Vandalism versus Self-Expression

By Marisa Makin

First, you’ll have to wait 45 minutes in line amid a crowd of west-coast hipsters, boarders, businessmen and conservative-types alike — everyone wants to see this. The excited chatter you’ll hear will only serve to heighten the anticipation of seeing Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art’s latest and greatest installation celebrating graffiti culture. Despite the very clear differences in the buzzing crowd, they all gathered for one common reason: whether you support it or not, graffiti is enticing.

MOCA presented Art in the Streets April 17-August 8 this year. One of the first exhibitions to feature a history of graffiti and all things related to street art, MOCA’s partnership with the Brooklyn Museum created a “major record of public art over the past half century,” said Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Leman in a press release. Art in the Streets showcased work from street artists Fab 5 Freddy from New York, Margaret Kilgallen from San Francisco, Shepard Fairey from Los Angeles, and JR from Paris. One of the most prominent artists, Banksy, was given his own section. Along with artists, the exhibit highlighted photographers and filmmakers who have detailed street art in their work. MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch said in a press release that he hoped the exhibit would “position the work of the most influential artists to emerge from street culture in the context of contemporary art history.” If nothing else, Art in the Streets brought graffiti to the forefront of art critics and museum-goers alike — the exhibit drew in over 200,000 visitors in Los Angeles. During the exhibit’s run at MOCA, graffiti increased in the area, causing controversy about whether the exhibit was to blame. The exhibit was scheduled to continue at the Brooklyn Museum, but was later cancelled.

When I attended MOCA, the very first display I saw was a corridor-long mural of birds, fish and skunks, made intentionally ugly. On a giant floor-to-ceiling wall, two dead birds hung limp by ropes around their necks. As an opening piece, it set the tone for the exhibits offbeat, dark and often offensive art. Next, I entered a corridor that explained the origins of graffiti and graffiti culture. Mounted on the wall were dates, photos and stories of the influences that helped shape street art as it is today, starting from the 1970s. From a small history of the infamous Los Angeles gang the Crips, to a wall of hundreds of cans of different spray paints, the exhibit presented street art as organic and lively — as a natural extension of stoner culture into its niche art foray.

I found myself laughing instead of disapproving when I heard how a street team tagged 200 New York subway cars in a matter of hours. These artists weren’t rebels without a cause to me — they were achievers of something special. When surrounded by colourful, comical little street art figures, most of which were super cute, Art in the Streets presented a playful and innocent side to this rebellion. The exhibit legitimized street art, portraying it as more than just a hobby for teenagers but as a necessary means of self-expression, as real and beautiful as heartfelt ballet and as intentional and deliberate as a well-phrased haiku.

“A painting tells a story on paper, and graffiti tells a story too,” said Steve, a 22-year-old Vancouver-based street artist who asked that his name not be published. “People just don’t see past where [the story is being told].”

Societal conceptions of urban graffiti are all over the map. While some view graffiti as the flourishing of urban art and expression, others view it as a sign of generational decay or a lack of respect for others’ property. After all, the people forced to view the graffiti didn’t ask to see public displays of expression. According to the City of Calgary website, “Graffiti is an eyesore that ruins the natural and architectural beauty of a city.” But has the city ever considered a difference between racist remarks scrawled on the side of a train and a mural portraying a dove flying from open hands?

The city’s website asks for citizens to call 9-1-1 if they see an act of graffiti or other vandalism in progress. While this may seem extreme, Constable Dave Laddick, the graffiti coordinator of the Calgary Police Service, said otherwise. “Any crime in progress you should be calling 9-1-1. It’s a criminal act, you don’t want to let that just slide by.”

He continued, explaining that adults caught could pay up to $5,000 in fines, or even face jail time for up to two years. “What determines the scope of [the charges] is how prolific the vandal is.”

Surprisingly, unlike what was implied in MOCA’s exhibit of the New York subway cars, gangs do not do the majority of graffiti, at least in Calgary. “We have very low gang graffiti in Calgary,” Laddick added. “Most of our graffiti has been referred to as hip-hop graffiti.”

Hip-hop graffiti is famous for its identifiable font. Most graffiti of this type spells out messages or tags. The art form’s correlation with hip-hop culture began with the controversial expression of rap artists. Graffiti as a form of art has always had a history of controversy — a controversy based on location as well as content. It’s always a matter of artist versus shop owner, rebels versus police, or creative expression versus conservative citizen. To some, graffiti is art. To others, it’s simply a colourful form of vandalism. In places like Belfast, Northern Ireland, murals depicting historic Irish as well as worldwide struggles mark the sides of buildings. The art is supported, financed and completed by the community. Conversely, Calgary doesn’t see a large distinction between the two. On the city’s website, the administration defines graffiti as “Words, figures, letters, drawings or stickers applied, scribbled, scratched, etched, sprayed, or attached on or to a surface.” It’s nearly identical to the dictionary definition of vandalism.

Vancouver artist Steve has a different definition of street art. “Graffiti is art when it’s put there with a purpose, when it’s put there for other people to enjoy it, or question it.” For Steve, the difference between art and public disturbance is the intent behind it, whether it’s done for others to enjoy or to stake out a territory. “Tags can really annoy me. Haven’t we moved past that? I think tags are what give graffiti a bad name,” he added.

Dean Michaud, a 23-year-old business student from Mount Royal University, feels differently about tagging. “To see the same tag, stencil, or print in multiple countries, I feel is very symbolic of globalization and our seemingly growing societal unionization. Because street art holds no real boundaries, the experience and its effect can be the same from country to country.”

“It’s a liquid form of culture,” he continues. “Street art is mobile in the sense that it can be done anywhere.”

Tags are considered the birth of urban street art. Starting in New York in the 1960s, writing your name or a clever version of it in or on the subway started to gain steam as a movement and it has yet to slow down. While urban graffiti still includes tags under its umbrella, it has expanded to include meaningful, possibly political images, clever quotations and even elaborate sculptures placed secretly in public places at night. The movement has essentially grown into art through the intention of the artists themselves. Since the movement has grown, street artists have become famous worldwide. The most dynamic artists were featured in MOCA’s exhibit, but one among them received his own section: British street artist Banksy.

Banksy, one of the most notorious (in a good way) artists of the moment, seems to come from a different place than many young street artists. His goal isn’t to gain fame, or infamy for that matter, but to awaken the world to the ironic injustices that plague our society and our culture. He’s actually gone to extreme measures to keep his true identity unknown to this point, further proving that he’s not in it for the fame. His art beautifully depicts the hard truths of our culture in a uniquely contemporary way, and his murals, often placed on public property, are well thought out and planned. In Banksy’s 2010 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, art collector Wendy Asher praises the success of his first commercial art show: “Everyone I told about it bought something. Like people who have Picassos and, you know, Mondreans . . . I mean, serious collections.” Whether Asher’s art collectors bought Banksy’s pieces only for the controversial appeal or for the quality of the piece itself, the fact that the art show was a success indicates the value of street art.

Banksy’s section at Art in the Streets generated quite a buzz from museum-goers. I won’t forget the young African boy who stood among other child labourers and glared back at me from a Banksy painting. Wearing a very American “I Hate Mondays” printed T-shirt, ripped from being overworn, the boy was famished and dirty. His eyes disturbingly conveyed no emotion; they’re blank; the boy is numb. Clearly a child slave, the satiric painting acknowledged the very real sentiment about the ignorance of western culture, seen in the above picture. As pointed out in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy’s pieces comment on “how easy it is to ignore the things right in front of us.” North America shudders at the thought of the workweek, while under-aged slaves lose their childhood producing goods that will likely make their way back into our economy. Banksy’s mission is to highlight our ignorance and change the way we perceive our culture. “It’s not about the hype, it’s not about the money,” says Banksy in his documentary. While some will call Banksy a vandal merely by definition, most, especially after seeing the impact of his work, would sooner call him an artist whose canvas happens to be the street.

“At the end of the day I’m all for [street art],” 23-year-old student Michaud said, applauding the ability of anonymous artists to comment on society. “I feel it adds a lot of character to otherwise bleak urban landscapes. I like seeing or reading various messages I come across in everyday life. [It] puts a smile on my face.”

Michaud’s thoughts echoed the initial critiques of the original 1970s New York street art. In a time of economic depression, the city was in a state of decay. Street art was positively received as it added colourful and interesting beauty to the deteriorating streets. “It was thought to be brightening up the place,” University of Calgary urban studies professor Byron Miller said of early New York street art. So how did graffiti go from being viewed as a positive contribution to the urban landscape to being something very negative? “There was a lot of concern, particularly by conservative politicians, that this art gave the image of disorder, of a city that was chaotic, where the local government was not in control,” Miller explained. According to him, police started to crack down on graffiti art, ticketing and arresting artists, beginning the common pattern of authority versus graffiti artists that “changed the societal framework of how graffiti was viewed.”

In the end, it seems as though those whose interests rely on the perception of an orderly, well-managed city won’t find a place in their hearts for graffiti. It’s those of us who don’t rely on these illusions who find more value in street art. “Those who aren’t typically concerned with things like order and property value and so on, and look at the world as a place that could be very interesting, tend to have a much more accepting view of graffiti,” Miller added.

Sometimes the concerns of order and property value overlap with the desire for self-expression. In 2009, the city funded an initiative to allow Millennium Park goers to use a park wall as a creative outlet for graffiti. The goal was to keep the project maintained and ordered while making room for the controversial art form. But after two days of the project, the city shut down the initiative. The backlash from artists led the entire park to be covered in derogatory illustrations and slang. This failed project, along with the 2009 spree of racist symbols and slogans sprawled on several schools and synagogues, never resolved the question of vandalism versus self-expression. Even the recent vandalizing of McMahon Stadium’s billboard demonstrates the use of graffiti to take freedom of speech one step too far.

Constable Laddick offered a solution to the question’s grey area: “If [graffiti] is done with permission, it’s art. If it’s done without permission, it’s vandalism. When it’s done with permission you don’t have a victim and, without a victim, you don’t have an offense.” The law helps to differentiate between political murals and territorial backlashes like the vandalized McMahon Stadium billboard, though the law still maintains the sense of black and white right and wrong. Constable Laddick asks for citizens to call 3-1-1 to report non-commissioned graffiti so that it can be cleaned up, and to call 9-1-1 if the vandalism is in progress.

Street art questions culture from a unique standpoint. For many, the only barrier between street art and traditional art is the illegal medium of presentation. When examining street art, like any traditional art, you often grasp the obvious emotional tone but you’re left with some questions of your own — some room for personal interpretation. You’ll feel the same reaction when viewing a colourful, mixed-up Picasso in the Glenbow Museum as when you’re looking at a painting of a stoned apple in the Art in the Streets exhibit. Why did the artists make the choices that they did? What message is this piece of art trying to convey? As we were taught in elementary school, there’s no right answer — art is personal.

“The thing that I would stress,” Miller added, “is that there is no innate nature to graffiti art. It all depends on how we as a society choose to receive this art.”

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