Writing on the Wall: Is criminalizing graffiti criminalizing free expression?

By Madeline Walsh
April 11, 2014
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1982  Acrylic and ink on wood  Museum of the City of New York, gift of Martin Wong, 94.114.102  © Keith Haring Foundation
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1982
Acrylic and ink on wood
Museum of the City of New York, gift of Martin Wong, 94.114.102
© Keith Haring Foundation

The Museum of the City of New York’s (MCNY) exhibition “City as Canvas” proves that criminal or not, graffiti continues to raise important questions about the significance of public art. The exhibition features pieces from the late Martin Wong’s private collection, which have been part of MCNY’s archives since 1994. Wong was not only a collector, but also a close friend to many of the featured artists. Although it is now a worldwide phenomenon, graffiti is a prime example of how art pushes us to reconsider our relationships with public space and popular culture.

Beginning as a creative expression for many thrill-seeking, young artists of the 1970s and 80s, graffiti and street art is now mainstream. The increasing popularity of street art helped drive now familiar artists like Shepard Fairey, Keith Haring, and Banksy into the cultural spotlight.  Many of today’s mainstream street artists have received criticism for their methods of self-promotion and of achieving mass appeal. These issues raise larger questions about money’s role in compromising the integrity and value of art.

While many uninformed critics may be quick to dismiss graffiti as the work of miscreant youth, there is a method behind the madness. Street art success depends on an artist’s creativity not just on the wall, but getting to the wall.  The painting process requires stealth, organization, and dedication. Accessing prohibited spaces and challenging authority add another layer of style and artistic value beyond pure aesthetics.

Gats & IMP, “Tunnel Vision,” 2013 Bay Area, CA Photo from: http://endlesscanvas.com/?p=10155
Gats & IMP, “Tunnel Vision,” 2013
Bay Area, CA
Photo: Endless Canvas

As the infamous GATS and many other Oakland artists discuss in  i am other’s YouTube docu-series, “Voice of Art,” graffiti’s meaning and value is multifaceted. Street art’s visual appeal is immediate and apparent. Beyond this, the underlying themes of questioning authority and the physical reclamation of city space develop a direct conversation with the city and its people. Graffiti, in this sense is the most contextual and contemporary art.

GATS 2012 work Hemlock Alley @Polk Street in San Francisco. Photo by the street art sf team http://www.streetartsf.com/gats-in-polk-gulch-gats/
GATS
2012 work Hemlock Alley @Polk Street in San Francisco.
Photo by the street art sf team
Street Art SF 

For all its cultural contributions and sociological significance, graffiti still raises the perennial question “is street art, art?” While graffiti is considered a felony in Oakland, the consequence may be part of the motivation for artists to spread their message. In her interview with CBS Sunday Morning, graffiti pioneer Lady Pink asserts graffiti “is art when you get away with it.” Ultimately, graffiti remains a consistent and crucial part of pushing the envelope culturally and spatially through art.

Nina Wright, “Girl Mobb,” 2014 Oakland, CA Photographed by Madeleine Tonzi for Endless Canvas
Nina Wright, “Girl Mobb,” 2014
Oakland, CA
Photo by: Madeleine Tonzi for Endless Canvas

Still not sure where you stand on street art? Nina Wright’s (Aka Mobb Pink, Pink Mobb) “Gritty In Pink” will be opening tomorrow, April 12th at the downtown Oakland Gallery LeQuiVive. Drawing heavily upon California iconography, Wright’s neon figures and masked females can be found around East Oakland. Take a look and tell us what you think.

Nina Wright, Mural for LeQuiVive Gallery, 2014 Oakland, CA Photo by: Rachel Escoto
Nina Wright, Mural for LeQuiVive Gallery, 2014
Oakland, CA
Photo by: Rachel Escoto

For more material on graffiti as it happens check the blogs below:

StreetArt SF

Endless Canvas

Hella Graff