Well, what do you know—graffiti vandals get spitting mad when someone defaces their work. Too bad they lack the moral intelligence to apply that experience to their mutilation of other people’s work.
A peace group called Falling Whistles put up posters about the Congolese civil war on a wall in downtown Los Angeles after getting permission from the building’s manager. The posters covered an authorized group mural by local and international “street artists”—i.e., graffiti vandals—but the mural, dubbed “Only Time Will Tell,” was slated to be sand-blasted in a few months anyway, according to the building manager. Nevertheless, the graffiti blogosphere went berserk at this assault on street art.
“Why would you try and raise awareness for a human rights campaign by destroying culture!?!?" asked @JetSetGraffiti on Twitter. “Worst marketing ever!!!” Revok, a Southern California graffiti vandal featured in this year’s graffiti celebration at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, wallowed in his personal loss. “It was stupid and naive to paste over it,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “It is probably the last mural I will be able to paint in Los Angeles. I have been involved with that wall for years.” (The MOCA Art in the Streets catalogue gushed thusly about Revok: he executes “extremely technical pieces in very illegal contexts worldwide.”)
Saber, the dean of Southern California graffiti vandals and protégé of MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, admonished the world to “[h]ave respect for L.A.’s murals and leave the art to the artists.” He then magnanimously forgave Falling Whistles its transgressions after its leader abjectly apologized for “disrespecting” street artists. Such aristocratic noblesse oblige is available to someone who has leveraged his graffiti notoriety into lucrative contracts with major corporations.
The graffiti vandals’ double standard is nothing new, of course. They have always jealously protected their own work from defacement, even as they blithely go about defacing other people’s property. “There are so many rules and regulations [governing the protection of tags], it’s crazy,” says the female graffiti thug Claw in Infamy, a documentary by Roger Gastman, co-curator of MOCA’s Art in the Streets show. “Not everyone follows [those rules],” Claw adds, stating the obvious.
It is nevertheless salutary to be reminded yet again of the hypocrisy at the core of the graffiti enterprise. The fact that this particular mural was authorized does not diminish the hypocrisy of those who object to its defacement. The walls that graffiti vandals routinely assault are also legal. And unlike an owner whose property has been appropriated by graffiti thugs, the street artists who contributed to the L.A. mural were never guaranteed any long-term rights in their painting. Falling Whistles’ Congo posters were lawfully erected, unlike, say, graffiti celebrity Shepard Fairey’s illegal “Obey” stickers and posters. The street artists who created the now postered-over mural may feel aggrieved, but they have much less to complain about than some hapless bodega owner who finds his store stickered one morning.
Graffiti thugs would undoubtedly distinguish their rights from those of the garden-variety property owner by arguing that they’re creating “art” whereas he is, well, just a miserable capitalist pig, undeserving of respect. After all, who cares about a wall? “A wall has always been the best place to publish your work,” announces Banksy in his book, Wall and Piece.
But until the public decides to exempt hoodlums who call themselves “artists” from the criminal law, designating graffiti as “art” does not justify the theft of other people’s property and livelihood.
Moreover, that garden-variety owner will have put more work and insight into creating his property than a graffiti vandal has expended, almost without exception, in his entire life. Amassing the capital to erect a structure entails mastering complex social networks and offering a product or service that other people want. Spraying your tag on someone’s wall or creating a “piece” often starts with “boosting” (i.e., stealing) your paint from a hard-working hardware store owner, as Infamy lovingly documents. Graffiti’s parasitic appropriation of the fruits of other people’s labor just continues from there.
In this case, the street art that suffered unwanted postering may have been authorized—but if the offended street artists had a shred of moral maturity, they would realize that they have just experienced a mere fraction of the loss that they routinely inflict on so many others.