Sunday, July 10, 2011

The good, the bad and the ugly

New murals and street art galleries are popping up all over the CBD. Peter Drew reports on the artists’ battle in the war against grey.

So far, an initiative to bring colour to the streets, co-opted by groups of artists and the Adelaide City Council, only concerns properties owned by the Council. As the advantages for attracting consumer interest become obvious it’s expected that private enterprises will soon catch the buzz. But as the council rolls out its scheme to embrace street culture as a ready-made tourist attraction and miracle of urban renewal, the reality is proving less predictable.

One of the key sites located on York Street (parallel to Rundle) was closed down due to a fear of paint fumes and tagging. Originally designated as an “Open Street Art Gallery” where work could be added at any time, the site was set to become a constantly changing collaboration between all kinds of artists. But when it was realised that paint fumes and tagging could be a part of street art, panic set in. As Adelaide City Council’s Public Arts officer Janice Lally said, “It’s been a challenge but we’re getting there”.

Graffiti presents a point of collision between two of the great principles of Western civilisation: the sanctity of private property and the freedom of expression. Drawing its power from this tension, graffiti creates a space for much that has been marginalised in the contemporary world. Tribalism, political agitation and art all thrive in the multifaceted world of graffiti. But with so many competing agendas, factions are bound to form. The two most prominent factions are “graff” (hip hop based graffiti) and “street art”.

Like the “mods” and the “rockers” of the early 1960s, street art and graff clash in ways that don’t make much sense to outsiders. Much like the sub-cultural clashes of previous generations, we can generalise based on class distinction but that would be a crude misunderstanding. Some equate graff to working class and street art to middle class. Exemplifying this point is Banksy, the ultimate poster boy of street art who, as it turns out, isn’t the new Che Guevara but just a former private school boy named Robin Gunningham. For a more useful understanding of the two groups we need to look at their individual structures and the values that they uphold.

Graff is almost like an aesthetic sport where the aim of the game is to paint your name as much as possible while displaying individual style and skill. More than any other art form, graff is intensely physical as “writers” (graffiti artists) traverse the landscape in search of ever more outlandish places to paint. This task of “getting up” can be as much about the quantity as it is about quality of the work.
“Respect” is the culture’s one true currency. Generated from within the community, graffiti writers put most value in the respect of other graffiti writers. The more respect you have, the more your respect is worth. Without respect you are a “toy”. Win enough respect and you become a “king”.

Contrast this with the structure of street art and the tension becomes obvious. Born out of a punk/DIY aesthetic, street art seeks engagement and sometimes approval from the wider community. Where graff centres on the use of freehand aerosol to display the nom de plume of the artist, street art enjoys the use of any medium or subject matter you can think of. While its conceptual drive might make street art more open, it also has the potential to dilute its value. For instance, if you can cut out any image found on the internet, stick it to someone else’s wall and call it “street art” what’s really so special about that?

It’s the value placed in style and technique that gives graff its greatest strength. But, for a culture that exists outside of the law, the task of enforcing values can be difficult. While previous generations solved this problem through various forms of intimidation, this option is, thankfully, becoming less tenable as the culture matures and moves towards legitimacy. These days, senior graffiti writers are often involved in outreach programs that focus on using the art form to help “at risk” youth by giving them a positive outlet. Together with legal murals that exist somewhere between Graff and Street Art, these figures are creating positions for the younger generation to aspire to.

Ultimately the authority of senior graffiti artists comes down to the fraternity of an intensely masculine culture. In this way, the Graff hierarchy appeals to the tribal instincts that the contemporary world seems intent on eradicating. There will always be a secret hunger at the centre of the male psyche that can only be answered by the respect of other men. Fathers, brothers and peers all play this role and when one falters, the others take up the slack. So males form packs and go to extraordinary lengths to win that token of manhood; respect.

Street art, on the other hand, allows more scope for femininity. Take “knit graffiti” for example, which involves installing knitted fabrics onto signposts, or any other public object (image by Vera Ada). There’s just nothing intimidating about a parking meter wrapped in rainbow coloured wool. But, more generally, street art’s feminine appeal comes through its openness to all kinds of subject matter beyond the things that guys paint to impress their mates. That said, it’s priceless whenever a woman takes to the wall with results that leave the boys feeling sheepish. All the tough-guy bravado starts to look a bit silly.

Each faction has its strengths and weaknesses from which the other will always have something to learn. Graff can remind street art of the fundamental value of style, technique and the strength of fraternity. Street art can remind graff that public engagement is nothing to fear. After all, a good audience likes to be challenged but they also expect the artist to keep challenging themselves. This means embracing change and breaking free from your own restrictions. Ultimately, the two sides are tied together by their love of freedom.

In other cities the division is less pronounced. As more and more artists find ways to bridge the divide, it sometimes appears that “street art” is just a linguistic twist, a marketing ploy by the world’s smartest graffiti artists in an effort to sell coffee table books so they can keep doing what they love. It takes time for any group of artists to win the freedom that recognition
can afford.
In the grand scheme of things the reversal of the York Street project is just a minor hiccup in Adelaide’s otherwise exciting venture into street culture. But it does stand as a quick lesson that you can’t let something run wild and expect to tame it at the same time. Thankfully there are other options and positive examples to boot. First and foremost being the East facing wall of the Morphett Street bridge where the phrase “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Words Will Always Save Me” greets oncoming traffic. The Typographic mural by ABOVE, Ankles, Chris Edser and Tristan Kerr demonstrates how street art can be applied in a controlled way to enliven public space.

In precious few cities around the world the right ingredients have combined to produce a lasting culture where genuinely new ideas have taken hold. One key ingredient is the kind of public ambivalence that only comes out of very large cities. While such a casual attitude toward public space seems unlikely in Adelaide, we might be able to substitute ambivalence with an informed sense of acceptance. After all, the city belongs to all of us. Getting into street art and graff starts with just a little extra observation of what’s happening on the streets. Before you know it, you’ll be checking out the walls to see who’s getting up.

- This article was originally published in The Adelaide Review in July 2011 -

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