Bangers and Real Writers

New perspectives on graffiti

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While museums and galleries fill up with tame 'political' art accompanied by careful artists' statements in theory-speak, the real political painting is showing up on highway underpasses and warehouse walls. Graffiti, from quickly-scrawled 'tags' to intricate, multicolor, muralistic 'pieces' (short for 'masterpieces'), ignites more pro-and-con passion than a museumful of Mapplethorpes.

In the recent book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, contributors trace the mutation of the idea of public art from 'statues in the park' to abstract outdoor sculptures and finally to a new and evolving concept: public art as anything that fosters dialogue between artists and community members -- from performances to collaborative murals to public rituals. Graffiti, when properly understood, can speak eloquently of collective urban realities and thus qualify as new genre public art.

In an issue of Public Art Review focusing on graffiti culture, contributors explore the complex and fascinating social aspects of graffiti -- aspects that were missed during the vogue of spray can art in the downtown New York galleries around 1980. One of the premier 'writers' (as graffiti artists call themselves), Chaka Jenkins, notes that graffiti makers come from all races and economic groups; the shared culture of graffiti is a potent force for ethnic harmony. And writers point out again and again how easily they travel between the streets and 'legitimate' art venues (many have been to, or end up in, art school).

While many writers get off on the illegality and impermanence of their art -- on the excellent graffiti Web site Art Crimes, the writer called Schmoo likens graffiti to improvisational theater -- others appreciate the creation of legal spaces for doing ambitious 'pieces.' (Chicago leads the way in the acceptance and promotion of legalized 'graff art.') All emphasize the almost medieval process of apprenticeship and respectful learning required to create beautiful 'pieces' under less-than-ideal conditions, and most decry the ubiquitous 'tag-bangers' who leave quick scrawls on mailboxes and street signs. And they diss the crude gang signs that make graffiti opponents nervous. On Art Crimes, the writer called Kairos estimates that the signs account for less than ten percent of graffiti.

For these writers and their advocates, graffiti isn't a social problem, it's a social world in which serious art and impulsive scrawling, craftsmanship and crime, youth and tradition are mixed up together in one big messy masterpiece.