The Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles has just opened what it bills as America’s first major museum survey of graffiti. Such an occasion naturally raises two pressing questions: would MOCA demonstrate the slightest twinge of conscience toward the criminal nature of its subject matter? And would viewers be allowed to “tag”—that is, commit graffiti of their own—inside the exhibit?
The answer to these questions is most emphatically: No! And No!
This double negative might seem puzzling. Given MOCA’s utter indifference to the destruction of other people’s property, why should it care whether someone writes on its own walls? The contradiction, however, is emblematic of this shallow, abominably irresponsible show. Art in the Streets is the inaugural exhibit of MOCA’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch, a gallery director from New York City. With it, Deitch hopes to stamp himself on L.A.’s art scene as a fearless exponent of edgy, anarchist art, just as his gallery installations and anti-establishment performance pieces sealed his reputation in New York. Art in the Streets assiduously ignores the moral and civic issues raised by any glorification of graffiti. Ironically, it doesn’t even make up for the intellectual and ethical vacuum at the heart of this travesty of a show with compensating visual fireworks.
The cavernous, multileveled Geffen Contemporary makes the creation of a coherent narrative line difficult under any circumstances, but Art in the Streets does nothing to overcome that challenge. After navigating around a skateboard ramp just inside the entrance, the visitor finds himself among a plethora of photos, large murals, painted canvases, collages, mixed-media sculptures, and installations. Little distinguishes this assembly from your average contemporary art show. To be sure, many photos feature vandalized property, as well as the loathsome punks (including the late Dash Snow) who perpetrate such vandalism, caught on camera here in various states of undress, inebriation, sexual availability, and mutilation. But such enactments of wistfully hopeful depravity have been the staple of cutting-edge galleries for years.
Some paintings are composed of ersatz graffiti lettering—a very few showing a robust Jackson Pollock-like energy—while others contain representational forms, mostly of the kitschy, semi-cartoon figures already favored by art world cognoscenti (though Kenny Scharf’s candy-colored, mischievously grinning interlocking globular faces are sui generis and amusing). There is a collage of pet owners’ lost pet notices, which graffiti vandal Erik Brunetti thoughtfully tore down while tagging in San Francisco. Pseudo-RIP plaques for members of an outlaw biker club grace one wall. Chairs, gable roofs, and doors hang from another. The large, black-light-filled Tribeca loft of late graffiti vandal Rammellzee is recreated, complete with shelves upon shelves of bricolage space invaders and weapons. Elsewhere, vitrines display cans of spray paint and magic markers. A “liberated” newspaper box is covered with stickers and day-glo orange paint. Drip-painted mailboxes make several appearances. A filthy, apocalyptic urban warren by Barry McGee and several other of Deitch’s favorite graffiti perps employs Pirates of the Caribbean technology to animate a dummy incessantly painting his tag high up on a wall, sitting atop the shoulders of two fellow vandals—a Disneyesque touch that will undoubtedly appeal to the hoped-for teen audience for the show. And yes, after jerking his desperate suitors at MOCA around for months, superstar graffiti vandal Banksy did finally deign to contribute almost an attic’s-full of pieces to the show, including a stuffed dog urinating on a wall (one hopes for PoMo self-referentiality here) and a fake stained-glass window whose panes are made up of tags that Banksy commissioned from local Los Angeles schoolchildren—the graffiti vandal’s version of a gateway drug.
Little of this makes the case for the artistic value of graffiti, in large part because the painted works are commissioned, not criminal. Had I been tasked with glamorizing graffiti, I would have included lifesize photos of those few New York subway cars whose graffiti mantle really did pack startling graphic punch. Instead, the subway portfolio of photographer Henry Chalfant, one of graffiti’s most influential publicists, is miniaturized and arrayed in tightly-packed rows across adjacent walls like a toy train museum.
But the core of Art in the Streets is a timeline of graffiti history that snakes around the discontinuous walls of the Geffen Contemporary. In a show devoid of explanatory wall essays, the timeline provides the best insight into how Deitch and his guest curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose conceive of graffiti and its social and civil context. In sum: vacuously. The timeline picks out such allegedly memorable moments in graffiti history as the emergence of bubble lettering on the New York subways (1972), the contributions of subway vandals Blade and the Crazy Five in 1974, who did “more damage than any other crew in the 1970s” (way to go!), the first defacement of freeway signs in Los Angeles (1988), and the start of the sticker phenomenon (1989) that allows greater speed and thus wider geographical coverage. All of these developments are presented with utter seriousness and, more importantly, without the slightest hint that they are crimes, that they appropriate and damage property without permission, and that they destroy urban vitality.
Over the last three decades an uncontested body of knowledge has evolved regarding the poisonous effect of graffiti on neighborhood cohesion and safety. You cannot responsibly present a show on graffiti without engaging with this body of knowledge, if only to reject it. Even Banksy mentioned the Broken Windows theory of public disorder in his book Wall and Piece (he predictably mocked the theory). And his publisher, Random House, at least wanly tried to distance itself from crime, with the ineffectual disclaimer: “This book contains the creative/artistic element of graffiti art and is not meant to encourage or induce graffiti where it is illegal or inappropriate.”
But Art in the Streets has no response to the argument that graffiti is a scourge on cities, because it simply chooses to ignore any idea that contravenes its simplistic celebration of property defacement. I found only three highly oblique acknowledgments in the show of graffiti’s illegal and destructive nature. The timeline notes that in 1972 the Philadelphia transit system began the country’s first anti-graffiti initiative. The timeline also ruefully acknowledges that in 1989, the New York transit system declared victory over graffiti (though, in an effort to keep hope alive, the timeline adds that the system failed to “stop writers such as Ghost”). That these transportation agencies would even try to eradicate graffiti comes as a complete surprise, since nothing in the show has hinted that graffiti is anything other than a productive pastime and delightful urban amenity.
The only other coy reference to graffiti’s illegality is a small collection of anti-graffiti signs mounted outside the book store. The retro typeface of the exhortations to respect your community leave no doubt that the curators feel nothing but postmodern superiority to these Father Knows Best fifties- and sixties-era attempts to rein in juvenile delinquency.
But to appreciate fully the conscience-less amorality of Art in the Streets, one need only go to the year 1969 in the timeline—that was the year, we are told, that the Crips gang was founded in Watts by Raymond Washington. The timeline patiently explains for the unaware that the Crips formation triggered the creation of the Bloods in Compton and that the two warring bodies would “go on to become the largest and most notorious black gangs in the world.” The timeline text is accompanied by a photograph of a large man, presumably Washington, with his arms crossed over his chest, a pistol in one hand and what looks like an assault weapon in the other. Behind him, a woman smiles from a car window. This factoid is presented as blandly as the nearby entry commemorating the appearance of the first “cholo” graffiti tag on the Arroyo Seco parkway in Los Angeles. Don’t expect the curators to acknowledge the bloodshed unleashed by the Crips’ founding or to address the role of graffiti in gang violence. Typical of the vacuum of argumentation in the show, the Crips entry is accompanied by no explanation at all.
The lack of moral seriousness inside the museum was reinforced by the statements made outside before the press preview. As the graffiti enthusiasts in the press (including a film crew from Belgium) waited for permission to enter, director Deitch, in a black corduroy jacket and dark pants, spewed out stunning graffiti propaganda.
“One of the great things about graffiti,” Deitch explained to those non-New Yorkers in the audience, “is how it linked communities together. [Subway graffiti vandal] Lee Quinones on the Lower East Side could message to colleagues in the Bronx. Graffiti is always inclusive; it’s about community. It’s interethnic, interracial. Contrary to what some people might think, it’s actually very inclusive and community-oriented.”
In a long line of graffiti lies from Deitch, this howler gets first prize. Graffiti is anti-community; it creates the sense among residents and shop owners that they have lost control over their communal space. Far from being inclusive, it is an act of raw expropriating power that simply rolls over the property owner’s lawful rights. The popular reaction to graffiti’s marvelous “community orientation” can be gauged by the comments on the Los Angeles Times web page every time a graffiti vandal is arrested. Chain gangs are among the more humane punishments suggested by a furious public fed up with the destruction of their urban environment. No community has ever said: please spray your tags on our houses and businesses. Instead, the demand is always for graffiti eradication. Why is that? Deitch presumably would not have an answer.
But Deitch’s self-serving fabrications are easily matched by those of the graffiti thugs and promoters with whom he surrounds himself. Sticker vandal Shepard Fairey, he of Obama Hope poster fame, circulated among his fans in a denim jacket, black jeans, and sneakers before the exhibit opened to us peons. I wanted to get a sense of his typology, if any, of where graffiti belongs. What should Disney Hall, the famous Frank Gehry concert hall for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, do if it found itself the site of graffiti one morning? I asked him. “Clean it,” he said. The role of the street artist, he said, is to “improve things,” and the Gehry building is already art. OK, so multi-million dollar trophy buildings get a pass from the street vandal, at least if they meet with the vandal’s aesthetic approval. The poor public bathroom or workaday subway car is not so lucky. What about that undistinguished brick building that we could see about a block from the Geffen, would you put your stickers there? I asked. “I wouldn’t do that because I wouldn’t want to create heat for MOCA.” Now that was another interesting admission: apparently graffiti creates a backlash—a mystery unexplained by the show.
Then Fairey took another tack. “I don’t put my stickers on private property unless it is abandoned,” he claimed. This assertion is most certainly bull. In 2009, Fairey, then 39 years old despite behavioral indications to the contrary, paid $2,000 to the Neighborhood Association of Back Bay in Boston as part of a guilty plea for his stickering activity there. The Back Bay is not known for its abandoned buildings; indeed one of Fairey’s targets was a Back Bay condo. He also admitted to stickering a drug store in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton. But whether or not Fairey is honest about stickering private property, he is unapologetic about defacing public property. “I can put it on public property because I’m a taxpayer,” he told me. Of course the whole idea of public property is that it is held in common; the taxpayer doesn’t own a severable portion of it. It is doubtful in any case that Fairey calculates what portion of public property he is entitled to deface based on his tax payments, even if it were commonly understood that paying taxes gives one the right to bulldoze a national park, say, pro rata to those payments. When I expressed skepticism about this justification, Fairey became defensive. “I can see that you’ve got a contentious attitude,” he said testily. But what, beyond paying taxes, gives you this right to deface property? I asked Fairey. “Public space is not allotted in a way that benefits people,” he said. “Power is disproportionally held.” It is a true puzzle how covering a freeway exit sign with tags or pasting your self-promoting sticker on a mailbox remedies the alleged power imbalance or reallocates public space in a way to “benefit people.” In fact, defacing public property—usually in the poorest neighborhoods—exacerbates power imbalances by torpedoing property values in afflicted areas and driving away anyone who can afford to leave.
Guest co-curator Roger Gastman, in his trademark orange baseball cap, loop earring, and tattooed arms, was just as incapable of clarifying the basic paradoxes of the graffiti glorification industry. Gastman is the producer of the celebratory graffiti documentary Infamy and the coauthor of the just-released The History of American Graffiti; he also runs a graffiti-oriented public-relations company. How is the company doing? I asked. Great, he said, he just got a contract with the clothing and toy corporation Sanrio, maker of the Hello Kitty brand. Is there a tension between making money off of corporate clients who depend on secure property rights and promoting property vandalism? I asked. At least Gastman was less prickly than the lordly Fairey. “In a way you’re asking a loaded, roundabout question,” he answered good-naturedly. “I would answer it so many ways.” He didn’t answer it in any way. But then he acknowledged forthrightly what the show only addresses obliquely. “Graffiti at its purest and rawest form is always illegal. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not illegal at its core. If you own this wall and paint it, you’re not a graffiti artist. You may be an aerosol artist, but you’re not a graffiti artist.”
Clearly, it was time to give Art in the Streets some street cred with real graffiti, instead of its commissioned “aerosol art.” Once allowed inside the show, I went to Martha Cooper’s influential photos of bombed subway cars and made ready to write my tag on the wall next to them, eyeing a guard conspiratorially. “Oh, no, please!” intervened the watchman apologetically. “You can’t do that.” I tried again next to the timeline entry celebrating the start of Fairey’s stickering campaign in 1989. “You can’t write on the wall,” another guard told me.
Hypocritical to the end, MOCA is selling graffiti spray paint in its bookstore along with its $55 Art in the Streets catalogues. What would happen if I used the spray paint on the walls of the show? I asked the platinum blond cashier. “Oh, you’re not allowed to take it into the show,” he responded cheerfully. “What you do with it outside is your own business,” he added. But how would you know that I was taking it inside the show? I asked. “There are guards everywhere,” he explained. So MOCA supports graffiti on other people’s property, not on its own? Like Fairey, the cashier grew petulant. “I don’t know what you are talking about, to be honest,” he said, dismissing me with a wave of his hand.
Tagging had already increased around the Geffen Contemporary in the weeks before Art in the Streets even opened, thanks to the enormous publicity that a fawning press had already conferred on the show (for example, here, here, here, here, and here). The exhibition has even inspired graffiti tourism: on the eve of the opening, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested two French taggers who had flown in for the show. Typically, Deitch is blasé—“It’s a language of youth culture, and we can’t stop it. It goes with the territory,” he told the Los Angeles Times—though he has announced plans to increase MOCA security forces in the area. (Actually, graffiti can be stopped, as the New York subway system proved.) Now that the exhibit has opened, the assault on local property owners and public space will escalate. Don’t expect anyone in the press or the arts community to object to this foreseeable crime wave; the Los Angeles Times’s review of Art in the Streets is as studiously silent on the rights of property owners as MOCA’s director and curators. And Deitch has pleased his masters: he reported to the attentive reporters at the press preview that MOCA founding chairman Eli Broad “came here to get a preview and loved it.”
At the press preview, guest curator Aaron Rose announced pompously: “This is history. This moment will go down in history as one of the most important moments in the 21st century.” Rose is probably wrong about that. But Art in the Streets will be remembered as a moment when Los Angeles’s constant and heroic battle against graffiti vandalism took a hard blow to the head.
[For more background on the MOCA show and the problem of graffiti, click here.]