The Legal Art of Illegal Artists
What Happens When Graffiti Writers Make Public Art
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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."