For the past month, world-renowned British street artist, Banksy, has taken up residence in New York City, adding one new piece of work every day to the city's landscape. The works range from his signature stencils to performance pieces like the Grim Reaper driving a bumper car to Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" and "Sirens of the Lambs," a slaughterhouse delivery truck festooned with stuffed lambs, chickens, and cows. They are posted to the artist's website with their locations daily.
I've been following the residency (which is called "Better Out Than In"), and it's got me thinking about street art in Memphis. More specifically, what would happen if Banksy did a Memphis residency?
Would we notice? Would we care? Would the work be treasured or destroyed?
I asked local street artist Nosey (he asked that his real name not be used) what he thought would happen if Banksy came to Memphis. "I think he would have plenty of material [to work with], since most of his work is social commentary," he said. "But I think most of it would get painted over pretty quickly."
While Nosey doesn't have Banksy's worldwide recognition, his work is Memphis famous. He's made work all over the city, starting with traditional graffiti tagging and recently moving into more poignant, socially conscious work, like a mural of a rat skeleton near East High. It's correctly labeled with anatomical names and was inspired by the recent school system merger and the students he works with as a community developer in Orange Mound.
Now's probably a good time to talk about the difference between graffiti and street art. I turned to the internet for a good definition of what counts as street art and what counts as graffiti and found GraffitiActionHero.org's list of eight qualifications. Among them: "Street art adorns the urban landscape; graffiti tagging scars it and accelerates urban decay." And, "Street art was done with a smile; graffiti tagging was done with a scowl." Also, "Street art takes skill; graffiti tagging takes balls."
I think the smile thing is key. Banksy's work makes you think and smile. My favorite pieces of local street art — the balloon-toting squirrels that popped up all over town last year and the "Invest in Good Times" mural on Tennessee Street downtown — definitely fit the bill. Both were done without permission, but I've yet to hear anyone say that a less than two-foot-tall stencil of a squirrel fills them with rage.
As with most art, though, the difference between street art and graffiti is in the eye of the beholder or, in this case, the property owner. In New York, authorities haven't been able to arrest Banksy because 1) they can't catch him, and 2) there haven't been any complaints from private property owners.
In Memphis, it's a little different. I asked Ben Avant, president of the South Main Association, which is in one of Memphis' major arts neighborhoods, what he thinks about street art. "I am highly in favor of street art in and around South Main, but the guerrilla-style graffiti art that some people peddle is obscene and should be prevented," he said, via email. "If an artist is honest with himself, he should be confident enough to approach an owner of some building and propose his intentions, but when this is done under the veil of darkness and ends up costing the owner money to cover it up, it's wrong."
I understand where he's coming from. As the leader of a neighborhood association, he doesn't want anything in the area that could hurt business or tourism. But I can also see Nosey's point. When I asked him about a mural he painted on a stairwell in South Main, he said, "I was kind of shocked they painted over it, because I thought if anywhere would appreciate it, it would be an arts district."
A vibrant, interesting, and creative city includes compelling, thoughtful, fun street art. The question becomes one of balance: How can Memphis find a way to keep (and, dare I suggest, encourage) interesting and well-made street art, created with or without permission, while discouraging tagging or gang-related graffiti?