Graffiti, Street-, and Public-Performance Art: Why It Matters

As as investment, I own a small commercial building not far from our studio in Seattle’s historic Greenlake neighborhood. It’s a quaint brick building from the 1920’s with tons of character and charm and I’ve intentionally filled it with tenants with creative businesses: architects, 3-D designers, filmmakers, etc. You get the picture.

It got vandalized today. Tagged. Basically spray paint for the sake of spray paint on bricks and metalwork. I admit, when my friend Marc called to tell me it had been hit, I was bummed, but I briefly wondered “hmmm, I hope it’s at least decent quality” Upon viewing it, I quickly realized that there was exactly ZERO merit to the “work”. I’m going on a limb and suggesting that the vandal was probably about 11 years old, no art skills, found a spray can, and just tagged stuff all over the neighborhood as they walked. Seriously – no quality, just scrawling white spray on bricks, doors, copper mail slots. You get the picture.

So, in an ironic twist, I thought I’d take this as an opportunity to share that I actually have a sizable passion and appreciation for graffiti, street-, and public-performance art. I’m not shy in saying that I’d rather my personal property NOT get lit up, but in a larger context, and within a reasonable ethos, I think graffiti and street art matters a lot. To quote the iconic Banksy:

“Graffiti is not the lowest form of art. Despite having to creep about at night and lie to your mum, it’s actually the most honest artform available. There is no elitism or hype, it exhibits on some of the best walls a town has to offer, and nobody is put off by the price of admission.”

Personally, I like graffiti if it’s good, smart, prudent, measured, and preferably on public–not private–property. After years of wrestling with whether or not my measure on this artform is “right”, I’ve in the past few years settled on “right for me”.

Here are just a few simple resources on graffiti and street art I find powerful and inspiring.

1. I like Banksy a lot. Genius. He’s a pioneer street artist from Bristol, UK, whose work includes large stenciled graffiti, hanging his own pieces surreptitiously in famous museums like the Tate, Louve, etc, and swapping Paris Hilton music CD’s in the record stores with dramatically altered versions (awesome). I recommend you buy Banksy’s book “Wall and Piece” or, if you don’t want to drop $25, at least get the fundamentals in this Banksy YouTube vid:

2. Check out the iconic 1983 documentary film “Style Wars” by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. It’s smothered in the history of the art (and Hip Hop culture generally) and provides a great background. The vid below is the entire hour+ long documentary. Even watching 10 minutes gives you a good buzz, however. If you want to download it at Google Vid instead, go here and look for the ‘download’ button on the right.

3. Lastly, in the realm of street “performance art”, I encourage you to dig into Survival Research Laboratories (SRL). Since the 1970’s this art group, founded by Mark Pauline, have been doing incredibly elaborate and dramatic displays in public. From their Wiki page:

SRL shows are essentially performance art installations acted out by machines rather than people. The interactions between the machines are usually noisy, violent, and destructive. A frequent tag-line on SRL literature is “Producing the most dangerous shows on Earth”. A side effect of the group’s activities is frequent interactions with governmental and legal authorities.Early performances featured animal skins and cadavers animated by mechanical endoskeletons while more recent performances feature some large and technically advanced robots that reflect a paranoid militaristic imagination. In the SRL workshop, a high value is placed on found or re-purposed materials and machines. An example is the The Big Arm which is a telemetrically controlled robot made from an abandoned back-hoe which drags itself around by its “arm”.

I hope some of these resources resonate. Enjoy.

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