An Essay Concerning The Recognition of Some Forms of Graffiti As Art
George C. Stowers
The origins of graffiti go back to the beginnings of human, societal living. Graffiti has been found on uncovered, ancient, Egyptian monuments, and graffiti even was preserved on walls in Pompeii. Graffiti is the plural form of the Italian word grafficar. In plural, grafficar signifies drawings, markings, patterns, scribbles, or messages that are painted, written, or carved on a wall or surface. Grafficar also signifies “to scratch” in reference to different wall writings ranging from “cave paintings”, bathroom scribbles, or any message that is scratched on walls. In reference to present day graffiti, the definition is qualified by adding that graffiti is also any unsolicited marking on a private or public property that is usually considered to be vandalism.
There are various forms of graffiti. One of the simplest forms is that of individual markings such as slogans, slurs, or political statements. Examples of this type of graffiti commonly are found in bathrooms or on exterior surfaces, and this graffiti is usually handwritten. Another simple form is that of the tag which is a fancy, scribble-like writing of one’s name or nick-name. That is, tag signifies one’s name or nick-name.
Both the tag or individual mark have little or no aesthetic appeal. While they might suggest a flair or style of writing, these forms fail to qualify as example of superb graffiti art because of a lack of aesthetic qualities and inability to produce a maximal aesthetic feeling in the viewer. In fact, the tag or individual mark is not produced for artistic purposes. It is basically a means to indicate the writer’s presence, i.e., the age old statement of “I was here.” Gang markings of territory also fit the definition of graffiti, and they mainly consists of tags and messages that provide “news” of happenings in the neighborhood. Murals for community enhancement and beautification are also a form of graffiti even though they are not usually thought of this way because most murals are commissioned. These are more colorful and complex. They take considerable amount of skill to complete, and murals can be done in a graffiti art style or a traditional pictorial scene. The last form of graffiti is graffiti art which is the creative use of spraypaint to produce an artwork that is graffiti or done in a graffiti-like style, and this the is the concern of this discussion.
Modern graffiti art originated in New York City, and it was known first as “New York Style” graffiti. This art form began in the late 1960’s when teens used permanent markers to tag or write their names, followed by the number of the street on which they lived, in subway cars. This trend originated with the appearance of “Taki 183” which was the tag of a Greek American boy named Demitrius. Tagging soon became a way to get one’s name known throughout the city. However, it should be noted that tagging appeared in Philadelphia before New York. The monikers, “Cornbread” and “Top Cat” were well known in Philadelphia, and when Top Cat’s style appeared in New York, it was dubbed as “Broadway Style” for its long skinny lettering.
The advent of the spraypaint allowed for the tag to develop in size and color. For it was not enough just to have one’s name scrawled over any available and visible surface because everyone was doing this. The spraycan separated the taggers from the artists in that color, form, and style could be emphasized creatively with this new tool to produce s tag as a part of an overall artistic production. The tag which is monochromatic and a writing style that just about anyone can do, gave way to the throw-up, which is a two color tag usually in outline or bubble-like lettering. Again this style is not too difficult, but soon more complicated styles evolved. The stamp is a little harder and involves the use straight letters to produce a 3-D effect. The piece, which is short for masterpiece, appeared next, and it is a large multicolor work. A production is a piece that is usually on the scale of a mural, and it involves original or familiar cartoon characters in addition to the writer or graffiti artist’s name. It should be noted that every graffiti form listed involves the artist’s name, whether as the central feature or as an ornament within the piece because writers want to be known. Hence, finding new and creative ways to display one’s tag in a highly visible place, as opposed to just scribbling it everywhere, was the fundamental force spurring the development of modern graffiti art.
In the middle to late 1970’s, writers started painting subway trains; thus the name, subway art. Train painting was instrumental to the development of graffiti art because the trains became the stage for the style wars which was a time when everyone who wanted to be recognized as the best artist or the “King” or “Queen” of a subway line got- up, i.e., painted trains as often as possible. If one’s name was on a train in a colorful and unique style, it was guaranteed to be seen by many people; most importantly by the other writers, because the subway trains in New York City travel in circuits throughout different boroughs. To be a “King” or “Queen” one could not just get-up or simply paint his or her name in a thousand different places. On the contrary, style and artistic talent were and continue to be extremely important. The goal was and is to create burners which are pieces that stand out because of creativity, color, vibrancy, crisp outlines, i.e. no drips, and overall artistic appeal. It is the recognizable artistic talent of the graffiti artist that established his or her reign on the subway line and not just the appearance of s name in a thousand different places. The styles that emerged with the previously mentioned forms during this time were round popcorn or bubble letters, wildstyle which is an intricate, interlocking type of calligraphy that is difficult and almost impossible to read, computer and gothic lettering, 3-D lettering, fading which blends colors, and the use of cartoon characters. The ability to produce complicated pieces is what separates the tagger from the graffiti artist; graffitist for short. Taggers scribble and graffitists do art.
The high visibility of the train and the potential audience encouraged more artists to participate in this new form of art. Despite New York City’s vigorous anti-graffiti efforts the style flourished and soon influenced artists in cities all over the world. The biggest promotional vehicle for graffiti art worldwide has been the Hip-Hop phenomenon which is the culture associated with rap music.
Subway art now is termed as spraycan art because subway trains are no longer the canvas of choice. Besides, every graffitist could not possibly do all of his or her work on subway cars because of laws, police, and the dangerous environment of the subway yards and lay-up stations. Ironically, the latest innovation in spraycan art has been that of “freight art” in which graffitists paint railroad, freight cars with the expectation that their artwork will travel across the United States and throughout the continent.
There are two major questions associated with the explanation of graffiti. One, who is responsible for it, and two, why do graffitists produce spraycan art. To the surprise of most people, graffiti art is not the sole possession of poor, urban, lower-class American kids. Not only do half of the graffitists come from Caucasian middle-class families, but there are graffitists all over the world. When asked, “What sorts of kids write graffiti?”, police officer Kevin Hickey of the New York Transit Police Department’s graffiti squad replied, “The type of kids that live in New York City.” They range from the ultra-rich to the ultra-poor. There is no general classification of the kids Graffitist range in age from 12-30 years old, and there are male and female artists. In the past, graffiti artists usually worked alone, but the size and complexity of pieces as well as safety concerns motivated artists to work together in crews, which are groups of graffitists that vary in membership from 3 to 10 or more persons. A member of a crew can be down with, i.e., affiliated, with more than one crew. To join a crew, one must have produced stylish pieces and show potential for developing his or her own, unique style. A crew is headed by a king or queen who is usually that person recognized as having the best artistic ability among the members of the crew.
The reasons and values for why one might engage in graffiti art are as varied as the artists who produce it. A chief reason is the prospect of fame and recognition of one’s artistic talent. Graffiti is also a form of self expression. The art as “writing” is a creative method of communicating with other writers and the general public. What it communicates is the artist’s identity, expression, and ideas. Judgments are based solely on one’s artistic ability. This type of communication is of value because it links people regardless of cultural, lingual, or racial differences in way that nothing else can. In addition, producing graffiti art with a crew builds team work in that the crew works together for the accomplishment of a common goal. The feeling of this achievement in league with others is of value to the artist. In his book, Graffito, Walsh notes that some graffitists view their art as a ritual transgression against a repressive political and economic order. For some artists see themselves as revolutionaries reacting against the established art market or gallery system in that art is not only that which appears in the gallery as determined by the curator. Some artists also view their creations on public and private spaces as a statement against Western ideas of capitalism and private property. Of course, the majority of graffitists enjoy what they do and find it to be fun, rewarding, and exciting. Although these reasons are valid, they do not conclusively settle the matter as to why graffiti art is art or why it is a valid art form despite its illegal origins.
Graffiti as seen and experienced on the New York City subway trains and that which developed into the modern-day form of spraycan art is art. The production of graffiti art includes established techniques and styles, and the art form also is characterized by a standard medium; spraypaint.
For example, novices are taught how to use spraypaint according to various styles and how to adjust nozzles as well as how to fit and use other types of aerosol caps onto spraycans for different artistic effects. The forms of graffiti art have developed through the years from the mere gestures of tagging to established conventional practices of the graffiti art world such as creating the tag according to a method, like wildstyle, that makes it an integral, flowing element of the overall piece.
In addition, graffiti art is not a spontaneous activity like tagging in the form of fancy scribble. The completion of a piece or a production involves a great deal of imagination, planning, and effort.
The graffitist first does a sketch. Then he or she plans out characters and selects colors. Next, the artist selects his or her “canvas” or surface and does a preliminary outline, followed by a filling in of colors and ornamentation, and then the final outline is completed.
Graffiti can also be analyzed according to the elements of lines, color, and structures that are present in the work in order to produce a narrative about it. Another significant reason why graffiti art can be viewed as art is by considering the producer’s intention. Graffitists intend their work to be apprehended as art that can communicate feelings and ideas to the audience. This is in line with Tolstoy’s mandate that art must allow people to express ideas and share in each other’s feelings via the artwork.
Plus, graffiti art has a function of not only communicating to others, but it also beautifies the community by appearing on areas that normally would be eyesores, such as a wall in a vacant lot or an abandoned building. Furthermore, all of the aesthetic properties and criteria from the base element of color to the complex issue of artist intention which are ascribed to other works in order to characterize them as art can all be found in examples of spraycan art. The only difference between those works in a gallery or museum and graffiti art in terms of how and why the latter is not readily accepted as art is due to its location and presentation.
Indeed the issues of location and presentation are the most significant obstacles to a wholehearted acceptance of spraycan art as art. Graffiti art cannot be disregarded simply because it is not presented in the conventional location and manner, i.e., framed and placed in a museum or gallery. The location of it on a wall or subway without permission only makes it unsolicited art. As such, it can be called vandalism, but again, this does not disqualify it as art.
Rather the categorization of graffiti art as unsolicited art that is vandalism only justifies a removal of it from the surface. On the other hand, the vandalism aspect of graffiti art can be considered as a uniqueness and not a detracting feature of the art form because as vandalism, graffiti art is very temporary. A piece which might be sixty feet long, twelve feet high, and take twenty to thirty cans of paint and at least eight hours to produce might be gone in a matter of minutes.
Another challenge to graffiti art is that it is forced upon the public because people have no say in its production despite the fact that public funds are used to remove it. Graffitists counter with the argument that buildings, billboards, campaign ads, and flyers are also forced on the public in a similar manner.
Spraycan art suffers other criticisms because of the generic characterization of all graffiti as being gang related and simply a matter of tagging. However, only 20% of graffiti is gang related [ed. note: according to Walsh, who mentions this number in _Graffito_. Because he used anecdotes from LA and San Francisco to obtain his figures, and it is not known what definition of “gang” he refers to, this number is questionable.], and it should be noted that not all instances of graffiti art are good examples of the art form; just like not all framed artistic creations are good examples of painting or even worthy of being called art.
Graffiti is also criticized for being too hard to understand, but certainly this cannot keep graffiti art from being art anymore than the obscurity of abstract art or Picasso’s cubism prevents either one of those hard to understand art forms from being considered as art. Goldman’s aesthetic theory is of use to clarify the problem of location and presentation in relation to graffiti art.
Goldman claims that art takes us to other worlds in a manner that is quite fulfilling sensually and aesthetically. This removal from the real world is enhanced by the mood of the gallery or the dark setting of the opera house. Most of the time when we encounter art and are transported by it to other worlds, we are in a location in which we expect this to happen. However, this is not the case with graffiti art. For it appears suddenly and in unexpected places. Thus, when we apprehend it, we are transported to these other worlds at a time and in a place that we are not accustomed to doing so.
We are not used to art approaching us outside of conventional settings such as a museum. Instead of the audience going to view the art form, spraycan art reaches out to the viewer; sometimes in a startling manner. One can only imagine how shocking and surprising it might have been to see a colorful train moving swiftly through the dingy stations and drab boroughs of New York City. Spraycan art is an art form that is completely open to the public because it is not hemmed in by the confines or “laws” of the gallery system or the museum. Perhaps, this is its only crime.
The institutional theory, in brief, mandates that art is that which is displayed by the art world to be accepted as art as determined by the members of the art world. Since graffiti art is not permanently established in any galleries or museums, often it is argued that it is not art, but even this criticism falls short because there are instances where the art world has recognized graffiti art as art. In the 1970’s, galleries in New York and Europe brought graffiti to the attention of the art world.
Lee Quinones, a prominent writer in New York and one of the few graffitists to bomb, i.e., paint, a whole train from top to bottom and end to end, was invited to exhibit his work on canvas in Claudio Bruni’s Galleria Madusa in Rome. Likewise, Yaki Kornblit of Denmark, an art dealer, helped to launch the careers of several graffitists during the years of 1984 and 1985 at Museum Boyanano von Beuningen in Rotterdam. Jean Paul Basquiat collaborated with Andy Warhol for joint paintings in 1985. And recently, in 1996, Barry McGee, also known by his tag, “Twist”, was commissioned to do a graffiti art mural for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
As graffiti was introduced to the art world, two trends happened. One, the art world of collectors, dealers, curators, artists, and the like helped graffitists evolve in style, presumably by sharing their artistic knowledge with the newcomers. Two, the exposure helped to expand graffiti to all parts of the world.
Furthermore, cities such as LA and Chicago have recognized the talent of graffitists by providing a means for them to do legal graffiti art which has helped to foster the art form and lessened the amount of graffiti art that appears in the city as vandalism.
Likewise, organizations of graffiti artists such as the Phun Factory or the United Graffiti Artists in New York solicit places to do legal graffiti such as abandoned buildings, businesses, or community walls in parks. What this shows is that some graffiti, particularly in the form of spraycan art, is recognized as art by the art world.
This recognition of graffiti art by the art world is important for two reasons. One because of the social, political, and economic influence of the art world, its recognition of graffiti art as art helps to increase the awareness and overall understanding of the art form. Two, this recognition prevents the sweeping generalization that all graffiti is vandalism and therefore something that always should be eradicated. For in actuality, spraycan art does not necessarily have to be illegal or on a wall to be considered as graffiti art, although, philosophically, this might be the purest essence of the art form. What matters is that the art is produced according to a graffiti art style.
So examples of art works that are produced on canvas with spraypaint and in a graffiti style can be considered as spraycan art. And the exhortation that graffiti should be on a visible private or public space in order to be in its optimal context is not so much to glorify any illegalities but rather, to highlight the idea that graffiti is meant to be completely accessible to the public for immediate appreciation.
Also, the increasing acceptance of graffiti art is not due so much to its adoption of traditional techniques. On the contrary, books, magazines, movies, and the artists themselves have helped people to understand how and where graffiti harmonizes with and goes a step beyond traditional methods.
For example, wildstyle changes with each artist’s interpretation of the alphabet, but it also relies on the use of primary colors, fading, foreground and background, and the like to create these letters. Thus, it is important and valuable to characterize some forms of graffiti as art because this challenges people, who are conditioned to accept art works as art only if they are created in a traditional manner and appear in institutional setting, to appreciate art works that originate and develop outside of these constraints. In doing so, people come to realize graffiti is not an art form that is done just for the sake of rebellious destruction. Quite the opposite, it is an innovative and truly original art form that is meant to bring an aesthetic pleasure to the audience like any other recognized art form.
In summary, some forms of graffiti become art according to four criteria. First, graffiti art is separated from everyday graffiti markings by the artist’s intention to produce a work of art. Second, graffiti art has an established history of development in style and technique. Third, graffiti art even has been recognized by the art world. A fourth criterion is that the public response to graffiti art indicates that it is art. Whether or not all of the public agrees that graffiti art is good, bad, or extremely valuable is a different discussion about evaluation and not whether or not graffiti art is art. The evaluative concerns actually play more into where, when, and how graffiti art should be displayed.
The above criteria are defensible in so much as they have been used to legitimize other artistic forms. However, what appears to be the most significant answer to describing how and why graffiti art is art is the notion of understanding where the artist and the audience synchronize in agreement about a particular work being an example of art. It is a matter of comprehending what makes a creation art for the artist and what makes this same creation art for the audience. When and according to what criteria that these two viewpoints coincide is what thoroughly determines graffiti art as art. And like other art forms, graffiti art is definitively art when both the artist and the audience agree on the works ability to provide maximal aesthetic satisfaction. While it is almost impossible to formulate a theory of necessary conditions or rules specifying when graffiti art is art, I think it is sufficient to draw on already established aesthetic theories and criteria to point out that some forms of graffiti do qualify as art.
Therefore, graffiti in the form of spraycan art is art. It has form, color, and other base properties as well as an arrangement of these elements into structures that qualify it aesthetically as being art. Just doing something with spraypaint might make it graffiti, but it does not necessarily qualify it as art or graffiti art. In addition, when the spraycan art is analyzed according to the artist’s intention and value to audience, there is even more evidence to suggest that it is genuine art. The only obstacle that has hindered the general acceptance of graffiti art is its location and presentation. However, the instances of acceptance of graffiti art by the art world shows that conventional methods of presentation are not all that matters in determining if something is art. And graffiti art is not to be disqualified as art simply because it might appear unsolicited. In short, graffiti in the form of spray can art is art like any other work that might be found in a gallery or a museum.
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