Street Art: Vindicating Vandalism

by Grace Cummings

Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood are the many long, family car rides to New York City that seemed to never end. Always restlessly hoping that we were nearing our final destination, my discomfort would only be assuaged by the familiar sight of colorfully painted, nonsensical words that appeared the windows. Graffiti was my indicator that New York City, and freedom from the back seat of my car, was just a few minutes away.

As I continued to see graffiti throughout my childhood, I started to overlook these ordinary, painted misdemeanors. They became commonplace, just actions of attention-seeking teenage gangs in the cover of night. But as I entered my teens and my own artistic aesthetic evolved, I began to notice the more intricate pieces in this genre of urban self-expression. The works ranged from beautifully crafted murals to hilariously clever social commentaries. I viewed these works on a whole new level. They were no longer just graffiti, they were street art. Transcending the negative reputation of its primitive ancestor, the street art movement emerged as an ever intriguing, beautiful, and distinctive form of art.

Street art first appeared in the form of graffiti, which finds its roots even farther back than the “cradles of civilization,” found commonly in areas of Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. The earliest known sample of graffiti was carved into an Egyptian cliff over 4,000 years ago: a religious inscription left behind by Semitic soldiers. Later, graffiti would continue to be a significant practice in ancient societies and persecuted religious groups who needed a safe way to communicate. The Christians of Ancient Rome exemplified this practice by scribbling their fish symbol on buildings and roads to help denote meeting places. These simple symbols, which became the ancestors of street art, also became very prominent in ancient times as a means to accurately communicate to a largely illiterate population. Much later, in the Shakespeare era, graffiti became a common practice for listless prisoners confined in cells awaiting their sentencing. It was very common for the accused, such as those in the Tower of London, to carve their dissatisfaction and anti-establishment sentiments into the walls (Hunter 5).

By the 1970’s, graffiti rose to prominence in large urban areas, especially Philadelphia and New York City. This new urban culture, which was heavily influenced by the incoming surge in popularity of hip-hop music and breakdancing, was most commonly expressed through “tags,” personal logos hastily scrawled by hooligans armed with spray cans (see fig. 1). These tags, which were often gang territorial markings, became common fixtures on decrepit buildings—defunct shells of previously thriving industrial centers, factories, mills, warehouses, and abandoned social housing projects (Hunter 8). This graffiti became especially famous during the 70’s for its negative impact on New York City subway trains. As subway cars became increasingly blanketed in tags, the city police department saw a similar increase in the subway crime rate. By 1979, the New York City Police Department had recorded an astounding 250 felonies a week in these mobile havens for spray paint and violence (Fargo).

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Fig. 1. Interior of a 1980’s New York City subway car (Davidson)

However, among these petty vandals were true artists that found graffiti to be the perfect creative outlet. Pioneers such as Keith Haring, Hugo Kaagman, and Basquait would come to popularize graffiti well into the 1980’s, not as a crime, but rather as a unique art form. In 1973, the first gallery exhibition dedicated to urban art opened in New York City, putting artists such as those in the perfect position to create an entirely new subculture of graffiti art (The history of street art).

The street art movement emerged that at this time proved to be much more substantial and meaningful than the graffiti tags of the 70’s and 80’s. With the aid of spray paint, stencils, brushes, wry humor, and artistic skill, these street artists created designs that focused on more than just “street cred” and reputation. Their thought-provoking and visually intriguing works instead emitted themes of socioeconomic commentary and humanitarian objectives, and also served as a way for artists to “communicate man’s eternal relationship with nature in the urban environment and challenge our perceptions of modern society” (Hunter 9). Eventually some cities, recognizing the significance of this medium, would come to designate specific “legal venues” to act as canvases for street artists to devote their full attention, without having to concern themselves with arrest (Felisbret). However, because it emerged from the mostly crime-ridden graffiti movement of the 70’s and 80’s, street art would garner a lot of criticism from those who continued to associate it with its violent ancestor.

Despite its significance as an artistic movement, street art has already amassed its fair share of critics. With the memory of the gritty graffiti scene of the 70’s and 80’s still in their minds, these nay-sayers consider street art to be akin to that illegal and vandalistic form of expression. They find the art not only visually unappealing, but also a preachy and offensive means of social expression. In their opinion, street art is still just vandalism, a mark that “social controls and law enforcement” have broken down within a city. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, best defined this view of street art as, “a sign of decay and loss of control” (Harpaz).

In conjunction with the belief that street art is a mark of crime and anarchy, those who oppose street art argue that it is “stigmatizing” because it only appears in “blighted neighborhoods” or on “problem corners” (Shen). Generally, one never sees a street art mural in a wealthy area. In those parts of town, the buildings are pristine, with no posters or tags in sight. To street art critics, areas with murals and other street works seem to signal that the area is overrun with regular lawbreakers (MacDonald). These detractors support the “Broken Windows Theory,” which states that communities that keep up good appearances can be made healthier and experience reduced crime rates (Shen). Instead of murals, they believe that keeping an area clean makes it a better and more desirable place to live. Street art, in their opinion, is only a disorderly crime.

Despite these criticisms, street art has many overlooked values that make it an inspiringly worthwhile form of self-expression. Proponents of street art find it to be a public good, even if it happens to challenge the existing legal system. These supporters admire street art for the beauty that it can bring to the “blighted” areas of a city, the easy accessibility it allows for aspiring artists, and the strong community of artists, not vandals, that it creates.

There are many urban areas where the dirty streets and crumbling architecture is perceived as an eyesore to many a passerby, but to street artists, places like this have the potential to be the perfect canvas. Rather than dismissing these areas as dens of vandalism, street artists flock to them, sometimes even with the enthusiastic permission of local patrons or governments, to make them vibrant and beautiful. The Bushwick Collective is just one example of how artists are able to accomplish this noble task. Located in the New York City neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, the collective was started by Joseph Ficalora, who grew up there. Bushwick had not been kind to Ficalora. The area’s dirty, bleak streets, covered with unattractive “tags,” had been the backdrop of both his father’s murder and the loss of his mother to cancer (O’Leary).

Instead of condemning Bushwick and the terrible memories it held for him, Ficalora sought to make a change. In 2012, he began offering up factory and foundry walls to street artists, who covered up the existing vandalism with stunning murals. The project has attracted artists and tourists from all over the world and has impacted the community in ways that Ficalora never imagined. Within a year, new cafes and bars were ready to open in the neighborhood and enthusiastic visitors now fill the streets to admire the murals. Even Ficalora admits that he no longer sees the area as a haven of desolate memories, but, rather, “a year of new experiences” (O’Leary).

Similar to the Bushwick Collective, there are many other areas in the United States where street art is encouraged for the benefits that it can bring to a neighborhood. For example, in Los Angeles, California, the De La Barracuda Wall and the Bates Motel are just two of the many designated spaces for the street art community to come together as a creative group. In places such as these, many street artists continue to add to the already visually-interesting area in a sort of “ongoing conversation of images” between each other (Daichendt).

Another of street art’s most admirable traits is its tremendous accessibility.   According to Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, in his report on artists in the workplace, two million Americans identified themselves professionally as an artist in 2008 (Gioia iii). To put this statistic into perspective, there are approximately only one million lawyers in the United States. With such an oversaturation market for a career in art, there is an increasingly small amount of traditional career opportunities. To make a decent living for themselves, conventional artists require a Bachelor of Fine Arts or a Master of Fine Arts degree, and the attention of a gallery who will allow them to show their work, possibly, once every two years. Success in these terms is defined by expensive schooling and tremendous luck (Daichendt).

The difficulty of being successful in the art world can deter passionate artists. Many write-off a career in art as a wasteful, expensive hobby. Others have to settle for their artistic dream job becoming a pastime, while they restrict themselves to other professions. Street artists, however, are able to bypass the gauntlet that leads to traditional success in the art world. Street artist, Desire Obtain Cherish, bluntly exemplifies this idea in a mural that remarks, “Who needs a gallery when I can paint here for free” (see fig. 2). These artists champion the use of the city as their own unrestricted, personal canvas. Instead of waiting for a patron or museum to possibly show interest, street artists force people to acknowledge their work, which they can post repeatedly throughout cities. The city is at their disposal, to post as much of their art as they desire, making people notice, recognize, and appreciate their creations. Through their street art, these artists can create opportunity where there was none, with no expensive education or materials required, just creative vision and paint. It is an avenue for opportunity, accessible to anyone brave enough to willingly become a creative vandal (Daichendt).

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Fig. 2. Desire Obtain Cherish’s “Who Needs a Gallery…” (Nes,)

Sometimes these artists, who begin their work out in the streets against the scorn of selective gallery curators, will eventually provoke the interest of collectors and museums worldwide. In a truly “rags-to-riches” style, street artists can gain extraordinary attention and recognition in a very short amount of time, exceeding the success of most of their traditional artist peers. This method of success is common to many of the most famous street artists today. For example, world-renown for his satirical commentaries on social norms and consumerism, street artist Banksy began his career as a 14-year-old, spraying graffiti through the streets of Bristol, England (Lamb). Today, his art shows attract star-studded guests, such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and his pieces have sold for as much as $615,000 at auction (see fig. 3) (Harpaz).

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Fig. 3. Banksy’s 2013 “The Banality of the Banality of Evil” sold at auction for $615,000

Despite the rise to success and fame that street artists like Banksy have attained, some still find it difficult to associate artists like him with anything other than criminals. The common perception regarding the type of people that participate in street art, whether as a career or past-time, is generally negative. Because of its destructive roots in graffiti, the street art movement is wrongly associated with mischievous hoodlums or gangs, needlessly vandalizing buildings for the thrill of danger. The illegality of the concept of street art causes many to assume that the artists are angst-ridden teenagers who become lone vandals in the middle of the night. Although this may have been an accurate description of the very early graffiti artists, the street artist community has emerged as actually very welcoming and supportive, but in an unconventional way.

Each member of the street art community acts as a role model for their peers, prompting each other to exceed expectation. The community encourages a type of friendly competition that helps the overall quality of the entire movement. There is clearly a strong sense of comradery, appreciation, and support among street artists, rather than an obsession with defacing public property as some people perceive of the art form. Some street artists even join together under collective titles, such as the $tatus Faction or Cyrcle, in order to create art together, shattering the “lone wolf” image of common vandals and, rather, upholding a community-driven culture (Daichendt, 2013).

Many other street artists may not have face-to-face interactions with each other as collective groups do, but their works are public, which provides a more than adequate platform for artists to share their ideas within the community. Street artists of any degree of skill are able to admire and draw inspiration from the creations of their peers. Their creations encourage other artists to go bigger, higher, or more complex with their next work (Daichendt). For example, world famous twin brothers street art duo, Os Gemeos, whose work, “The Giant of Boston,” was a prominent fixture on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston’s Dewey Square in 2012, was heavily influenced by San Francisco-based artist Barry McGee (see fig. 4) (Harrington and Rojo). The important insight they gained through McGee’s explanation of integral street art techniques and other experiences helped propel Os Gemeos, who began as two young Portuguese boys fascinated with hip-hop culture, to the fame that they enjoy today (About Os Gemeos biography

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Fig. 4. Os Gemeos’ “The Giant of Boston” (Hargadon)

Wandering through Boston one weekend, I found myself at the Rose Kennedy Greenway, completely by accident. Among the modern office buildings, shops, and restaurants that lined this path from Faneuil Hall to the North End, stood the same structure that was once Os Gemeos’ canvas for “The Giant of Boston”. However, two years after its creation, “The Giant of Boston” no longer sits at the end of the community green in Dewey Square. Instead, the work has since been replaced by yet another street art mural called “Seven Moon Junction,” as an extension of artist Shinique Smith’s exhibit in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (“Janet Echelman’s Aerial Sculpture”)..

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Fig. 5. Shinique Smith’s “Seven Moon Junction” (Os Gemenos)

Seeing this government sanctioned street art mural among the bustle of tourists and business people was a strong indication to me that street art has an optimistic future. As public art, murals such as “The Giant of Boston” and “Seven Moon Junction” signify an intense departure from the criticisms that street art amassed in its early years as an art form. The historical prejudice toward violent and criminal graffiti that was unfairly lumped onto the street art movement is gradually breaking down among critics and even government officials, who looked upon graffiti as anarchy. More and more it is being recognized that street art transcends the dark influence left behind by crude gang tags, and perhaps, eventually, street art will be able to fully escape that unfortunate reputation. My walk along the Rose Kennedy Greenway gave me a firm indication of the beginning of this shift in opinion. I noticed families, teenagers, senior citizens, and businessmen alike, regarding “Seven Moon Junction,” not as a “stigma” of poverty or a mark of violence, but as stunning public art.

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Nes, Nonia B. “Desire Obtain Cherish: Who Needs a Gallery When I Can Paint Here For Free.” Flickr. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 July 2015. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/utap0ut/5802832428/>.

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Os Gemeos. Seven Moon Junction. 2014. Boston. Grace Cummings photograph file.

Rojo, Jaime, and Steven Harrington. “OS Gemeos And ‘The Giant Of Boston.'” The Huffington Post 8 Aug. 2012: n. pag. Huffington Post. Web. 3 July 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jaime-rojo-steven-harrington/os-gemeos-and-the-giant-o_b_1753267.html>.

Shen, Fern. “Can big, bold murals bring value to Baltimore’s many vacants?” The Baltimore Brew 6 Mar. 2012: n. pag. The Baltimore Brew. Web. 13 July 2015. <https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2012/03/06/can-big-bold-murals-bring-value-to-baltimores-vacants/>.