Unless you live in some wooded glen or on a remote iceberg or something, chances are good that you have encountered some graffiti in your time. What was once a form of vandalism relegated to urban centers has become an explosive, worldwide form of art that is as ubiquitous as it is contested. Almost since its inception, well-meaning gallery owners (and some outright assholes) have tried to legitimize graffiti by exposing what they think are its best examples to the mainstream. It never works, because for every genius with an aerosol can, there are a thousand talentless kids who effusively ejaculate their acrylic haphazardly.
What mainstream society doesn’t seem to get is that being a big graffiti artist doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with having technical prowess. It helps, certainly, and being a more well-rounded artist will make your status more unassailable, but the object of graffiti is to put your mark in as many places as possible. I have always said that there are two components to graffiti: putting it up somewhere, and then seeing it in that spot later on. To be seen yet unknown, to have made a mark signifying nothing except that you were there, it brings an indescribable thrill, part of which is certainly knowing that you have probably pissed somebody off.
If the object is to get up as much as possible, then logically you’re eventually going to write in the same space someone else has already written. Some would say that this, beef, is a third component of graffiti–and it’s certainly arguable. Many taggers are more interested in fighting that writing. Really, it’s just an extension of the first component of graffiti, getting up as much as possible. If there was one graffiti writer in the world, then there would be no issue. But since there’s more than one, eventually they’re going to have to confront one another.
And here is the disconnect between the world of graffiti and mainstream art: you can make a nice canvas featuring your tag, sell it for a few grand, and be a professional artist, but I can spray over that canvas and ruin it in seconds. An art collector might wonder why someone would want to deface a work of art, and there’s where collusion between the two worlds crumbles. Taking someone else’s spot and consuming his fame, that’s all part of the game. If you want to keep your painting safe from vandals, make it a landscape or something. This confusion even settles among graffiti artists, notably Los Angeles writer Saber MSK, who held the Guinness World Record for largest graffiti piece until it was buffed two years ago. It was an interesting project, completed over a month’s span with bucket paint, but it was destroyed not long after its completion by two New York City writers, JA and Foe. Saber acted like they had defiled something sacrosanct (and was able to fix his piece later on anyway), but he was wrong. You put your shit up on a wall, it might get dissed. If you can’t handle that, then stay out of the streets.
Right now there is some contention in the art world: graffiti vs. street art. According to fine artists, graffiti is vandalism but street art carries a bold statement which can fetch a high price at Sotheby’s. Graffiti is done with spray paint, while street art is done with wheat pasted posters and sculpture installations and stencils…which are done with spray paint. Street art is sometimes spray painted as well. It’s a debate which will wage on until there are no more surfaces to vandalize. Considering graffiti writers’ propensity to go over one another repeatedly, it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon.