Friday, February 1, 2008

The Wall as Archive

A series of images from Bruce Tomb's (de)Appropriation Project. Photos from his online gallery.

A few nights ago we caught a couple of kids tagging a brick wall near our house. They sped off on bikes, but the damage had been done. I can see it now from my office window on the third floor of my home. The building was one of the few in this stretch of road still free of graffiti and I felt momentarily angry at the injustice of it. Two minutes with a spray can and a lifetime of looking at their handy work. But that's how cities work, right? They are never static and if you attempt to maintain stasis, you will drive yourself nuts. It's part of the "messy vitality" of urban living, to borrow a phrase from Lewis Mumford.

Still, I'm annoyed. And I realize it's more because the quality of their work is flat out terrible. I can't imagine that they put much thought into this mundane, bubble-lettered tag. It reminds me of the girlish lettering on a binder cover, the kind that spells, "Amie Loves Brad." It's not nearly as creative as the truly layered and complex work on the highway overpass a few blocks away. They took no pride in this work, which relegated it to vandalism in my mind.

Graffiti in general is an interesting way to follow the story of the city. If you are ever in San Francisco, stop by and visit the wall at 1240 Valencia Street. The wall fronts the jail cells of the former Mission Police Station and for the last decade it has been an ever-changing art installation. 1240 Valencia is owned by a man named Bruce Tomb, and he allows wheat pasting and graffiti on the surface. Tomb has been documenting the evolution of the space through photographs, which you can view online at his (de)Appropriation Project website.

Then there's Graffiti Archaeology, a project "devoted to the study of graffiti-covered walls as they change over time." The website includes time lapsed photos from sites in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere. You can submit your own photos to the site as well.

A Banksy installation on a security fence in the West Bank.

Some would argue that "allowing" the work to appear, as Tomb does, and my use of "art installation" to describe it is counterintuitive to the very concept of graffiti. The fact that British graffiti artist Banksy earned a feature in The New Yorker in May of last year, and that his work is selling for thousands, caused many to question the line between true street art and, well, just art.

The Splasher strikes. Image from New York magazine's website.

One of the critics is a persona known as The Splasher. In New York over the past few years, street art, including a work done by Banksy in Williamsburg, has been hit with a splash of paint and a wheat-pasted manifesto about the commodification of an inherently anti-establishment form of expression. New York magazine started covering the work of The Splasher last year and they have several links to the Splasher's work on their website. They also pose some good questions:

"Several people who we know in the New York graffiti community urged us not to cover the Splasher at all, saying that it would only encourage him to destroy more work—but his project does raise some interesting questions that seem worth considering. First, to what extent is his basic premise correct—are most street artists spoiled children of the (white) bourgeoisie? Is their work just a leading sign of gentrification? And second, can a project that consists of destroying other people's work itself be considered art? After all, burning down a museum would rightly be called a crime. Is this?"

Another interesting development: Graffiti is no longer just micro-level street stuff. With the advent of Google Earth and satellite imagery, graffiti has gone macro with elaborate works on rooftops that can only be seen in their full context from above. That, too, was quickly commercialized: Target, Maxim magazine and GE have all installed satellite advertising on rooftops and in fields. Maybe that's what the crop circles were...advertisements to alien planets.