by Sarah Simpson
When I think of graffiti a lot of different things come to mind. As a New Yorker, I think of the gratuitous tagging that lines the subway tunnels and concrete walls of the less affluent neighborhoods. I also think of 5Pointz, a towering graffiti covered building in Long Island City that, about a year ago, was torn down to make way for luxury high rises (talk about gentrification). Then, I think of the LES, where I have been working for the past two months, and the surprises of transient and colorful art that are emblazoned across façades and hidden around corners. Banksy, a famous and as-of-yet unidentified artist/vandal (although his notoriety and the recent art market sales of his work, not to mention the measures taken in certain neighborhoods like Shoreditch in London to protect his work, definitively push him over to artist) is another addition as is his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
I have a personal fascination with graffiti-art, though, an interest that causes me to stop and take pictures of the pictures painted on walls. This past year, having been lucky enough to travel across Europe for several weeks during and after my MA program in London, I was able to witness graffiti across countries and was impressed to see the difference in the unasked for public art to be found on the walls of many cities. Despite language barriers, tourist traps, and globalization, each city and each country had it’s own unique graffiti and the visual nature of it all made it understandable and enjoyable to me, the (relatively) ignorant American tourist happily eating my way through cities, taking pictures and enjoying a rest from my responsibilities. New York City’s graffiti will probably always be my favorite. The range, the history, the hidden locations and the ever-changing nature of it due to the constant repainting of building façades and inevitable repainting of more graffiti. London also had a very impressive graffiti scene, particularly in Shoreditch. The murals are more in depth, figurative, perhaps innately artistic, but for me it lost its subversive character because it has become an accepted part of the neighborhood. The walls are repainted often, for sure, but the few remaining Banksy pieces are covered in plexi-glass for protection and it has become part of the tourist network.
Out of the other cities I visited, Berlin, Paris, Venice, and Florence all had excellent graffiti, often hidden and reflective of the history and culture of those particular areas. Berlin’s graffiti centered around the city itself, it’s rebuilding after the wars and did not shy away from the wall which itself is covered in a history of graffiti, archaeological in its stratigraphy.
Paris’ graffiti was experimental and suggestive. Venice was filled with angels and satirical caricatures of tourists, referencing both the history of Catholicism in Italy as well as the obvious and sad fact that Venice is now more a playground for tourists and honeymooners than actual Venetians.
Florence was weird and artistic, with the same artists producing series across the city with the same characters slightly altered. Fitting for a historically artistic city that houses the Uffizi, one of the greatest fine art collections in Italy.
As an art historian, though, graffiti does not interest me on a purely aesthetic level but also on a philosophical level. It has a fascinating history in the art world where it was elevated from vandalism to an art form around the 80s. Artists like Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Martin Wong among many others were embraced for the art that they created and displayed for all to see as posters and graffiti, on the streets and in the subway, and museum worthy paintings that referenced graffiti and its particular, unstudied style. Graffiti became popular and cool and it remains so to this day. Clothing, accessories, restaurants, and bars center themselves around its aesthetic and collectors buy graffiti inspired paintings and prints, even pieces of graffitied walls, to add to their collections. I, however, am drawn to it in large part due to its inherent transience. Graffiti is not commissioned, it is not asked for, it is (in many cities) illegal, and its practitioners are not (traditionally) trained artists. The canvas that graffiti artists work on, the sides of buildings, walls, sidewalks, etc are all urban spaces that are visually public but privately owned. The owners can (and often do) choose to paint over the art, sell their buildings, tear them down to rebuild. The artwork created is not meant to be kept, conserved, and curated but is instead a visual shout, heard by the few who choose to stop and look, conserved by those who decide to take a picture, and curated by social media (instagram, facebook, twitter, pinterest, etc). The same streets that I walk down every day are ever changing and this reflects the ever-changing nature of the city and its people. All cities change from day to day; the people living, working, visiting, and spending money change every day and every year. A city is a belief and an idea and it is perpetuated by the people who choose to believe in it. Thusly, a city itself is changeable and transient. New York…I fell in love with it for it’s changeability and it is no longer the city that I moved to three years ago. It changes and it grows, not always for the better in the eyes of its people, but most definitely with inevitably. This is also the very reason that New York makes me sad: prices go up, favorite restaurants and bars close, neighborhoods gentrify and grow. I mourned the loss of 5Pointz and every time a beautiful or interesting piece of graffiti is painted over it pains me because I was trained to work in a museum atmosphere. There, nothing changes and everything is conserved. But, graffiti art, like the city it lives in, must change in order to continue to thrive. The canvas is constantly whited out in order to be covered by more thoughts, more visual shouts, more beliefs, and conservation is nothing more than stagnation. That is one of the many reasons that I am interested in graffiti art, it does not mourn the loss and transience, but instead revels in it. It accepts the nature of the city that is its inspiration, its sounding board, its canvas and moves forward, fluid and malleable as we all must be. Over the next few weeks, I will be focusing on my many different fascinations with graffiti art and the thoughts it has provoked.
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