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Graffiti Basics

The Brooklyn Museum September 6, 2006–January 7, 2007

You want information? Take a look at this city, Maya. The graffiti on the walls, the crazy shit the bums and crackheads and wild kids come out with. This is the underground data exchange; the infranet. The city is the hardware and the people are the software. —Coyote in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles

The street has its own uses for technology. —William Gibson, Neuromancer

View of exhibition, (background) Fred Brathwaite, a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy, “Mr. Potato Head” (1983). Spray enamel on canvas. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.

In environmental science it is axiomatic that when two ecosystems come into contact, such as a meadow and a forest, species diversity is most abundant. It is also true that in the urban street, the ecosystems of the personal and commercial worlds overlap, providing for diverse mental, psychological and spiritual ecology of the mind and soul. The street becomes an abundant transition zone of signifiers from tags delineating physical space and literally marking the territory, to corporate advertising that is really no more than legal graffiti, to insurgent guerrilla artists postering or defacing existing advertisements, to the graf artist who literally puts his or her mark on the world with a personal, stylized advertisement, the street is a border region replete with scopic diversity. The result is a totality beyond the meaning of any individual image.

Thus we come to the problem of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit, Graffiti Basics. In terms of serving the community, a show featuring graffiti is appropriate. Brooklyn is one of the main centers in the world where graf art has been hybridized into pop culture, emanating mainly from hip hop. The problem with the museum show is twofold. One is the decontextualization of graf art from the street by placing it on canvases, thereby disrespecting the medium’s true gallery space (the street), and secondly, the graf art selected for the show simply does not translate well onto canvas.

This is not to say graf art can’t be brought into galleries or museums. It should, but the work has to also respect the parameters of fine art. That is, the consumers and institutions of the “easel” have an entirely different history and aesthetic context. There are many examples of where artists were able to traverse both worlds. The Basquiat show at the Brooklyn Museum last year demonstrated exactly how it’s possible. Clearly Basquiat understood the difference and applied his craft depending on the context. This was highlighted by the retrospective’s inclusion of a door with Basquiat’s tag on it, which seemed totally out of place in relationship to the canvases, but at the same time was necessary to connect his work to the street. There have been other graf artists who successfully bridge the street and gallery. Gajin Fujita, from LA, combines street vernacular with traditional Japanese print designs. Charles “Chaz” Bojórquez , also from LA, is a former plaquero (tagger) who has mastered various forms of Asian calligraphy, which he combines with the placa technique and style, translating well to combine the Chicano aesthetic of rasquachismo with hip hop.

The failure of Graffiti Basics is not that artists themselves are “bad” per se, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to just take the spray-paint technique designed for walls and then apply that to a canvas and call it a day. The canvas surface holds paint differently, and its uniformity is alien to typical graf art surfaces. But that is not the essential problem of the show. The graf style of the street belongs in the street. It’s a reversal of that old movie cliché, you can take the hooker off the street, but can’t take the street out of the hooker. In this case, when you take the art off the street, you also take the street out of the art. I’m sensitive that this claim may be taken as elitist, but in the case of this particular show, it just doesn’t work.

Like a mini-border zone between nations, the urban street brokers the transition from being to becoming as a liminal zone through which immigrant ideas transgress the dominant visual culture. In the street, the hegemonic language, yearnings, codes and dreams of the spectacle conveyed through commercial media are challenged by graf art. The lived experience of a populace’s scrawls trumps the fantasies of advertising and checks the prevailing symbolic order of the street. Like Duchamp’s ready-mades, as street graphics evolve through their public reshaping and discourse, the street becomes a hall of mirrors with images refracting each other. It is the self-organizing city, conscious and alive, producing spontaneous works of art like mystical entities generating crop circles. It’s the spontaneity of street art that gives one the sense that humanity is alive, evolving and struggling for definition. From the caves of Northern Spain to the neon of Times Square, humans reach out, connect and explode in a discourse of visual expression. Unlike the domain of the museum, in the street the dialog with the world’s images is democratized, recalling Diego Rivera’s refrain that in terms of popular struggle, the easel is the enemy of art, and in the case of Graffiti Basics, this is certainly true.


Antonio López

Antonio blogs at


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2006

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