a prankster with a spray can merely exploring the concept of art as a commodity, but he’s still an artist, not a vandal.”(Northover). Banksy is one of those artists that still have a mystery about him. But his art is found everywhere. There is no getting away from his art and even if he was not trying to do it, he is making such a name for himself that art enthusiasts are experiencing and seeing his art and at the same time they are experiencing graffiti. An image of a child holding a heart balloon showed up on a Facebook feed and without knowing who the artwork was by, it became a favorite piece of mine. A piece called the Red Balloon Girl was considered beautiful to me because of the vibrant, red balloon and the movement in the piece is incredible. I can feel the breeze that blows her hair and takes the balloon right out of her hands. It is simple pieces like this that makes people know Banksy without knowing him. Another piece that looks whimsical but with a twist is of a boy and girl. The boy is happily bringing flowers to his dream girl and she comes with a bat. The black images set on top off brick walls or canvases, create a mood. The mood and sense from this piece has emotions running deep within the boy and the girl.
Graffiti is an art form that since its start has been perceived as vandalism as opposed to art. “You call it vandalism, but I - like many others - found his street works to be sharp, colorful diversions in the otherwise drab streetscapes of London, where I lived for several years.”(Northover). Art is meant to attract the eye. It depends on individual tastes as far as what is actually attractive, pleasing, or in poor taste. Graffiti is an art form that is so wild across the board. The graffiti artists who started out in the 1970’s created artistically done names and tags and now the graffiti artists are creating large pieces of scenery covering large walls and creating messages, not just for their visual consumption, but to feed the masses. The supporters of graffiti may not be the ones who buy it, but the ones who share information about graffiti. It takes magazines and groups showing support, such as the Smashing Magazine, an independent magazine aimed at Web designers and developers. In 2008, they shared an article written by editor-in-chief, Vitaly Friedman. It was an opportunity to expose their community with over 50 pieces of art by incredible artists in the genre. Simple support like that and exposure sparks interest in someone who may have not been exposed or immediately sought it out. “Street culture and graffiti are well-known for being provocative, appealing, bold and uncompromising. Originally used by gangs to mark their territory in some urban area, graffiti’s have now become a rich medium for unrestricted expression of ideas and statements. In fact, creative designers and artists across the globe use this form of art to deliver their message and showcase their work.”(Friedman). The article shares many artists such as Mr. Mucho, zevs, Deuce 7, 6emia, Jakedobkin, and of course Banksy.
Some support of this genre comes from the community allowing the art and using it to beautify the community. “If we see a building that’s for sale with a mural on it, we try to be pro-active about it and contact the new owner,” says Seth Turner, director of Mural Operations and Restoration for the Mural Arts Program. (Paletta). Groups like these are finding a way to utilize the creativity of the artists and give them a positive outlet for creating. Photographer, Eric Firestone captured images of retired World War II aircrafts that got a second lease on life. The massive canvases were colored in spray-paint, acrylics, and ink. “The tradition of using the massive surface of a plane as a canvas has been a tradition in the united states air force for generations. ’Nose art’ became a popular form of graffiti painting in the WWII era as soldiers decorated the fronts of the planes which would carry them into battle. The bone yard project: return trip’ is the second installation of the series in which the artists created a semi-sculptural, painted expression of his/her associations with the history of air travel and warfare.” (DesignBoom). The airplanes are insanely beautiful and breathtaking to experience. The time and dedication put into decorating them also says something about the artists. That cannot be done solely as a job, for the money. One would really love what they do because one jet alone will not be done in a day or two.
D.C. has tried to help with the graffiti movement and embrace it. “MuralsDC was created in 2007 as a publicly funded program designed to channel youthful destructive energies into positive forces throughout the District.” (Siegal) instead of leaving the kids to no outlets and resources, someone took the time to find a way to foster the creative juice flowing through the youth. There are many other groups trying to support the same ideas. Something called Open Walls is a great example. Through Albus Cavus, a collection of artists working with the community and schools, the campaign of Open Walls is supported. “Open Walls is an initiative that creates and maintains outdoor creative spaces and brings artists and educators to collaborate with the local community. Promoting and supporting creativity in public spaces have positive impact on our communities through physical beautification and social cooperation. Especially young people need free areas for their creative outlet and to develop positive relationship with the environment where they live, work and play.”(Albus Cavus). They give an artist many ways to come and join in and create, legally. An artist, amateur or pro could set up a wall painting party if they wanted and bring the parents who might not support their craft, unite a mix of artists, or share with fellow artist a safe, legal, creative way to share the art. Albus Cavus provides information on workshops, lectures, and more.
The graffiti genre is here to stay. It is hard to deny it its spot in the art movement. Anything new has to go through a period of question, but graffiti artists have come a long way. The evolution of graffiti is still changing and maturing. The artists of the pasts are the teachers and the students are learning new tricks and adding freshness to the genre. Graffiti cannot simply be put off as vandalism and to say that it does not rank up there with the other genres just does not fly in the art world of today. Graffiti art will continue to thrive and grow due to the support of the artists, critics, and enthusiasts.
Breaking Down the Colorful Walls
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