When I came across a Times article about a NY graffiti artist’s troubles with the law, the inevitable question arose in my mind that the judge is brooding over as well. Where is the line between art and vandalism?
The culture of graffiti art was nothing more than the backdrop to early ’90s rap videos to me until I endured my 20 hour cross country road trip to Colorado with Doc and two of his friends. One of the boys had mentioned some random fact about how the rapper Common used to be part of the Chicago graffiti scene while we listened to “Be”. You learn something new everyday. This was followed with some minor run-ins with the Crested Butte ski patrol and a tag on a chairlift by the fact-full dude. I was intrigued by this sub culture as I got a sample of it during my trip.
To further probe this underground culture I know nothing about, i looked to two trusted sources: Facebook and Wikipedia (“Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.” – Michael, The Office). I did some minor stalking of Doc’s friend and found a link in his profile to Banksy, a London graffiti artist that I seen in books in Urban Outfitters. Looking more closely at this guy’s work, I was repeatedly jutted into shock and awe over the genius of his statements and simple finger pointing at the law of his art. Beyond his middle finger to the law, his art is thought-provoking, peace-desiring, and of course controversial (wouldn’t ask for anything less). Even as I look for images to share of this guys awesome graffiti, I am hit with that which the graffiti artist fights – legality. On his site, I try to click the link to his gallery and get that siren on my screen “access denied” as the web at work is restricted. The cause of the sudden message was “Criminal Activity”. There you go. I was trying to find a simple way to describe the frustration (or adrenalin rush) those artists get from the fact that what they do is overall considered criminal. But I don’t think I need to elaborate.
The line is smudged when it comes to cases such as the Times article up there – when the graffiti artist’s underground fame leads him into the bright light of mainstream capitalism. They become artists in the eyes of those that used to believe they should be behind bars as soon as they are sponsored by Vans or paint on a canvas instead of a subway. A graffiti artists turned-entrepreneur, Marc Ecko, recently came out with a PlayStation game that is based around: “an amateur graffiti artist going by the name of ‘Trane’ who uses graffiti and tagging as a way to protest against the corrupt city of New Radius, in a future world where freedom of expression is suppressed by a tyrannical city government.” The Brooklyn Museum has even turned the city graffiti into an exhibit. Where is the line? Should the Brooklyn Museum be under siege for promoting the illegal? Or applauded for thinking outside the box, an idea that in embraced in contemporary art. It calls into question who decides what art is and the ideals behind freedom of speech. These are issues that have the same weight as asking what the meaning of life is. Unanswerable.