I think 2006 is the year of the graffiti comeback.
The other night, I was watching the Boondocks episode where Riley turns the walls of his neighbors??? houses into works of art by spray painting graffiti. His neighbors throw around flattering suggestions of the artist???s greatness because of the realism and details of the work.
To be honest, it was one of my favorite episodes so far. It kind of touched a nerve with me. During the evening before I retired at home to watch my beloved Cartoon Network, I stopped by the old Staples building in Georgetown to see the opening of Wall Snatchers, an exhibition of graffiti and graffiti styled art put on by the Washington Project for the Arts and the Corcoran Museum. It was like stepping into a warehouse party in Williamsburg, except there was no Pabst Blue Ribbon.
While there were some wall murals that resembled the big block lettering of typical New York graffiti, most were finely painted murals, stencils works and block lettered phrases that were as cliché as they were catchy. The phrase ???Bask In Your Thought Crime??? was repeated in various locations of the gallery. While the statement is cute and ironic, it is really the calling card of Bask, aka Ales Bask Hostomsky
On his website, Bask defines what a ???Thought Crime??? is:
A thought crime is an idea or belief that defies the norms of the status quo. In theory, it is your primal instinct; your creative urge unconfined by restraints from corporations, the state, media and society. Thoughtcrimes often occur after one awakens from a deep slumber with feelings of discontent in their lives. Like an explosive hand grenade, the mind and spirit are then liberated and freed from the rut of conformity.
Why be a thoughtcriminal is synonymous to asking, Why should I be a free thinking individual?” True freedom lies in the mind and consciousness and cannot be censored or imprisoned. Thoughtcriminals question the status quo, reading between the lines of information that is disseminated by the mass media. They do not view the world through rose tinted lenses and refuse to let patriotism blind them of healthy criticisms. Although they are critical of the system they optimistically seek change.
If you are a free-thinking, non-conforming individual who resists indoctrinated thoughtcontrol and instead believes in self-determination and free-will, then you are a thoughtcriminal.
Bask is one of the many artists exhibiting at Wall Snatchers. Hailing originally from Czechoslavakia, Bask spent his formative years in Florida. His fine art and street work (notice not graffiti) are loaded with iconic pop culture images well known in capitalistic America. It???s an interesting story???a young man growing up under a communist regime comes to a country that takes pride in its civil liberties. He finds, however, that we may have freedom of speech in the USA, but capitalism can be just as tyrannical as communism, i.e. in propaganda and marketing. His reaction to the tyranny? Rebel by using the icons against themselves.
Cute. But not new, by any means.
He is also saying that basically if you don???t follow the crowd you???re cool, proving once again that rebellion is the coolest thing around. But what happens when everyone starts rebelling? They all end up conforming to an ideal or a ???movement.??? Look at the scenesters and you probably know what I???m talking about.
Ok, so say this art is good???humorous, witty and even slightly thought provoking. But is it graffiti or just plain art? Now I???m not saying that graffiti isn???t art. In fact, I???m a firm believer that it is. (The question of what art is exactly is completely up for debate, but I digress???)
It amazes me that graffiti (which got its start in train yards, subway tunnels, underpasses and rooftops AND is still considered vandalism) is now seen in art galleries as some sort of new fangled art form. Yet the majority of the stuff that is in the galleries is not what many original taggers would consider ???graffiti.??? It tries to pass itself off as something the public has never seen before, when in reality it???s just copying someone else???s copy of someone else???s work. It???s not the first time the art world tried to embrace graffiti. It happened in the late 70???s and early 80???s, except at that time, being a graf writer came with a whole set of different baggage. It was more about turf wars than artistic celebrity. It only became about money and fame when the art world took notice. Once the hype died out though, the predominantly white art scene went back to seeing writers as petty street thugs and to ooo-ing and ah-ing over more contemporary painters. Few graffiti and street artists actually ever made the transition over to the ???high class art??? (i.e. Basquiat and Keith Haring).
So what???s changed in the art scene now that an exhibition like Wall Snatchers can happen? In a way, graffiti as art has become safe, similarly to the way (don???t shoot me for this) Hip Hop has become safe. But what does safe mean? It means that graffiti has become commercial. Just as commercial as Starbucks or McDonalds or Nike. I???m sure that the majority of people who would call this exhibit original graffiti would probably cross the street if they ever saw a real graf writer.
While graffiti as an art form is considered safe, the actual act of creating it is most certainly not. In an urban setting, writers still have to dodge electric train tracks, barbed wire fences and even police bullets. You can get criminal charges and jail time for ???expressing artistic belief.??? There is also the issue of rival writers tagging your work. These rivalries can go anywhere from painting over someone else work to shooting them. Yet, with the ever growing popularity, the urban setting just isn???t cutting it anymore. Graffiti is making the flight out to the suburbs where it is giving suburbanite teens something to do in their free time.
The excitement of graffiti lies in its danger, which is one of the reasons why graf fans who aren???t writers themselves love it. You live vicariously through the artist???s experience by just looking at their work. It???s no wonder that so many artistically inclined people would feel connected to graffiti, which means it???s a perfect target for mass marketing.
I went back to Wall Snatchers the day after the opening. It was a ittle calmer and there were fewer people around. The gallery reeked with the smell of fresh paint. In the back space where there was barely any wall art, I noticed four young guys spraying their tags in a grayish silver paint. None of them could have been older than 16 or 17. They were skinny white boys in oversized sweaters and cargo pants. I walked over and watched them for a little bit before one noticed me. He smiled with a kind of dazed expression on his face.
???How did you get started writing???? I asked him.
He looked at me a little perplexed as if to say When was I not writing? And relplied:
???I just got inspired.???
I pressed on. ???How old were you when you started????
He shrugged. ???About a year ago.???
He asked me if I myself was a writer and I replied that I wasn???t, at least not a graffiti writer. All of a sudden all the guys surrounded as the first one told me about Berg, a writer who had done some work on a few DC bridges. He said it was his work that inspired him to start writing.
Growing up in and around DC, I can remember being 8 years old, in the car and looking out the window at the urban sprawl. Everywhere you looked, you would see one name: ???Cool Disco Dan.??? His shit was literally EVERYWHERE. Now, thanks to a lot of city clean up and new wannabe taggers, it???s hard to find his name at all. These new kids either see him as a legend, an old skool cat or barely know him at all. But for a lot of people, he was a representation of what DC used to be. Even in the roughest of times, he was constant factor. Still that constant is changing and moving???across the bridges and down the beltway.
I think a t-shirt hanging up at Wall Snatchers said it best: ???Suburban is the new Urban.??? British street stencil artist Banksy knows it (check out his graf cows). DC Hotshot/Annoyance BORF lived by it. The boys writing at the gallery are just learning it. With games like Marc Ecko???s ???Getting Up??? and films like Bombe The System and Quality of Life, it seems that the underground urban world of graffiti writing is getting a very mainstream suburban makeover.
All photos were taken by Miss Hipstah