I can’t pretend that there isn’t a semblance of a shudder inside of me, when I pass by an old building or delivery truck with black graffiti or “tags” smeared across them. To me, they call out, “I’m dirty, and you’re driving through a bad neighborhood!” However, I also can’t pretend that I’m not interested in the idea that this so called “vandalism” can be considered poetic and representative of someone’s self-expressional art. Graffiti is the intriguing art form that leaves the viewer wondering about the lives drawn and the masked artists who go unknown, lurking around in the dark, trying to express the voices of their creative insides. Interestingly, graffiti art has achieved a strange duality in the last few years, being more accepted as a true art form, while still receiving scrutiny from law enforcement agencies.
According to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Shepard Fairey, known for his Obama “Hope” poster, and most recently the Stephen Colbert Olympic poster, is today’s most influential street artist. However, Fairey is still being charged and fined for his works. Recently, Fairey was arrested right before an event he was hosting at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, for a graffiti case in Roxbury. It seems contradictory of the city to praise Fairey when he conforms but arrest him when his work doesn’t fit their ideal mold. His works signify a sea change in both popular and institutional views on graffiti. Fairey represents both a grassroots movement while also questioning the very essence of subversive street art. Even though the Obama poster was not used for Obama’s campaign directly, the president was said to have supported and appreciated the works. The Obama poster was even placed in the National Portrait Museum in Washington D.C. So the question is, how can something that is considered illegal, be accepted to symbolize a presidential campaign, and, furthermore, where are the lines drawn in deciding what is influential art and what is merely vandalized scribbles?
Graffiti evolved in the seventies with artists such as the infamous Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started his art career homeless and on the streets with only the city as his canvas. Many of Basquiat’s works that were tagged “SAMO” were political and were in reflection to the counterculture of that time. Basquiat eventually moved onto bigger things while collaborating with the well known Andy Warhol. Basquiat paved the way for many contemporary artists while creating the allure of graffiti to the art culture. For several decades, graffiti has been the shadowy figure lurking around in the modern art world; however, only recently have many artists transcended from the gallery space into the realm of street art and made it popular.
Graffiti can manifest in many forms, styles, and aesthetics. The most popular methods include stencils, spray paints or regular paints. To consider the artistic effectiveness of a given work, one must delve into the artist’s motivations and objectives for carrying it out. For many artists the purpose of their graffiti is the power of speech, to simply voice their opinion. Graffiti is seen by many of its artists and admirers to be the citizens’ form of art and a voice for the people on the walls of our streets. However, the application of graffiti is illegal and the so called vandal can face charges or even imprisonment. The ongoing argument is whether this art form should be covered up or accepted as a legal form of self expression. One of the most famous and controversial street artists is known as the illustrious Banksy. Banksy has plowed through the street art scene causing frustration for public officials, while prompting a large group of admirers. According to Banksy, “Despite what they say graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Although you might have to creep about at night and lie to your mum it’s actually one of the more honest art forms available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on the best walls a town has to offer and nobody is put off by the price of admission.”
In order to formulate an understanding of graffiti’s current reputation as art or vandalism, the trend within the main stream culture must be examined. Marc Ecko, owner of Ecko clothing lines, created a video game that incorporates graffiti and dodging police. Marc Ecko speaks of graffiti in an optimistic way, “It has really become the visual language of youth culture.” Graffiti isn’t embraced in all neighborhoods and that’s okay, but maybe the fact that it is illegal is what gives its true strength.