“Ruining Our City, Corrupting Our Youth, I Want ‘Em Locked Up”: Opinions, Questions, and Controversy Concerning Graffiti and Street Art, both Popular and Private

Graffiti and street art are, by anyone’s view, a controversial topic. Ask a member of the general public to give their opinion on them. For real, I dare you. They no doubt at least have one, and in some cases might be more than happy to share with you just how “destructive” graffiti is, and how it’s “ruining” cities, and so on. My place is not to try to prove anyone’s opinions of graffiti wrong (much thought I might enjoy doing so), because that would be presumptuous and rude. I’m here to show examples of some pieces of graffiti which are central to controversies in their own right; specifically in three categories: Graffiti/Street Art which creates controversy to the public, graffiti/street art which, while ostensibly relatively tame, creates controversy within those subcultures, and finally graffiti/street art which acts itself as an expression of opinions on unrelated controversies.

 

First I’ll take a look at the most obvious, accessible category (more than I already did in the introduction), public controversies created by a piece of graffiti.

Banksy’s infamous “Slave Labour,” on its original the wall of the Poundland shopping center in London. Image courtesy of the artists’ website, banksy.co.uk .

The above piece is central to possibly the most wide-ranging, high-stakes controversies surrounding graffiti or street art. Banksy painted this on the shop of a shop with a dollar-store business model in light of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2012. Somewhat obviously, it protests the practices of a cheap, consumer-driven economy, and how that is necessarily built upon the exploitation of others. A controversial topic made at a contentious time, surely, but the hoopla really began when the piece was removed and slated to be sold at auction. Because Banksy is the leading contemporary street artist, his works are extremely popular and often fetch Millions on the podium. This piece caused tensions in the art world to erupt over the intersection of street art and copyright. Did Banksy own the piece, wholly or partially? Was it the right of the shop owner to do with that section of their wall as they pleased? Was the contested but ultimately successful $1.1 Million dollar sale of the piece right, if perhaps legally, then morally? These questions remain unanswered but give a fine sense of the public contrast of opinion which surround this contentious practice at a higher level than those given in the title. (Opinions which, to be completely honest, I won’t address in this examination. If that’s why you’re here I apologize.)

Unnamed Mural on the Athens Polytechnic. Image provided by Artemis Leontis.

In March 2013, a team of street artists overtook the Polytechnic Institute in Athens, covering two walls in an indecipherable mass of black and white. This seems inherently controversial, since covering any major University building in a stories-high, block-long mural which ostensibly doesn’t mean anything (?!?!) will inevitably garner hate and respect in tandem. The real problematic nature (or just thought-provoking nature if you’re not offended by it, but you’re a definite minority if so) lies in the history of the site. The Polytechnic (Polytechnia if you’re transliterating from the Greek) was the site of a days-long protest in the 1970s led by students in response to the oppressive dictatorship of the time. After several days, the powers-that-were were sick, and military forces stormed the complex, killing students and creating an all-around shameful period of Greek history. Today, the Prime Minister of Greece lays a wreath at the site on the anniversary of the slaughter, a day which is, not coincidentally, a national day of remembrance and mourning. Put into context, it seems obvious that this piece would have definite backlash, and indeed, a majority of Athenians disapproved of the venture and it was taken down in a matter of weeks.

 

Next, we turn to our second category: Graffiti and street art which causes controversy within those subcultures.

Rats, stereotypical of French street artist Blek le Rat. Location unknown. Taken from Wikipedia, free under creative commons.

Rat, typical of British street artist Banksy. Packard Plant, Detroit. Taken from vostokzapad.wordpress.com .

The above two images highlight something of a feud in modern street art circles. Blek Le Rat began his career in the early eighties in Paris. His signature piece, the rat, was instantly an icon associated with him. Blek’s career is unprecedented and ground-breaking; he is claimed by many to be the Father of Stencil Graffiti. Banksy, from Britain, began his career in the nineties. His work notoriously touches upon heavy topics (see first image in case you’d forgotten this). Often accompanying these works is a small figure of a rat, like above; put into a compromising situation, interacting with its environment, and humanized. The scandal here lies not in whether banksy was influenced by Blek le Rat. Everyone involved agreed he is. Blek himself was even fine with this for some time. However, as Banksy gained in popularity (and his pieces grew more expensive), Blek’s attitudes began to shift. Some think Banksy owes something to Blek, be it money or merely public acknowledgement of influence. Blek himself thinks so, and has made his position clear. Banksy, as in all matters, remains silent and hidden. This raises the question over how much right a street artist has over their signature pieces, in addition to the unresolved contention concerning copyright. Does Banksy have the right to adapt someone else’s signature for his own use? The pieces are not identical, so does Blek have a foundation for his claims? Like all questions posed in this exploration, there is no answer. I provide no answers, just  controversy for the sake of pure controversy.

“3rd Rail” tag, artist unidentified (though likely going under the pseudonym of 3rd Rail). Alley off Church Street, Ann Arbor. Taken by author.

This next piece only barely counts as controversial, but illustrates some of the rules of hierarchy and power within graffiti/street art subcultures. Within tag writing, there is a concept of overwriting which is paramount to the pride and talent of the writers. If someone chooses to place their tag directly over another tag, they say that they are a better, more important writer than the one below them. Moreover, and in the case of the image here, if a writer decides to take up an entire wall which was previously covered in tags by various other writers, they’re unabashedly screaming that they’re better and more important. We see in the center-right of this image that a tag in orange was covered, and at far-left, a tag in yellow. No doubt their were plenty of others lower than this which were completely obscured when 3rd Rail decided to dedicate the time and money into the claim that their name was more worthy of the wall. To be fair, I think it can be unanimously agreed that, given the artistic merits of a spray paint scribble versus something approaching a mural, this claim is well-founded.

 

Finally, we look at pieces of Graffiti and street art which serve as outlets for extrinsic controversies.

“His Name Was Dennison,” unknown artist. Weiser Hall, University of Michigan Campus, Ann Arbor. Taken by author.

David M. Dennison was a professor and accomplished researcher at the University of Michigan for much of his life, making great strides in astrophysics and quantum mechanics. For years, a classroom building on the central campus of that same institution bore his name, as a way of honoring this man who was doubtlessly worthy of it. In 2014, Ron Weiser, modest businessman made a substantial donation to the athletic department of the University. To honor this man, the school changed the name of this building to Weiser hall and hit it up with some sweet renovations. Unjust, yes? (I may sound biased, but I assure you it’s only because I’m biased.) This led to modest outcry by the students and faculty who saw the rename for what it was: a suck-up to the rich. “His Name Was Dennison” became the call of those concerned that in reckless pursuit of funds, people who had actually contributed honor, prestige, and advancement of knowledge to the University would be forgotten. As such, the words “His Name Was Dennison” were chalked on the wall of now-Weiser Hall by a concerned soul. Perhaps in some small way, a defiance continues and the great David Dennison won’t be completely lost to the sands of time and greed.

“Athena v Europa, Resist v Submit” by the french street artist Goin. Athens Taken from files provided by Artemis Leontis.

The final piece examined here brings us back to Athens, birthplace of democracy, toilet of the EU, and home to one of the most vibrant street art scenes on earth. So much of what is painted or written in Athens stems from or protests the current economic hardships faced by the Greek people at the behest of the governments of their nation and the European Union. This two-story high piece reflects this is a defiant, defensive way. Athens is represented by her patron, Athena. She wears bloody, explosive thorns in a crown on her head. She protects herself from tear gas; she riots. And she has no arms. She has been bloodied and chopped and disabled and rendered powerless, and yet she fights on. Inspired by and inspiring those who protest in that city, even the title urges Athenians to take up their arms and come into their own. It is Us vs. Them. It is Athens v Europe. One can either resist or submit. The city resists, she fights on despite all odds. Let’s hope her message doesn’t fall on deaf ears, and that some sense of stability and justice may be instilled.

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