Is Graffiti Art

To make this post short, we will assume that the audience knows which graffiti we are writing about.  For while graffiti has blighted man for as long as he has put up permanent walls, the elaborate tags that we see in urban spaces could only exist in an era where quick drying paint came in aerosol cans.   

And whatever its merits, real graffiti is vandalism.  We are faced with a dilemma, can we accept it as art while condemning it at the same time? 


We can’t eliminate all contradiction from our lives, and to try will drive one crazy.  I was in NYC almost daily from 1969 till 1973 and then again in 1976-77.  I watched NYC change from the town of Mad Men, where subway platforms had working soda vending machines and graffiti was a simple scrawl like  “Taki183” to the hulking wreck of a town that was about to goo bankrupt.  By the mid 1970s in NYC, most subway cars were completely covered.  In fact, the city was a mess.  Yet even still, I was fascinated as the graffiti covered subway train limped in along.  It made NYC a perpetual carnival.

So is graffiti art?

Yes,  but the makers are rarely artists.  

Huh?  If art, why aren’t the makers artists?  

Let’s start by distinguishing the result from the maker, and as a guide, let’s place ourselves in a museum that holds historical artifacts.  Most artifacts are in the end utilitarian.  So vases and bowls meant for household use, or finials and what not that capped the ends of items as different as swords and the prow of a ship.  

Unlike the artist who can change as the will determines, the bowl remains just a bowl, however decorated, and the maker remains just a worker. 

With graffiti it is even worse.  The scrawlers mostly create tags - in essence logos.  The logos can be for them graffiti writer or for a gang, but that is all we have, logos.  So the makers are at best craftsmen and have very limited range or imagination.  

Still any painter worth his salt can’t help but admire the unexpected gems.

These are in the Paterson Great Falls historic district and most were done in one of two area that had been abandoned for decades:

This first piece is one of the rare ones by a budding painter.  In a way it is the least interesting among the bunch.  

This was done at Hinchcliffe Stadium - closed in 1996 and still awaiting money to restore.

This seems to recall Picasso. 

This one was hidden by the summer foliage.  

Like most of them, the beauty is unintentional and includes the tags that were painted over.

Two more

The once famous writer of Taki 183 was in essence a bored kid.  As soon as he began to move into the adult world, his graffiti stopped.  

For these kids, it will be the same.  But in the meantime we can enjoy.  

Views: 420

Comment by Foolish Monkey on August 7, 2016 at 10:58am

I like Otto Dix.  I love the German Expressionists and when I work, I look to them, including Dix.  I like offbeat art because it's surprising and it's a personal statement - how it's done and what it says.  So that goes directly to me.  

That said, some graffiti is art, some isn't.  I like banksy, I like him I think for the same reason I love German Expressionists.  He owns his output, he challenges people to thik and he's a marvelous draftsman with a clever mind.  

The process for how "art" is determined to be "art" is - I suppose not much different from what evolves into important history and what is forgotten?  And that is determined by popular culture and time.  And excellence.  In the end, what is classified as art is usually excellent.  The argument usually doens't come to - what is art, it's usually why is so and so ignored?

Comment by JMac1949 Today on August 7, 2016 at 11:17am

Terry I've enjoyed all kinds of art from indigenous Aborigine paintings on bark and rock to Cezanne and Rodin to Andy Warhol and Basquiat.  Over the years I've indulged in pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, acrylic and oil and created sculpture with clay, wax and metal.  I even dabbled in making jewelry as gifts for various old girlfriends. I lived among artists in Downtown LA for over 20 years and I've even commissioned paintings from a few of them to help them pay the rent on their studios. 

Though I've never been to Europe, I've seen the Getty and Norton Simon collections up close and personal.  Of all the thousands of pieces of "art" that I've seen over the last sixty years, I've found 99% of it to be derivative and copies of copies of copies.  The vast majority of art is made for the money and approval of "patrons" whether it's on the cover of Time magazine or on the wall of a museum.  I often find the art made by children much more original than the pretentious "work" of MFA's from the "art schools" of universities.

Comment by Safe Bet's Amy on August 7, 2016 at 11:26am

Y'all left out my favorite artist of all times...  I miss him.

Comment by Terry McKenna on August 7, 2016 at 4:52pm

J-Mac, if you are miffed that artist paint for the patron, you miss the point.  My first painting teacher was Wolf Kahn (look him up, well known)  he told us that the first job of the artist is to get the money from the patron's pocket into your own.  

Of course are of all sorts is derivative.  There aren't all that many themes nor do individual artists have many ideas.  The trick is to get a full career out of that.  An early Rembrandt painting is on exhibit in the Morgan Library (in NY) if you look at it, you see several faces that the master recycled over and over. 

Maybe you look at too much.  You may have seen cezanne et al..  but if you were in my class, i would throw you out and tell you to find someone else.  Do you like any real art?  Post one image.

Comment by JMac1949 Today on August 7, 2016 at 6:09pm

A producer who taught me how to write, videotape and edit television, said "Remember, when it's three AM and you're sitting in the editing bay and you're agonizing about how to cut or fade with which kind of music, the only reason you're there is to fill up the dead air between the commercials.  It's why they sign your check.  That's television whether it wins an Emmy or not is irrelevant. "

With a nod to my old friend Emmerling here's The Great Red Dragon of William Blake:

For me it is Michelangelo's flayed self portrait from the Last Judgement:

... I'm also partial to contemporary reinterpretations:

Comment by Rodney Roe on August 7, 2016 at 11:48pm
A corn stalk growing in a bean field is regarded as a weed. Still, I think art is art regardless of where you find it. Like beauty it is perceived differently by different people. Some folk art is just ugly. Some sound is music some is noise. Whether or not an artist's work sells is often a matter of marketing more than value. I hope this has cleared everything up.
Comment by Dalriadane on August 8, 2016 at 1:59pm

This is an interesting and intimidating discussion for me, a lowly fashion design major.  But it has made me think about what is art.  And when a local muralist here in Austin is hired to fix Daniel Johnston's mural after a crazy woman painted a red cross over the frog's mouth should he take the time to actually restore the piece? 

Is defacement art? 

(In 1993, the Sound Exchange record store in Austin, Texas commissioned Johnston to paint a mural of the Hi, How Are You? frog (also known as "Jeremiah the Innocent") from his 1983 album cover.)

Comment by Terry McKenna on August 9, 2016 at 3:48pm

To Rodney, a great painter, Turner, said of painting, "Rummy thing, painting"  you could extend that to art too.  

To Dal - for me, no, defacement is not art.  Even if the art is minor.  However I think every Thomas Kincaid painting should be defaced.  The sooner the better.

Comment by Foolish Monkey on August 10, 2016 at 6:24am

I've been thinking about this topic for days as I paint our diningroom which is not the sistine chapel.

My first painting instructor despised dali - told me he was a draftsman and he wasn't an artist...he thought this that and the other thing and me, being 15, was duly impressed.  but all these years later while I miss macabee greenfield, the dearest man who ever walked this earth, and having known many other artists, some nearly as dear and some not so much, and some that are or were brilliant and prolific - I've learned this - artists are very opinionated and highly critical of art and artists, methods and process, because this is our business, our legacy and we invest our lives in it, in making art, loving art, understanding art.  so I've decided - terry, you are forgiven for not loving banksy.  


Comment by Terry McKenna on August 10, 2016 at 6:47am
Thank you. I have heard him speak. He does not speak to me.


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