The worlds of graffiti and street art are familiar to any modern city dweller, yet their meanings can seem alien to the uninitiated. With that in mind, Gemma de Cruz and David Sheppard fire some questions at author, curator, street art connoisseur, and this issue’s guest editor, Cedar Lewisohn and attempt to unearth some hard facts and soft truths about these sometimes contentious art forms.
Gemma de Cruz – What are the origins of graffiti, without talking cave painting, when was the phrase first coined in relation to graffiti being described as ‘art’? Same question street art, when was the term first used and in what context?
Cedar Lewisohn – When we talk about graffiti we’re [generally] talking about graffiti writing – which is the movement associated with hip hop (and predates hip hop). We’re not talking about ‘graffito’ which is a Latin term for basically any kind of inscription on a wall.
The arguments around the birth of graffiti and graffito go back to when people started writing, but I won’t go into that now, I’ll jump forward to the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the mainstream New York style graffiti writing movement really took hold. Before that there were interesting things happening in New York, like ‘gang graffiti’. If you think of West Side Story there’s a very famous scene at the start where they do graffiti. The important difference between that and New York-style graffiti is that gang graffiti is essentially about territory and protecting space, whereas graffiti writing was about claiming the city and going out to as many locations as possible and putting your tag on them. So, that’s a very important early distinction and it’s also where the term ‘all city’ comes from, it’s about the graffiti writers travelling on the trains around New York City and putting their tag all over the place. Before that, they would maybe stay in their own neighbourhoods.
Even the roots of graffiti writing from America are contested. Early proponents of tagging (which is at the heart of graffiti writing) include the writer Cornbread, from Philadelphia, who was tagging as early as the mid ’60s and into the early ’70s. One other early example was TAKI 183, who was living in New York in the ’70s. He’d go round the city and write TAKI 183 [a shortening of his real name, Demetaki. 183 was the name of his street]. He is often claimed as the first ‘tagger’. There were certainly articles in the The New York Times about graffiti writers like TAKI188.
David Sheppard – There is also a European tradition of wall writing, and political writing.
CL – There were people like Ernest Pignon-Ernest who was more of a street artist, and, likewise, Daniel Burren, who says he was doing abstraction in the street that predates the New York-style tagging. Those were early forms of street art. These things were happening, but they weren’t called anything at the time. They’re different from graffiti writing. Daniel Burren says later on there was an influence from graffiti, but that came after.
GdC – Why is graffiti writing so specifically associated with hip hop?
CL – The graffiti writing was a form of game-playing; tagging your name on trains and around cities. At that time, New York was a bombed-out, derelict and semi-abandoned city. There were a lot of poor kids uptown in the Bronx being inventive and they created all these games, jumping out of buildings, Double Dutch [jump rope] skipping, etc… and graffiti was one of them. There was this whole movement of indoor activity: drawing, playing games, which came to the outside world.
DS – New York City was bankrupt in the’70s. You could live in ex-warehouse lofts for next to nothing. They were all in industrial zones where you weren’t supposed to live, but there was no one to administer the law, so artists just took over the downtown buildings. Nobody could afford air-conditioning, so in the summer everyone went outside. There was a kind of co-mingling. That’s partly why quite different musical genres could co-exist and cross-fertilise.
CL – People like Futura 2000 were interested in punk and people were tagging as part of the punk movement. So New York-style graffiti (as we call it), actually predates hip hop.
At some point, they came together and decided hip hop should have four elements: MC-ing, breakdancing, DJ-ing (or mixing) and graffiti. Somehow it came to be that they wanted to cement these elements as a culture and graffiti writing was attached to it.
DS – Brian Eno lived in New York at the end of the’70s, and he told me that he and David Byrne used to go down to Washington Square Park to watch people doing ‘street dance’. This is before breakdancing and so on became a ‘thing’.
CL – It blew up very quickly. It’s all part of this outside culture.
GdC – Can you explain the relationship between street art and skateboarding?
CL – To me, the relationship between street art and skateboarding is just about alternative uses of the city. The city is a very functional place, used for going to work, going shopping… Street art and skateboarding slightly subvert the city, they use sites for alternative uses than that for which were designed, and both share a physical contact with the space.
Going back to the birth of street art, there were certainly things happening, but generally speaking, it came up in parallel to graffiti. Even in New York in the early ’80s, it was more about the art school kids doing flyers for punk bands, [not necessarily to promote gigs], just random flyers that were statements. You had people like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jenny Holzer who were part of this. They were art school-trained kids who were kind of connected to the graffiti scene and took part in lots of early exhibitions at places like the FUN Gallery and Fashion Moda.
GdC – Did this include performances?
CL – Yes. The other important thing to say is it’s about making art in places where you haven’t got permission. Of course, if you do get permission, it doesn’t stop it being ‘street art’.
DS – Is street art, in essence, inherently subversive?
CL – Generally speaking, yes, but there are no fixed rules. I always equate it to punk. Punk is a subversive musical genre but a band like Talking Heads [who emerged from that scene] were subversive in their own way but they didn’t ‘look’ subversive. People subvert subversion as well. But, yes, people who are interested in street art do tend to have certain political ideologies and attitudes.
There’s no reason why you couldn’t have an extreme right-wing street artist. It’s unlikely, but you could.
Punk was supposed to be about rebellion and being anti- establishment, but the Sex Pistols signed to EMI, so what was going on there? My argument is, if they hadn’t have done that they wouldn’t have reached such a big audience, and the same goes for street artists and graffiti writers. Most street artists have a studio practice; often they’ve been to art schools and they make drawings and prints. Just because they work on the street why would they be excluded from putting work in a gallery? It’s just another aspect of their practice.
GdC – When did street art become recognised as a valid commercial art form? Was there a catalyst or turning point?
CL – In the ’80s, artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were being referred to as ‘street artists’ by certain people. They distinctly separated themselves from that, really; they wanted to be called ‘fine artists’.
Even though there is a big market for graffiti and street art in auction houses, now, I don’t think any artist has outsold Basquiat – his prices are in the several millions of pounds. So I would class those artists as early examples who crossed over. They did leave the street and cross over into the gallery but they still had that link to the street.
Even artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kreuger started by making work illegally on the street, and that’s often written out of history. People in charge of museums are very reluctant to admit that but it’s a fact. There are lots of examples, and those artists are inside the museum and auction world now.
So there’s that ’80s history. Then, in the ’90s, there was a rebirth courtesy of a different generation, led by Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee and, later on, Banksy.
DS – We’ve got the two ‘B’s: Basquiat and Banksy; they’re the names that people who have a cursory knowledge of street art would immediately know.
CL – They’re good names to know, they’re very different artists, operating at extremely different times. Basquiat really was this driven force, manipulating the system and at the same time being manipulated by it. Banksy is cooler and a lot more of a removed, knowing, studied, product of media saturation and marketing. Bansky is a lot closer to someone like Tracey Emin than Basquiat; they both manipulate the media as it functions now.
DS – Banksy seems closer to me to Situationism; it’s quite a European approach.
CL – He’s got that aesthetic, yes, but I don’t think the Situationists would have sat around and asked themselves ‘what’s our marketing plan’; but I think Banksy does. It’s not cynical, it’s a professionalism, which is very much part of how art exists now.
DS – By contrast, Basquiat had the sensibility of a ‘true’ artist…
CL – He was an artist of his time; he’s almost a cliché of the romantic idea of what an artist is: living in a garret, making his paintings, then becoming hugely successful. The idea of an artist now is far removed from those clichés.
GdC – Has street art always been a rival to conventional fine art found in museums and galleries?
CL – Street art isn’t necessarily a rival, maybe a parallel space to show. Generally, when you look at graffiti and street art, there is a lot of rubbish; you really have to look at a lot of work to find the good stuff , because there’s no filtration. So, when you do see something good it really does stand out – but you could argue the same for mainstream art, of course, although that has the benefit of a filtration system.
DS – Street art is not completely without curating, is it?
CL – If you want to class people allowing artists to paint their wall… I don’t know if ‘curating’ is the word I’d use. In terms of the legal aspects of it, you could be arrested for painting on a wall with a spray can or writing your tag, and you could go to court and you might get a certain sentence or punishment. But, another person might be caught at the same wall sticking up a fly poster (that looks more like street art, as opposed to graffiti) and that person might not even make it to court, they might just be sent on their way. I’ve heard of that happening several times. There’s something about spray paint that people find more offensive. So, in a way, you find that a value judgment has been put on this ‘art’ by society, or the law. Likewise, if someone tags a wall it might be painted over, in a day, or cleaned, but if someone puts up a more sophisticated image it might be left for a few months or more. So ‘curatorial’ judgments are certainly being made on what’s left and what’s removed, and
I think that’s good. That’s why I like tagging; I always defend it because there’s something about it that retains a sense of defiance.
DS – Why do you think that is?
CL – It does get consumed and commodified: you do see tagging on shoes, bags, adverts for BT, etc but that tagging typography does have a very distinctive meaning and language, and people do distinguish between that hand-written tagging style and a ‘stenciled’ street art style. They’ve got different meanings even for advertisers trying to sell you something. They speak to different demographics, and that’s really interesting.
DS – Has all this been going on long enough now for there to be a ‘retro’ street art style?
CL – Absolutely. Spray paint has become so professionalised that there are paints made specifically now that can be used at sub-zero temperatures and so on; whereas in the ’80s they were using lame car paint and there is an impulse now for some people to use retro spray paint. In the styles too, people are always looking back.
There was a great book called Watching My Name Go By [by Mervyn Kurlansky] which has lots of photographs of early tags. One of the things you notice is how the artists would do a skinny tag, or put dots around them; they are very distinctive styles and they look very ’70s/early ’80s, and people are redoing those styles now – it’s deliberate retro. So, to the casual observer you might just think that’s a terrible tag but for someone who knows, they’d be thinking they were really rocking Eva 184’s style from 1982 there… There’s a big time connoisseur audience; graffiti really does have hardcore followers.
GdC – Do you think the more recent rise in awareness of and involvement in street art are linked to the economic climate? The cuts in art don’t make it easy for artists to sustain their practice. Do you think there’s a sense that street artists are at an advantage in that they can bypass the standard framework of having to run a studio, hoping a gallery will show their work and sell it, etc, and just get it out there?
CL – What I do think is interesting now, is that in the current economic times street art does seem to be responding in a much clearer way than a lot of the more mainstream fine art. Just look at that recent cover of Time magazine: their person of the year was The Protester and the person they had to illustrate that was Shepard Fairey. So there’s a big connection. All the stuff that’s happened in the last year, the Arab Spring, all the uprisings, the Occupy movements, there’s always art around them; and the art you see isn’t some kind of minimalist slick vitrines, it’s something sprayed on the wall of a stencil. I’m sure every protest that’s happened has had street art around it.
DS – That scenario really reminds me of images around the Paris Évenements of 1968.
CL –I think all artists respond to the times, and street art is a part of that.
DS – We are implying that street art has to be engaged politically, but obviously it doesn’t…
CL – It’s slightly ambiguous; you could take the work of someone like Daniel Burren or Invader and what their doing isn’t necessarily political, but by putting it on the street they’re distracting from the corporate messages you’re used to seeing in that environment. Something purely abstract maybe does have some political resonance on the street. So art that is non- political in galleries sometimes takes on a political meaning when they’re on the street, and vice versa.
GdC – Street art already has a presence in education, but how do you think it will be acknowledged as a relevant art form and thus be fully adopted by art courses in schools and colleges?
CL – From my experience of teaching in art schools, and speaking to people who teach in art schools, I know for a fact that graffiti and street art are huge subjects, and I’m often contacted by students wanting help with questions for their dissertations.
I recently took part in a European Union initiative about how to fund street art across the continent. They wanted to know how street art and graffiti can be taught. So certainly there is more and more talk about how to make that happen. Of course, the great thing about tagging is that anyone can do it…