When Art Is Illegal (Or Not)

A household name. That’s what Banksy is. Not since Thomas Pynchon has a more unwilling man been more sought after. And while Pynchon is a lauded literary genius, he couldn’t feasibly be considered a household name. Banksy, on the other hand, is decidedly so. With the great success of the Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) and his highly discussed Simpsons intro (October 2010), Banksy is riding high on the pop culture wave. However, while certainly leading the charge, Banksy is not all alone on this ride.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, for example, recently hosted the first major U.S. exhibition of the history of street art and graffiti. Billed as a combination retrospective and pulse-taking of the current scene, Art in the Streets brings together 50 international artists, along with the work of observers and documentarians of the form.

On the flip side of the world, Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria has incorporated graffiti in a seemingly more permanent way by injecting it into the makeup of its brand new NGV Studio. In lead up to its official opening later this summer, the space has hosted multiple “street crews in residence”. On display in a fishbowl-like studio, the artists completed murals on fresh white walls, using their spray cans to effectively convey NGV Studio’s mantra that “the rules are that there are no rules”. Set up as a “battle” between four local crews (F1, AWOL, SDM, and Everfresh), the winner — Everfresh — gets to return and repaint the space as part of a “working installation”, as well as exhibit a group show. Cynicism may appear to have reared its ugly head here (thanks, scare quotes) — but that’s not what I’m after. The NGV’s goal to think outside the art box is noble; what I’m really trying to get at is a rather glaring disjuncture that is its byproduct.

It isn’t merely a case of an underground movement that’s turned mainstream and consequently lost its hip factor — although that’s probably part of it for some. The disjuncture presented by institutions like NGV Studio reaches beyond the loss of the “in the know” factor to something much larger: the loss of space. Granted, for all intents and purposes, increased recognition and exhibition opportunity provide more space — but I’m talking about a specific type of space.

During what’s largely considered graffiti’s pinnacle in early ’80s New York City, most tags and pieces could be found in train yards and alleyways — marginal spaces that can be described as heterotopias, as coined by Michel Foucault. In Of Other Spaces, Foucault describes heterotopias as “counter-sites” or “quite other sites”, places of exception “in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”, among other distinguishing factors. These heterotopias provide “other” space within the dominant, hegemonic space. It is in this marginal space that deviant behaviour — such as, say, vandalizing a wall — can work to produce deviant bubbles within the space of authority.

A great number of spatial theorists (including Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, and Guy Debord) espouse on an individual’s or a subgroup’s ability to create, rewrite, and rearrange space through the act of using it or demarcating it. This, I argue, is precisely what the practice of graffiti and street art does within spaces of exception. Initially connected to turf wars between gangs and more currently to political statements in public areas, I argue that street art continues to constitute a subculture claim on hegemonic space through an act of transgression. However, when graffiti becomes a condoned act performed in a sanctioned space, it ceases to be the same practice. Style becomes separated from intent.

In reality, the appearance of an official space dedicated to the fringe activity of street art is fitting for Melbourne, a city whose laneways are so covered in graffiti and street art that there exist guided tours of the extensive network. Though still illegal, graffiti enjoys a special kinship with that Australian city. But the relationship between “official” and “fringe” and intrinsically ephemeral, non-commercial art and, well, commerce, has never been an easy one. This is certainly not a new observation, and Julian Schnabel’s biopic of original graffiti-to-gallery leaper Jean-Michel Basquiat — without question the most famous artist of graffiti’s ’80s heyday — makes the case for this.

Even MOCA itself, host of America’s largest-ever institutional tribute to the form, goes so far as to cite the poisonous relationship between the subculture movement and powers-that-be recognition as graffiti’s cause of death. As MOCA laments on its website, graffiti’s move to the galleries proved fatal. By the mid-’80s, it already seemed outmoded. Underground “tags” and images designed to be rapidly painted on metal and seen in motion had been transformed into self-parody. Like the latest trend in fashion, graffiti was imported from the streets, commercialized, and then quickly pushed aside.

Graffiti, as it is told, has been around since Roman times, finding its etymological root in the Italian sgraffito, “to scratch”. The definition has become more particular over time, referring now to both minor acts of defacement (sharpie on street signs, say) and the more artistically developed wall murals seen in most major cities around the world. “Graffiti” has more recently blossomed into the all-encompassing “street art”, and while there’s certainly at least a colloquial distinction between the two, there seems to be a debate about what that is and where the line is drawn. From simple tags (or signatures) to complicated pieces (or murals), graffiti is most often linked to spray painting, wild style, and hip-hop culture. Street art covers all manner of media: paint, paste-ups, stencils, sculpture, yarn bombing, stickers, etc. Either way, what it comes down to is that the making of both is usually surreptitious and guerilla-style; done under pseudonym; often uninvited and therefore illegal; and, always, outside.

From American troops placing the image of Kilroy in as many places as they could find over the course of World War II to the protest slogans of May 1968 scrawled throughout Paris, graffiti as we know it today existed decades before its explosion in the ’70s and early ’80s. Although stylistically different from its forthcoming incarnation, earlier 20th century graffiti played the same game as today’s street art. That is, it vied for visibility, and with its visibility, it proclaimed ownership. Like placing one’s flag on the moon, graffiti makes a decided announcement. Graffiti is, as Norman Mailer famously described it, “Your presence on their Presence… hanging your alias on their scene.” Notorious in its use to demarcate gang territories, graffiti also functions as a calling card for a large swath of other subculture groups.

A visual marker of an infiltration of hegemonic space, street art and graffiti usually appear in areas that are both open and secluded. Alleys and laneways are the most salient of this kind of space: open to anyone and everyone, but rarely used beyond the utilitarian need for shipping access and garbage disposal. The literal dodgy back alleys of the dominating urban space, there’s a reason your parents told you to never take a shortcut through one. Train yards, billboards, the sides of bridges, the tops of buildings — these spaces may not be public space in the lawful sense, but they certainly are visually. Hard to reach but easy to see: this is, not coincidentally, in-line with another of Foucault’s heterotopia criteria: “Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable.” Street art and graffiti proliferates in these spaces for a reason.

Marginal and liminal, these become spaces of contestation, and it’s here that acts of subculture transgression — street “art” or “defacement”, depending on how you look at it — overwrite the existing presence. According to Lefebvre, “The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space… it produces it slowly and surely as it masters and appropriates it.” As Banksy, in graffiti documentarian Tristan Manco’s Stencil Art, describes it: “Painting the streets means becoming an actual part of the city.” Graffitied alleyways, as such, are architectural margins that have been turned into subculture centers through the acts of transgression that have occurred within them. This goes for whatever marginal space in which street art might appear. It’s its appearance that does the trick — graffiti, by nature, is a physically manifested aberration in the hegemonic fabric. Far more than the doodles of bored delinquents, street art presents a clear social and ideological resistance to hegemony through its physicality. Today one need only look to the countries of the Arab Spring — and the likely targeted killing of Libyan graffiti artist Kais al-Hilali — to observe this.

But hegemony, of course, has its own way of dealing with this.

Predating MOCA’s show by a couple of years, London’s Tate Modern put on its own street art exhibition in 2008, which included commissions for its gigantic Thames-facing facade in the form of six massive pieces completed by six artists, including Os Gemeos and Blu (who also painted — and was controversially overpainted — on MOCA’s exterior). Like Art in the Streets, Street Art ran from late spring through summer — making both, unequivocally, summer blockbusters. These are the exhibitions that run through tourist season, guaranteed to draw a crowd, and are the moneymaking cog in the art institution machine, helping to pay salaries and fund all the otherwise unsexy (shall we say, “art house cinema”) shows relegated to the winter months.

Clearly, there is money to be made with street art. Much like performance art or Conceptual art, the problem with street art is that it cannot easily be sold on an auction block. Of course, the previously mentioned graffiti-to-gallery leap of artists like Basquiat provided a solution to this problem three decades ago. His canvases are spread throughout the world and come with multimillion-dollar price tags. But it’s not hard to see there’s a difference between a work on a wall and a work on a canvas. Issues of ownership and site-specificity immediately arise. Even easier to spot is the difference between graffiti on a train car and “graffiti” on a designer handbag.

If you live in North America you may have seen an ad for feminine hygiene products that features a group of wild young ladies graffiting over an already existing street mural. The existing mural shows an angelic woman in a pastel-painted scene who appears to be hurdling over a pad. The competing brand overwrites this ad with bright neon graphics and a slogan that essentially amounts to a call for individuality. Its here we arrive at the most glaring of disjunctures. Now, I’m not suggesting that graffiti is done a disservice by being linked to the menstrual cycle. No, it’s more the advertisement aspect that doesn’t sit right.

There are two ways for hegemony to deal with dissent: one, try to stamp it out; two, appropriate it. When the dominating culture subsumes subculture, it effectively neutralizes it. Systematic obliteration and hegemonic appropriation amount to the same thing. Call it “commodification of dissent”, the production of a “commodity form”, or the “culture industry”, once subculture gets into the machine, it never comes out again intact. Cultural theorist Stuart Hall calls this process of institutionalization “a moment of profound danger”. For once you’re on their turf at their behest, what exactly is it that you’re doing there?

Institutional space is not the same as heterotopic space. Neither is commercial space. I’m not trying to suggest that institutional space and commercial space are exactly the same, but they do share a common lack. Without a space of exception, there is no room to act in exception. Exceptions, by definition, don’t follow rules. Even if the rules are that there are no rules. Without a space of contestation, graffiti does not contest — which means, by extension, that all the sneaking around and law breaking and pseudonyms become parody.

So what of Banksy’s high riding cultural wave? Are he and his compatriots firmly entrenched in the culture industry, or are they cleverly darting around it? There’s no question that graffiti style was long ago appropriated by the mainstream, but what of its still-in-the-street practitioners, its true foot soldiers?

There are those who believe that Exit Through the Gift Shop and its subject Mr. Brainwash were part of one giant hoax, orchestrated by Banksy to pull a fast one on all of us suckers (and the Academy, as it turns out). They would have Banksy manipulating the system, pointedly mocking the hegemonic co-option and commodification of street art that is precisely this essay’s subject. With all these major exhibitions and graffiti-inspired commodity forms and anonymous-street-artists-cum-household-names, the question becomes, Who has the cultural upper hand? Did Banksy take over The Simpsons for a minute and a half, or did The Simpsons appropriate Banksy? In the end, whose name is really on top? Whose presence is hung on whose?

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A late addendum — As of June 9, 2011: Banksy donates money to MOCA in exchange for free admission for the public every Monday until the close of Art in the Streets. His reason? “I don’t think you should have to pay to look at graffiti.”