Saturday, April 21, 2007

Whizzing past

Cars stream past uptown without looking at the art in their midst. This is a good thing: the spray-painted walls are just a natural part of the decay and regrowth in the urban landscape of the city. The pieces here exude a calm which is unkown to the drivers, but felt by pedestrians. The writers who put these up were more than likely doing them in a calm but manic rush, in a well repeated act of getting the art onto cement walls via preassurised aerosol. You should plan for this (or maybe not) so you be stealthful before security, cops or unfriendly pass-bys bring attnetion to the act. That energy is captured here in these pieces; they are moving dancing letters and primal shapes. But there is also a stillness there. Paint on a flat wall.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Random Wall

East Village ~ Chinatown

Up until the late 1990s large swaths of the eastern edge of the East Village were not considered to actually constitute part of the USA. That area was a freak show of poverty, junkies, political militants and marauding spray can weilding youths. It was somewhere the Police did not care too much about venturing into. While that cannot be really said of the area now (though at least you don't see Yuppies on Avenue D), graffiti continues to rule large parts of the street. Sure, Uptown has been bleached of its once saturation level spray paint. But go down to the East Village, LES and especially Chinatown, and there continue to be many marvels constantly appearing and mutating. Tonight I caught this awesome wall.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Street Art vs Graffiti

Street Art vs Graffiti logo

Evaluations, debates and comparisons between “Street Art” and “Graffiti” have been waiting for a long time to be explored. In this article I’m going to try and examine the main difference between Street Art and Graffiti, both as art forms and as communities of artists and viewers. Now, when talking about ‘Street Art’ I’m referring to a new movement of outsider art that has risen in prominence over the last decade. It’s more of a heterogeneous movement than Graffiti (which has come to be defined fairly narrowly), and includes a few mediums and styles - stencil Graffiti, sticker art, wheatpasting / street poster art, and street installations (often together). The term ‘Street Art’ is typically used to differentiate this new movement from Graffiti, vandalism, and corporate art.

From the position of Graffiti artists, there has been a lot of apprehension towards Street Art. In one sense it is disappointing to have this perception of dichotomy between ’Street Art’ and ‘Graffiti.’ However the differences between these styles and the tribal politics of Graffiti have rendered some level of competition inevitable. It is very important to recognizse that these differences are major, and that behind them is a vast difference in ideas, aesthetic approaches, culture and history. As far as this blog is concerned, the mystique and techniques behind Graffiti cannot be competed with by any other contemporary art form.
Street Art vs Graffiti
Yet there actually is a high amount of cross over between the two forms. I’ve seen wheatpastes and stencils from Graffiti crews, and tags from Street Artists. In fact it was Graffiti writers in the 90s (and maybe earlier) who pioneered the use of hand written stickers as a form of tagging – a form now taken on by Street Artists. Many Street Artists are writers who have turned their efforts from Graffiti to Street Art. This cross over in medium is natural for anyone who’s going to be placing any kind of art up in as public domain as the streets: visibility, durability, striking colors, mind-grabbing images and direct text. Ultimately Graffiti is just one particular art form and culture, and it was never expected to appeal to everyone anyway: the streets and trains are big enough to hold more paint. Whether through Graffiti or Street Art, it’s awesome that so many people are able to find a way to express themselves through illegal public art.

Street Art and Graffiti in New York

A recent event in New York brought much of the thoughts and emotion resonating behind this issue to light. For the last several years, the building located at 11 Spring Street in Soho has been a site for Street Art and Graffiti. On December 15, 2006 the outside and inside of the building was opened to the public in one final and mass display / installation of Street Art before the building was cleaned up and turned into apartments. This day was billed as a mega gathering for New York and international Street Artists. Spring Street was arguably one of the World’s most famous Street Art canvases.

Graffiti Archaeology have got some flash imaging tools to show you the evolution of the building between 2002 and 2007. Of particular relevance, if you check out this link, is the constant interplay between Graffiti and Street Art. These two dominating forms of Outside Art have been interacting, complimenting and competing with each other since the early 2000s. Check it.

Now what’s really interesting is that the Brooklyn crew DYM used the event to broadcast the widely held view that Street Art aint cool by Graffiti. They arrived at 6.30 am in an unmarked car and unloaded their material onto the pavement. They took an entire wall and brushed over the wheat pastes and stencils with silver paint. By the time anyone had figured out what was going on, it was too late: An entire wall of the building was adorned with a mega silver piece reading DYM. Some Street Artists present pleaded with them not to cover the entire wall. "This window was done by an artist from Australia" one told them. "Do you need to use the whole wall? Can't you just take a section?"
street art and graffiti, east village
But DYM weren’t listening. They wanted to press the point in the boldest possible way what real Street Art looks like: Graffiti. HOST18 of DYM said this to say about their actions that day:


The reasons for our actions are vast. A lot of these people seem to believe we
just came there with the thought of fucking shit up and that we are art haters. This is completely not the case. We all go to art shows and museums often, we are artists ourselves so of course we respect and have a great appreciation for art. But we are from the streets, and the streets have unwritten rules.

I've personally been getting pissed off at Street Artists for years now, most of them seem to have no respect or regard for Graffiti. I have seen work that was up since the 80's completely covered by stencils, wheatpastes and paint. The bulk of these artists have some sort of 'holier than thou' mentality when it comes to Graffiti.

After all this came to a boil. I decided to take action, against the show and also against Street Art. These 'Street Artists' needed to be shown, no, you are not going to be allowed to disrespect Graffiti any further and when you do, you will pay a price. I'm going to war with these people, if I see any Street Art over Graffiti, I'm going over it. I been doing this for over 15 years, I'm not allowing some art school nerd disrespect me or my peers.”

Marc from the Wooster Collective, who was one of the primary organisers of the event had this to say when he twigged onto what was happening:

The bottom line for me is that I'm not going to lie and say that at first I wasn't a bit disappointed that a tonne of work on the building got taken out by DYM. But after a minute or so it struck me that this had to be the biggest fucking bomb in New York history and that you gotta respect the person that did it. How could you not be impressed? I watched those guys for an hour or so and was absolutely blown away. It was one of the most impressive things I've ever seen.

Street Art vs Graffiti, East Village

Street Sreet / Graffiti - Ideology

The critique of Street Art has also been expressed in ideological – directly political – terms recently. Since the late 90s it has become apparent that artists and counter cultural movements often serve as unwitting actors in the process of gentrification. A shitty area first attracts squatters, who are followed by artists, then students, and then finally by yuppies. This has been the process in Soho, East Village, the LES and Williamsburg. Street Art, as a more digestible form of Street Art is part of the early stage of gentrification. It is noteworthy that Graffiti has never even been accused of being part of this process. As a symptom of urban blight or decay or post industrial waste – whatever – Graffiti is a part of the run-down ugliness of the city that real estate agents and Street Art are often out to brighten up. Not so with Street Art.

The collusion between Street Art, gentrification and the role that art can play as an arm of the System has been pushed recently in New York by ‘the Slasher.’ Over the last few months, someone has been splashing paint over major Street Art works all over the city. The "Splasher", as he's come to be known, has a taste for targeting major works by the likes of Swoon, Obey, Momo, and others. His trail of paint-dripped terror extends from Williamsburg, Soho, and back again, and he's already fucked up dozens of works. Often, in the midst of his attacks, the Splasher leaves wheat-pasted manifestos that attack the street-artists as tools of capitalism, calling their work a "fetishized action of banality" and "a representation of the most vulgar kind: an alienated commodity."

street art slasher

It’s clear that the Splasher is onto something here. Street Art has gotten way out of control. It rivals sneaker culture in over saturation. Part of me loves Street Art, but it's time the spoiled hipsters got a taste of reality. Old school Graffiti writers have to worry about their murals and production getting dissed and crossed out by toys, building workers and the City constantly - why should so-called 'Street Artists' get any preferential treatment? That kind of attitude draws a distinction between high and low Street Art, which is exactly the kind of bullshit that most artists would claim to be subverting. Welcome to the streets.

The controversy here with the Slasher is not the worthless debate about whether anyone’s creating art, but about who he is "creating" over (and, in effect "destroying"). Street Art is creating commodity over property that is waiting to sky rocket in value. The Street Artists who have beef with the Slasher act like its their right to display their art on the street anyways. It is not. What is vital about Graffiti is that it’s illegal. It takes a special kind of person to actually call themselves a "writer". To be a writer takes serious effort. In a most cases you're risking life and limb on a regular basis. Street Art (in most cases) is too relaxed a form of Outsider Art. Graffiti is a medium for boarder line criminals and maniacs who insist on testing every limit. Street Art is for frustrated graphic designers with too much time on their hands and not enough creative control in their day jobs (in advertising: how IRONIC!!).

The bottom line is that the dudes who have a beef with the Splasher are hypocrites. Lest we forget - when it comes down to it, Graffiti is all about getting up, going over, fighting, and fame and more than anything, the beef. And what’s missing from Street Art is beef. The Splasher is shaping up to be a modern day CAP. Instead of doing throw ups on the 2s and the 5s he’s splashing the walls of the LES and Williamsburg. Splasher is just bringing some much needed drama to the Street Art scene. It would not surprise me one bit if Splasher was actually a Street Artist herself trying to bring some attention to the art form and simultaneously immortalize this time period.

While I love what the Splasher is saying, I want him to turn his attention away from this form of Outlaw Art and focus on the galleries of Chelsea where paintings sell for thousands and millions. These galleries squander the revolutionary potential of art far more boringly than Street Art does. Let’s see the Splasher have the balls to imitate Tony Shafrazi who spray painted over a Picasso painting (!)(Guernica) when it was housed at MOMA in the 70s.

Stylistic Differences

Of course this critique goes between both camps. Street Artists often diss Graffiti writers for obsessing on fame and their mission of getting their name out, often at the expense of actual quality. Certainly Graffiti can become more of a quest for notoriety than art. Street Artists shat the rules of Graffiti, altering their entire style and approach without caring whether or not it was approved of by the sometimes sentimental institutions and ways of Graffiti. In terms of an audience, it’s argued that the general public appreciate Street Art far more than Graffiti. Unlike the early days of New York Graffiti, writers today do not seem as intent on communicating directly with the general public. Knowing full well that the masses don’t know the first thing about the Graffiti underground, writers are often exclusively focussed on achieving fame for them and their crew.


Most Graffiti artists are self-taught and never had any formal art training. Graffiti writers are often people who have had an intense urge to create and have found ways to bond together to create the work they make. Graffiti is basically urban outsider art. Most Street Artists however come straight out of the art school world. And while many are talented, too many simply move to a city, come up with some witty poster/sticker, stencil it and then based on their art school connections get press and publicity for it.

Graffiti artists have to come through, bomb quick and clean, and get out of there without being caught. While Street Art also entails a risk, really all a wheatpaster has to do is take all damn day making their poster at home and then arrive at the site and paste it up. Actual spray-can Graffiti is much more dangerous, and in the Graffiti world this rush, and the ability to get away with crazy shit is a large part of the excitement and source of recognition. There is a strong argument that Graffiti is more about the act itself, than the actual product. Style and quantity are always a plus, but in the end they are just aesthetics for a system of markings. The act is the concept. The concept is the art. It is the act that makes Graffiti so romantic. It is the romance that makes it art.

This aspect seems largely missing – though not completely absent – from Street Art.


What angers many in the Graffiti world is the fact that Street Artists often place their art over Graffiti. In context, Graffiti from its earliest inceptions in the 1970s, developed a firm etiquette about going over another’s writing. I won’t go into systems of rules here, but the point is that these artschool hipsters put their wheatpaste stencils over Graffiti with absolutely no regard. They have little respect for what it is that they are dabbling in and therefore get little respect from the Graffiti scene in return.
CAP throw up
ABOVE: CAP's throw up over a peice. The film Style Wars included CAP's war on any other writer or crew as part of its narrative.
BELOW: A throw up by SEEN over COMET. This was from a number 6 Bronx train in 1986.

Viewed from the perspective of the politics of the Graffiti world, when a Street Artist goes over the work of another artist it’s a declaration of war. Either you already have beef with the guy or you’re looking for beef with the guy. Deliberately or not, these little hipsters are looking for trouble with an entire sub-culture overflowing with hardened thugs that have grown up on beef. And it’s going to catch up to these kids when they get caught in the streets. I think it’s fair enough to say that Graffiti and Street Art will coexist perfectly as soon as Street Artists learn to respect Graffiti writers and vice versa.


Graffiti is a lifestyle. “Street Art” is a trend. Graffiti is learned over a period of time, with the journey from a toy to a respected writer being a tough one. There isn’t really any learning process to Street Art which is why these yuppies are so clueless. Whilst Street Artists are preparing their stencils and paints at home or at Art School – or even getting them professionally made up - Graffiti writers are racking crates of paint. Another thing: writers go All City. That means getting their tag / throw up / piece up across the length and breadth of the city. Not just all Soho or all Williamsburg. Graffiti writers earn the respect they’re accorded.

People outside of Graffiti have no understanding about the blood, sweat and tears that goes into Graffiti. Do you know how many writers have died for their art? There are countless names of people who have been shot for trespassing, fallen off high spots, or been killed by trains. It seems that in New York alone, every year another writer bites the dust. And this happens to kids in cities across the world. Think also about how many writers have served time in jail, or have been crippled, lost their jobs or been kicked out of home. Graffiti writers are completely misunderstood and hated by wider society. And for what gain? Nothing. No gain whatsoever. But for expression; for a drive to themselves become a part of the landscape; for recognition from their peers. Street Artists are just flattering themselves when they compare what they do with Graffiti. Think about that next time you’re putting your wheatpaste over a tag.

Street Art in its modern form was predated by Graffiti, which set the precedent for Street Art. And if you want to talk about its forbears, then you could easily argue that Graffiti has been around for thousands of years. But in modern and post-modern times, graffiti rules the streets. Personally I’ll take a throw-up over a wheatpasted poster any day.

Regardless of what you do and how you bomb this city: KEEP DOING IT. This City belongs to all of us, and we’ve got to enjoy and paint it. Stop reading this and start painting!

wooster, street art

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