Graffiti Art at MOCA Stirs Up Controversy
Before it was graffiti art, it was just graffiti, spawned by vandals from all segments of society - not just from the slums. The thrill of sneaking out in the middle of the night to write "your own name" and the names of your gang evolved as magic markers and aerosol spray paint cans became increasingly available.
Graffiti turning into graffiti art - with swirls, colors and eventually figures and murals - spreading like wildfire from city to city in this country and beyond is clearly demonstrated in "Art in the Streets" at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
This acres-big art show with nearly 30 solo artist displays and installations includes works by Banksy, Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, several pieces by Shepard Fairey, as well as a timeline tracing the history of graffiti and graffiti art.
There is also: a hot pink graffiti art ladies room; a “cosmic cavern” room - a must-see mind-blowing installation by Kenny Scharf; a large walk-though installation of slum neighborhood; a re-created subway train; a re-created NYC Fun Gallery from the 80’s; a skate-board park; installations by Brazilian twins OsGemeos; a re-creation of the Tribeca Loft of graffiti and hip hop artist Rammellzee; a magnificent folk art mural by Margaret Kilgallen and so much more.
While you tour this amazing graffiti street art exhibition, it is worth recalling that this show would not be possible were it not for the illicit graffiti artists who roamed our cities in the dark of night in the 70’s and 80’s. It is the illegal aspect of graffiti art’s roots that makes this show so controversial.
Looking back, the last major exhibition on graffiti art was "Beautiful Losers." That show opened in Cincinnati in 2004, and was exhibited later at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and other places.
"Beautiful Losers" exhibited works that were often primitive and childlike, while also being clearly polished due to the formal art school training many artists received. The exhibition featured paintings, drawings, cartoons, sculpture, photography and video installations.
I toured the show with curators Aaron Rose and Christian Strike. They talked about hip-hop and graffiti subcultures and about the people who make art with little influence from established art worlds.
Graffiti – in its earliest days – was born of the street, from people on the fringes of society. As Rose says in the show's catalog, 'Beautiful Losers,' "All the artists included have at some point broken the law in order to express themselves...it is in perfect keeping with the attitudes of the artists included here to remain elusive, beyond categorization and on the run."
The catalog explains that graffiti art is a, "commitment within the soul," and is, "something to be lived." It adds that graffiti writing - illegal writing or spray-painting on public spaces - is done to be noticed, not to vandalize. The "writers" are speaking to a world gone amuck that has disenfranchised them.
While "Art in the Streets" is a raw, in-your-face show, the works in "Beautiful Losers" appeared to be chosen more for their "artistry," while maintaining their street art look. Two different shows! Yet each is fresh, organic, non-derivative and prophetic.
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