Saturday, February 2, 2008

Art Appreciation: Graffiti

I live in an east Los Angeles neighborhood where pretty much any smooth exterior surface is cluttered with various scribblings, mostly incomprehensible to myself, although I imagine they're all quite meaningful to someone – a kind of secret language or code. More recently, gorgeous pieces of street art have appeared, blanketing the walls of vacant lots and retaining walls, and also gracing the façades of stores and auto body shops – most likely commissioned by merchants weary of painting over the cryptic messages that spring up on their walls in the night.

Nevertheless, I had never really thought much about graffiti until the day I browsed a shockingly great website called The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit. I'd really never thought much about Detroit before that, either – I only visited the site because I liked its name. Since then, I've had many, many thoughts about Detroit, and also about graffiti. Apparently the post-apocalyptic decay of Detroit gave rise to a renaissance of street art sometime in the early '90s. Some of those graf guys have even gone on to legitimate art careers. (See A.J. Fosik, a self-described "scumbag" from Detroit who made good in the NY art world.)

This was the anonymous image – from the website's Art Among the Ruins chapter – that sort of opened the floodgates of my fascination with street art.



I'm not quite sure what it was about this piece. Perhaps I'd never seen clandestine street art that obviously aspired to something greater than just leaving one's mark. It feels to me like a portrait done by flashlight in a dark, scary place – melancholy, haunting and tragic.

That photo led me into a deranged, obsessive internet search and the perusal of thousands and thousands of paintings made in the dark of the night in spooky, dangerous, abandoned areas under the threat of police intimidation, arrest and imprisonment – and potentially the danger of being raped, pillaged and murdered by the desperate denizens of the dark. (That probably seems a little hyperbolic, but I don't think it's so far from the truth.) Perhaps the jeopardy involved in this largely clandestine nocturnal activity is what lends graffiti art some undefinable frisson that a canvas painted in a studio could never achieve. Some graf writers pride themselves on hitting the heavens, the most precarious and death-defying places, partly for the adrenaline rush and also because hard-to-reach spots don't get painted over as quickly. In fact, what makes graffiti even more interesting is that this ubiquitous phenomenon is truly "art for art's sake" – there is no financial gain involved, many artists paint in places that hardly anyone ever sees, and often a piece that took days to plan and a night or more to paint will be painted over almost immediately.

I discovered that there's some really captivating work out there, overlooked, on the walls of abandoned buildings...



...on subway cars and on freight trains, which can carry a piece all over the world...





...and in the secret world that exists underneath our daytime reality, in tunnels, beneath bridges and on riverbank retaining walls.





Once I was able to tear myself away from my Google graffiti search, I discovered that own 'hood is a great place to check out graffiti...







Though the U.S. seems to have been the birthplace of graffiti – Latino gang placas were being painted in Los Angeles as early as the 1930s, Philadelphia lays claim to starting the tagging movement in the late '60s, and New York witnessed graffiti's expansion into a real art form in the '70s – you can find it all over the world, these days. Some of my favorite artists are from Serbia, which seems to have a curiously playful approach to graffiti for such a troubled country...







Brazil has its own form of tagging called Pichação, with which pichadores cover the sides of tall buildings. It also has some really talented artists, with totally unique styles...







My favorite graffiti is the type that improves the appearance of the area in a clever way. Most folks would tell you that graffiti is a blight, an eyesore, a crime. Yet no one could claim that this piece of waste land isn't improved by Banksy's whimsical wet dog...



I love to check out the late-night burning runs the Seventh Letter Crew makes upon the billboards of Melrose Ave. Personally, I think their graffiti highlights the ads. I spent a lot more time looking at Bruce Willis' phiz than I would have without Augor's tasteful enhancement. And I saw the movie twice, if you can believe it.



However, it did occur to me that the 20th Century-Fox marketing department might not appreciate the graffiti quite as much as I did. Not so, apparently, when Augor and Revok reinterpreted this Melrose billboard for the big Murakami exhibit at MOCA. The billboard was taken down only two days after the Seventh Letter Crew hit it – reportedly because Murakami himself just had to have it shipped to Japan to add to his collection!



Lately, the graffiti world has come to a place where some artists are not only beautifying their blighted urban canvases, but in fact doing nothing more "destructive" than cleaning them. Quite literally just washing the wall...



...and who could object to that?

Graffiti Credits: Detroit face - unknown; Connecticut wall - Brat; "Break" NY subway car - Futura 2000; Green freight - Fokis; Detroit green bridge - Teader; L.A. river - Gushe, Ewso, Ruets and Zoueh; L.A. many-colored wall - Reyes; L.A. chickens wall - Cache; L.A. purple wall - Asylm and Ruets; Serbian pool - Lemon; Belgrade school dog - unknown; Belgrade Chaos – NME; Brazil bird wall - Kboco; Brazilian sewer - Zezão; Brazilian hungry wall - Vitché; UK wet dog wall - Banksy; Live Free or Die Hard billboard - Augor; Murakami billboard - Augor and Revok; Leeds, Go Gently - Moose.
(Thanks to all the original photographers and artists!)

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