2006-03-02 / View From the Middle

Graffiti Comes Almost Full-Circle, From Vandalism To Art; But Questions Remain

View From The Middle
By Charles Rogers


If you’re old enough to read this — or if you’re old enough to have the inclination to read this — then the topic will be okay. No, it’s not an adult-rated triple X thing, but it’s a topic you should be old enough to disdain.

It’s graffiti. That good old, used-to-be-strictly-on-a-wall graffiti; the kind perpetrated by vandals who had nothing better to do with their time; The stuff I used to spell with two “t”s and one “f,” until, in exasperation, I had to write it so many times in so many stories that I got into the good habit.

Graffiti was the stuff that ruined the sides of subway cars, until the city finally cracked down because it made everything in the city look like a Dumpster in front of a fruit stand. It even made things look like they smelled bad!

Unfortunately, we still see it — on the sides of buildings, mostly. Unfortunately, the perpetrators (that’s the right word) don’t know how to do it; no finesse; certainly no artistry.

At one time, graffiti could be regarded as a psychedelic portrayal of what might be a hallucination, whether the intention was artistic or not. Most times, it was definitely not artistic and was regarded as a “youthful expression,” because the graffitiers (is that a word?) were easily only anywhere from 13 to 17 years old. It could also have been a territorial mark. Mostly, it was (is) narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. Nothing else.

There were those, of course, whose expression was more than just a passing, fanciful look in a mirror. Oh, they certainly liked to make their mark, known as a “tag,” and watch it go by on the side of a train. It was a show-off gesture to all those other graffiti vandals out there that you could do your thing better — and certainly bigger — than they.

Of course, that got out of hand too, until the letters were so large that the words couldn’t be read unless you were in a helicopter or unless you stood in the middle of Broadway Junction.

The size of the scribblings meant something, therefore, if for no other reason than to signify a scream for attention. Those were the graffiti that made the “hobby” (there’s got to be a better word!) nothing but an act of vandalism and disdained by most law-abiding, civilized people. I say most because there are a few who looked closer and saw, amid the blatant fuzz of colors and lines and disrespect and, in some cases, assault on our decency, a flicker of talent; a fast glimpse of something more than just an attempt at notoriety; perhaps a brief flash of art in its infant stages.

I know of one graffitier (there’s that word again. It looks French and very avant garde) who, after being caught by police and arrested in the subway yards in The Bronx doing his dirty deed on the side of an IRT train, got the idea that it was not a good thing to do, to put it lightly. But he learned his lesson, all right, went on to college, still pursuing his artistic dreams, and became a professional artist. He contacted a gallery or two and is doing very well selling his paintings. The talent was there from the start. It just had to be directed properly.

There was a newspaper article recently citing a new video game that uses graffiti as “a core” part of the story, say the producers. For this, they brought in 65 graffiti artists (all of a sudden they’re called artists, not vandals) to enhance their game.

And now, to further legitimize graffiti, the “art” has gone from being a subversive form of vandalism to the heights and, this summer, there will be an exhibition of many large-scale works on display at the Brooklyn Museum, one of the top museums in the country.

It’s not the first time graffiti has been on display in a museum, though. In 1999 a dealer-collector saw some graffiti art on canvas — and some on paper — and recognized it as a form that should be given some attention. His heirs donated the works to the museum.

Where does it go from here? It has almost come full circle. What began as an activist form of expression by self-taught vandals suddenly becomes another part of our culture. You want so much to tell the vandal to keep that spray paint to himself, but what do you tell the artist?

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