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Contemporary graffiti pieces of the full-blown, Wild Style variety straddle the aesthetic fence between the
vernacular and fine art, with the best work deserving the analysis
of an educated eye, the kind usually reserved for galleries and
museums. Graphically, graffiti “writers” work with letter-based
forms and are concerned with personally derived font styles and
execution; however, functional readability often takes a back seat
to artistic expression, placing it firmly in the fine art camp.
Atlas, a Los Angeles graffiti artist, uses a decidedly formalist
approach to make his letterforms “clean, proportioned and well
balanced.” He says, “The amount of work you put into each letter
shows… and every letter is a new problem to solve.”
Snobbery puts blinders on even the most erudite art appreciators
who fail to recognize the merits of work from a can of spray paint,
no matter how technically sophisticated it might be. Aesthetic
sensitivity is in the eye of the beholder. Having an eye for one
area of visual art does not necessarily translate broadly, so that,
for example, even those familiar with modernist, abstract artists
such as Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline, often regard graffiti
pieces with condescension, begrudgingly acknowledging the craft as
contemporary urban folk practice at best.
“I never stick to a regimen,” says Revok of his graffiti
writing. “I might have a rough idea of what I'm going to do, but
wherever I am in my life, in harmony, or combative with everything
around me, that's going to come out on the wall.”
Because graffiti has developed outside of the academy (and,
importantly, outside of its control), outsiders rarely see it as a
practice that goes beyond a stylish skill. But in fact, works
produced by graffiti writers demonstrate a broad spectrum of
expressions, from the obvious formal issues of design, to a fully
formed poetic—crossing the dividing line between “high” and “low”
art. Interestingly, most veteran graffiti writers recall the
emotional impact that they felt—and felt was expressed by—the first
example of powerful graffiti they encountered. The difference
between snobbery and simply having individual preference for one
aesthetic mode or another is the moral presumption people associate
with their opinion. That is, those doing gallery or career-oriented
art might presume, albeit unconsciously, that a gallery or museum
based endeavor is intrinsically more worthy and of greater social
value than graffiti. It is that judgmental stance that keeps one
from engaging with less familiar modes of expression.
Letter-free abstract work by Kofie.
Snobbery, of course, cuts in any direction: graffiti writers
tend to have blinders on, too, preventing them from appreciating or
deeply understanding much of the classic art throughout history.
While some would recognize a Matisse, would they also understand
the radical aspects of his art, the line it treads between
representation and abstraction, as well as his exquisite color
formalism? (Then again, most artists and art history scholars miss
Matisse's formalism as well.)
“Try One,” an example of analogous color palette, by
Critic Christopher Knight, speaking this year at the Painting's Edge program in Idyllwild, made the argument that
Clement Greenberg, the prominent art critic from the 1950s and
'60s, did a great disservice to further generations of artists and
critics by proposing a cultural dividing line between high art and
popular art. Knight proposed that since there are examples of
supposedly high art that are sterile and ineffectual and examples
of popular art that are emotionally compelling, should we not throw
out those rigid, black-and-white categories and simply look at a
given work and judge it for how it succeeds on its own terms?
As in any artform, authority of creative expression develops
through committed practice and thought. Graffiti writers may not
have common art terms such as “warm/cool split” or “figure and
ground” in mind as they work, but they use these ideas intuitively.
For instance, writers may not use the term “formalism,” but they
often obsessively make sure the visual weight in pieces balance
out, a central concern of visual formalism.
A piece by Relm shows wildstyle modifications and interlocking
The general visual style of modern graffiti evolved from the
confluence of sociological and material elements. The sociological
element is that of young people, originally of under-class
demographics but now extending beyond class barriers, who want to
leave a public signature (a tag), but quickly, so as not to get
caught. The material element is the spray can. The reason that
writers use spray cans for anything beyond a small tag (markers
work well for those), is that the spray can, easily concealable and
portable, can cover a large area quickly yet with control. And even
though now there are legal forums for public art, where spray
painting may be done in a relaxed manner, the stylish and often
spontaneous look of the finished product comes from the roots of
this movement. Something that stands out in the best work is the
authority of technique and “pulp” energy that results from often
having time limits and the knowledge that the work being done is
illegal and will probably be gone in short order.
A central goal in graffiti is the development of a distinctive
visual style, same as it is for most any artist. The development of
this individual style is the single determining factor in how a
writer is judged among his peers, the ultimate audience to impress.
Various writers may be known for other attributes such as can
control or color palette, but without an inspired creative letter
style, a writer will never be considered in the top tier. Just look
up at the billboards and buildings around you to appreciate this
other kind of high art.
Why are the biographies of designers kinder about their subjects than most biographies? Purcell, a design biographer, discusses the balancing act between professional and personal—and the limitations of this new form.
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