Friday, October 4, 2013

The difference between street art and graffiti

So WFUV's Robin Shannon got wind of my work on graffiti, and has asked me to talk to her, along with two others, about the difference between street art and graffiti for a show called Fordham Conversations. It’s an honor to be thought of when it comes to a topic like this, considering how many folks there are out there who can speak authoritatively on the topic.

Anyway, I was hedging as to whether to lend my voice to the project, and then went for a nice fast three mile run last night. Talk about a whirlwind of thoughts that crossed my mind!

Now, before I try to answer the question, I must note that Banksy is in town this month, promoting a show in rather hilarious fashion: Putting up pieces of “graffiti, which is latin for graffito, with an I,” along with a phone number leading to a recording that excoriates the hoity toity-ness of the art world. How fortuitous it is to talk about the difference between “street art” and graffiti when the most famous “street artist” is referring to his piece as graffiti?

Right, so there’s a couple of answers I would give, in no particular order.

Q: What’s the difference between street art and graffiti?

A: Well, that depends. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter said:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
You could say the same thing for art, and as I discovered in my interviews, you could interview ten different people about a mural, and get ten different opinions about whether it was any good, or if it was even art, and not vandalism. A better question might be, is it vandalism, or art?
Graffiti? Yeah, probably
Not street art?
A: Street art is something that people buy; graffiti is something that gets erased. The aforementioned Banksy is a perfect example, as I mentioned back in December, walls with his work have literally  been carved up and sold at galleries. You just don't hear of the same thing happening with traditional graffiti anymore, mostly because, well, who the hell knows why. Maybe the traditional graffiti mural is just so well known and ubiquitous, it doesn't generate the same sort of feverish insanity?

A: To a cop, nothing. If it's illegal, it's illegal, and you can be arrested for it. To a building owner, also, nothing. I've seen countless times where owners buff art that has no relation to the traditional tags, throw ups and pieces that define what the public considers to be graffiti.
Alas, gone from Red Hook
A: Graffiti is done with spray paint, markers and stickers; street art is everything else, like wheat pastes, yarn, and chalk drawings. Oh, but then there are those times a graffiti artist like REVS distributes iron sculptures of his tag in out of the way locales.
Does that look like spray paint to you/?
A: No, wait, graffiti is text-based, and street art is pictures. If that's true, there are an awful lot of graffiti artists who have unwittingly done street art in their murals.

Say hello to my little friend, Queens
A. Graffiti is old school; street art is a new phenomenon. This seems somewhat plausible, since guys like Shepard Fairey only burst onto the national scene in 2008 when he designed the HOPE poster for Barack Obama's campaign. Old school graffiti, with wild style lettering on the sides of subways, dates back to the 70's and 80's. Alas, to buy into this requires forgetting Keith Haring, who got his start by posting his work in New York City subways. By any measure, he would qualify today as a "street artist."

A. Graffiti is done in poor areas; street art is done in rich areas. Ah, now this is more interesting, isn't it? I can't say I've been to a ton of poor neighborhoods in New York, but when I think of the few that I have been to, there is something to this. You can find lots of graffiti and street art in wealthy places like SoHo and DUMBO, for instance, but head up to Hunts Point in the Bronx or out to Jamaica, Queens, and you can be pretty certain that the only adornment you'll find will be traditional spray paint-based graffiti. To every rule there is an exception, of course; I've seen RAE sculptures in the not quite gentrified area of Bed-Stuy.

Which brings me to my final possible answer:
A: Graffiti is local; street art is international. Eh, sort of? It's awfully hard to make that case when an art form (graffiti) that started locally has gone world wide, and artists regularly travel here from across the globe to ply their craft on NYC walls. I would venture that in areas that are low visibility, either geographically (Hello Staten Island!) or socio-economically, graffiti, in the traditional sense, is the outlet of choice. If you're aspiring to be the next big thing in street art, you're not going to plant your artistic flag on Third Avenue in Sunset Park, but if that's your neck of the woods and you're searching for an outlet to make your mark, well, there are tons of nooks and crannies beneath the BQE over there.

Stay tuned for more on Fordham Conversations. Can't wait!