Spray Paint the Walls: Graffiti, Art, and Advertising

Article excerpt

IN LOS ANGELES, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is hosting the "first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art" Sponsored in part by Nike and Levi's, "Art in the Streets" celebrates a form of cultural expression that America has collectively spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to suppress during the last 40 years. Naturally, the exhibition has been generating controversy, and it will continue to do so when it moves to the Brooklyn Museum in March 2012.

City Journal's Heather Mac Donald has offered the most biting critiques of the show's contradictions and hypocrisies. She reports that MOCA is selling designer spray paint in its gift shop but doesn't allow visitors to bring that paint into the venue itself. She quotes former graffiti writers who are incredulous that she'd ask them whether they'd consider tagging their own homes. ("Why would you want to fuck up your own area?" one replies.) She contrasts street artists' platitudes about resisting capitalism with their brand licensing deals. She marvels that a show that romanticizes illegal behavior has so little to say about the behavior's economic and other costs.

But if it's true that "Art in the Streets" paints a phenomenon as charged and multidimensional as graffiti in the standard monochromatic hue of rebel deification, it's also true that graffiti is a phenomenon that institutions like MOCA ought to be taking on. After all, if graffiti really were nothing more than vandalism, it would neither be so attractive nor so objectionable to so many people. Nike hasn't sponsored any exhibitions devoted to the art of smashing mailboxes. MOCA has yet to show any interest in celebrating the cultural achievements of people who let their dogs defecate on your lawn. For ages, graffiti has been delighting its adherents, enraging its foes, and above all persisting, foreshadowing other aspects of our culture and expanding its scope.

In The History of American Graffiti (Harper Design), a comprehensive and entertaining look at how scribbling one's nickname on forbidden territory has evolved into a vibrant worldwide subculture, the art historians Roger Gastman (who helped curate the "Art in the Streets" show) and Caleb Neelon place the beginning of contemporary graffiti in the late 1960s. Graffiti, of course, existed for thousands of years before that, and in the 20th century various forms were flourishing well before a Philadelphia teenager named Cornbread and a NewYork kid who called himself Taki 183 began marking up the walls of their respective cities. Indeed, in mid-century Paris, communist-inspired graffiti was so common that chemists devised a special detergent to combat it and anti-graffiti teams equipped with ladders and alpine equipment were specially trained to remove it from the city's most hard-to-reach spots. By the mid-1960s, advertisers had started to co-opt graffiti. A popular Winston ad depicted a man leanhag out a bus window and amending Winston's standard slogan with a paintbrush.

Around the same time, dissident college kids were also gravitating toward graffiti. In the French revolt of 1968, Parisians produced enough of it to fill an anthology rifled The Walls Speak. But Cornbread and Taki 183 weren't interested in expressing political opinions or cynical wisecracks. They simply signed their names, as often as possible, in as many different parts of their cities as they could cover. …