A hope for a new era in street art

Street art fascinates me. I admire anyone who is willing to risk life, limb, or incarceration for the sake of creative expression. For example, Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People contains a chapter about graffiti writers. Some would work all night on a subway car, dodging cops and literally running for their lives, even though they knew the finished product would be visible for only a few runs of the train. (After the Clean Train Act was passed in New York, any car found to have been tagged overnight is given an acid bath as soon as possible. The artists and their friends would gather at 7 a.m., after being out all night, at the Brooklyn Bridge Station to make sure to catch the work before it disappeared forever.)

There’s definitely something wonderful about these artists, who make something beautiful despite the risks. What’s it about? What’s the point? Is it just to say “I’m here, I’m alive” or is there a deeper message?

I read somewhere (I am hopeful that my memory will kick in and a link will be forthcoming) that street art works best when it’s ironic, whimsical, full of in-jokes. The DADAist movement for the 21st century. This is probably true. Street art is–and this may seem obvious–on the street. You only get a few seconds to see a piece as you walk past. Fewer, if you’re on a bus.

Matzu’s mural in Williamsburg
Matzu’s mural in Williamsburg, from a Wooster Collective post

I recently saw a profile of an artist named Matzu, who works in New York and Japan, in THEME magazine. Matzu’s art looks just as comfortable in a gallery as on a wall on a New York street, and I don’t believe he has ever illegally painted on a wall, which puts him in the minority among street artists and graffiti writers. He has some work up at a Williamsburg bar right now that’s supposed to portray a monkey (the Japanese symbol for greed and ingenuity) and a crane/duck hybrid (eternal happiness, art). To Matzu, they represent New Yorkers, who are “both notoriously chasing after money and equally, deeply committed to their local communities.” However, the animals on the wall of Triple Crown look more like “a sloth and a turkey” (I would have said a lemur/pig hybrid). There’s the in-joke.

In this sense, Matzu’s work, not particularly provocative, is “perfect” street art. It’s visually appealing–I love how he blends Japanese motifs with Western pop art shapes and colors–and it doesn’t take much time to be understood, so you can still appreciate it, even if you only have a few seconds. Those with more time can enjoy the depth of the piece. These two states–simplicity and depth–can coexist.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is this “Splasher” fellow, who has been traveling around New York throwing paint on intricate works of street art. The defaced works are eye-catching, in the worst possible way. The defaced art is accompanied by one of the most pretentious “manifestos” I’ve ever read:

“We are all capable of manifesting our desires directly, free of representation and commodification. We will continue manifesting ours by euthanizing your bourgeois fad.”

And that’s one of the more coherent passages. The flyers next to the defaced art are stuck on the wall with wheatpaste supposedly “mixed with shards of glass.”

When I first heard of the Splasher, I was ready to condemn him (or her; though current Internet rumors point to the culprit being a Columbia dropout named Zack) like most. The cave painter versus the vandal. Beauty–addition–versus chaos–destruction. There’s plenty of junk in the world. Why destroy the things that make the world more beautiful? Art takes effort. Vandalism, not so much.

Then I did some more reading on street art blogs. As I saw more posts and comments by those in the street art community, I realized that some of the pretentious shards-of-glass manifesto was correct. People were concerned about the loss of beauty, yes, but more about the perceived insult done to the artists. These people really are fetishizing, iconifying, worshipping the people who have made the art or the implications behind the art, not the art itself.

Over at Eyeteeth, Paul Schmelzer wrote that the Splasher’s “anti-art sentiment reads as anti-artist.” I couldn’t agree more. One of the pieces destroyed was by Swoon, and originally looked like this:

Oaxaca women sewing, by Swoon
Visual Resistance

This was “being used to raise consciousness about the uprising and movement of the APPO, (Popular Assembly for the People of Oaxaca)” according to artist’s collective Visual Resistance. I dunno about you, and maybe I’m not smart enough for these people, but I look at that and the first thought in my head ain’t “Oaxaca,” or even “uprising.” Why was this piece splashed while Matzu’s wasn’t? (It’s not because Matzu’s was legal; according to Eyeteeth, a commissioned Dewar’s Scotch mural was splashed, too.)

My guess? These people (and I use that term pejoratively and very broadly to mean “anyone associated with snobby street art”) do not appear to be having much fun anymore. Fun is important. A lemur and a turkey are…well, fun.

Artists who claim they are creating something “for the people,” as many do, need to keep in mind which people they mean. That small street art backscratching cult does not make up “the people.” We are those people. We are the ones who walk on the street every day. Make us smile. Make us think. Make us laugh. Give us something good.

The Splasher’s acts of vandalism are not “pretty,” but they do provide artists with a wake-up call, a chance to stop taking themselves so seriously, and a new canvas with which to start afresh.

  1. chriscombs says:

    Must art be fun?

    Yes, fun is important. I don’t see, though, how street art is obligated to brighten our days or give us a hearty chuckle. (Is art required to be beautiful? Must only pretty subjects be photographed? Can we only sing of cheerful days?)

    It is ridiculous to think that the Visual Resistance painting above is going to teach passerby about Oaxaca. But this does not invalidate the medium’s possibilities of being educational or reminding us of the welfare of the disadvantaged.

    If the Splasher is really trying to question the pretention of godly street artists, I’m not sure why he has resorted to an approach hand-crafted to bolster his own mystery and reputation. This smacks to me of cattiness and jackal-like behavior, of kicking street artists in the most public and obnoxious means possible.

    Were the Splasher really trying to question the severity of the medium, would it not be best to exploit the medium’s own possibilities to do so? Could he not make whimsical or otherwise un-serious paintings of his own, flamboyantly signed, Warhol in brick and latex?

    The heirarchy of mystique in street art deserves to be questioned. It seems to me as if the Splasher is just trying to climb it himself.

    (and is not the street art blog community that most likely to be outraged at the affront to street artists? You can always find trash if you go hunting in a landfill. I’d be curious to read more about the reaction of ordinary residents or passerby to the Splasher’s handiwork.)

  2. Rachel says:

    Is art required to be beautiful?

    Certainly not. In my opinion, the medium of “brick and latex” lends itself more easily to pieces fun or whimsical–again, because of the time constraints of who’s watching. Your typical pedestrian isn’t going to linger over a piece like a serious gallery-goer. That isn’t to say that ALL street art should be like this, and I’m sure there are plenty of examples of artists who do not fit this rather restrictive mold, yet are creating wonderful art.

    Do these artists somehow “deserve” to be splashed because of their views of what art should be? Of course not. The Splasher’s vandalism is a statement, but a clumsy one, and I agree with you that he or she may be looking for a shortcut “in.” But just as scholars can read things into texts that may be completely valid interpretations, though the author was not conscious of making any such conclusion, I think we can read a message of rebirth into these petty acts of vandalism.

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