Tag, You’re Art

At this point, I think it’s pretty clear that I think graffiti is art. We’ve featured Birmingham graffiti in our SEEN section and on our cover on more than one occasion, and in an artistic context. What wasn’t clear to me until recently, however, was that the status of graffiti as art was in question at all. Now, after a Homewood City Council ruling severely limiting the placement of a solicited work by the increasingly popular “You Are Beautiful” (YAB) campaign, and the flurry of antagonism that it stirred on local comment boards, I feel it necessary to clarify a few things.

For years now, world-renowned graffiti artists such as  Shepard Fairey and Banksy have had their pieces sold in galleries and hungrily snapped up by collectors. Prices for works by Banksy have reached over $100,000. Not that cost is the final determinate for whether something is art. According to George C. Stowers in his excellent essay on the question of graffiti as art, “It has form, color, and other base properties as well as an arrangement of these elements into structures that qualify it aesthetically as being art. The only obstacle that has hindered the general acceptance of graffiti art is its location and presentation. However, the instances of acceptance of graffiti art by the art world shows that conventional methods of presentation are not all that matters in determining if something is art. And graffiti art is not to be disqualified as art simply because it might appear unsolicited. In short, graffiti in the form of spray can art is art like any other work that might be found in a gallery or a museum.”

And there is the crux of it. Get angry about vandalism and illegality if you want, but don’t question the artistic credibility of the work as you sandblast it from existence. I had a chance to pick the brains of the shadowy YAB folks about it, and not surprisingly, they agree.

“The term graffiti covers such a huge phenomenon,” they say, “and people don’t really know what all there is to [it]; tags, bombing, elaborate (master)pieces, stencils, and so on. A big piece requires as much skill, craft and knowledge of the medium as an old master sign painter and as much design [skill] as a typographer. It takes a general understanding of all the intricacies of graffiti to really appreciate what the writer did. This is something that will take decades for people to accept, if it ever is. There’s actually a new graffiti style that some are calling ‘postmodern graffiti.’ People are going out into the streets and doing incredible abstract pieces which if those who found graffiti offensive saw in a museum they’d actually appreciate. Graffiti as art is not an easy idea to grasp; there are unwritten rules that change from generation to generation.”

Those angered by the illegal nature of graffiti should also be angered by the Homewood City Council ruling. The YAB painters say that they were attempting to make a move into legitimate, sanctioned work, and the decision against the artistic status of their piece has sent them back into the anonymous cover of night. “They’re not buying us the paint,” they say, “but hell, if we had a legitimate outlet we wouldn’t feel the need to do pieces without permission. We would like to do more elaborate, better quality pieces, with permission. We thought the council understood that. It was funny to hear them try to threaten any pieces that showed up without permission with charges and restitution, because that’s how we started and what we’re comfortable with. They’re not in a position to do that. Illegal night pieces is what we do.”

It’s not enough to just say graffiti is art and be done with it, so to illustrate my point, I have enlisted the help of local photographer and graffiti enthusiast Leah Jane Henderson. Henderson has been putting together a compilation of local graffiti photographs and has been kind enough to allow me to publish some of her favorites here.

“As a photographer I am slightly obsessed with documenting parts of my life,” says Henderson, “what I think is beautiful, significant, catchy and impressionable and graffiti definitely holds those characteristics. I love the idea of publically expressing yourself, putting your thoughts and impressions up on a canvas for people to see, whether that canvas is a brick wall or in a prestigious gallery. A good graffiti piece takes planning, sketching, precision and skill, all while performing quickly and staying in the shadows. Despite the stereotypes that come to mind, not all graffiti artists live in the slums and are in gangs. This type of communication links and draws people together regardless of age, sex, race, status, linguistics, etc. The reasons for producing this urban art form depend on the motives of the artists, but you’re putting your message out there and saying this is me, this is what I am feeling. Your tag marks your place in the world, it says I was here.”

So, without further ado, here are some shots of some amazing graffiti art, in and around Birmingham.

Sam George is the managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to editor@bhamweekly.com.

Orig­i­nally printed in Birm­ing­ham Weekly on February 24, 2011.

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