Thursday, September 1, 2011

Art Crimes

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Struggling through poor articulation, here’s an attempt to argue against the dominant view of society on the subject of street vandalism--which I like to call habitat re-decoration--expressed nicely by an anonymous conservative web-site Graffiti is a crime. Graffiti is vandalism. Graffiti is not art. The same web-site went on to say that graffiti damages surfaces to the point of permanently changing the character of the surface and the character of the neighborhood. This restructuring of ones environment is at the heart of the appeal of graffiti. Without much of the usual, criminal anti-establishment rhetoric I’ll discuss street art, focusing mainly on stencils, and it’s validity as art. Of course how can one discuss illegal art without criticizing the system that makes it illegal? A good tag can be just as stimulating and moving as a Durer or Picasso and just as confusing as a Duchamp. And it’s really the wondering why that moves me when I look at a piece. Why did the artist do this? What is he or she, this anonymous criminal, trying to tell me.

The term graffiti derives from the Greek graphein (to write) meaning a drawing or scribbling on a flat surface, originally referring to marks found on ancient Roman architecture. Although examples of graffiti have been found scattered across the globe from Pompeii to the Maya site of Tikal in Mesoamerica. Presently these marks range from simple lines on bathroom walls to complex, colorful, multi-layered compositions covering entire buildings. An important aim of street art is to reawaken a sense of wonder about our urban environment. Seemingly meaningless stencils or free-style graffiti attempt to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the art and their relationship with their surroundings. Can a wall be an empty canvass? A complex colorful tag provides a free, light-hearted counterpart to beer or car billboards, because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious. Frequent encounters with graffiti provoke thought and possibly frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewers perception and attention to detail. Some street art has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the piece. The various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

Converting an act of petty vandalism into an act of artistic passion is another driving force of graffiti. Recognizing political or social injustices and desiring some form of social commentary, these “vandals”--without the dollar to buy space for expression of often times repressed viewpoints--must resort to bravely restructuring their environment. Street artists are individuals that see freedom of expression as an inherent right, not as a clause on an amendment on a scrap of yellowed paper. Their medium becomes the spray can, the jar of wheat paste, or the sticker. Their canvas, anything flat and visible. These politically motivated pieces often criticize the division between rich and poor. Injustices and inequalities abound and are waiting only for the artist behind the ski-mask to reveal them, without cover charge, to the eyes of the public. Of course, there are men and women out there with no political motivation.

This leads us back to the Rat series, done by an Englishman known as Banksy, who was the inspiration for this essay. I found his web site while surfing for information about a contemporary artist who was immediately forgotten when I saw Banksy’s work. His stencils were creative, fun, and full of satire. His art shows that humor is also a large part of graffiti. ”People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access.”(Banksy) He attempts to slow people down or to get them to stop all together and have an extraordinary thought amongst the mundane drudgery of modern life.

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Graffiti is an activity which conforms to no rules, no design by committee. True graffiti is just putting work you want out on the street for everyone to see without compromise. No censorship, no gallery owner to reject you. Its about a pure manifestation of your art and ideas whether people like it or not. Graffiti is about showing people that life isn’t about Point A and Point B; it’s about the space between. Nowadays the average person doesn’t take time to appreciate his surroundings and the idea of being here now. It’s about seeing the novelty and diversity of life from moment to moment. From the Eiffel tower to the gas-station restroom around the block. Graffiti is a desire for creativity, free expression and validation in life.

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