Bangers and Real Writers

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
, 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
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

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.

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