Often accredited to deviant hooliganism, my professors, and peers upped their nose at the idea of graffiti as fine art, only to ask me in private how I felt about Banksy. It seems the academic and hi-art roster is quick to jump to big names like Haring and Basquiat, but often forget that the long-standing cult of graffiti is still running strong. I’ve taken it upon myself to attempt to educate on the topic, both formally and informally, to make sure graff gets the credit it deeply deserves. What other form of art truly engages all of your senses from beginning to end? From creating to viewing? Isn’t that what art is all about, experience?
There is a term in art-academia known as affect, not effect. Difficult to fully describe, the fundamental idea addresses the ambience/feeling/vibe of a space, how that feeling can be identified in the senses, transformed by art, and transmitted between audiences. Ever notice how you can just tell that your bff is in a mood? Or maybe sitting beside your date in a dark theatre you know they hate this flick. Vibes are super important to fancy art people, it’s about human connection to each other and art, it’s how multi-million dollar sales are made on a gut feeling, and how many artists pay their rent.
The most affective art is often installation or performance art as it consumes a room and demands attention. But many other mediums can be equally affective, a powerful image can stop you in your tracks, remind you of home and then all of a sudden you’re remembering your nonna’s cabbage rolls and growing warmer at the thought of your childhood bed’s jersey sheets. Art is a powerful tool to engage your senses, if you let it.
Personally, I can think of no better example of affective art than graffiti. During creation, graffiti engages touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound. The grip of a gloved hand to a brick wall. The cold stick of paint on a brisk evening. The aerosol that trails behind, sneaking into your nostrils and tickling your taste buds. A drag of a cigarette to embellish the moment. And, perhaps most importantly, that instinctual primitive sixth sense that dictates your execution and real-time decision making.
So why is this important? What is it about graffiti that has enabled it to last for so many years, outside of law, and outside of approval? Most art movements have lasted somewhere between 2 and 10 years, but no other movement than graffiti has created a committed subculture. Trixter, graffiti legend and co-founder of TAC crew, puts it best in The History of American Graffiti, “Most major art movements — impressionism, pointillism — are still being used by artists today, still being taught in schools, but the culture, the actual movement, generally only lasted a few years, maybe a decade. Graffiti still has its culture, and keeps developing, gaining depth.” Subculture is the key to longevity, and there’s a reason skateboarding, hip-hop, punk and graffiti have hung out together for so long.
It’s hard to imagine an art scene with devoted Surrealists and Modernists mingling over some new markers and black books. These movements were not built to last, they were built to rebel, enforce change and absorb the impact. Graffiti, however, is a movement and subculture based in social, political, artistic and communal values. It invites change and individual style as opposed to mimicry and repetition. It fundamentally and intentionally lacks a mandate, rules are constantly rewritten, techniques challenged, and anonymity ensuring limited accessibility (all the while remaining out in the open).
With this flexibility and respect for the greats, the impact graffiti has and will have on our society is infinite. It doesn’t need an invitation; in fact, I believe graffiti is better off without one. The process of graffiti is inherently engaging no matter where on the street you stand. What could be more rebellious, more standoffish, than a wildly public, private experience? Next time you walk past a littered wall, reconsider the skill and engagement of the senses it took to create in the public sphere – without permission. You may just get lost in it.