American Graffiti

One of the more divisive debates among both artists and bureaucrats is whether graffiti, from simple marker tags to vibrant spray painted murals, should be considered artistic expression or vandalism. Though I suspect that many of my generation would automatically be of the former opinion, I believe that people’s perception of graffiti as art or crime is greatly dependent upon the aesthetic impact and specific location. Personally I think if it looks good and is located on an otherwise blank and boring wall, what’s the harm?

Stealing hearts in Venice, Italy

Where it might be considered offensive to tag a historically significant or iconic piece of architecture like the Boston Public Library, the plethora of anonymous building stock that exists within our cities and suburbs provides a huge amount of communal canvasses for graffiti artists to utilize. Although the defacement of private or public property without consent is unlawful, I think that the more talented graffiti artists truly enhance the visual appeal of an otherwise anonymous part of the urban landscape with their aerosol sprayed creations. In NYC, The Long Island City Graffiti Building (aka Five Pointz) is a great example of how parts of the degraded industrial landscape can be beautifully repurposed as a safe haven for established and aspiring graffiti artists.

Although it has traditionally been associated with criminal activity and gang culture, there is a growing recognition of graffiti as a legitimate form of artistic expression that, due to its often public contexts, is more accessible to the masses than in a stodgy art gallery. No longer just the province of degenerates and art school outcasts, graffiti has moved gradually into the mainstream as controversial figures like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have emerged as celebrated artists in their own right.  Both of these contemporaries owe some of their success to the iconic Jean-Michel Basquiat, who since his swift rise and tragic demise in the 1980s has unfortunately become a commodified poster boy for cool downtown street art. Nevertheless, he occupies a special place in art history for bringing street culture into the fine art world, and for incorporating words and messages into his figurative expressionism.

I was inspired to write this post by a series of murals I discovered on the backside of a seemingly non-descript building here in Atlanta, located on Boulevard NE in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood:

And just for good measure, here is a mural that I always see from the train on the Newburyport/Rockport line, heading North from Boston:

Clearly, graffiti art is more striking as a collective endeavor. When it’s allowed to spread to the point of taking over an entire wall surface, the artistic impact of this collaborative vandalism is unmistakable.

Update: if you want to learn about Atlanta’s burgeoning street art scene and the upcoming Living Walls, the City Speaks conference, read this great article by my good friend Jessica Blankenship.

-MJC