The Urban Art underground could soon be the mainstream. That could change everything.
Is graffiti the catalyst of urban decay or its by-product? Is it art, or vandalism? Is graffiti a cry for existential recognition, or just a medium to bad mouth society at large? Or, is there a meaningful message inside the act of graffiti itself?
The word graffiti is derived both from its parent Greek term graphein, meaning to write, and the Italian word graffito. The plural form of graffito is graffiti. The term means a drawing or scribbling on a flat surface. The most literal translation of the word is little scratchings, says Lisa Gottlieb in her book Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System And Theoretical Analysis. Artists such as Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollack created such works of scratched surfaces. Works by French artist Jean Dubuffet and Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies were also some early users of the medium.
Despite some graffiti artists’ names rising to legendary heights, like Banksy, the graffiti medium itself is highly temporary. Most of its images are very rapidly removed through abatement programs. It is symbolic of an open mic and represents a type of discontinuous communicative strategy through which people can engage in a visual dialogue that does not rely on face-to-face interaction, or even necessary knowledge of the writers’ identities, says Graffiti.org and dictionaryart.com. Graffiti artists manipulate and mold this particular medium to suit their needs, say these two sources. As such, it morphs in fast-growing wax and wane cycles and is perhaps the most popular art movement of the last century.
GRAFFITI UNDER THE HAMMER
World renowned fine art auctioneer, Bonhams, hosted its Inaugural U.S. Urban Art Sale, the first auction of its type here in the States. The auction produced record dollar sales for these underground works, especially for certain American and British artists.
“The auction boasted strong prices for some of the American artists, including a world auction record for local Los Angeles artist Chaz Bojòrquez,” Gareth Williams tells Malibu Arts Journal.
Williams is currently Director of Bonhams’ Contemporary Art and Modern Design for the UK and Europe. He was a specialist who worked his way up the ranks at Bonhams, and within the art market itself. He was appointed to the position just a little over a month ago. Already he is making his mark.
Contributing to the global ascent of Urban Art, Williams is driven by a desire to advance the genre. In the process, he has become widely known for promoting Banksy, an Internationally acclaimed graffiti writer for whom Williams has masterminded world record sales. His new Directorship coincides with the publication of his vanguard work, Cut and Shut: The History of Creative Salvage, a book about the concept of furniture and art produced from found objects. The work investigates the genre’s cutting edge, and the designers and artists who are making an Arman-esque name for themselves within it.
“American artists in the sale included a strong result for Shepard Fairey, and for the first time at public auction, Cost and Revs,” says Jannelle Grigsby, a Bonhams representative.
Banksy headlined the Urban Art auction, alongside other very key graffiti artists, including: Fairey; Bojòrquez; Cost and Revs; Cyclops; Blek Le Rat; Mr Brainwash; D*Face; Insect; Plus, a host of other well-recognized graffiti writers were under the hammer. The top lots for the auction were Fairey’s 2007 Panther Power, which auctioned for $74.5K. Next up was Bojòrquez’s trademark 1979 canvas, Señor Suerte, selling for $50K. Banksy took the next two slots with his 2004 piece, Heavy Weaponry, which sold at $47.5K, and his 2003 piece, titled Lennin on Rollerblades (Who Put the Revolution on Ice?), which auctioned at $43.75K. Cost and Revs’ first public sale fetched $31.25K for their circa 1990 Untitled.
“Urban Art continues to be one of the most rapidly developing sectors of the art market, and it is truly exciting to have brought such important works to auction in Los Angeles,” says Williams. “The City is fast-becoming a hub for Urban Art following Banksy’s 2006 Barely Legal show, the Art In The Streets exhibition, and numerous other sold out gallery shows.”
BORN FROM SKATEBOARD CULTURE
The night’s top seller, Fairey, was reportedly as a 1990’s art student obssessed with skateboard culture, the likely muse for his street art. Skateboard culture was born in the 1950’s from surfing culture. It was therefore a subculture within a subculture. At that time, it was something of a fad in the eyes of the public. The evolution of skateboarding styles begins with the hang ten streets of the 1950’s and progresses to 1960’s freestyle. It moves on to the Zephyrs and Ollies of the 1970’s, and then the 1980’s famous Bones Brigade and vertical. The next era brought the Punk Rock, flip-off the establishment bent of the 1990’s and the present. This took the genre back to street and skatepark culture, which incorporates commercial competitions and all previous elements, says Skateboarding Skateboards. In certain respects, the evolution of the graffiti counter subculture is similar to others. It gave birth to its own brand of music, fashion, patches, new board shapes, innovative tricks and big subcultural centers. Large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, among others, erupted and turned the subculture into sport, and subsequently into a more mainstream culture. Each subsequent rise and fall of this genre brought with it a wave of novel inventions, things like the never before seen banana board shape, and modern materials, like the coveted polyurethane wheels on which the skateboarder went concrete surfing, not only on sidewalks but also within concrete skateparks. Then individual expressions were brought in with stickers to personalize boards, and the same with the iconic Pee Chees the skateboarder stickered and gratified at school. In the 80’s and 90’s, the subculture would see the incorporatation of more modern elements, such as graphic design, highly commercialized competitions pushed by major media and filmmaking.
As a graphic design art student, Fairey, which is the artist’s real last name, began his career with small-scale stickers. This first step saw the creation of his popular Andre The Giant pieces. These stickers brought with them the threat of a lawsuit for use of the trademarked name, says Fairey. He subsequently changed the stickers to include the word obey, a term that has come to be associated with his work in general. The artist has likened his sticker campaigns to an experiment, stating “Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; Things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.”
Fairey’s national ascent was due to his iconic HOPE poster, created during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. This piece resulted in not only the precipitate rise to fame, but also an AP lawsuit for copyright infringement that was still ongoing nearly four years after the fact. The poster has since been included in the National Portrait Gallery in the District of Columbia. He was also one of the first graffiti writers to progress to museum shows and collections. Some would say that was a step up from the streets, but to strict adherents to the underground, not so much. Fairey’s work is now held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), San Diego. He also had a solo exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. In 2004, Fairey, alongside Roger Gastman, established Swindle Magazine. Currently, Fairey works from his Studio Number One, a derivative of his Blk/Mkt. He also works from the studio’s attached gallery, Subliminal Projects.
The second top lot for the night was the Godfather of East Los Angeles, that is, Bojòrquez. He is the original trailblazer of the Cholo graffiti style, which uses a unique and hybrid calligraphy created by the artist. Bojòrquez studied this ancient Chinese art, which he says has had a durable effect on both his artistic and spiritual perspective. The work Señor Suerte, or Mr. Luck, is his differentia. It planted the seeds of the genre’s later development, and the foundation for both his street and gallery works. The piece has since come to be the measuring stick against which other Cholo style writers are measureed. His graffiti career too has been lifted from the streets and into museums and galleries due to that groundbreaking piece. Bojòrquez’s work has been requested by: the Chicago National Museum of Mexican Art for the artist’s current solo exhibition, November 2012 – June 2013; the LACMA for its 2008 exhibition, Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of L.A.: Selections from the Cheech Marin Collection; the 2011 Los Angeles MOCA exhibition that broke new ground for the genre, Art in the Streets.
“His works exemplify the style of graffiti born of the 1960’s Mexican-American subculture in Los Angeles,” says the auction house of this genre groundbreaker.
Bojòrquez is universally recognized as the father of the Cholo style, having plowed the way for his descendants.
Derived from the Anglo word xolotl, meaning dog, the word Cholo had been used in the U.S. as a deragatory term for a person of Mexican heritage. But in the 1960’s, Mexican-American activists reclaimed the term, along with the word Chicano, for themselves, says Marin in the book The History Of American Graffiti, by Roger Gastman. “As such, they transformed an ethnic slur into a badge of pride,” says Gastman says in his book.
“Cholo culture is Mexican-American culture, and our style carries our own culture,” says Bojòrquez in a statement.
Cholo was also used by gangs to mark their turf and advertise their roster of names, says Gastman. Gang graffiti uses cryptic codes and initials that are rigidly styled with special calligraphies, according to graffiti.org. In this particular case, says the underground site, graffiti often merges with other art forms, like tattoo and clothing styles. This merger creates a bounded system. In the case of Bojòrquez specifically, he adopted the gothic typeface used on the masthead of the Los Angeles Times, mixed with shades of Mayan characters, to create the hybrid Cholo pattern, reports Gastman. Being himself a graffiti writer, Gastman understands, like many art historians, that this style is native to East Los Angeles. And too, like New York City’s (NYC) Wild Style, Cholo was a way of life linked to other creative expressions, such as lowrider car culture and Cholo street fashion. This genre remained mostly confined to East Los Angeles, with some presence in Venice, California. With time though, Cholo’s influence has become global.
The third and fourth top lots for Bonhams’ Urban Art auction night went to the celebrated graffiti writer Banksy. More than most graffiti writers, this artist keeps a tight veil of secrecy over his identity. Yet more of Banksy’s pieces seem to embed themselves into the popular culture’s conscience. As such, endless rumors abound around Banksy’s shrouded identity. Sotheby and Bonhams state Banksy was born in 1975. Others conjecture he was born in 1973, while still others guess 1974. Most believe, including biography.com, in a logical consequence of reasoning out circumstantial evidence, that Banksy grew up in Bristol, England and began his art career in a graffiti crew called DayBreadZ. Such a thing is very common in street culture. Graffiti writers often form and join crews. The crew’s objective is to elevate the piece from an individual to a collective expression, with the creative aim of getting up, according to, Pam Dennant of graffiti.org.
The rumours don’t stop there though. Biography.com concludes Banksy has a connection to a place in England called Bankside. They reason this location is where his name comes from, by shortening Bankside to Banksy. Some sources conjecture his graffiti mega-career started in the late 80’s, while still others in the 90’s. Even a UK paper, the Daily Mail Online, gets into the rumor mill, claiming Banksy painted a mural in Mexico while on tour as a goalkeeper with the Bristol-based football club Easton Cowboys and Cowgirls. The mural in the photo appears to be Banksy’s unique style. Yet, there is nothing but incidental evidence to support the claim he toured as a goalkeeper with the club. What seems fact is, Banksy has kept his identity secret for decades. If the celebrated artist wanted his identity known, he would make it known.
Yet there is no doubt about the quality and popularity of Banksy’s art. His pieces separate themselves from the pack by pricking deeply into the conscience of his audience. His original stenciling technique and comic book influence mix with political activism and satire to create anarchist epigrams and irreverent dark humour. His biting wit, irony and sarcasm expose what he perceives as vice in the world. Given the extent of his popularity, it would seem most agree with his perspective.
All of these elements resonate very well under the hammer. No question, Banksy brings it on the auction block.
“In 2007, an acrylic and spray paint stencil from this artist brought $200K, reports Gottlieb. “That same year, another Banksy painting fetched a record $575K.”
His 2007 work, Keep It Spotless, a Damien Hirst painting, titled Pharmaceutical, that was defaced by Banksy, sold at Sotheby’s auction for $1.8-million, a record for a single painting at that time.
“The demand for works by Banksy is stronger than ever,” says Williams in a statement. “Urban Art is now truly a global phenomenon attracting bidders from around the world.”
Under the Bonhams hammer, this lauded artist brought down the house in 2012 with a total of £400K for all of his pieces sold. At that sale: Bansky’s Leopard and Barcode sold for £75.6K; his 2002 Love Is In The Air brought £87.K; Bomb Hugger fetched £49.25K; his 2009 Girl And Balloon auctioned for £73.25K; Happy Choppers sold at £13.125K; Nola brought £12.5K.
“This kind of demand and popular rumor led one contemporary art specialist to describe Banksy as, ‘an enigmatic yet ubiquitous figure in England–and the quickest-growing artist anyone has ever seen of all time,'” says Gottlieb.
While Banksy did not sell as the top lot dollar figure for any single work at this Urban Art auction, his numerous sales, including his hallmark rats, did add up once again to more than any other artist’s, totaling $251.8K for the night. Banksy’s rats are some of his most popular works. The artist even uses as his email pseudonym the words pestcontroldept. The Pest Control Office is reportedly the moniker of his art career handlers.
“They exist without permission” says Banksy of his rats. “They are hated, hunted and persecuted. They live in quiet desperation amongst the filth. And they are capable of bringing entire civilizations to their knees. If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved, then rats are the ultimate role model.”
Perhaps no other graffiti artist is such a household name as this one. Banksy’s work on the West Bank barrier wall between Israel and Palestine is well-known, exploding across the Web before the paint was even dry. The work was a black stencil of his iconic little girl dangling by the strings of a bunch of balloons. Another of his well-recognized works, Show Me The Monet, from his Crude Oils (VIDEO) installation, is a famous Monet lilly pads scene Banksy defaced. His version includes trolleys (shopping carts) and a traffic cone sitting in the once pristine waters of Monet’s original. Locally we know him for his (VIDEO) Parking Girl piece, done in Los Angeles with some other pieces that went up around the same time as the local premier of Exit At The Gift Shop, a graffiti documentary he directed. The “ing” in the word parking was intentionally faded by the artist, so the writing mostly read park. This was stenciled with a little girl on a swing that was hanging from the letter “A” in the word parking.
Politically, Banksy’s work is the sequel to the social resistance found in the pieces from the barrios of L.A. and NYC. This push back from the underground today is seen in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, and its sub-events like Bank Transfer Day.
As another example of the political graffiti sub-genre’s cross-cultural prevelance, it often combines with other artistic and expressive forms, such as poster and combic book production, mural painting, newspaper and pamphlet production and political art exhibitions. Malcom McLaren’s promotion of the Sex Pistols in the mid-70’s, and Jamie Reid’s cut-and-paste graphics, were an essential part of the band’s public image and became a key influence on British street art style, says Deitch, Gastman and Rose. “But they weren’t the only Punk Rock band to incorporate graffiti into their image. NYC graffiti artist FUTURA collaborated with the Clash in 1982, building on McLaren’s model of combining art with music. Thus there existed a link between graffiti, Punk Rock and also skateboard culture…Like graffiti that is frequently buffed out shortly after it is painted, a skateboard trick does not exist beyond the moment of its completion, unless it is documented.”
Yet graffiti in particular is an expression of defiance against a certain societal ill. To many graffiti writers, their art is a secret language, an empowering form of self-expression, an urban calligraphy of the oppressed, a screaming political expression of outrage and protest against an unjust and alienating political-economic order, says Michael Walsh in his work, Graffito. On Banksy’s Website, visitors have even posed the question to him on what he says to people who claim the way he expresses himself is crass, dumb or simplistic? “Well duh. They’re right, of course. Most of this stuff is designed to be viewed from a moving vehicle,” Banksy answered.
Norman Mailer wrote eloquently in George magazine in 1996 of graffiti and its ties to America’s mainstream culture.
“For decades, America, all-uncaring, had been blinding its’ children with the tall, blank walls of corporate buildings. These buildings deadened one’s mood as one walked by them. The blank walls said: ‘you will never know enough to find out what goes on inside. All you know is that we run the world and you don’t.’ So the children painted their graffiti on the bottoms of these blank walls even as an infant will scream when a family silence is too prolonged,” says Mailer.
The poet Gilberte Brassai too wrote beautifully on the subject in his work entitled Graffiti:
“Carving one’s name, one’s love, a date on the wall of a building, such vandalism cannot be explained solely by destructive impulses. I see in it rather the survival instinct of all those who cannot erect pyramids or cathedrals to perpetuate their name.”
Thus, one could draw the conclusion graffiti is the result of society disaffecting its members, alienating them into an unbearable silence. The writers were left without a voice in society. Arguably, the graffiti writer’s disaffection is likely due to a sociocultural system of discrimination within his or her larger bounded system. The result is the scrawl on the wall.
According to Harvard graduate Dr. Gordon W. Allport, in his seminal social psychology masterpiece, The Nature Of Prejudice, this condition of separateness exists everwhere. His studies showed once the condition of separateness existed, people had few channels of communication, which further led to genuine conflicts of interest. Sociologist Devon D. Brewer concluded in his extensive research, Hip Hop Graffiti Writers’ Evaluation of Strategies to Control Illegal Graffiti, that this particular style of graffiti has four major values: fame, artistic expression, power and rebellion. But what is the social function of graffiti as expression? The work Varities Of Visual Expression argues graffiti’s social function is achieved when: 1.) It influence the collective behaviour of people; 2.) It is created to be seen or used primarily in public situations; 3.) It expresses or describes collective aspects of existence as opposed to individual and personal kinds of experience. As a result of the strength of the phenomenon of graffiti, in the 1980’s George Kelling and James Q. Wilson developed the Broken Window Theory. This theory saw a large number of small offences in society, such as vandalism, fare evasion, public drinking and urinating as a huge and safe indicator of larger crimes; they were all symptoms of a society in which the amount of social disorder–dangerous social disorder–was increasing to a level it really shouldn’t be tolerated but was being tolerated, says the sociologists. This was so because people didn’t know what to do about it, these researchers concluded.
In the case of graffiti, the conflict is between the art as a Constitutionally protected form of expression, or as vandalism. In the case of Banksy, one cannot conclude vandalism. The value of the structure where he places his graffiti is said to increase, with some structure owners going to great lengths to protect the piece for its worth and for posterity. That not only raises their property value, but that of other dewellings and structures around it. They too will enjoy a property value increase, and likely some tourism dollars to boot. Vandalism is a crime in this state if, according to California Penal Code §594, the action defaces, damages or destroys. With Banksy, this does not occur due to the popular lore that surrounds the artist, which in turn increases the value of the works and subsequently the property.
According to 1998 research, despite the encouraging trends in white’s intergroup attitudes, there were still reasons for concern sbout discrimination. Across a variety of surveys and polls, 10-percent to 15-percent of the white population still expressed the old-fashioned, overt form of bigotry, the study found. A separate social psychology study was conducted 20-years prior in the 1970’s and was based on Allport’s 1950’s groundbreaking theory of prejudice. It supported the extolled Harvard graduate’s multi-dimensional view on racial attitudes–the so-called explicit and implicit racial attitudes which predicted race-related decisions. This study found, just as Dr. Allport did, that better educated people are more cosmopolitan about their biases, and were also more perceptive in identifying inconsistencies in their own interracial behaviors and social, political and economic views on human equality. Both Allport and the study found this group was more impelled to behave with a higher degree of egalitarianism in the future after considering their own thoughts, feelings and actions. Better educated people tend to be not only less or nonprejudiced, but also better at disguising the prejudices they do possess. One big difference surrounding all three studies is a larger number of people are more highly educated today.
A 2012 Pew survey found record numbers are finishing both high school and college as compared to 1971. Of America’s young adults ages 25 to 29, a record 90-percent have finished at least a high school education. And another record share, 63-percent, have completed at least some college. This is likely due to the Great Recession, Pew states. Given the similarities between the older studies, and the recent Pew survey finding, we can reasonably conclude more of the U.S. population is better at practicing their biases now than at Allport’s time due to higher and more prevalent education levels.
Yet as Allport states, “The world as a whole suffers from panic induced ideologies of east and west, each corner of the earth has its own special burdens of animosity.” In the research study, On The Nature Of Contemporary Prejudice: The Causes, Consequences And Challenges Of Aversive Racism, the study found, “a substantial portion of the white population expresses merely racial tolerance but not true openness to or enthusiasm for full racial equality.”
Another reason for concern is there is also evidence that many of the people who are part of the 85-percent to 90-percent of the white population who say, and probably believe, that they are not prejudiced, may nonetheless be practicing a modern and subtle form of bias, the Pew study found. Traditional forms of prejudice are direct and overt, or are the explicit kind of discrimination that involve actions like open societal and individual support for segregation–plain old recognizable bigotry. Contemporary forms are indirect and subtle, or are the implicit kind of discrimination that inlvolve prejudices by people who openly disavow it. The modern world now has a new method for expressing an ancient process. On The Nature Of Contemporary Prejudice further cited an additional factor contributing to the current frustrations of black Americans. The operation of a subtle form of racism among individuals expressing the less overt type that is just as insidious as the old-fashioned form of racism–that is, the implicit type. The conclusion even in the 1970’s, long before the OWS movement, was a certain sector of society was growing more hegemonic and insidious. Unfortunately time has not improved this statistic. According to a 2012 survey by Stanford University, the Associated Press and the University of Michigan, explicit anti-Black attitudes held steady between 47.6-percent in 2008 and 47.3-percent in 2010, yet increased to 50.9-percent in 2012. Similarly, the proportion of Americans manifesting anti-Black attitude scores on the implicit measure increased from 49.3-percent in 2008 to 51.1-percent in 2010 with an even further increase in 2012 to 55.7-percent. A majority of Americans now possess implicit racial bias.
Even today social behavior is often treated as being under conscious control. Yet these implicit memory processes that produce such biased social attitudes are not handled consciously, or on purpose. According to Harvard professor Mahzarin R. Banaji and University of Washington professor Anthony Greenwald in Psychology Review, the identifying feature of implicit cognition is that past experience influences judgment in a fashion not known upon an examination of one’s own thoughts and feelings. However, its interpretating too far to say the Freudian form of unconscious is the equivalent of the implicit memory process, says New York University (NYU) Neuroscience Professor Joseph Ledoux. “The amygdala is responsible for implicit memories, but these are different from what Freud called the unconscious,” says Ledoux. “The amygdala is an unconscious processor, because it’s just not connected with the conscious system. It’s kind of like, by default, unconscious, as opposed to being in the Freudian sense of unconscious, something that was conscious but was too anxiety-provoking and, therefore, shipped to the unconscious. The amygdala gets direct sensory information and then learns and stores information on its own. The information that’s stored then controls emotional responses. The connectivity is hardwired. One way to think about it is a rat will respond to a cat without any learning by freezing, raising its blood pressure, heart rate and respiration and releasing stress hormones. But, it will also respond to a stimulus associated with a cat and have the same responses.” The central conclusion from all these studies is, in the 1950’s and today, the more educated person will use the subtle form of discrimination, the implicit kind, in what is now termed aversive racism.
Aversive racism has been identified as a modern form of prejudice that characterizes the racial attitudes of those who endorse egalitarian values; those who regard themselves as nonprejudiced but who discriminate in subtle rationalized ways. As the book The Nature of Prejudice states, prejudice is irrational and unjustifiable. Allport sums up this social ill by stating, prejudice is discrimination against a member of a group solely because that person belongs to that group. Symbolic racism, which is a form of explicit racism, is the expression by suburban whites in terms of abstract ideological symbols and symbolic behaviors of the feeling that “X,” where x equals any minority, are violating cherished values and making illegitimate demands for changes in the status quo, according to researchers John B. McConahay and Joseph C. Hough, Jr. in the Journal of Social Issues. The authors then go on to speculate why symbolic racism had emerged at a time, in 1976, when traditional measures of racism indicated a decline in anti-black prejudice. The theory itself is about negative feelings from experience during childhood that persist into adulthood but are expressed indirectly and symbolically. Allport concluded if an individual discriminates against one out-group, or person symbolic of that out-group, that individual is highly likely to discriminate against others. Therefore racism, aversive or symbolic, can be branched out to include anti-x, where “x” equals any minority. Symbolic racism emerges in terms of an opposition to something as simple as busing, such as resisting public transportation from the Valley to the beach, or resistence to iconic anti-racist legislation, like Affirmative Action. Whereas modern racism involves the rejection of traditional, or old-fashioned explicit, bigoted beliefs in favor of displacement of anti-x feelings onto more abstract social and political issues.
Mailer’s massive, blank, concrete walls that cause graffiti writing just as a baby cries from too much familial silence are a metaphor for what Allport pointed out as social distance. This term is also a test created by E. S. Borgardus, now known as the Bogardus social distance scale. It measures who a person would or would not allow into their in-group, or circle of acceptance, or ultimately into their country. Mailer brought this up when he stated the concrete walls symbolically mean, “you will never know enough to find out what goes on inside. All you know is that we run the world and you don’t.” Meaning, they are the in-group, and those outside the walls are out-group. This bounded system of concrete and towering pyramids that allows someone’s name to live on throughout history is the sociocultural system in which the graffiti writer rebels–it is at once the writer’s out-group, and, at the same time, the dominant group. The writer’s smaller, more tight-knit, in-group is ambivalent toward these massive “blank walls of corporate buildings.” The writer at once desires acceptance, as the survival instinct kicks in when these big blank walls occassionally open once every century, allowing one rat to slip through the cracks as a rebel for hire. At the same time, these modern day iconoclasts graffiti write, or wield Occupy signs at the towering pyramid’s doorstep. Occupy signs are portable graffiti art held in the hand of the 98-percent that call out the 2-percent for vices against society. The OWS movement monikers are the 99-percent and the 1-percent, but it is statistically more correct to say the 98-percent and the 2-percent. But back to those oversized concrete walls. They are symbolic of the dominant force in the larger bounded system. They exert a strong pull upon the graffiti writer, in an attempt to force attitudinal conformity. Consequently, society sees some graffiti writers rejecting exhibitions, museum shows and collectors as a secondary way of rejecting mainstream culture; the first rejection was the graffiti itself. In this way, the graffiti writer flips off the system by rejecting it.
Modern psychology argues that once adverse emotions are established, avoidance is likely to develop. Avoidance is social distance, or separateness. Social trust is essential to a cohesive society. If a person cannot move up socially in his larger bounded system, the result is lack of trust, and the individual disengages with the dominant group in society. An individual’s position in the ethnic hierarchy relative to that of the neighborhood residents influences his or her’s social trust in the neighborhood. A person needs to know there is a way upward in the hierarchy, a way to achieve, that upward mobility exists. The answer hasn’t changed much since Allportian theory came to life. Genuine exposure to one another, exposure to another’s culture, removal of separateness and openly bringing together, forgetting the us and them perceptual view, working toward a common goal where neither us nor them can win one without the other–that is the crux of the Allportian solution. An individual’s position relative to that of his neighborhood residents diminishes minority group members’ social trust through a threat that appears to be both socioeconomic and cultural. None of these vexations can be solved by abstention from social political or economic relations between in-groups and out-groups. By not engaging one another, by allowing concrete walls to define our actions, we weaken the fabric of society at our own peril. Yet as Allport said, “It is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”
A WORD ON ROGER GASTMAN
Gastman’s work wasn’t in the Bonhams auction, but a word must be said of the artist/writer/producer/author/publisher/editor/curator…well, you get the idea. He was a Consulting Producer on Banksy’s Academy nominated documentary, Exit At The Gift Shop. No need to go into details here, most know of the doc’s history, birth and arduous editing process. The feature length graffiti doc Infamy was his Creative Consultant and Supervising Producer project. Harper Collins published Gastman’s recent book, The History Of American Graffiti. In addition to Swindle Magazine, Gastman also, at the ripe age of 19-years old, borrowed $4,000 from his Mom to publish the magazine While You Were Sleeping. He worked out of his room, in the beginning, and after three years brought the magazine to a distribution of 70,000 and a full-time staff of seven. Gastman also had a graffiti career of his own. He has for 15-years been an artist and mediator between the street art underground and mainstream culture. He founded R. Rock Enterprises to nurture fledgling and internationally established artists. Jeffreyy Deitch also asked Gastman to co-curate the Art In The Streets exhibition, in addition to co-writing the exhibition’s book.
A PUBLIC DEBUT
In their public debut, Cost and Revs took the fifth top lot for the auction night. Their Untitled circa 1990 was originally purchased from an arts event in NYC’s Tompkins Square Park. It was requested by the Los Angeles MOCA for inclusion in the 2011 Art In The Streets exhibition. Cost, whose real name is Adam Cost, and Revs, whose real name is unknown to the public, are best recognized for bombarding Lower Manhattan in the early 1990s, says Bonhams. The pair’s enigmatic, and often vulgar, messages were influenced by the scrawling style of Samo, the alter-ego of French-born graffiti writer Jean-Michel Basquiat. “At that time, Cost and Revs’ pieces appeared on pedestrian crosswalk signs and streetights, says the auction house. “They also created, with paint rollers, massive text-based murals that they placed in prominent and inaccessibly high places. These pieces quickly became part of New York’s cityscape during a time of scant attention to street art. This unique and influential collaboration parted ways in 1995. Cost was arrested a few month’s prior, and Rev started his spray paint diaries, personal histories and ruminations deep inside the NYC tunnel system. Recently Cost returned to the studio, and Revs continues to avoid the commercial art world.” Thus, the high dollar sale for Untitled circa 1990, as it is a rare auction item indeed.
GRAFFITI AS AN ART MOVEMENT
The graffiti art movement has only just become recognized as such, and streamlining the classification of styles is in the midst of spasmodic and brief efforts to organize them. “Graffiti is most often associated with the magic marker scrawls that adorn public washroom walls and transit systems,” says Gottlieb. Or, depending upon your perspective, the washroom walls that graffiti vandalizes. No matter which outlook, the medium represents a human desire to communicate. Twitter and Facebook are just such cutting edge mediums for graffiti art. Twitter teems with account users who graffiti tweet. In that medium, we call this Twitter art. Even social media usernames are pseudonyms, such as @TwiterHero or @Squishy_Foot. The entire point of social media is centered around getting up.
One could even say this of blogs and certain Websites like Lulu.com, createspace.com or amazon.com, and other such self-publishing companies, or even You Tube. The top ten Alexa ranked social media sites are the best examples of the digital way of getting up: 1.) Facebook; 2.) Twitter; 3.) LinkedIn; 4.) MySpace; 5.) GooglePlus +; 6.) DeviantArt; 7.) LiveJournal; 8.) Tagged; 9.) Orkut; 10.) Pinterest. These are legal avenues for expression by those who would not ordinarily break from societal rules–those who would not vandalize, or illegally express themselves on a concrete wall–but who still identify with human equality and rejecting a system that doesn’t. If renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim were alive today, he might see the Tech Revolution as threatening to increase anomie. In other words, technology is isolating people from personal relationships with others in their bounded systems. As Durkheim would put it, the Web offers little moral guidance, unlike in-person friendships and tight-knit family gatherings. The famous sociologist might even say graffiti writing is solid evidence of severe anomie in our society. “The first professionally-trained artist to use the graffiti style was New Yorker Keith Haring (1958-1990),” says Dr. Strickland in The Annotated Mona Lisa. “Although he was frequently arrested for defacing public property, commuters soon began to appreciate Haring’s trademark images scrawled in the subways: the ‘radiant baby,’ barking dog, zapping spaceships and winged television set…When Haring died of AIDS, graffiti art, which had rapidly become commercialized, was finished as a force of art.” That’s not the first time someone has written graffiti’s obituary, and it’s not likely to be the last either. The movement is much like the waxes and wanes of skateboard culture. It falls into a quite mode then emerges once again, but morphed. As such, graffiti is most certainly an art movement, as well as a counter culture. Yet, the moment graffiti becomes the dominant culture, as it’s steamrolling to become, the movement will lose it’s momentum. It will have lost its base, that is, being counter would become the norm, or the mainstream.
Though it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of art for the counter culture to become the dominant culture. Such shifts are common in the art world. Impressionism used to be scoffed at, except by the discerning art collector eye. The short and choppy brushstrokes of the movement brought ridicule. Critic Louis Leroy originally coined the term Impressionism as a form of satire while reviewing the first Impressionistic exhibition in 1874, Société Anonyme Des Artists, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, says the Oxford Concise Dictionary Of Art Terms. Specifically, Leroy attacked Monet’s now very famous painting Impression: Sunrise. “Leroy considered the work to be unfinished, because the term impression originally meant just a very quick sketch or intuitive response to the subject,” says Dr. Strickland. “These strokes caused critics of the day to label them unintelligible, stating they looked like someone had ‘fired paint at the canvas with a pistol.'”
The Impressionism movement was a break from the mainstream of the time, that is the Renaissance era, which emphasized a renewed study of the art of antiquity. Hence the term Renaissance, meaning rebirth. This era embraced balanced perspectives, idealized figures and chiaroscuro. As soon as Impressionism triumphed over the mainstream and became the dominant art, the movement morphed. It briefly became Les Nabis, from the Hebrew, meaning Prophets; This group espoused painting, book illustrations, posters, stained glass and theater décor along with strongly held religious beliefs. The artists were Sérusier, Denis, Bonnard, Maillol, Vallotton, Vuillard Verkade. This micro-movement only lasted from 1892-1899. Impressionism then morphed into Post-Impressionism. Graffiti is just such a morphing sociological phenomenon.
GRAFFITI ART’S HISTORY
Gastman tells us graffiti is arguably one of the most influential art movements since Pop Art, and it was, as we know it today, invented by teenagers. It was a phenomenon of the mid-1970s to 1980s, mainly based out of NYC, says The Oxford Concise Dictionary Of Art Terms. The origins of American graffiti have an earlier history than most trace it back to, Marin says in Gastman’s The History of American Graffiti. Most consider its origins to be NYC and Philidelphia. Marin is a great collector of graffiti art, and he states American graffiti began in the barrios of Los Angles decades before. “A subculture developed among Mexican-American youth in those barrios. The kids were both detached from the culture of their parents and, because of widespread discrimination, were prevented from identifying entirely as American,” Marin says. “The Pachucos, as they called themselves, didn’t stray far from the small neighborhoods where they lived. In the post-WWII period, Pachuco culture developed into the Cholo gangs of the 1960’s.” Some of the earliest examples of graffiti writing date back to prehistoric caveman wall drawings, says Dennant. It has even been found in Egyptian tombs. “Graffiti originally referred to marks found on ancient Roman architecture. Examples of these were found in Rome in the Domus Aureas of Emperor Nero (AD 54-68), Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and the Maya site of Tikal in Mesoamerica, says graffiti.org .
The art form once again blips on history’s radar in the mélange of political commentary, real estate advertisements, lost and found notices and quotations from Virgil and Ovid scratched into the walls of Pompeii, says Smithsonian Magazine.
“In A.D. 79 Mount Vesuvius erupted and rained down on the thriving city of Pompeii huge amounts of ash,” reports Smithsonian Magazine. “This was in the form of a light pumice stone called lapilli, which buried the city in the middle of an ordinary day. This tomb preserved the city and gave archeologists an unprecedented perspective of the ancient world brougt to halt in the middle of daily routine…Archeaologists observed a large number of graffiti, 90-percent of which has since been erased due to exposure to the elements after excavation…Many of the walls were brightly painted and highly decorated, and the graffiti was scratched into the underlying white plaster to make it show through…In the ancient Roman world, graffiti was a well-respected writing form…The Pompeii graffiti often combined the word Feliciter, meaning happily, with other words, such as a name, which meant you were wishing the person well. Numerous other graffiti were uncovered at Pompeii that said Feliciter Pompeii, which meant they were wishing the whole city well.”
Graffiti didn’t die with Pompeii though. Step forward in time where history records graffiti writing in the Medieval Era. Then moving forward to the modern world where WWII and Korean GIs frequently used “Kilroy Was Here,” a graffiti writing used by U.S. troops in WWII to denote they had arrived at a point in the battle before any other of the Allies. Whethere it’s lore or fact is not known to this generation, but as the belief goes, the little graffiti guy named Kilroy appeared so many times in Nazi Germany and its occupied territories that it unnerved Adolf Hitler. Reportedly, the dictator believed Kilroy to be a real person who, as a high level Allied spy, could infiltrate anywhere, all because of the prolific use of the graffiti. Push forward again a decade to Philadelphia. A youth, named Darryl Alexander McCray, is thought to be the progenitor of modern graffiti, says Gastman. Darryl’s pseudonym was Cornbread.
In short, Gastman’s tale goes as follows: The name Cornbread reportedly came to Darryl in reform school. Missing his grandmother’s cooking, he asked the reform school cook to make some cornbread; after much pestering, the cook grabbed Darryl by the shirt and took him to the counselor stating, “Get this cornbread out of my kitchen.” The name stuck after Darryl started writing it on his shirts. He began his graffiti writing career in 1965. It didn’t take long for Cornbread to appear in graffiti all over the city. He was soon joined in Philidelphia by Kool Klepto Kid, Tity, Stay High 149, Phase 2, Phil T Greer, Snake and Junior 161.
Next came a significant era in graffiti art history: the New York Style. This era saw spray can art, subway art, latrinalia, or bathroom wall marking, and folk epigrapghy, which are signatures, proclamations of love, witty comments in response to advertisements and any number of individual, political or social commentary, says Dennant. It differs from other forms of graffiti styles in that it conveys only one type of message: specifically the identity of the graffiti writer, that is a tag, or pseudonym. This style also employs the usage of nicknames, codes and symbols with stylized aesthetic systems geared toward an audience already privy to the messages, an action that probably enhanced group solidarity. Because of its symbolic codes, generalized context and aesthetic features of commentary-based graffiti that usually outlasts the author’s group membership, this type if graffiti can easily be classified as art. It was during this era, in 1972, that writer PHASE 2 created abstract graffiti in his creation of the bubble letter, says Deitch, Gastman and Rose .
In 1976, writers Lee Quiñones and his Fabulous 5 Crew painted the first running whole subway train in mural style. “Fab 5’s Freddy was a crucial connection in the network, introducing writers to the downtown art scene,” reports Deitch, Gastman and Rose. “The TV show TV Party, hosted by Glenn O’Brien on New York’s public access, drew Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Bisquiat (VIDEO), plus the combined artistic genius of Andy Warhol with the emerging post-punk and graffiti scenes. This connection brought artistic credibility to graffiti art in the 1980’s, keeping it from folk art form categorization and lifting it up to the polished world of fine art.”
Some might say graffiti was, and still is being, co-opted by the commercial world. In the perspective of The Oxford Concise Dictionary Of Art Terms, graffiti made the jump from the streets to the gallery in 1983 during the art form’s first major exhibition at Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Yet, this distinctive style, the New York style, came at a time in graffiti art’s history of great cultural, social and economic stress in NYC. It transpired during the first hip-hop era in that mega-city. “Suburbanization, and so-called white flight, stripped NYC of its economic base, pushing it near bankruptcy,” says Deitch, Gastman and Rose. “The economic and political climate of the 1970’s brought the Oil Embargo of 1973, the stock market decline and malaise over the Vietnam War, events that signaled the end of the American Dream. The unfulfilled promise of the 1960’s revolution clashed with the disappointing reality of America in the mid-70’s. This in turn led to angry and authoritarian art forms such as graffiti and Punk Rock.”
Add to that the monkey wrench of lack of social space in NYC. The urban space of a city is defined by social space, of which there is not enough for that city’s vast and varied people. The urban space of a supercity like NYC is isolated and fragmented by ethnic, class, and consumer segregation, according to the study Urban Graffiti: Crime, Control and Resistance, by Jeff Ferrell.
“Yet, there was one thing that crossed all boundaries of class, race, borough and neighborhood: the NYC subway system,” says Gastman “Graffiti writers like TAKI 183, LSD OM (from the Upper West Side), DINO, NOD and SUPER KOOL 223 turned out to be the drivers of the Subway Art era of graffiti.”
Hip-hop also hit the cinema with films like Wildstyle, Beat Street and Style Wars, says Dennant. “The convergence of the styles street art and graffiti born from housing projects, subway yards and bleak suburban parking lots became a global phenomenon. It spread from one city to another through a network of artists…The authors of the highly influential book Subway Art were responsible for introducing wild style to a global audience…the book was the artist’s bible for understanding what was in the process of becoming the international graffiti style,” says Gastman. “The movement kept growing, building into things like the Writers Corner 188 in NYC, expanding back again to Phili and then crossing back to NYC…From 1974-1979, NYC saw BLADE and THE LINES further expand the movement, alongside numerous others. The wild style graffiti that was born in the Bronx of New York spawned or connected with local styles in various other cities from Los Angeles, San Francisco and London to São Paulo…The graffiti movement in the 1980’s caught on across the States from New Jersey, Baltimore, Boston, D.C., Miami, Pittsburgh to Cleveland and onward in a second blast of hip-hop style…This momentum lead to train bombing, motion tagging, bus hopping, and off to the Los Angeles scene where RISK and Bojòrquez became influencers. It was during this time that FUTURA and the Clash’s partnership became an important element of the international spread of graffiti writing…It is also here that McLaren’s Situationist-inspired approach to artistic intervention laid the foundation for Banksy’s strategy of thrusting his art directly into mass culture, 30-years after McLaren started promoting the Sex Pistols…Graffiti writing then spread to the European Movement.”
The Ladbroke Grove area of London first adopted and brought the New York style of graffiti transatlantic, and created its British hybrid of the subculture, says Dennant. “The strength of graffiti writing across the globe lead society to take notice of the subculture, labeling it vandalism and a criminal act.”
The fact graffiti became an illegal art form made it all the more appealing to those disaffected from the society they were rebelling against. “Graffiti can be seen as an artistic form of resistence to authority and, at the same time, a means of expression and connectedness to its own subculture, says Dennant.
THE AUCTION HOUSE: BONHAMS 1793
Bonhams was founded in 1793. It is one of the world’s major auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The company, Bonhams and Brooks, mergered in 2001 with Phillips Son and Neale to create the present company. In 2002, the company acquired the principal West coast auctioneer, Butterfields. Bonhams has two major salesrooms in London, with three others in U.K. regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in Los Angeles, Carmel, San Francisco, New York, Connecticut, Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. The Inaugural U.S. Urban Art Sale was held Monday, October 29, 2012 at 6:00p.m. (PDT) at Bonhams’ principal Los Angeles location: 7601 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90046. Phone: (323) 850-7500.