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Graffiti vs. Street Art

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From cave drawings to hieroglyphics to the streets of New York, graffiti and street art have made their marks as the most ancient form of resilient communication. Whether viewed through the lens of skeptics or supporters, the practice remains in the gray area of legality, despite it’s remarkable positive artistic and creative worth. Graffiti has many unsung beneficial traits, and encompasses an entire urban culture, as is highlighted in The New York Times article “Writings on the Wall (Art is too, for Now)” by Robin Finn.

Graffiti is portrayed as defacement and destruction of communities, however often times it acts as a positive influence to urban communities. The Australian Institution of Criminology defines the many dynamics and forms of graffiti. These include tagger graffiti, desk graffiti, gang related, political, and urban artistic graffiti (Louis). Often, all forms of graffiti are generalized into one category, and are all associated with tagger graffiti. Tagger graffiti is when the person forms his or her own “graffiti name”, usually a short nickname, and projects it into highly visible locations. This is done for recognition and notoriety, and is usually made up of condensed letters. Because the purpose of this form of graffiti is to be seen by many people, busy urban areas are prime location for tags. Billboards, shop fronts, trucks, and walls are all popular places for the tags, and thus tag graffiti is what is seen most often by society, leading them to automatically link it with all graffiti and urban displays of art in general (Louis).

Many city and state governments have passed strict legislation against the practice of art in public places. New York City government states “No person shall write, paint or draw any inscription, figure or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure or any other real or personal property owned, operated or maintained by a public benefit corporation, the city of New York or any agency or instrumentality thereof or by any person, firm, or corporation, or any personal property maintained on a city street or other city-owned property.” (City and State Anti-Graffiti Legislation). Because of graffiti’s link to hip hop culture, and hip-hop culture’s association with low-income areas, tagger graffiti has also become a symbol for crime in urban neighborhoods. This association fuels modern day society into the destruction of all street art, no matter what form. The city of Sydney, Australia has established a graffiti management policy in which government and citizens remove graffiti quickly, but also offer avenues of space for those hoping to post bills and notices are allowed by law to do so (City of Sydney Graffiti Management Policy). California penal code 594 explains that based on the dollar amount it takes for a graffiti piece to be removed, the punishment for committing a crime of vandalism ranges from charges of misdemeanor to felony, and fines of four hundred to fifty thousand dollars (California Penal Code 594). Street artists and taggers alike suffer from the enforcement and consequences of these policies laws, but yet the art form seems to continuously muster more and more attention and fame.

However, not all graffiti follows the invasive and unattractive nature of tagger graffiti. Those enthusiasts looking to be set apart from the stereotype that tagger graffiti holds for modern urban artists have taken to the more refined skill and title of “street art”. George C. Stowers of graffiti.org explains that street art began developing in the late 60’s, when taggers were caught up in the world of tagging subway trains in New York City. Through an artist’s progression, the striving to be both neater and more skillful emerged an organized and dynamic world of street art. The rising hip-hop culture also contributed to the growth of street art, quickly adopting the act as one of its identifiable characteristics (Stowers). This association between hip hop music and graffiti caused the art to flourish in the 1990’s when New York City faced large amounts young hopefuls, drawn to the hip-hop lifestyle. The art continues to develop into its more contemporary form, which is rapidly growing and transforming in this decade.

An abandoned factory located in Long Island City, New York, 5pointz is decorated from corner to corner with colorful displays of murals, or “pieces”. Pieces are the most common form of street art and require heavy creativity, concentration, and premeditation to complete (Australian Institute of Criminology). They are typically comprised with large posters of images or words that are attached to a wall with wheat paste. The 5pointz factory has been a growing and growing spot for up and coming, as well as already established street artists. Nicknamed “The Institute of Higher Burning” by its curator Jonathan Cohen, street artists, photographers, tourists, dancers, filmmakers, even famous rappers and musicians travel there each day to witness the many aerosol artists at work (Finn).

The factory represents tremendous culture of New York hip hop and urban culture, one of the most famous pieces being a large wheat paste poster of Biggie Smalls, native New York rapper and influential hip hop musician. However, the factory occupies the space of Jerry Wolkoff, who feels it has come time to demolish the Mecca of graffiti and turn it into real estate. Although he once condoned the street art, and has allowed it to flourish in the building for twenty years, Wolkoff has given notice that the beloved “Mecca” of graffiti will be demolished sometime this year. With this announcement has come an online petition “Show Ur Love To 5pointz”, and it has already garnered over 11,000 signatures and comments from concerned street art lovers. “These walls are no different than a museum” says 38 year old, Jonathan Cohen, who spends his time monitoring artists and assigning empty walls and roof spaces to incoming artists (Finn).

The Oxford Dictionary states that popular visual themes of graffiti and street art are economics, politics, and thought provoking images (The Oxford Dictionary). London native street artist, Banksy, demonstrates all of those themes in his work, and uses an anonymous identity to avoid the legal troubles that could correlate with his widely reputable street art. In his book, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, Banksy insists “Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity.” Banksy has turned into an icon and a household name, accomplishing cheeky art by pasting large posters for his pieces with politically thought provoking slogans. He has revolutionized the art with his outlandish demonstrations of street art, such as placing his own works in reputable museums like the Louvre, as well as manipulating famous art works to have them portray deeper meanings (Bill Choundry).

With his growing fame, building owners and artist coalitions more frequently preserve Banksy pieces. Kuenstlerhaus Bethanien gallery in Berlin peeled back several layers of paint that had been used to cover an early Banksy piece to put it on display once again. Pieces similar to this one have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars to celebrity buyers such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Christina Aguilera (Moran). With this kind of attention from the media and celebrities, Banksy is an icon for the artistic and political worth of street art, showing his fans as well as his skeptics that street art can garner just as much reputation and value as traditional canvassed work.

However, despite its positive influence in some communities, others are still marked with crime or tag graffiti, and fight to destroy it. Outside of the tourist’s eye, a large world of graffiti exists in Roman communities. “It’s a rare public surface that hasn’t been plastered with leaflets or covered with graffiti: tags, slogans, declarations of love, outbursts against authority” (Faris). This past year, American mother and lawyer Rebecca Spitzmiller sparked a movement called “Retake Rome”. She became agitated by all of the graffiti tags on her apartment building and began to clean up the mess with her son. This initiative has sparked similar ideas in the minds of neighbors and fellow Romans. Retake Rome congregates once or twice a month to organize clean ups of parks, buildings, and various other public places marked with spray paint. Roman citizens of all ages have taken the initiative to clean up the tags, including Rome’s mayor, three of it’s ambassadors, and school children from the local secondary school (Faris). Tag graffiti with no artistic or aesthetic value continues to vandalize many urban cities in nations around the world. Many draw no distinction between street art and graffiti, and thus feel that it needs to be destroyed altogether. This blurred line between graffiti with little or no artistic value and street art with purpose and meditation is what causes the world of street art to be under such a high degree of skepticism.

Making further actions in the fight for notoriety of street art is Mad Mad Media founder and street art guardian Dylan Evans. Residing in Jersey City, Evans works to assign workplaces for street artists on walls of “Chilltown”, a subdivision of Jersey City. Evans has worked to take street art off the streets and into galleries as well, in order to develop a new opening for those who are skeptics of the art to experience and enjoy it in a new setting. “I want to show with this installation that not everyone with a can of spray paint is a vandal.”- Evans (Hotillosa). Many avid fans of the art form such as Evans are working to capture the attention of cynics so that the world of urban art can become less of an alienated practice.

Another major success in the street art world was the world wide adoption of Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” visual campaign. Fairey gained his fame from his iconic “Obey” images featuring the image of wrestler Andre the Giant, however, in 2008 Fairey began to produce prints of the now-renowned Barack Obama “Hope” image. This was sparked by his interest in Obama’s political policies, and during the time of his campaign, Obama thanked Fairey personally for creating such a powerful and iconic image that ultimately symbolized his 2008 campaign (Beer). The image was spread across America swiftly and soon Fairey gained heavy recognition. His street art was spread to a scale it never had been before, and Barack Obama’s image bridged the gap between the two dramatically different worlds of politics versus technical vandals. This success for a street artist is a prototypical experience to represent the astounding impact that the work of the so called “aerosol army” can accomplish.

Although the community of street artists is far outnumbered by those opposed to street art, passion is what drives many young adults to find their muse in the form of large posters, wheat paste, spray paints, stencils, and empty walls. The passion rooted in street art arises from the notoriety, visibility, process, and secretive execution of the work. Street artists have accepted the dynamo of their work- there one day, gone the next, and layers of over paint do not diminish the addictive nature of the work. Although it is a given that they will be painted over or destroyed, street artists don’t let the law stand in the way or portraying their messages. Artists like Shepard Fairey and Banksy have worked to earn esteem for the art that so many are willing to combat. Street art surrounds us, and many graffitists are working to expose the value of the ability and ritual to those sheltered or biased against it, in hopes that they will spark an appreciation in those individuals. If the oversimplification or uninformed minds of those people were to do their share in opening their minds and eyes to the world of street art, and appreciate it as a separate entity from tag graffiti, street artists may finally achieve the effect they so badly long for- acceptance.

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