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Street art or public nuisance?

Concordia experts discuss the growing, and controversial, graffiti scene
April 2, 2013
By Patricia Maunder


For some, graffiti is a blight on the urban landscape perpetrated by juvenile delinquents. For others, it’s a contemporary expression that should be tolerated, even celebrated -- though perhaps not if it appears on their own property, when it likely becomes invasive, potentially costly vandalism.
“Almost every aspect of graffiti writing culture is fraught with contradictions, which is perhaps why it instigates so much debate,” says Anna Waclawek, an affiliate professor and departmental coordinator for Concordia’s Department of Art History.

There are times when the debate is muted, such as in 2008 when a London wall featuring a Banksy stencil was reportedly sold by the building’s owner for more than $300,000. The work of Banksy and other prominent street artists such as Shepard Fairey, made famous by Barack Obama’s 2008 Hope campaign posters, now formally appears on gallery walls and fetches high prices. Their kind of eye-catching street cred is something marketers relish.

In other words, while most people consider graffiti criminal, in another guise it can become an art form. Where, however, do we draw the line?

Graffiti versus street art

 Anna Waclawek
Anna Waclawek, an affiliate professor and coordinator for Concordia's department of art history, says modern graffiti emerged in American east-coast cities in the 1970s.

To do so, first we must define what graffiti is. Has it anything to do with the Lascaux cave paintings or Pompeii’s wall scrawls? Such associations are commonly made by its advocates, says Waclawek. “It is as though making these ancestral connections to the action of writing or drawing on public walls infuses contemporary graffiti with some credibility, some canonized link to the past, some ongoing visual narrative. It drives me absolutely bonkers!”

Waclawek, author of Graffiti and Street Art (Thames & Hudson, 2011), disputes the links to these antecedents. “They have very little, if nothing, to do with the graffiti movement that germinated in Philadelphia and blew up in New York City in the 1970s,” she explains. “The culture of signature graffiti writing -- writing one’s nickname, or ‘tag’ in a highly stylized, mostly illegible manner -- is much more connected to modern traditions of advertising and popular culture than cave painting.”

From the United States east coast, graffiti eventually spread to international urban centres, including Montreal, particularly through hip hop culture and skateboard culture, especially in films and publications. As its practitioners created tags in ever more stylized, colourful ways, and figurative elements were incorporated into their work, people began asking: “Is it art?” For the galleries who courted New Yorker Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, for example, the answer was a resounding yes. Soon the terms street art and, less-common, post-graffiti were coined for this new form of artistic expression.

Although some misunderstanding of their definitions remains, graffiti continues to be widely understood as primarily letter-based -- indeed, according to Waclawek, those within what they call the “graff” scene usually consider themselves writers rather than artists; street art can encompass everything from murals and stencils to stickers, tiles, pasted paper and knitted yarn.

The difference between graffiti and street art is arguably their intent. “Graffiti writers are not looking for validation within a system of prestige outside of their own,” Waclawek says. “Street artists, whether ex-writers, art-school graduates or self-taught creators, engage the general public in the experience of art. Whatever one’s ideals, intention and motivation, the bottom line is that street art is accessible in every sense of the word and thus attractive to people interested in pushing, breaking or questioning a myriad of socio-political constructs.”

Crime to some

Whatever it’s called, is it art or crime? “To answer that it is both only ignites further questions,” says Waclawek. “How is it that graffiti is recognized as punishable vandalism in certain instances, especially when it makes an appearance as a tag or throwie, and yet it’s celebrated through advertising campaigns, numerous commercial products and the general public alike when it manifests itself as a large piece?” (See “A glossary of graffiti terms,” below.)

Angela Ford-Rosenthal
Angela Ford-Rosenthal is a lecturer in Concordia's department of sociology and anthropology. She questions the wisdom of some Montreal boroughs that force building owners to pay to remove graffiti.

Other contrasts exist within the subculture itself, she says: “It functions at once as a rebellious form of expression and an organized, hierarchical scene; it’s free and accessible to everyone through our daily navigation of the city, and yet the visual communication through illegible letter-forms ensures that non-writers are not invited into the conversation. Writing one’s nickname is an act of authorship, but the writer remains anonymous to the outside world.”

Angela Ford-Rosenthal, a lecturer in Concordia’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, is among the majority of people who feels excluded from signature graffiti’s conversation. “I always look at it to try to figure out what it is, what they’re trying to say, if their name can be seen in it,” she reveals. “I must say I find it quite difficult.”

Like many observers, she is also unable to resolve graffiti’s art/crime conundrum. An expert in the study of deviance and juvenile crime and delinquency, Ford-Rosenthal says it’s hard to define graffiti as deviant behaviour. “It depends, as usual in the study of deviancy, on who’s doing the defining.”

Most jurisdictions consider graffiti illegal, and therefore deviant. Practitioners, however, consider graffiti legitimate -- perhaps especially when undertaken illegally. However, as more visually appealing and inclusive forms appear, communities have come to consider at least some of it appropriate, even to the point of officially tolerating it.

“Once it’s condoned by the system, it’s no longer deviant,” says Ford-Rosenthal, pointing to recent government-sponsored graffiti projects in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood; Montrealers can view five-storey-high pieces by A Shop Collective on the corners of Madison Ave. and Sherbrooke St. and Decarie Blvd. and Sherbrooke. “You can organize projects to encourage street youth to express their creativity,” she says. “Only then does it step over into another area -- almost non-graffiti.”

Ford-Rosenthal reports that British studies of graffiti reveal a strong thread of youth revolting against the system. “These are kids who don’t feel they can be part of the middle class or upper class, so therefore they reject it, and that’s an expression of their rejection,” she says. “There aren’t really enough studies on graffiti here in Canada, but if I had to put it in a category, I’d put it in terms of youth culture and creativity rather than deviance.”

She’s outraged that some Montreal boroughs force buildings owners to pay to have graffiti removed. “The kids can come back the next day and just do it again,” Ford-Rosenthal says. “Why penalize the victims?” She cites an example familiar to those travelling west out of Montreal: the former Motel Raphael on St. Jacques St. near Highway 20, which has long been covered in graffiti while redevelopment plans take their course. “The city would be imposing fines on the owners for the graffiti but it’s not the owners’ fault.”

Brent Pearce, a marketing lecturer at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, also raises this derelict motel as an example of graffiti’s ugly face. However, he says the spray painters should take only some of the responsibility. “I also blame the owner of the building, who should have had it torn down. If you tear something like that down there is no surface for them to be spray-painting.”

Commercial concerns and possibilities

Pearce is nevertheless excited about graffiti’s upside. “We could take those people and put them to really productive work in terms of making bland surfaces look a lot more attractive,” he says of the graffiti artists. “I look at a city like Genoa, Italy, on the Mediterranean Sea, and every building, every house, is painted. It’s one of the most magnificent things you’d ever want to see. In a sense, that’s graffiti, but it’s art.”

He recognizes the serious business concerns. “If your building or storefront is laden with graffiti -- the negative, non-artistic form -- that would be a very strong deterrent for people to go in because we really do judge a book by its cover.” However, he adds, “For business owners who use wall art or street art in a positive sense, that becomes another reason for people to visit that establishment. It could be one of the big shopping centres, it could be just a little storefront, it doesn’t really matter -- because shopping today more and more has to be an experience.”

Pearce feels graffiti as marketing has enormous potential. “Businesses in general and the advertising and communications industry overall are working to develop the potential,” he says. Yet locally, at least, that’s gone untapped. “The City of Montreal is so far behind the times because in a number of the boroughs there are bylaws that absolutely prohibit any kind of graffiti, and that includes wall art. Go to Toronto -- they do it. Go to New York -- they do it.” Guerrilla marketing is underdeveloped in the rest of Canada. “We lack ingenuity and innovation when it comes to that,” he says.

Some advertisers, he points out, have come to recognize that it’s “easier to generate a visceral reaction using these forms of media than it is to try to sell a product or service,” he says. That has led to the creation of commercial enterprises that channel graffiti writers’ skills -- usually into legal billboard-style murals. A handful of these businesses have sprung up in the U.S., such as New York-based Tats Cru, which calls itself the Mural Kings. Most are in Europe, “where it’s really an art form,” Pearce says. These include Street Advertising Services, Graffiti4hire and GreenGraffiti. Established in Holland in 2007, GreenGraffiti has expanded internationally, including into Canada, using eco-friendly techniques and material such as milk paint, snow stamping and reverse graffiti, which involves creating words or images by scraping away dirty surfaces.

Turning clients’ urban grime into messages? Love it or hate it, graffiti has come a long way, although even the experts agree we are still far from defining it.

-- Patricia Maunder is a Montreal freelance writer.


Word on the street: a glossary of graffiti terms

Tag: small, monochromatic renderings of graffiti writers' nicknames in a highly stylized form, executed in seconds.

Throw-up, or throwie: larger but still rapidly executed renderings of nicknames, created using two or three colours and including more elaborate designs and techniques such as shadow and glow effects.

Piece: short for masterpiece, largescale works displaying significant technique and creativity, and usually incorporating figurative elements.

Paste-up: paper posters or cut-out designs pasted onto surfaces, usually with flour- or rice-based paste.

Reverse graffiti: designs created by cleaning dirty surfaces, usually with a stencil and high-pressure hose.

Yarn bombing: knitted or crocheted yarn attached to objects including poles and trees, usually incorporating bold colours and designs.

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