Is the Street Artist a Vandal or a Virtuoso?

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.

RATING 8 / 10
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