Graffiti: The Writing on the Wall

The Writing on the Wall

Born in subversion, graffiti has gained the sanction of the fine art and corporate worlds alike. Environmental graphics was the next logical step.

It’s early evening in a Denver hotel and I switch on the television for a few moments of mindless drivel before a press event. A diminutive young woman flashes on the screen, her almost-pipsqueak voice explaining the process of a large-scale graffiti portrait she is executing on a community wall in Phoenix. The TV commercial has all the trappings of the underground and street art, from the hard guitar riffs rocking in the background and shaky camera work to the artist cloaked in that perfect trifecta of black clothes, pseudonym (Siloette), and air-filtering mask. The only exception to this formula is imprimatur. Siloette’s subject, it turns out, is Wendy. As in the pigtailed and freckled-specked mascot behind square hamburgers and Frosty drinks.

This realization—that corporation-sanctioned graffiti is pushing fast food—resonates in the moment. I’m visiting spic-and-span Denver to attend a preview of the Museum of Contemporary Art building. The 11-year-old institution that will be housed there operates on a unique model: Artists are commissioned to create works expressly for the museum, but since there’s no permanent collection, those pieces are ultimately returned to their makers. Provocative, site-specific, and temporary. Is a mirrored David Altmejd sculpture at the Museum of Contemporary Art all that different from Siloette’s hyper-realistic spray-painting several hundred miles away?   

Graffiti: a visual and political history

The malleable definition of “graffiti” and its dance with legitimacy has characterized this form of environmental art since its invention. The word itself derives from the Italian graffiare, meaning “to scratch.” Appropriate, since excavations of Pompeii have revealed writings on the walls that communicate upright election slogans as well as outright profanities. During World War II, the Nazis deployed graffiti messages to work up German bile against Jews, while members of the White Rose simultaneously railed against the Third Reich in both paint and printed matter.

A more recent perception of graffiti—spontaneous acts of expression by modern-day ragamuffins—dates to the birth of contemporary street art in the 1960s in Philadelphia. But like so many innovations in art and design, this current wave actually traces to a technological turning point: in 1949, Edward Seymour put paint in aerosol cans. Artists took this new paint delivery system to the streets of Philadelphia, and popular awareness of graffiti exploded alongside the medium in New York City early in the following decade. As pioneers like Julio 204 and Cornbread “bombed” the city, tagging their monikers to endless subway cars, walls, and even an elephant, both the public and the keepers of culture took notice. In 1971 The New York Times published its first story on the phenomenon, the following year Mayor John Lindsay declared the first war on graffiti, and in 1974 Norman Mailer wrote a paean to street art in The Faith of Graffiti, a book photographed by Mervyn Kurlansky and Jon Naar.

It’s not surprising that members of the cultural elite quickly awoke to the graffiti phenomenon. Their real estate and vehicles had been vandalized, to be sure, but also the medium had sprung from a uniquely unhappy moment in New York history. The city was lunging toward bankruptcy, its buildings emptying, and its ghettoes gaining prominence. Whereas a police officer may explain graffiti as one kid’s desire for notoriety, in reality the movement had far deeper implications: A subway car soaked in spray paint traveled from the burning Bronx to the corporate canyons of midtown Manhattan, making the point to millions that no New Yorker could ignore a dire socioeconomic situation. Rap was born from a similar impulse to practice creativity in a seemingly hopeless environment and, just as a Kanye West lyric today is punctuated with political references, some of the most thought-provoking graffiti both then and now has that kind of subversion in mind.

Political and social awareness may be the only consistent characteristic unifying graffiti over the last three and a half decades. Indeed, formally, the practice has evolved incredibly quickly. Simple tags, in which artists painted their monikers in individualized, large-scale signatures, soon were replaced by “throw-ups” comprising outlined letterforms either “scrubbed” or more carefully filled in with color. The visual complexity of the graffiti alphabet progressed further thanks to “pieces,” shorthand for masterpieces. Pieces deployed multiple colors within perfect bubble letterforms, or they featured “wildstyle,” in which letterforms interlock so tightly that the pseudonym itself almost cannot be deciphered.

Graffiti fundamentals have changed even more dramatically than its calligraphic rulebook. For example, figurative representation, which was once secondary to graffiti’s letterforms, has ostensibly overtaken it. Characters now range in variety from photorealistic portrayals to the comic book–style universes of artists like Dalek. Material choices have expanded well beyond the spray can to include oil-based chalk, stickers, and acrylics, among others.

Engaging architecture

With every new development in graffiti’s evolution, the scale of practice appears to increase, too. Whereas the taggers of the 1970s earned fame by filling even the hardest-to-reach empty corners, today artists cover an entire building elevation in a single work (often with permission). As graffiti gets bigger, its makers have become more cognizant of architecture. Indeed, there is a complicity between graffiti and architecture nowadays that, some would argue, makes the urban fabric more dynamic than without it.

The talent for creating a dialogue between architecture and the two-dimensional is not limited by national borders. Recent graffiti artists who are particularly adept at engaging architecture include the Irish trio Bogside Artists, São Paulo twins Os Gemeos, and the Dutch artist Casroc, who blends a variety of three-dimensional representations into landscape images that adapt to the idiosyncrasies of each canvas. Japanese manga artist Masamune Shirow is another standout in this field. The 10-year veteran of street art imagines unusual biological-robotic sea creatures in which bodies as well as backgrounds directly reference nearby environmental elements, such as exposed pipes, to successfully blur reality and vision.

Considering the architectural complicity of contemporary graffiti, or  “post-graffiti,” also reconfirms the talent of the widely popular artist Banksy. His works are equal parts biting social commentary, visually arresting artwork, and architectural conversant. His 2005 “visit” to the Palestinian side of Israel’s controversial West Bank barrier encapsulates the multiple levels on which his work can be appreciated. Among those nine paintings are idealized images of life on the other side, the wall appearing to be ripped open to reveal palm-lined beaches and refreshing mountain scenes. In fact, Banksy is so highly regarded that protesters accused the London transportation authority of a kind of reverse vandalism when, in April, it painted over a famous Banksy portrayal of the movie Pulp Fiction that was valued at approximately $600,000. The previous month, London thieves had almost entirely removed a wall mural by the Bristol-born artist.

Newfound legitimacy and high culture

Advertisers’ use of graffiti to appeal to young consumers appears logical in the context of post-graffiti. Thanks to graffiti’s maturation from a marker of territory to diverse cultural production, it is now possible to create innocuous representational art that is elevated to graffiti-level cool merely by its placement on an exterior wall. On the other hand, tagging “Wendy’s” would appear more like graffiti in the classic 1970s definition of vandalism, at least to parents.

The acceptance of graffiti in the fine-art marketplace also explains its deployment in a corporate context. That movement really took off in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who began their careers as street artists, crossed the threshold into the gallery system. Norman Mailer created the intrigue with his book, and gallerists and collectors like Sidney Janis then provided the stamp of approval that could justify the leap to mainstream media.

That stamp is constantly refreshed. For example, Amherst College currently is exhibiting nine large-scale works created by artist Brett Cook in collaboration with students and other members of the campus community. Instead of graffiti produced by crews, now there is public art and community-building. The mellowing arc of post-graffiti nicely corresponds with Cook’s own development from a teenage graffiti writer to UC Berkeley student painting local walls with a political tint to artist who approaches his practice with an ethnographic perspective.

There are stunning parallels between the institutionalization of graffiti in the art world and graffiti’s crossover to the design disciplines. The talent, for example, has followed a trajectory similar to Cook’s. The acclaimed furniture and installation designer Arne Quinze began his career as the acclaimed street artist Zone, dotting the streets of Brussels and Barcelona with his work; several of Quinze’s most recent projects, such as the environmental installation Cityscape in Brussels, renders graffiti-like squiggles into three dimensions using two-by-three pine planks. Frank Shepard Fairey first conceived the precursor to his “Obey Giant” campaign while studying at Rhode Island School of Design, and continues to propagate that phenomenon while producing album and magazine covers through his Los Angeles design studio. The graffiti artist KAWS oversees the OriginalFake brand of toys and clothing, and Marc Ecko’s clothes almost seem pressed to the surface of wet, freshly spray-painted walls.

Given the ways in which graffiti can potentially enhance architectural experience, the art form has seduced architecture and interiors professionals quite recently. In 1998, for example, Dutch architect Marc Mauer had begun work with the international street artists Delta and Zedz to recreate their tags as three-dimensional objects. The translation exercise yielded a house as well as concrete public seating called Zedzbeton.

At home in EGD?

Graffiti is gaining even more prominence as a language of environmental graphics. Enthused by the interaction between graffiti artist and the urban fabric, designers are commissioning artists to add layers of meaning to architectural space. For the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, local architect Andrew Zago invited Barry McGee to spray-paint the brick facade in full-height, anthropomorphic letterforms. One end of this series emits a puff. The gesture not only evokes tailpipes and Detroit car culture, but also seems to blow smoke at more genteel attempts at reanimating Detroit’s famously faded public domain. Appropriately, inside the museum, Zago also has embraced urban decay, maintaining the walls’ patchwork of brick and plaster as artifacts of the car dealership that, appropriately, had abandoned the building. “I didn’t want to romanticize it,” Zago has said, “but the city had a depth of character, a real substance and integrity.”

Across the Atlantic, the Swedish artists Dizel&Sate also take commissions to cover their clients’ walls in graffiti-inspired graphics. Working under the name Walldesign Studio, the pair’s many projects succeed in communicating a brand message while riffing off interior elements. Noting that beams dot the top of one wall at Hugo Boss’ Scandinavian head office, Dizel&Sate chose to partially hide a graffiti-portrait face behind one such rafter. Other works emphasize architectural characteristics, or act as trompe l’oeil. Dizel&Sate established a graffiti school in Norrköping, Sweden, in 1994.

Graffiti-as-environmental-graphics accomplishes at least three key functions. It generates excitement through patternmaking, communicates an advertising message, and provides wayfinding, even if those cues are more cognitive than explicit. Two recent projects by Gensler encapsulate the allure of graffiti as a new design tool. The midtown Manhattan offices for BMG Columbia House (which has since relaunched as Bertelsmann Direct North America) and Gensler’s own quarters at Rockefeller Center were shepherded by two different principals of the company, but by sheer coincidence both incorporate graffiti.

Within Gensler’s home space, graffiti by the artist Jose Soto dances up a rear staircase that links studios on two floors. What was a hushed bit of connective tissue is, with Soto’s version of company keywords flaming over it, now a centerpiece for employees and visitors alike. The explosion of colors and kinetics also stretches the experience of the stair, the element looming larger in the mind and inviting multiple looks at the graffiti’s details. “We needed a focal point,” Gensler principal and design director Mark Morton says of the stair and the decision to bring in Soto, “and it’s supposed to be all about New York.”

Meanwhile, over at Bertelsmann Direct North America, the main corridor of this efficiently planned, 100,000-sq.-ft. office features the work of five graffiti artists, including David Ellis, Doze Green, Maya Hayuk, Rich Jacobs, and Rostarr. Because of the project’s use of raw materials and simple layout, the graffiti best does the job of enlivening space, while providing “an edgier, downtown attitude,” says Gensler design principal Peter Wang. Moreover, the five different styles resemble distinct neighborhoods, offering orientation clues to users.

The Gensler projects not only synopsize why graffiti has surfaced as an environmental-graphic trend in high-profile interiors and architecture projects, but also suggest that the designers leading the way are more concerned about authenticity than art-patron predecessors like Wendy’s. Besides displaying the work of well-regarded street artists, the Bertelsmann Direct North America space features sliding doors that evoke the freight trains that are still a favorite target, for example. And the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s genuine tie to the urban milieu is unassailable. Used sparingly, environmental graphics offers a new outlet for graffiti artists without necessarily compromising the legacy of the street.

“Art is a timeless element and can be applied in whatever era of design,” Wang says, “but when you’re talking specifically about street art, what’s important is to use it only when it supports the culture the organization is trying to cultivate.”

--Words by David Sokol, Photos by Wyatt Gallery, segdDESIGN No. 19, 2008


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