My nephew Robert (Bert) has been in town visiting the last few days, and it has given us a chance to get to get to know each other a lot better. Bert is 22, and for various reasons we have never really spent any appreciable amount of time together. I have always been closer to his older sister, probably because she is gay like me and that gave us a greater opportunity for bonding over the years. So it has been nice with Bert to get a sense of who he is and what his interests are.
Primary among these interests is graffiti and street art, and yesterday we even went on a little tour in the LES and EV, where it abounds in quality high and low. It was pretty fascinating to hear about this subculture, which shares many features with other subcultures as various as sports clubs, gangs, samurais, and anarchists. There is a pretty convoluted set of signs and symbols having to do with showing respect or defacing works by other artists, and the very term artist is pretty loaded and complex when looking at the difference between a simple tag vs block vs stencil, etc. Our guide was pretty adamant that a definition of graffiti is just about the medium, but I am not so sure. I don’t think it can be separated from the social and political context of commission, permission, and vandalism. That is to say, once something has been commissioned, it has lost an essential ingredient in the making of graffiti. It may be art, it may be very high quality, but the essential trespass that street art/grafitti represents is definitive to the culture. Which is not to say I approve of it. Our guide mentioned some statistic that 30% of people still think graffiti is vandalism (vs 70% that don’t), but I would guess it totally depends on the quality, content and location of the work in question, and that opinions vary wildly. I have to admit myself to viewing most simple tags as mere vandalism and a cry for attention from an angsty teen mentality. But in some of the more complex block styles and stencils and paintings I see something much more interesting and beautiful, and am much more likely to view them as art and not defacing. This is part of what makes graffiti so fascinating, that one is almost obliged to revisit, over and over again, the very definition of art. One other aspect to graffiti culture that my nephew was explaining to me and that seems obvious on reflection is a kind of one-upmanship having to do with the difficulty of accessing a particular space. Bert seemed most impressed by the works that were high up and potentially indicative of a danger to the producer either from the police or gravity and vertigo. This all plays into some kind of honor/glory code among graffiti artists and gains them street cred. And this leads to “guestbook signing” (writing a small tag next to a work to show respect for it) vs “buffing” (defacing, working over, or otherwise covering a work to show disrespect or challenge). And then there are the crews and gangs that band together to protect the member work, share ideas, mark territory and sometimes deface other work en masse. My nephew made a few other interesting points about graffiti relating to bringing art to the people and making them notice, since most of them would never set foot in a gallery or museum, and this is a point I hadn’t directly considered. We also talked a bit about our culture and I brought up the idea that graffiti is (implicitly or explicitly) a comment on the nature of property and ownership. After all, what does it mean to mark or change something that someone else claims ownership of, without their permission? I have very conflicted and complicated feelings about these things that have much to do with the particulars of any situation, and don’t lend themselves to easy formulas of acceptance or rejection. And maybe that is a good thing, because it keeps the debates about art and social utility alive. After all, one of the worst things one can show to others is callous indifference.