If you’re like most people outside of certain very open-minded circles, you see graffiti as a form of vandalism. Innocent homeowners get their walls tagged and have to repaint or clean at their own expense. Or perhaps empty spaces on city streets getting painted and repainted over and over by successive criminals armed with cans of spray paint.
Of course, there’s another side to this. Graffiti is seen by many as a legitimate art form, and one of the few that is truly immune to the influence of the big money that defines the term “fine art” on the gallery and collector circuit. Behind what, at first glance, appears to be wanton destruction of property–albeit often very prettily expressed wanton destruction of property–is a code of conduct and a set of rules that is every bit as intricate as medieval court ritual.
Why do I know this? Well, because on a trip to Los Angeles a couple of years ago, I randomly picked up a book entitled Urban Art Legends by KET. Now, when a book is written by an author who uses an single name, and is immersed in the culture of the subject at hand, you know you’re going to get a sympathetic take on the topic as opposed to a balanced one. Perhaps in this case, it’s the ideal tone… after all you just need to turn to any of the neighbors to get a negative take on this particular art form.
In reading it, you’ll move far from the world of great New York art museums and get lost in a universe where painting a complete train is the work that separates the journeymen from the masters, and where spending a night in jail is the mark of an artist who has broken their cherry.
It is powerfully militant, but whether it will convince everyone who reads it of the fact that graffiti writers are artists will be up to that person’s views of a number of things, including fine art and private property.
A good complement to this book is the documentary film Saving Banksy (2017)–you can get it on netflix–which tells how the most recognizable of the street artists are, against their will, entering the fine arts circuit. It’s not a great documentary from a production or writing point of view, perhaps, but it is informative and give a third possible view of what street art means to the people involved. Also, it’s interesting to see how protest, in the correct hands, becomes dollars.
Me? I’m still open minded. I generally enjoy looking at art on the streets… but I live on a twelfth floor and don’t need to worry about cleaning up after it.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer. The title story of his collection Virtuoso is about an artist, but that’s pretty much his entire list of qualifications for having written the above blog post.