Reviews

Is the Street Artist a Vandal or a Virtuoso?

Rafael Schacter traces the development of street art and graffiti from across the globe in The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti.


The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 400 pages
Author: Rafael Schacter
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-09
Amazon

Banksy is arguably the best known street artist working today, and the financial appraisal of his work reflects that. In the past few years, several of his works have gone missing, often cut out of the wall in the middle of the night. Sometimes, this is done to protect the work from the elements or other vandals – the alternative is to put a pane of plexiglass over the wall. Other times, it's done out of financial interest – a wall that is suddenly worth half a million dollars will show up at an auction several months later.

Who ‘owns’ the art in such a situation? At what point does a work become that of the city’s, as opposed to a single person’s? If it was painted on the wall without permission, what are the legal ramifications of removing it without permission? And moreover, once street art is removed from the street, does it significantly change in its meaning? Context may be indispensable.

All of these questions are relevant when evaluating graffiti as an art form, and become even more relevant when one tries to preserve it – say, in an art museum or, in this case, in The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti. I began reading this with very little knowledge about graffiti/street art as a cultural movement or art form, and for a student such as myself, it was very educational.

It's structured as a coffee table book, and befitting an atlas, it's divided by geographical region. Each region is further divided into city, and the author extrapolates upon the style and history of graffiti in each respective region. Take, for example, London which, while giving shelter to graffiti artists under the more palatable term “street artist”, also invented one of its most extreme applications: the use of paint stripper to create images that, despite cleaning, could not be removed. It was a deliberately aggressive act for a medium whose artists often had to run and hide from the law to practice their craft.

Also interesting is the historical context of Sao Paulo’s graffiti, which came into popularity as a response to Brazil’s military dictatorship. Since then, the art has taken on a meta-cognitive call-and-response, with some artists embracing the commercial possibilities of designing for the football team, and others resisting sponsorships. Brazilian women take a feminist approach to their art, using curved lines and roundness to express the feminine form. This is in spite of the inherent physical danger to women when painting, alone, on abandoned streets and buildings. The act, and daringness to create the art is thus rendered political.

These artistic philosophies often intersect with other cultures’, creating unique blends. Madrid’s street art is a combination of the indigenous

"flechero style" and a “New York inspired archetype”. It was also fascinating to read about urban methods of cultural diffusion – by sneaking into train yards in the dead of night, Madrid’s artists were able to tag trains, which traveled out of the city and created an international dialogue with the rest of Europe.

Throughout The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, Schecter takes the time to focus upon individual, notable artists in each region, highlighting personal artistic philosophies and approaches to street art. There’s Helsinki’s Egs, who has illegally painted on five continents and over 40 cities, and melds the styles he finds to form his own, abstract style. He created a conglomerate of artists known as WMD, an international group that collaborates on projects.

There’s also artists like Mexico’s Sego y Ovbal, who incorporates his love for indigenous fauna and flora into his art, creating surreal, fantastical images of wild beasts. His obvious love for natural imagery provides an ironic contrast with the aggressive, urban landscape.

And then, there are artists like New York’s Katsu, whose graffiti is a deliberate, ugly eyesore – smeared, disparate letters applied with black, dripping paint. But then, that's the point – “to promote crimes and disrupt the look of the city.” It strikes the reader as both bizarre and admirable, this deliberate commitment to sully one’s environment out of principle. Thus, a seemingly un-artistic gesture is art at its highest form -- and serves as ironic shock therapy.

Artists like Katsu challenge our outer limits of ‘art’, of what most people would deem acceptable. Vandalism has long been generalized as a sign of decay and despair, and although the author does not dispute the notion, I wonder, as Katsu does, about the hypocrisy of its admirers. Would they appreciate the artistic value of graffiti if their property were being drawn on? Yes, there is value in these drawings – they are anarchic expressions of youth, symbolic reclaimings of public property. And yet, there’s something vicarious and limousine liberal about viewing graffiti as art. Indeed, it's a privilege that residents in lower income neighborhoods are not afforded when their front doors get tagged.

There also seems to be an inherent contradiction when creating an atlas of graffiti and street art. Namely, that the notion of ‘street’ is impermanent – the pieces cited could be gone the day after they are photographed, painted over by the owners of the property, or altered or drawn on by another artist. The idea of creating an authoritative guide on such a malleable art form seems futile.

Even if there was a possible way to preserve these works, the book does not give the locations of the pieces it references for the intrepid explorer. It uses examples to make its historical points, but nothing more – no geographical pinpointing, no addresses or cross streets. Instead, the book is a historical overview, a temporal snapshot of what has been and is, rather than what is canonized.

Indeed, like its subject, The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti is torn between its objectives; Is it to serve as a history of the art form? Or as a series of artist profiles? Or as a high-resolution gallery? No matter. This is an excellent introduction to graffiti/street art for readers such as myself, and it will satisfy connoisseurs of the trade, as well.

Ironically, the "failures" of the book, if you will may indicate that graffiti/street art is still a vital, cultural force. The Sex Pistols, when declining their nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, argued that canonization is a sign of irrelevance – the career capping finality of a lifetime achievement award. The current difficulty to quantify or canonize street art effectively may explain its endurance. Street art is elusive, often despised, and it cannot be tamed into wide respectability, and that's a sentiment that many a street artist can take pride in.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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