Graffiti as art - vs. graffiti as vandalism - has been debated since the 1960's when tagging was first scratched onto buildings in Philadelphia.
(The word "graffiti," Italian in origin, initially referred to wall carvings made with sharp objects in ancient Rome and Greece.)
In spite of numerous taggers' proclamations that graffiti is a new art form, today it often reflects urban blight, vandalism and property damage.
Still, despite its negative connotation, or because of it, graffiti as art has been promoted in the press, books, films and in art galleries on both coasts for decades.
Art in the Streets
A recent incarnation of graffiti as art was at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011, running through most of the spring and summer. "Art in the Streets," a giant, elaborate, colorful exhibition, gave a historical account of graffiti and street art from the 1970's to the present, focusing on New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London and Sao Paulo, "where a unique visual language or attitude has evolved," the MOCA website said.
(Read more about art in the streets, graffiti art, graffiti street art and graffiti writing.)
The show featured paintings, mixed media sculptures and interactive installations by dozens of artists emphasizing Los Angeles' "role in the evolution of graffiti and street art, with special sections dedicated to seminal local movements such as cholo graffiti and Dogtown skateboard culture," the website added.
Yet with all the pizzazz, the show - at MOCA's enormous Geffen Contemporary (a former police vehicle repair barn) in Little Tokyo - had inherent contradictions, several concerned with the "graffiti as art - vs. graffiti as vandalism" conundrum.
Is It Still Street Art?
One frequently asked question about "Art in the Streets" was, "What is graffiti created on the street doing in a museum?" When brought into these hallowed halls, is it still street art or just a shell of its former self?
By glamorizing the underground youth culture that often claims subways, buses, bridges, tunnels and abandoned buildings as its canvasses, MOCA sanctioned the inherent lawlessness of "tagging" or "graffiti writing." While the show aggrandized the graffiti as art qualities of its work, it did little to address its criminal, besmirching aspects.
Conversely, if graffiti is a good thing, as MOCA conveyed, why not let visitors add their own signatures, writings and scrawls to the thousands of "art" pieces displayed - in the spirit of the exhibition? This was clearly not allowed with hundreds of poker-faced guards circulating throughout the Geffen.
It is a given that the subject matter of "graffiti as art" is unpredictable and often socially radical. In December 2010, MOCA's director Jeffrey Deitch commissioned the Italian street artist "Blu" to create a mural on the side the Geffen to draw attention to the upcoming "Art in the Streets." Yet after the work's completion, he had it painted over as it faced a Veterans Affairs hospital. Deitch, unaware of the mural's dollar-bill draped "soldiers' coffins" theme (until it was fully installed) was criticized by blogs and the press for his apparent duplicitous behavior, contradicting the "graffiti as art" spirit of the exhibition.
Then there's the matter of greatly increased vandalism and graffiti writing in L.A. before and just after the opening of "Art in the Streets." Some of that writing was spray painted onto a Geffen wall and nearby dumpsters. Passersby and visitors might have liked that graffiti (as several other "graffiti" covered structures are placed outside its walls by exhibitors), perhaps praising MOCA's ability to inspire neighborhood artists.
Deitch said that the people behind the unauthorized art are "some of the young taggers who are anarchic.... It's a language of youth culture, and we can't stop it. It goes with the territory." He then pledged to help "stop it."
Deitch also said that he hoped "Art in the Streets" would encourage the illegal street artists to set their sights higher. The Los Angeles Times quotes him: "We want to put out an inspirational message: 'If you harness your talent you can be in a museum some day, make a contribution and a living from it.'"
In 2011, the LA Times ran an article on the graffiti artist "Smear," now a successful gallery artist. After that article appeared, the city attempted to prohibit the sale of artworks signed "Smear," asserting that his street art was a form of illegal advertising for his gallery work. Graffiti as art "to make a living from" apparently has a ways to go.
While the press had a field day writing about the negative fallout from "Art in the Streets," LAPD representatives and Little Tokyo business owners were furious at the defamation of their property. Even Governor Jerry Brown chimed in, in an LA Times blog: "Why are you posting a picture of the illegal graffiti? Now they are rewarded and EVERYONE can see their garbage, which is their whole goal."
One of the conundrums of presenting graffiti as art in a museum is, when a cultural institution promotes and glamorizes destructive criminal behavior, don't be surprised when criminals respond in kind.
Image above on an L.A. street is reaction to Deitch's comment to graffitists about being "in a museum some day." This "art" piece attracted tourists, snapping pictures, asking if it is by Banksy. No it is not!
Fair is Fair: by Anonymous
Police officers, after catching a graffiti artist at his/her masterpiece, should have the right to spray their own initials/precinct number/logo on every item of the artists' clothing. In that way assuring the perpetuation the artistic process, and becoming artists in their own right. I look forward to the installation of such "Officer Art" at MOCA.