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A graffiti writer sounds off about "street art."

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As a graffiti artist who, for long periods of time, painted without permission, I cannot get behind the whole "street art" thing. It's not that I don't enjoy looking at so-called street art, but I can't get behind the verbiage of it all. "Street art" occupies the same spaces as graffiti art, but it carries none of the history and meaning. It's a shallow commodification.

In graffiti, you have to know how to use a spray can. You have to know how to execute a tag, throwup, and straight letter, and if you get that far, you can eventually start making abstract typography in what is called "piecing." You have to piece under bridges and out of the public eye until you can execute that piece well enough to put it "above ground" on legal and permission walls. To make pieces stand out on permission walls, a lot of graffiti writers would paint portraits, cartoon characters, abstract backgrounds, landscapes, etc. It is understood within the community that all of these things were part of the original graffiti movement and indigenous to its traditions as a pastime. You have to work your way up.

But as has happened with other art forms in the past (look to the difference between b-boying and its commodified form, breakdancing), businessmen, art dealers, and art galleries came along and realized, "Hey, we can make money off one part of this culture." So they took the biggest, flashiest elements, and called it "street art." "Street art" has become the new umbrella term. If someone does large illustrations on walls, they're a "street artist." People are called "street artists" who have never once painted without permission. They have never been arrested. They have never had to be a part of a physical altercation over their art. They have never had their artworks covered up, scribbled over with poorly drawn penises and Metallica logos. All of these things are routine for a graffiti writer.

Graffiti vs. street art.
  • Graffiti vs. street art.

If you are a graffiti writer who paints ugly street level graffiti on things that aren't yours, you are a "graffiti vandal." If you are a graffiti writer who paints beautiful abstract typography illegally, that is called "graffiti art." If you are a graffiti writer who paints beautiful abstract typography on a permission wall, that is called a "graffiti mural," or "graffiti production."If you are a fine artist, complete with an artist statement who paints walls, you are a muralist.

If you are a muralist who paints illegally, by definition, you are doing graffiti, but you're not quite a graffiti writer, so I can see that this could be where some people feel the need to have a third category, or an alternate title. But the fact of the matter is that most people who call themselves "street artists" don't paint illegally. Now, with this new title, they can have all the edginess without paying any dues.

Nowadays, in my city and in other cities all over the country and the world, people are exploiting the word "street artist" as a way to hop on a bandwagon. They're throwing it around very flippantly. They are calling murals "graffiti," and they are calling graffiti "street art." And there are many, many people who claim to love graffiti, but they talk bad about people who do letters. People dismiss letters as not being art, when letters are the very thing that started the whole movement. These people don't know how difficult it is to paint a word 20 feet wide and eight feet tall while you are also trying to control your adrenaline and not faint. There is an art to making abstract typography. It is a skill that you have to practice.

And that's the thing about graffiti, about writing a name. There is no lofty artist statement required. It's not about some kind of pseudo-intellectual social commentary. It's just free expression. Graffiti artists buy their own materials, spend their own money, spend their own time to do this and don't expect anything in return. A lot of times their work is immediately removed or covered up. That's honest expression.

Brandon Marshall has painted illegally and legally in Memphis for over a decade.

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