Sometimes great cultural breakthroughs are watershed events, celebrated far and wide. When evolutionary forces conspired to mesh Appalachian hill music, Mississippi River Delta blues, and big-city boogie woogie and create a wholly new cultural entity in Elvis Presley, the country duly rejoiced. Other cultural milestones, however, arrive not at all with a bang. They percolate underground for forty years or more, roiling through several generations of evolution, adoption, innovation, and cultural adaptation, until they find a more gradual, quieter, and less publicized acceptance by the mainstream.
Such an anticlimax was the subtext of a peculiar moment during the most recent Academy Awards ceremony this past February. Only a half-hour into the event, presenter Justin Timberlake leaned into the mic, before announcing the winners of the best animated film awards, and deadpanned, "I, uh--… I’m Banksy." Then he straightened and said, "Wow, that felt good." The cryptic joke provoked mild and scattered laughter from the bemused audience, while another smaller, more select and distant subset of American culture—such as many Hollywood elites, who had become collectors after Banksy’s controversial Los Angeles 2006 show “Barely Legal”—rejoiced. At long last, Street Art had hit the mainstream.
The immediate impetus for Timberlake’s joke was Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film nominated for the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature that was made by the street artist Banksy and that much of which took place in and around Los Angeles. The film is notable for leaving the audience in the dark not only about Banksy’s true identity (his face is blacked out and voice altered throughout the film), but also about whether the actual subject of the film—a filmmaker-cum-street artist named Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. Mr. Brainwash—is or is not a hoax perpetrated by Banksy and others. This sort of “culture jamming,”—i.e., subverting, for political reasons, of mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, the art market and Hollywood)—is a hallmark of artists who work in Banksy’s chosen milieu and medium. After all, Banksy first came to international attention in the summer of 2005 for a series of mildly political guerrilla art works executed, by the artist and his assistants, in view of security forces on the Israeli West Bank barrier separating Israel.
But while Timberland’s joke may represent Banksy’s emergence into mainstream awareness, it also was an unprecedented mainstream nod to the legitimacy of graffiti culture and the entire street art movement, a nod that had been many, many years in coming. Exactly how many years is difficult to say, of course. Public scratch marks—“graffiti” derives from the Italian word sgraffiare, “to scratch,” and before that from the Greek gráphein, “to write”—have been found in urban settlements forever. The equivalent of “for a good time call _____” has been found in graffiti among the ruins of ancient Ephesus, Rome, and Pompeii. And while this shows that the impulse for public scratching and writing is essentially human, over the centuries these markings rarely, if ever, rose to the level of “art.”
The idea of graffiti as an art form (that is, street art) has a murkier history. While scholars note the avant-garde art adoption of graffiti forms as early as the 1960s—in the work of the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism starting 1961 and of New York artists like John Fekner in the later 1960s—much of this work is coolly conceptual and somewhat lacking in the expressionistic verve, stylistic idiosyncracies, and other unique conventions of later street art. For my money, a more intriguing point of origin for the styles, conventions, materials, and means of expression of what we know today as street art can be found in the placas, or "wall writing," of los Sureños, or the Chicano street gangs of Los Angeles.
Starting in the 1960s, mysterious gang markings, usually made from black spray paint from the aerosol cans that had become increasingly common in the 1950s, proliferated all across Southern California. When I was a kid in the 1970s, you would find these hieroglyphs on the walls of city buildings, on suburban fences and playground walls, and under freeway overpasses or in flood control channels. Such graffiti served the purpose of marking territory and advertising a gang’s merits (over those of its rival Hispanic, African-American, and other gang), and also of culture jamming the dominant white culture of L.A.—i.e., sticking it in the face of the moneyed interests that ruled these kids’ lives. Each gang competed to develop more elaborate artistic flourishes—i.e, artistic style—in order to advertise what the gang was all about. In an era before the hyperawareness of gang culture—before N.W.A., Boyz n the Hood, and violence-glorifying video games focused on gang life—to many these markings were horribly evocative, infused with an abstract sense of menace and threat.
But the graffiti was not just advertisement. Sureño gang markings developed out of a long history of struggle against marginalization and prejudice. Beatrice Griffith, in her book from the late 1940s, American Me, describes the emergence of a proto-gangster lifestyle among the zoot suit pachucos who fought with servicemen stationed in L.A. during World War II and eventually rioted after the murder of a young Latino man in 1943. According to Susan A. Phillip’s history on L.A.-gang and hip-hop graffiti, Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., the graffiti of L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s was a means of communications that expressed something about hybrid cultural status of many of the young gang members making the marks. “Pachuco, cholo, pocho,” she writes. “Africans in America. People stuck in the spots betwixt and between cultures may be part of things but seem to belong nowhere…. Hybridity creates new social forms within the ‘layered conception of the modern world,’ balancing modernity and tradition.” This self-awareness among gangsters of their hybrid life led them to develop hybrid forms of communication that increasingly resembled art. Or, as Phillips quotes anthropologist Nestor Garcia Canclini: “Graffiti is a syncretic and transcultural medium. Some graffiti fuse word and image with a discontinuous style: the crowding together of diverse authors’ signs on a single wall is like an artisanal version of the fragmented and incongruent….”
For a skinny, faceless kid from Bristol, England, like Banksy to take on the style and working methods of the street-savvy Sureño wallbangers, and for him to come to Los Angeles forty years later to make a movie and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from sales of his graffiti-infused works of art, is of course ironic. But it is also, in our increasingly hybrid, synthesized, mishmashy, and multicultural world, somehow completely fitting.
Michael Fallon is a guest blogger for Utne.com. He is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.
Both images are licensed under Creative Commons.
The author owes a debt of gratitude to the photographer Howard Gribble (a.k.a. Kid Deuce), whose Flickr photoset of 1970s-era L.A. gang graffiti (some examples of which are linked to above) is a treasure trove of visual information.