A brief overview of an underestimated art form: Graffiti

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In the eyes of the law, graffiti is vandalism and is therefore illegal. As it can obscure important signs that are necessary for public welfare, it can be a safety hazard. In addition, it can be seen as a sign of neglect that attracts criminal activity which can cause residents to feel unsafe or contribute to a negative community image. The war against graffiti was declared by the mayor of New York in the 1980s, Edward Koch. Writers found it increasingly difficult to write on subway trains and public spaces, forcing established artists to revert to building roofs or canvases. The War on Graffiti’s tactics presaged a generation’s experience of law enforcement and personal freedom, beginning in the city that incubated one of the most important popular art movements of the 20th century. New york spent three hundred million dollars in their attempts to run graffiti-free trains, over the span of seventeen years, during a period when the subway barely functioned and the city teetered on the brink of insolvency. At the time the fight began, teenagers were also being arrested for breakdancing in subway stations, and throwing un-permitted parties in the asphalt schoolyards of the Bronx. Taken collectively, these three activities also represent the birth of hip-hop, the single most influential sub-culture created in this or any country in the last half-century. It has midwifed today’s era of epic incarceration, quality of life offences, zero tolerance policies, prejudicial gang databases, and three-strike laws. 

 

In the midst of New York City’s “War on Graffiti,”, in an act of faith utterly incommensurate with the city’s public demonization of graffiti writers, a group of teenagers named SHY 147, DAZE, MIN and DURO met with MTA official Richard Ravitch to propose a deal: Give the writers of New York City one train line to adorn with their vibrant aerosol murals, and they would leave the rest alone. Let them paint for six months, then let the public vote on the merits of their contribution. One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if New York City had agreed to the naïve, visionary truce those four teenagers offered, over thirty years ago now. With a handful of scholarships and a press release, the “graffiti plague” could have been alchemized into a landmark public art program that would have been adapted by other cities with the same zeal that the zero tolerance policy has been. Could thousands of lives have been altered, hundreds of millions of dollars better spent? Instead, writers are vilified as sociopaths, drug addicts and monsters (specifically by the NY law enforcement’s public profiling and description of artists as “black, brown, or other, in that order,”). ​​The War on Graffiti turned misdemeanours into felonies, community service into jail time. It put German Shepherds to work patrolling the train yards; Mayor Koch once suggested an upgrade to wolves. Nationally, writers have been sentenced to prison terms as long as eight years, and ordered to pay six-figure restitutions. This sentence is equal to that of an adult in possession of a firearm with murderous intent. 

 

Although modern graffiti didn’t appear until the 1960s in Philadelphia, its first origins can be traced back to cave drawings thousands of years prior, followed by the Ancient Romans and Greeks that wrote their names and protest poems on buildings. Early exponents of graffiti in art included the French artist Jean Debuffet who incorporated tags and graphic motifs into his paintings, although, the ‘father’ of modern day graffiti was a high school student named Darryl McCray (‘Cornbread’) who fell in love with a girl named Cynthia Custuss. In a failed bid for her attention, he wrote ‘Cornbread Loves Cynthia’ across walls in 1967. He enjoyed it so much that he continued to tag Philadelphia with his name. The increasing popularity of graffiti as an art form has won commercial success for its artists and a regular presence in pop culture and the contemporary art world, with young people playing a key part in shaping this contemporary movement. Graffiti exploded into the New York underground in the 70s, with subway windows so covered that they were impossible to see out of. Its appeal lay in the low financial requirements and the rare opportunity to voice what is often excluded from or misrepresented by the media. Street gangs began to mark their territory, with taggers working in ‘crews’ to avoid getting caught. The art form became increasingly appreciated, with art galleries beginning to feature works soon after its eruption in New York.

 

The significance of graffiti was formerly restricted to ‘barrios’ (neighbourhoods), it is becoming more commonly recognised as a form of public art, embraced by museums, critics and institutions. However the importance of the form’s accessibility and inclusion relates to the identity and community in such artwork. Essentially, the purpose of graffiti is artistic expression; it allows a writer to express political opinions, pay tribute to their heritage, use cultural or religious imagery, and provide counter narratives to dominant portrayals of life. It’s association with subcultures as the rebel against authority generalises this tool of resistance, reclamation and empowerment. 

 

Graffiti has been a springboard to international fame for numerous street artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American artist who rose to success during the 1980s as a key influence of the neo-expressionism movement. He cited his concerns regarding his role as a “gallery mascot”; not everyone knew of the young artist’s frenetic and rebellious paintings that depicted the Black community in unprecedented ways, but everyone still seeks association with him. Similarly, a French graffiti artist – Blek le Rat (born Xavier Prou in 1952) remains hugely influential and has been described as the “Father of stencil graffiti” having begun his career by painting stencils of rats throughout Parisian streets. He described the rat as “the only free animal in the city”, and one which “spreads the plague everywhere, just like street art”. A visit to New York City influenced his works, although he chose a style that he felt better suited the differing architecture of his city. Banksy alluded to his works, stating: “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well. Only twenty years earlier”. Banksy is a pseudonym for the England-based street artist, political activist and film director whose true identity remain unconfirmed as a subject of great speculation. His stencilled political and humorous style has garnered him international fame with his works selling for upwards of one thousand GBP.

 

In the rubble-strewn streets of Gaza, an unexpected figure emerges – a playful kitten adorned with a sassy red bow. Banksy’s signature touch adds a splash of amusement to a landscape of devastation with a facetious nod to resilience amidst chaos. The surrounding ruins tell a deeper, sadder tale of a city bearing the scars of conflict. Banksy uses his street art to capture Gaza’s heartbreaking reality and sprinkle it with a dash of hope and humour. It’s a bittersweet blend of artistry, offering a momentary escape while urging us not to forget. In text accompanying the image on his official website, Banksy writes: “A local man came up and said ‘Please – what does this mean?’ I explained I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website – but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.” Another of his stencilled images shows what appears to be a watch tower transformed into a children’s fairground ride with swings.

 

Verity James

Peter Symonds College

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