I regret leaving my spray cans in The Netherlands. I was never part of the ‘street art’ scene, and I was never a great painter. But I am working on cut-outs and stencils on cardboard right now, which hopefully, someday will be on display somewhere in/as *public space: political statements, no commission, pure freedom and rebellion. I also like the smell of spray paint, and I like the aesthetics of tags and lettering that I can barely decipher. I’m thinking about an article I read some days ago, written by the artist Tom van Veen (the Netherlands, b. 1995). The article, published in the online Dutch art magazine Mister Motley, is titled Graffiti geeft tenminste nog het idee dat de publieke ruimte voor iedereen is (Graffiti still gives the idea that public space is for everyone).
My relation to public space changed slightly in the last couple of months as I found myself walking up and down the canal paths in East London. Tom talks about his experience in Athens. Mount Lykavittos, a tourist location of Byzantine and Greek stories, to be exact. Graffiti covers the marble walls. Southern European cities are known for their lively and present graffiti in the street scene, Tom van Veen writes in conversation with Jasper van Es, co-founder of the creative agency PAPERJAM. “Italy has a bigger understanding about what art can be.” says Jasper, as he’s located there at the time of writing.
But graffiti (/ street art) doesn’t have the same value all around the world. Graffiti artists’ have skills, thin and thick lines, and many different application techniques depending on the amount of pressure and endurance painters apply to the nozzle of the can. I don’t know much about it, to be honest. Spray paint has its own aesthetic, which is very different from a brushstroke. These are not my skills. Things that you don’t learn at art school. If not commercial, it is rarely acknowledged by the art world. We didn’t talk about street art as activism; we spoke of it as vandalism. It is difficult to explain something that you don’t quite understand. And maybe I shouldn’t.
“You have activists picking up the spray cans and you have aerosol users picking up activism.” says Jasper. Graffiti and Street Art are different things. Street Art is often more political, and political messages can, at the same time, be used to create a character, an image, or alter ego. ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) can just be an ego play.
After the death of George Floyd -and many others, among them, Belly Mujinga from London- Black Lives Matter pieces appeared on lots of city walls. “Graffiti is a way to reclaim public space for discussion.” wrote Nicholas Mirzoeff in the 7th chapter of How To See the World. It connects people but, at the same time, is a form of self-representation. It is a game, and the ‘rules are not fixed. Some are part of ‘the movement’, and others (want to) look ‘cool’. Honestly, it is not so different from the art world; street art is, as far as I’m aware, a culture of “me, me, me”. A culture of egos and alter egos.
You can’t stop unless you want to be forgotten. Maybe, it is not so much about fame or exposure, but about the name. The fame of the name. The persona that the artist invented in their (art) world, for that to be famous. Tags are much like dogs piss; very territorial.. marking their space like dogs. And why not piss everywhere. Kings And Toys, a SKINY film/docu on U.K’s Channel 4 – 1999, talks about the territorial tag. “Every piece came from tagging like a piece is nothing more than a fat tag with outline and designs.” one of the interviewees says.
“Where I come from, it’s very frowned upon to go out into the street and write your name. It’s just not cool. If you’re gonna go ahead and take a risk, put yourself in danger, and then you end up writing your name, seriously that’s what you had to tell the world?” said Mohamed Fahmy, a.k.a. Ganzeer, during an interview in 2015. Ganzeer is an Egyptian artist from Cairo who created work in the street during and after the Arab Spring revolution 2010-12. He’s located in America right now, where, at the moment, protests have enclosed the cities, and people are with police violence and tear gas. History repeats itself, but Egypt is not Tunisia. Greece is not Italy. London is not America, which isn’t Egypt either.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (American artist, 1960-1988) painted Defacement after fellow artist Michael Stewart was beaten to death by New York City police in September 1983, America. It was initially painted on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio in the days after Stewart’s death, but Keith had it cut out of the wall and framed. The painting is now privately owned and seldom displayed in public. Basquiat is, as a character, incredibly famous. People know and enjoy the myth of Basquiat, the paint-splattered Armani suits, his friendship with Andy Warhol and the idea of dating Madonna. He and his actual work were incredibly political and critical of the art scene, but most people tend to forget about that.
April 8, 2010, street artist and vandal KATSU posted a video online, he allegedly tagged over Picasso’s “Girl before a mirror” at the museum of modern art in New York City. Only a few did believe those videos were real. Still, a statement formed while trashing the art (system) and criticizing the internet as a profit generator at the cost of the general public.
Street artists and artists inspired by graffiti started exhibiting in galleries and art institutions during the ’70s and ’80s. Still, given street art origins -illegal, political actions- the relationship between the art world is, in general, a bit awkward. Have you ever been to the street art museum in Amsterdam? It seems like every bigger city has its own street art museum now. Why take it from the streets and put it into a gallery?
“The city’s the best gallery I could imagine.”JR (French artist, b. 1983)
June 1 2020, 5art Gallery was looted in LA. The gallery represents international pop, urban street artists like Banksy, KAWS, Invader, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons. They are known to sell to global art collectors and celebrities. At the same time, a lot of graffiti was sprayed on walls and statues. “To some people, graffiti is destruction; evidence of criminality that goes hand-in-hand with looting and property damage. But in truth, graffiti is an artful form of communication that’s been an important part of the grand tradition of American dissent.” reads an article in the Observer three days later. Spray paint can be washed away – even when difficult-, but human lives can’t be revived once lost. Their graffiti became glossy. Are they aware of the contradiction of self-promotion and blue-chip representatives? How ethical is it to go on thát commercial? And the bigger question is, really, does street art lose its meaning once the artist starts selling what you’re doing?
Artlords (established in 2014) is a group of artists and volunteers who painted almost 2,000 murals in Afghanistan. Some of their work is commissioned by UN agencies to highlight political messages. Their independent pieces are painted for a political debate, with messages of peace and social justice targeting government corruption. Other groups want to evoke happiness and fun. Expressing oneself is the most important reason.
“To me it’s about inclusion and social justice. My intention is trying to be as educated as possible, but also being fearless about expressing myself.” 7 said Shepard Fairey in an interview with the Guardian in 2017. Fairey is an American street artist and graphic designer who’s most famous for his brand Obey and Barack Obama Hope posters. Even though his statements and values are very inauthentic and mainstream.. “racism is wrong, we should take better care of the environment, women deserve equal rights”, it’s the packaging -design- that matters.
In the pictures from the Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-93) series taken by English conceptual artist Gillian Wearing (1963-), strangers photographed holding a self-written sign. These signs are honest and personal. We don’t know the strangers’ names. Their anonymity is perhaps why Egyptian artist Ganzeer said that conceptual art is useless for the – Egyptian – revolution, as stated by Mirzoeff. The Occupy Wall Street signs, on the other hand, were personal and received honks from passing cars, likes and reblogs from the WeAreThe99% Tumblr even when the author stayed anonymous and when they weren’t shared in any Art spaces. Occupy Wall Street was years ago, today there is COVID-19-, Black Lives Matter-, Anti-racism- Defunding Police-, other days it is Extinction Rebellion; people eventually get tired of protesting. We have to pay rent, buy food, sell out… most people go home, and things return to normal. Cardboard signs are thrown away, and Street Art is overpainted. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother trying. Who’s ready for the next revolution? Who’s ready for the next protest mars? My signs will be prepared! Let art resonate within the public space. Let art resonate with the public. Next question: who takes the trash out after the revolution? This is the statement I am willing to make today, on September 9 2020.
P.S. TIP: The London Mural Festival started this September. There’s no topic or theme but is meant to brighten up the city’s streets. It is privately funded and showcases work from artists including 1UP, Camille Walala, Dale Grimshaw, Marija Tiurina, Gary Stranger, Mr. Cenz, Mad C Pref, Zabou and Seb Lester.