Bumbershoot Guide

The Legal Art of Illegal Artists

What Happens When Graffiti Writers Make Public Art

The Legal Art of Illegal Artists

Kelly O

UNTITLED by Baso Fibonacci

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Bumbershoot Guide

Recently, a very large mural was spray-painted on the wall that encloses the light rail station under construction on Capitol Hill. On one end of the mural is a bearded young man painted in black and white, his head the size, approximately, of two cars stacked, with his mouth open as if he's in mid-yell. Out of his mouth comes a stream of multicolored birds and bubbly cumulus clouds, sort of a visualization of the colorful language you might expect from a man pushing out an urgent emotion.

But overall, the scene (Untitled by Baso Fibonacci) is pretty and attractive. It's eye-catching public art—noticeable, well-executed, inoffensive. It was commissioned by Sound Transit, which erected giant walls all around the construction site and is now installing art on them, in part to discourage the walls from becoming huge magnets for graffiti. In other words, street artists are being hired to keep street artists away. It's not the only reason the artists are hired—people do believe in their work and want to see it up—but at the very least, it's a bonus.

This is not an isolated case: Street artists in Seattle are getting more and more invitations to do sanctioned work on public walls. On 11th Avenue between Pike and Pine, the artist NKO covered a giant wall in what looks like a proliferation of brightly colored crystals; the owners of the building are thrilled that it hasn't yet been tagged by the likes of, you know, NKO. Down on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a street artist was hired to make the side of a new condo building look like it had already been covered in grafiti, so that it wouldn't be messed with by other writers—fake graffiti meant to stave off the real. Street artists are in demand because it turns out they may be the best weapon against... street artists. They're being commissioned by private property owners and government agencies—the same authorities that would look to punish them for "night" work rather than "day" work.

In many ways, this rise in sanctioned gigs is good for the artists. The jobs support their art and bring recognition. But the exposure—more is coming with Bumbershoot's Seattle Street Biennale this weekend—can also put the artists at greater risk of being caught at night. Tensions that already exist are heightened and stakes are raised. Artists need two fake names rather than one: one for sanctioned street work and one for graffiti. And at the same time, as more Seattle street artists are commissioned and celebrated legally, the City of Seattle is plotting a crackdown on graffiti, having published a report recently that declares that of all the marks illegally made on publicly visible walls in the city, not one is a bona fide work of art.

Street artists have been balancing multiple identities for years, having been ushered into the art world—in pockets—decades ago. Corporations that would despise graffiti on their exterior walls show these same artists lovingly (if condescendingly) in their offices. Recently, it was revealed that Amazon executives removed graffiti paintings off the sides of a building in South Lake Union before tearing it down in order to hang the paintings in the new corporate headquarters on the same site (without any remuneration for the artists). Everybody—still—wants to tap into the rawness of street art without the lawbreaking.

But is that even possible? The same age-old questions about artists working under somebody else's direction come up with street work. How are commissioned murals different from the work that graffiti writers do when they're making their own elaborate pictures in out-of-the-way places, like under bridges? Does the imagery differ if the murals are legal versus illegal? Are legal murals a less authentic expression of the artist's ideas or just another route to the same visions?

Every street artist with any legs has her own way of walking the legal-illegal divide. A recent conversation with a particularly thoughtful Seattle street artist was insightful. "Graffiti is not art," he declared. "Art on a free wall is not graffiti. Graffiti is an illegal act." This artist's graffiti name is 1+1=3. He has another fake name for his sanctioned work, which he requested not be revealed. Clearly, he sees art as an inherently legal thing to do; meanwhile, it's supposed to be a free zone, as the philosopher Arthur C. Danto points out in his great essay "Dangerous Art."

"Graffiti to me is a protest—an act of defiance—it's me getting back at the things I find wrong with society, and for art I like to make pretty things," the artist said. "I'm very conscious of keeping those separate, and the act of them is different. For instance, I do graffiti while I'm drunk, but I never do art while I'm drunk. Hey, I can drink a 40, and then you can interview the other one [of me] if you want."

That other one is pissed—about unjust wars, poverty, inequity. Simply writing his graffiti name, 1+1=3, is the protest he chooses, even though he's an artist. "I don't think I'm making society better—and maybe I make it worse—but hopefully I wake people up a little, break their logic," he said. "Graffiti is not the mark, it's the act."

What if there were no graffiti? "If there were no graffiti, I wonder if my art would change. It's a good question."


Comments (8) RSS

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yelahneb 1
Well said! I just finished watching an excellent short doc on artists vs advertisers in NYC called "On Corporate Graffiti", which speaks to some of these same themes: http://bit.ly/b6aX4u
Posted by yelahneb http://www.strangebutharmless.com on September 2, 2010 at 11:34 AM · Report this
No. Street artists are being hired to keep away ignorant, hip, drunken buffoons that think that spray painting a single name, directly correlating to ones ego, is street art. Street art and tagging are as much the same as surrealism and abstract. One takes time, effort, love and patience, the other takes raw, uncontrolled, and most times drunk emotion. If you want to get back at society, do something. Don't burden local businesses and peoples private property (most often garage doors in alleys). We all have the same emotions against the man, so why do we actually do something. Art wont save the world. It's just as disposable as the products put out by the millions each day.
Posted by 2Old_Fred3 on September 3, 2010 at 2:33 PM · Report this
Hey 2Old Fred3 you are disposable. Graffiti is the most expansive and globally recognized art subculture going on right now. Graffiti art is young. Business owners should recognize their property and where it is visible from. I bet you'd have no problem starring at a 30ft bigmac ad.

People like you cant appreciate an individuals creative efforts because people like you look in the mirror and see uncertainty and inadequacy.
Posted by ExtremelyRichNeverWork on September 5, 2010 at 11:04 AM · Report this
There's a HUGE difference between annoying, destructive taggers and talented mural artists. Don't let your disdain for the worst vandals color your opinion for good art. You know it when you see it.
Posted by The Krylon Don on September 6, 2010 at 1:33 AM · Report this
"It's eye-catching public art—noticeable, well-executed, inoffensive. "

I like good art, and I like good street art, but there's something annoying about scruffy dude's portrait, like I keep waiting for someone to spray a dong in his mouth. His pose comes off as silly.
Posted by disappointed with ST/Art's choices in muralwork. on September 6, 2010 at 11:36 AM · Report this
Wanting good street art but not the tagging that birthed it is an ignorant, self serving and impossible demand. Tagging may not be the most instantly visually appealing form of art, but besides giving an artist a handle on style, it has it's own vocabulary and subtleties. If you actually stopped to noticed the finesse and variation amongst different tags rather than just getting outraged because you don't understand it you might be surprised by what you find. All of you dismissing tagging as just a name on a wall probably have coffee tables covered in Swedish design books with variations on different fonts and think it's hip when when your favorite band is photographed in front of a graffiti mural. Grow up. You can't just sponge off the culture with out knowing what it's about. Why not educate yourself before yelling in hysterics like a parent who thinks all music is too loud?
Posted by canewithwheel on September 7, 2010 at 8:06 AM · Report this
Graffiti, tagging, whatever you want to call it is just ugly. It ruins the looks of what it is on and makes things look tacky and run-down. It is vandalism, plain and simple, even when well-executed. Those that do it are just kidding themselves when they call themselves "street artists." Also, it is hubris to think that people hate or get angry about something because they don't "understand" it. Understanding doesn't automatically cause one to like or accept something; sometimes it just makes it clear why you dislike it.
Posted by Get a clue... on April 5, 2011 at 3:40 PM · Report this
Kiss my graffiti loving ass. I'm happy you dislike it. Makes it even more fun to destroy. Only the chosen few will understand this. Everybody else will share thoughts but will not stop the life of graffiti. It has a world of its own a universe even. Now tell me what do you like? Im listening really
Posted by Kiss my ass on October 5, 2012 at 4:42 AM · Report this

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