Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Graffiti and the Art of the Gesture

While observing the reactions to the graffiti pieces the legendary Barry "Twist" McGee introduced into the streets of San Diego for "Viva La Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape," the street art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I was struck by the number of intelligent people who were unable to see the traditional graffiti forms McGee employed as an artistic or sociological statement, or indeed as anything more than vandalism.



It really says something about the enduring power of graffiti that a coherent, flowing wall of handstyles — written onto a previously-tagged permission wall in conjunction with a museum exhibit — still has the power to enrage so many people. Forty years after the The New York Times first documented the seminal tagger Taki 183, the ritualistic repetition of that calligraphic artform as practiced by McGee and his crew attracted such a volatile response that the roll call was clumsily buffed by museum staffers within 24 hours.

(Photo courtesy of Mike Maxwell)

One tag is an annoyance — a thousand, exuberantly building atop one another, is a deliberate provocation. But it would be a wan revolution indeed that didn't agitate the populace and incite them into defending their beliefs. Accomplishing that with the most elementary — yet deceptively challenging — form of graffiti is a stroke of elegance worthy of a Zen master. At this level, the tag is more than mere self-expression — it becomes something like a mantra, the writing of which is a spiritual practice in itself.

(Photo courtesy of Arturo Juarez)

Graffiti is performance art with a dimension greater than its simple meaning. It captures the skills and emotions of a writer at a particular moment in time, and allows the essence of that moment to be shared by others who understand that visual language, just as the movements of a dance can be read by an empathetic eye.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Rotman)
(Photo courtesy of All Seeing)

(Photo courtesy of Tiro Fijo)


No form of graffiti is purer than the handstyles, which epitomize gesture. At its most profound level, a tag lives and breathes in much the same way as a great example of Chinese calligraphy communicates meaning even to those who cannot read the language. Gesture transforms the essence of a writer's personality, experience and talent into something that has its own life and spirit.

(Photo courtesy of All Seeing)

Yet ephemerality is essential to the soul of graffiti, as well — a writer is always aware that he may risk life and limb to put up a piece one night, only to go back in the morning to photograph his work and find it's already been buffed. McGee once said, "I believe to a certain degree, [destruction is] the only thing left that shakes the public from its daily ritual of working and consuming. It is a fabulous joy to work on something so hard, only to see it destroyed in a blink of an eye."

(Photo courtesy of Michael Herana)

McGee's second affront to the civic order of San Diego, which has thus far survived unmolested, could be interpreted as another type of gesture. Using the sanction of a museum show to paint two huge throw-ups in broad daylight on the streets of downtown San Diego was another audacious challenge to the forces of uniformity. Doing it on a dilapidated, long-abandoned structure has evoked consternation from preservationists, who decry such disrespect being paid to a historic movie theater. Yet until these giant letters appeared on its face, the empty building was handily ignored by everyone in San Diego for 20 years.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Herana)

Even the basest graffiti can serve the function of drawing attention to societal ills. Seminal Los Angeles graffiti writer Chaz Bojórquez once said, "I feel that if the city was a body, graffiti would tell us where it hurts." This can be via a subtle, even inadvertent act of civil protest, or a more direct yet insidious manipulation of the powers that be.

(Photo courtesy of Banksy)

For instance, a few months ago Banksy painted a lonely boy writing "I remember when all this was trees" in the ruins of Detroit's long-abandoned Packard factory. Once the piece was spotted, a nonprofit gallery in Detroit asked the property foreman for permission to remove the decrepit wall, and carried it away for safekeeping. When the shadowy owners of the factory materialized to lay claim to the valuable artwork, the city of Detroit pounced — they had been trying to track down the delinquent owner of the property for years. Now they know whom to tap for the $20 million demolition and cleanup of one of the world's most famous sites of urban decay, not to mention years' worth of back taxes. Sounds like Banksy deserves a letter of commendation from the City of Detroit.


So perhaps McGee's "defacement" of the California Theater — which after all only consists of another layer in the dozens of coats of paint the building already carries upon its façade — will serve to finally shake San Diego from its indifference to the grand old movie palace. Otherwise, when the colossal lettering is eventually painted over, the building will likely return to the limbo in which it has hung for the past 20 years.

1 comment:

private grave said...

Growing up I thought that graffiti was the only alternative to museum art.

When I browse museums I was fascinated with the signatures on the paintings.

Now I know better, but graffiti is still fascinating.