Sunday, April 24, 2011

is graffiti art a crime?


this article in the new york times brings back the old discussion about graffiti and crime.

what's the charge against graffiti? vandalism, which is defined as a "willful destruction of public & private property." but we are not dealing here with literal destruction. this "soft" form of vandalism consists in de//facing, i.e., "writing on top of" a surface (generally a wall), whether preexisting text or image. it is at this point that defacing, as defined by the system* needs to be qualified. first, not every mark should be considered graffiti.

vandalism this is, but not graffiti:

these are graffiti marks. do they constitute vandalism? not so fast. it's a matter of degree.

let's suspend the answer to that question for the time being. by writing "no hero" on the pedestal of a confederate patriot in present-day richmond the writer made a political statement.1  far from being random -as the system wants us to believe- this action is deliberate: it has a purpose.2

the idea of de//facing is related with an obsession by the system with a clean, beautiful landscape. but is it really the preservation of the landscape what they care about? let's compare graffiti as a mark with other marks caused by the system. only then we can understand if the charge against graffiti has merit.

these are the real vandals

cookie-cutter suburbia, everywhere

manure spill, mid west

huge parking lots, anywhere

bp's spill, golf of mexico

abandoned malls, your city

traffic jam, (where else!) los angeles

compared with the ones above, can we call this "top-to-bottom" by blade in the mid 1970's "vandalism"?

it's obvious that the argument against graffiti is simplistic and circular: it presupposes the crime instead of proving it.the system wants you to believe a perverse relation, that is to say, that graffiti happens as a result of vandalism.

graffiti is an expression of the true cause of vandalism.

even in the mid to late-1970's there was the sense that something culturally new was taking place. we have to understand the social and political reality of new york city at the time. this is how writer joe austin describes it in his book taking the train, how graffiti art became a crisis in new york:
In taking the trains, writers grafted a new, "un-author-ized" social function onto the largest public transportation system in the United States. (...) The writing on the subways was not only an attempt to grab the attention of the public and the commercial media (although writers were happy to oblige any opportunity), but was also an attempt to create an alternative "screen" where the writing community could make itself visible to the city and to itself.
the war against graffiti in the new york of the 1970's was a smokescreen presented by the authorities to mask a deeper structural crisis. take the the bronx as a typical example: loss of jobs, urban decay, neglect of basic services (such as health care, garbage collection and policing). in some perverse sense, the blight of the bronx in the 1970's was artificially accelerated to give crime in america an easy, recognizable face: that of blacks and latinos.4

john fekner shows what -really- causes what:

john fekner, stencil, south bronx, 1980

although crime per se is not the topic at hand, it's clear that the system wants us to buy its crime-for-dummies version: 1, it's a problem of the poor inside the ghetto, 2, that the rich and the poor are equal under the law, 3, that regulatory agencies will take care of white collar, and, or, environmental crime, etc, etc.

graffiti art will be viable as long as it aptly expresses its context:

paris, may, 1968.

 rome, 2006

 checkpoint 300 (between jerusalem and bethlehem, 2010)

tunis, 2010

 blek le rat, 1980's

banksy, 2010?

in fact, this kind of graffiti art is most promising now, in a world dominated by derivative, safe, curator-prescribed, market oriented, art fair-driven, art.

* by system we mean a kafkian structure characteristic of late-capitalism: invisible, all-pervasive, benign-looking. 1 en passant, during the civil war, richmond was the capital of the confederate states. 2 the article is written by harry kollatz jr. who makes it look as if the mark on the statue is the act of a vandal with no clue of the pros and cons of history. true, possibly none of that entered the mind of the perpetrator. but kollatz equally disregards that the statue (as such) is a social and political symbol. one finds this image on a different article by kollatz:

as actions go, the piece of cardboard on the floor is harmless, even cute. this is kollatz's comment: "among my consistent pedestrian pleasures is coming across random items in the street, as well as assorted oddments and artifacts, and posting them here." these "random" items are pleasurable. what if that same homeless vet writes the cardboard's content on the street wall or a statue's pedestal? vandalism! 3 in her book painting without permission: hip hop graffiti culture, janice rahn works out the distinction between tags:
(...) most of the controversy is against tagging on public property. SWEP called indiscriminant tagging without skills "lazy." FLOW called his crew "S.A.T: Smashing All Toys" to disassociate themselves as "writers" as opposed to the copycat taggers who did not take the time to learn the codes and ethics of the community. Illegal painting in public space is labeled graffiti, which makes it complicated for authorities to decide how to combat it. The greatest fear is to set off even more copycats tagging (rahn, p. 178).
 4 for a serious historic analysis of the socio-political conditions of the 1970's urban crisis, take a look at evelyn gonzalez's the bronx.


Feminista said...

What a difference a brush makes! I've had this argument many times, but didn't quite approach it this way. Thanks for the post.

Matthew said...

Grafitti rules.

oliver said...

"'s obvious that the argument against graffiti is simplistic and circular..."

That is why they win... why our god gave us fire extinguishers.

that is not the fault of art said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
that is not the fault of art said...

the system is not going to change though it will adapt. if the writers are treated with more respect is because they can sell and make a profit. that's what the system is after.

A.T. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
miamibourbaki said...

Got here a little late. Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

Great post.

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