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Big dreams with small means.
"You don't owe your audience your art; you owe your audience your life."
You most certainly can cite me as a source, and I will try to answer this relatively thoroughly, as I have a pretty passionate stance on this common question and want to express it as well as I can. These are my opinions.
Graffiti, without much room for debate, is both art and vandalism.
Street art, without any room for debate, is art.
Graffiti is, necessarily, street art; but street art does not necessarily have to be graffiti. There are many instances of legal street art.
The most confusing aspect of this debate, and the part that gets misconstrued the most often and amongst the widest population of people debating this question, is the notion of graffiti-style. There are many things done in a graffiti-style that are not graff, but that imply graff (almost implying all graff as one particular, overarching genre of wildstyle pieces) because of the way they look. I will attempt to explain this as well, though it has no bearing on the value of graffiti itself as art or vandalism.
People say that there is graffiti that is art and graffiti that is vandalism, claiming things like the purpose of the tag being nothing but defacing property as a deferent of the title as art. But even then, what are they tagging with at such a moment? I’d argue that inevitably they are tagging with art.
That is to say that even when a tag is meant for nothing more than to stake a claim on an area, much like the three dots in a triangle format prevalent in my neighborhood representing the territory of the Southern Mexicans, the tagger in question – whether he considers himself an artist or not – is tagging with art. It is invariably vandalism if he is tagging a structure that is not his own, but I would argue in addition that it is invariably art.
Of note as well is the fact that in my beloved city of Los Angeles, the history of graffiti is one of gang activity from writers who often did not consider themselves artists. When I speak to older graff writers, many of them tell me that LA (and especially jail in LA) is a horrible place for graffiti writers and street artists. Gangs often don’t like when a street artist steps out on his own and creates a beautiful work of art on one of “their” walls in “their” territory, and if this street artist is caught he will find out just how much they don’t like it. If you go to jail for graffiti in LA, it would be advisable to come up with a story a little more hard-boiled than getting caught throwing up a wheatpaste of Obama as [insert ironic figure of pop culture here].
Gangs often throw their tags up strictly for the purpose of vandalism (and often amongst other reasons), with no purpose of art whatsoever.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that their tags are still art.
I have a relatively unique stance on what can be qualified as art, one that could essentially include every object in existence, that has ever existed, and that will ever exist into the category of art, but I feel it is pretty justified. Feel free to observe it here; it essentially states that anything created and accepted by one or more persons as art is, in fact, art.
Because of this definition I may not be the best critic to ask about the nature of vandalism-driven graffiti and its placement in the art canon, but I can say that the notion of graffiti has been highly misconstrued as street art has become more popular.
Graffiti is inscriptions or additions/subtractions to/from the environment that were made illegally on someone else’s property
When you witness a mural on the side of an auto shop by the entirety of the MSK crew, wildstyle burners spread as far as the eye can see… you’re probably not looking at graffiti. You’re probably looking at street art done in a graffiti style through a commissioned or at least sanctioned mural.
I think the current definition of street art as this vague genre that includes stencils and wheatpastes and urban, site-specific, clever installations is a faulty one. I think street art should be defined as just that – art on the street. “Street,” on the other hand, should be defined as anywhere in the public in this particular case.
As this notion of street art has emerged thanks to revolutionary intellectuals and thinkers like Shepard Fairey, Ron English, and the ever-prominent Banksy, more people have become aware of the graffiti world. Shep and Banksy are very important figures in the graffiti world, and have influenced hundreds of thousands of people with their vandalism, their street art, and conclusively their graffiti. They have also influenced even more people, and established their relevance in the infinitely more important world of art history, with their street art and legal work that has been seen in galleries or fashion blogs.
Shepard Fairey has a very successful and important clothing line, none of which is done in a graffiti style, but all of which looks just like his style. He is, indeed, a graffiti artist because he has done plenty of graffiti, but his immensely popular clothing line is not done in a graffiti style. I’d go so far as to argue that his shirts themselves are also street art because they are often seen in public from the street by passersby of their wearers, but I will save that argument for another day.
Graffiti-style has become this descriptor that brings to mind subway trains, custom airbrushed shirts, and downtown alley throwies and tags. It looks like a Revok or Futura piece, and it implies a history of very revolutionary writers. Writers like to say that graffiti is the biggest art movement of all time, because it is partaken in by the most people and has been that way for the longest amount of time, but I would argue that claiming graffiti (i.e. illegally inscribing on someone else’s property) is the largest art movement is like claiming that oil painting is an art movement. I think that graffiti is not a movement but instead a method.
I have strayed a bit from the original question, but I will say that graffiti is both art and vandalism and to claim that it can’t be both is simply an ignorant opinion pressed upon us by people in power who think that once something is art it is to be sanctioned into a realm of holy value and transcendent importance.
The real question, and the one much harder to answer, is whether something that has been created illegally – like a graffiti piece, tag, or throwup – should be preserved, and at what time – under what circumstances – that notion is to be established.
Graffiti is art and graffiti is vandalism, and it’s interesting to me that there is a perceived contradiction there, because one value does not revoke the other. What gets people thinking that graffiti cannot be both is that people see art as something to be saved, and vandalism as essentially the rejection of that notion. But graffiti will always live in temporality, such as the method of graffiti defines. It’s only once the concept of art preservation enters the frame that we as humans introduce any aspect of conflict. And that’s the concept that people should be debating.
Does anyone know if an installation can be a painting by its common definition?
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