In newly found free* time, I’ve been taking brainstorming runs. I find this to be particularly helpful when writing. I jogged through sidewalks and sidewalk-less parts of the city with skyscrapers looming in the distance. Certain things were illuminated in the gloom of the early morning, most notably the seemingly random spray painted marks made for construction purposes alongside the more purposeful graffiti.
Graffiti as an artistic medium has fascinated me for the longest time and I’ve longed to sneak out in the middle of the night and create some sort of meaningful mark on the walls of my town. Historically, graffiti refers to any sort of marking or writing made without permission on a public surface of some sort. Originally this might have been scratchings of political satire on the walls of Ancient Greek or Roman buildings. Now, it has transformed into so many different media: yarn bombing, stickers, chalk graffiti, moss graffiti, spray paint, etc. Two artists that inspired me when I taught graffiti to my middle school students in my visual art class were Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Although Keith Haring is self-proclaimed and recognized as a pop artist, his start actually began when he took chalk and started to create incredible simplified contours in the NY Subway stations on empty advertising space. Genius. Pure genius. I love everything about Keith Haring’s art, but this temporary medium of chalk mystified me. Anyone could have walked up and destroyed his drawings with the simple touch of the finger. Even better, it’s unlikely he would even get in serious trouble for this sort of graffiti since it’s so temporary, but the idea that you could temporarily vandalize something with such beautiful images has always stuck with me. Besides this, Keith Haring uses universal images, simplified contours to draw people into the real issues with his art.
Jean-Michel Basquiat created what I consider to be the first twitter posts through his SAMO graffiti on NY city walls. SAMO stood for “Same old shit,” and Basquiat created social commentary and short quips. He made a point to do his graffiti near the posh galleries and art schools of NY, but he was something new, an iconoclast. Flashing out of life too young like so many other artistic geniuses, Jean-Michel went on to paint and highlight histories and perspectives that had long been ignored by the mainstream artistic culture. With mixed heritage and a love of science and medicine, Basquiat combined his Puerto Rican and Haitian background with images he remembered from studying Grey’s Anatomy into art that reached new levels of insight.
Many are polarized on whether or not graffiti constitutes art. In my opinion, these “unwanted” markings, these vandalizations are a stab into the status quo bringing forth new ideas, new discussions, and community engagement. It causes us to think.
Everyday we are vandals. We destroy the public property of society: the status-quo. In school, we secretly write on the desks in class or in the bathroom stalls, but the real vandalization is that we choose, willfully choose, not to accept the status quo, not to listen, but to instead pursue our own ends. I see a woman sleeping in the tollbooth on the job this morning. Just sleeping. She vandalizes the norms of society, destroying what we consider to be “acceptable.” In meetings, we write notes and jokes to coworkers violating, destroying the sanctity of the meeting, of the norm. Flyers paper the city, unwanted eyesores, self-promotion of one thing or another without regard for public concern. In cities, we leave sidewalks and streets torn open with cracks unattended. Allowing the destruction.
Is it wrong? I see the beauty in everyday vandals. Most stop at the inconvenience of their vandalization without seeing the underlying meaning. That there are different ways to live and think, perspectives that haven’t been accepted or acknowledged in our world. Perhaps certain norms could and should be broken. I’m not saying what we should vandalize all of societal norms, but there can be value in these acts. Perhaps it can cause us to reevaluate what we really think, “acceptable.” There’s an art to it, though. Keith Haring’s artwork surely would have been destroyed, surely he would have had more trouble in creating his art if his vandalization wasn’t so beautiful, if it wasn’t so purposeful. Jean-Michel’s SAMO graffiti might not have been the springboard to his career if it didn’t cut so deep into the status quo with such insight.
Perhaps the woman in the tollbooth signifies our work-driven society, that we are driving ourselves to exhaustion. Flyers** are necessary because some voices can’t afford the costly advertising and people need to be heard. Coworkers conspire through written notes because their workplace doesn’t empower them, doesn’t enable them to participate. Children graffiti school desks because lessons aren’t tailored to their needs; they might not have had the opportunity to agree to certain expectations. The cracks left in the street are signs that the community lacks a voice with their local government, that the government lacks funds or that the community lacks the power to assemble and correct the destruction hindering commutes. I don’t necessarily condone illicit activities, but they occur and although the deeper meaning may not excuse the action, it does cause one to think about the WHY behind the action.
If you could, free of consequence, what graffiti or vandalization would you create? What kind of statement would you make and why?
*Free: It’s interesting, even though I’m not currently working a traditional 9-5 job and am instead freelancing in various ways, it’s not a bunch of “free” time. I realize now the value of an hour and how my time must be spent ‘hustling’ as I like to say. In the back of my head there are always two objectives: get published or get paid and all of my time must be driving towards one or the other of those things. This is nothing new to most people, but for someone who’s been on a 9-5 schedule for life’s entirety, I find this exhilarating and awesome.
**Mark Bradford does amazing collages with flyers and makes commentary on different communities through the things they choose to advertise in their flyers.