Graffiti: Problems and positioning of Graffiti
It is extremely unhealthy for an art form to exist with no critical language and little or no critical writing. With no self-defined language to discuss graffiti art with, the high brow art world has an inability to process the achievements of the graffiti artist, and in part this leads to its marginalised position. From within the movement it leads to a situation where discussion of the work is little more than "yes that's dope, yeah that's fresh." The situation is little different outside of the art world and graffiti culture. There is an inability for readers/viewers to distinguish good graffiti art from bad. Of course this issue which holds true of other forms of modern and postmodern art.
The problem is somewhat made worse or more complicated, in that a number of long time practitioners prefer to not see themselves as artists or see the movement in that light. The self-referential term that is preferred is ‘writer'. The term writer is used "as it is what they do, they write their name". Early on writers such as PHASE 2 and other writers vehemently objected to the term graffiti artist. Both on aesthetic and political reasons. The term Urban Artist was used for a while, but was passed over once the United Graffiti Artist group disbanded in 1973. Since then the movement has been popularly referred to as Aerosol Art and for the purposes of a book by Henry Chalfant and Jim Prigroff as 'Spraycan Art'.
All names are problematic though. The name "Graffiti Art " is meant to refer to a very particular and deliberate painting movement but the word graffiti in the title binds it with all forms of graffiti. Being tied to all forms of graffiti disqualifies the movement from being a true Art. The paradox continues, as separating this particular school of New York based style graffiti form other forms of graffiti takes away some the power of the movement. The political power of "Graffiti Art" is its connection to illegality. This happens as it adds to the credibility of the movement from the view of the art world dependant on classifications for security. How a writer/artist describes the field they are involved in describes a lot about where their intentionalities lie.
To situate graffiti within a western high brow framework is not difficult. There are few texts to examine and the position is almost completely uniform. The high brow interpretation can be surmised from a number of key texts. The primary of these is the New York City Museum of Modern Art's High and Low, numerous art magazines and journals such as Flash Art, Art in America. From these mainstream texts, graffiti art is a movement which started in New York in the early seventies by largely black and Hispanic youths which peaked both creatively and economically from 1982-1984. A bunch of ghetto children that flowered briefly and then died off. All work since then derivative.
Contact with the high brow art world has been largely minimal or perhaps ineffectual. This contact has not always been seen as successful for either party. From the inside looking out, these gallery writers were seen by the less fortunate, less-talented or more 'hardcore' writers as sellouts. Often too the work suffered. Materially the work originated on a painting surface 20 metres long and 2 high. Not seen closely under bright gallery lights on small canvas supports. Similar to most site-specific work, if you remove the site the work suffers.
A number of early graffiti artists took different tangents when entering the high brow art world. The most successful stayed committed to styles they had developed within the graffiti framework; writers like Futura 2000 and Lee. The first graffiti exhibition was held by the United Graffiti Artist group in 1972. A second a year later did little over than gain a little media attention. This continued with periodic coverage in the media, mostly reports of costs to the M.T.A.. Until the early 1980's with the launch of the careers of artists such as DAZE, CRASH, FUTURA, LADY PINK, and LEE. Two years later nearly the same group exhibited in a show titled "Post Graffiti". The irony was not lost on some. However all these artists later returned even if briefly both to the subways and the streets.
The Importance Of Space
The graffiti artist's relationship to space is the most tenuous and aggressive of all artists. The graffiti artist regularly risks life and limb in painting trains.
The degree of sophistication of the tag, throw-up or piece form is tied endemically to the perceived degree of rebellion or resistance. Time is usually required to paint a sophisticated style. Therefore a well-painted piece is perceived as requiring time and subsequently indicates a lack of surveillance and control by the various authority bodies overseeing the site. Style equals resistance. To put it simply, if a tag that is placed in a high security spot, it registers resistance. If the tag is poorly executed it can be read as hasty, and perhaps done be an individual without much forethought or by a young person. A well-executed tag shows talent, style, commitment and a determined resistance.
Overdoing the style can lessen the index of resistance. If a painting is too intricate it can produce the feeling of being situated in an easy spot. Complexity in design is seen as requiring time and therefore a complex piece can only be completed in an easy spot easily. That is to say if a piece in a hard spot is too intricate it can be read as an easy spot and therefore as somewhat less. Writers and graffiti artists appreciate the rawness of the medium and therefore appreciate the rawness of a simple piece.
The term 'hardcore' is not important here but rather the insistence on its idea. Each regional area has slight variations in terminology but what is important is whether the piece was legal or not and whether the writer concentrates on painting illegal or legal pieces. It is commonly seen that a strictly hardcore writer will only paint illegal pieces. Working on illegal work only is often seen to be keeping with the original idea of graffiti. The hardcore writer will also steal or appropriate his/her paint. This is a total negation of the usual capitalist processes for producing art; i.e. buying the paint, buying the canvas, rent the space to paint in and then finding a space to show in.
Your position as hardcore also carries through with shifts in your career. If you have a history of train painting, a wall painted by you has more value than a writer who only ever paints legal walls does. If you continue to paint trains or illegal pieces, however inconsistently, you will be held in higher regard than writers who only paint legally will. This is true from within the movement although the opposite is usually true from outsiders.
The opposite of the hardcore writer is the artist who sticks solely to legal work. This type of work includes youth programs, legal sites, advertising commissions, canvases and gallery work. A legal artist will only paint permission walls. If a writer has only ever-painted legal pieces, they are really muralists working in a graffiti style. The legal artist often has a certain 'welfare mentality' due to constant reliance on government grants and projects to receive their paint and a space to paint. This type of artist usually refers to themselves as 'Aerosol Artists'. Participation in illegal painting activities redeems an artist in the eyes of their peers though.