Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists

Article excerpt

Since it first appeared as an art form in late- I 960s New York City, graffiti and graffiti artists have been controversial. Misconceptions about their motives and stereotypes linking the artists to crime and vandalism have been fuelled by media reports that are often biased. Graffiti as an art form has been given minimal attention by scientific research. The voices of the graffiti artists themselves have rarely been heard by either the art community or broader society, especially outside the United States. Graffiti has crossed the boundaries of street culture, youth culture, and the art community, and while this may be attractive to many artists it also places them in contradictory relationships. For the most part, they may see themselves as outsiders to conventional social structures. Yet, many believe their work enlivens the city's derelict areas and is their contribution to the community.

Graffiti art enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, in locales such as the Greater Toronto Area. There was a great deal of speculation by the media about graffiti in Toronto, some of which linked it to activity historically based in the United States. Much of the media publicity in The Toronto Star (Black, 1997; Hume, 1996), The Sun (Cairns, 1996a, 1996b), and The Globe and Mail (Grange, 1995; Ross, 1996) became a forum for confrontation between outspoken artists and an establishment looking to rid the city of graffiti. Because of this battle, the definition of graffiti has been obscured. The purpose of this study was to define graffiti art as it has appeared in Toronto and provide the participating Toronto-based graffiti artists with an opportunity to tell their stories. My intent was to promote a greater understanding both of current practices in graffiti art and of artists motivations.

The study was based on interviews with six graffiti artists who had formal art training at either the senior secondary or postsecondary levels. The reason for choosing artists with formal art training was to provide a specific context for the study beyond the location and, in so doing, to help determine how these graffiti artists situated themselves within the broader community of emerging artists and art students. The objective of the study was to provide greater insight into artists who have chosen graffiti as a public art form. The research attempted to answer the following questions:

1. Who are these artists?

2. Why have they chosen graffiti murals as a form of public selfexpression?

3. How do they perceive themselves in relation to the larger art world?

4. How do they relate to their audience?

5. How do they relate their graffiti work to what they learned in art school?

6. How did their experiences at art school enable them to make the choices they did?

This article will provide a brief history of issues relating to these questions as a context for the study. A short outline of the participant selection process and research methodology is also included. The article will present the findings in terms of four themes that emerged from the participants' responses. These themes involve the artists, their education, their audience, and their expectations. The discussion will explore the implications of these findings regarding: how graffiti and graffiti artists have changed from the early New York beginnings, expanded definitions of graffiti, and how graffiti murals could become more socially accepted for beautifying derelict areas of the city. These implications are expected to expand the existing knowledge base and help quell misconceptions.

Defining Graffiti

Graffiti has been studied within different disciplines. These diverse, yet related, disciplines include: sociology (Castleman, 1982; Lachmann, 1988), anthropology (Gross & Gross, 1993), cultural criticism (Baca, 1995; Escobar, 1990; Varnedoe & Gopnik, 1991), urban planning (Glazer, 1979), art criticism (Gablik, 1982), and art education (Baca, 1995; McCray, 1997). …

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