Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Graffiti and Street Art

This weekend I finished "Graffiti and Street Art" by Anna Waclawek. I wouldn't have picked up this book for its cover design or the blurb on the back, but I was looking for a book about graffiti and this was one of the few options. Luckily, the content of the book was much better than what I was expecting.

not an inspiring cover

Before reading this book my knowledge of graffiti was pretty limited but probably not more so than your average college art instructor. It certainly wasn't a standard topic when I was in college and even in graduate school there was no formal way to educate oneself on the topic from inside the academy. When I lived in the midwest I probably would have generally supported the validity of graffiti as an art form with no real idea about the history or significance. Once I moved to Yakima, I started to see graffiti as an urban nuisance and a gang-related crime. I didn't see much evidence of anyone exploring the expressive or "art" aspects of the medium, just tagging garages and abandoned buildings. I painted over graffiti on my garage and sometimes the fence and got annoyed at the vandals and at the neighbors who didn't get their graffiti covered quickly. Visiting "home" in the midwest, I marveled at the fresh clean garages and fences on every street.

graffiti inside the tunnel at the local park
In the last couple years I have started to see more expressive graffiti in Yakima. I see what Ms. Waclawek informs me are called "throw-ups," which are the large, filled-in signatures, as opposed to the linear signatures or tags that show up on my garage and on abandoned buildings, fences and even trucks all over Yakima.

a "throw-up" at Jagz barber shop

The Salvation Army and Jagz barber shop in town have both commissioned graffiti style artwork as advertising or decoration or even graffiti prevention on their buildings. On the way to YVCC there is a line of fence that has several throw-ups, though I have no idea if these were allowed or requested by the owners or if they were put up illegally. From an artistic or visual culture perspective, these works are much more pleasant to look at than the ubiquitous tags.

(part of) The Salvation Army graffiti style mural

Other than my personal experience with illegal tagging on my property and the second-hand experience of larger scale local graffiti works, my experience is limited to watching "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and confronting concerns over lettering style in my experimental "Mural in a Quarter" class at Yakima Valley Community College. In 2007, students in this class designed and installed a mural in the Sherar Gymnasium Foyer at Yakima Valley Community College. As part of the process, the students had to propose their design to a college committee for approval. Their initial designs were met with hesitancy because of some graffiti style lettering and the students were asked to revise their plans.

the completed mural without graffiti style lettering

In the context of a city infested with tagging and starting to exhibit more expressive throw-ups, I wanted to learn more about graffiti. I went looking for an academic treatment of the subject and "Graffiti and Street Art" was the most promising looking book I found at the Barnes and Noble in Seattle.

graffiti on Jagz barber shop

After a disappointing introduction, I enjoyed the book and eventually was impressed with the treatment of the subject. The book starts with a history of signature graffiti (tagging) in the 70s. I think it is this first section of the book where I find the writing to be repetitive and elementary. The history was useful, but I felt like the author was trying to hard to make the early tagging into Fine Art. The author also tries to deconstruct the symbolism in the tags and larger graffiti pieces, but there isn't much that needs explaining. A crown means king, a star and underlining add emphasis. The graffiti culture also was less interesting to me.
A Yakima "Street Art" poster

Most of the book talks about what I call expressive or artistic graffiti and street art that is related but distinct from the origins of signature graffiti. I was most impressed with the inclusion of unusual media including yarn bombing and delicately cut paper installed in the street. There were plenty of high quality illustrations, almost all were in color, and I thought the author did a particularly nice job of supporting her written ideas with visual imagery. The artists represent a wide range of contemporary graffiti art and "post-graffiti" street art. The author will use several artists to support a topic in an early section and then refer to the artist again with new images in a later section. By the end you feel like you recognize the work of the various artists.

graffiti on the Baskin Robbins building
I had never heard of artists cleaning dirty city walls to create reverse graffiti images visible in the contrast between the dirty and newly clean sections of the wall. My husband actually wrote on our sidewalk with a pressure washer, essentially cleaning the sidewalk in a pattern that spells out a name, but I didn't make the connection between that and graffiti writing or art. How fascinating, how beautiful and how unexpected to create this "illegal" art in a manner that is ambiguous in its legal status. Is it illegal to clean city walls? 

anti-tagging message below The Salvation Army mural


  1. Yakima's best graffiti, by far, was on the Mexican grocery on N 1st Street. But about two or three years ago the owners painted it all out. I have some photos of it in its glory period. I'll send them to you if you'd like to see them. You should read some of Bill Benzon's writings on graffiti. I'll look around online and see if I can find them. I know he gave a talk at U of Chicago a little over a year ago.

  2. We've long been inspired by urban art and have finally created a collection that pays homage to this secret addiction of ours!


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