Under the cover of night in November of 2013, 5 Pointz, a building in Long Island City known as the “graffiti mecca,” was white-washed and torn down. Since then, the building has been completely demolished. Soon, a condominium complex will replace it. It was home to art by graffitists around the world who displayed their talents. The action once again raised the long-time question of graffiti’s value in New York City. Under what conditions can graffiti be considered art, and why is it sometimes dismissed as vandalism? Graffiti has possessed a controversial history in past decades of New York City; however, presently, in order for graffiti, or “street art,” to be appreciated it must appear whimsical and appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of the mass consumer.
Although many works of graffiti have become famous, the form did not originate from a desire for museum commissions. Tension between city inhabitants and the municipal government cultivated graffiti’s expansion, which began as an expression of anger and frustration toward social and economic unfairness. Criminal activity ran rampant throughout the city between the ‘70s and ‘80s. As a result, graffiti (mostly found in low-income areas riddled with crime) became criminalized, despite the fact that those creating graffiti considered it a creative outlet, not a criminal act. As Carmela Ciuraru remarks, graffiti artists “were from poor neighborhoods and had very little chance to be heard.” Tagging developed in New York City’s outer boroughs, which meant that people living in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Washington Heights were most apt to make graffiti art (Ciuraru). In a statement by Lee Quiñones, famed early creator of subway graffiti in New York City, he says that 5 Pointz was a great place for Queens. He adds, “I think Queens has a lot to give, but it is still the bastard child of the city. But with 5 Pointz and PS1, Queens had something that drew people in” (Giles). People from the city’s outer boroughs relied on graffiti to get people to pay attention to them and their artistic talents. Furthermore, civil and economic activism throughout the country contributed to rising artistic expression. NY Magazine attributes the rise in graffiti in the 70s to the youth’s response to the Black Power Movement and other Civil Rights Movements. Creating graffiti served as a way for the youth and those that were troubled by the turmoil of the era to express themselves peacefully and in an artistic manner. Social and political issues plagued the time in history when graffiti became popular, resulting in riots, protests and violence. Although the environment created graffiti as a form of expression, artists could express political opinions without resorting to hurting others. In addition, it displayed people’s talents, which otherwise would remain hidden.
In the 1990s, movements to eliminate crime and make the city safer led to the criminalization of graffiti. Graffiti was associated with the squalid conditions of some places in the city, like centers for homeless people and drug addicts. However, it was only during the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the city began to recover from the economic crisis of the 70s that graffiti carried this connotation of crime. , As Mr. Quiñones recalls, “During the 1970s, my cars, my work, would run for years untouched…no one gave a sh*t” (Giles). Then, in the early ‘90s, Mayor Giuliani implemented the “broken window theory” in his policing of the city. The “broken window theory,” created in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, stated that one broken window in an urban building gives the whole block the appearance of urban decay. The theory also states that a broken window gives the neighborhood the idea that crime will go unnoticed (Cooperator). As a result, citizens of New York City were more avid in their attempts to eliminate graffiti, and associated the form, which was responding to crime, with the crime itself. Wilson and Kelling’s theory specifically targeted the role of aesthetics in crime. Not only did the new policies criminalize graffiti, but they also targeted low-level crime in an attempt to stop high-level crime. This logic, which many consider flawed, led to heavier policing throughout the city, with policies such as Stop-and-Frisk and the harsh police tactics that led to the death of Eric Garner. Essentially, since the 1990s, New York City police has engaged in “quality-of-life” policing, where anything that intimated a low quality of life was eradicated, and graffiti was the first thing on the list (Kelling). This type of policing not only set out to eliminate graffiti but also tied its existence to crime, adulterating its purpose and artistic value in the eyes of New York citizens.
Yet, many do not view the eradication of graffiti art as bad at all; many see it as New York City reclaiming its public spaces from the crime that used to plague them. Presently, graffiti is more widely considered art when it has qualities that appeal to consumerism and beauty that make it a social acceptable commodity. As The Huffington Post remarks, people enjoy street art for its wit, creativity and stance outside of the norm (McCarthy). Before artists like Banksy, a very popular and well-known graffitist, began to create his politically charged works scattered around large cities in the UK and the US, the critique found in graffiti was meant to establish an outsider’s stance. Graffiti was associated with poverty and crime, which made its message against those very things so powerful. Those same values still appeal to consumers, but in limited, socially appropriate ways that appeal to a mass audience. Banksy and his contemporaries create “street art”: “[it] is associated with whimsy and even gentrification—things the mainstream considers socially good.” On the contrary, “graffiti is a sign of poverty, criminality, and lack of order in a space” (Mitman). The struggle and angst associated with graffiti, as opposed to “street art,” is what degrades its artistic value in the eyes of many. Works on buildings meant to make them more aesthetically pleasing, though historically misinterpreted as crime, is what now is considered street art. This is the type of street art disseminated to the mainstream, appearing on websites, displayed in galleries and sold to ordinary buyers. The artwork that Quiñones will create in his hotel installation will be created solely to make the rooms more beautiful and intricate; his work there will be considered art and many more people will appreciate it (Giles). Despite its political subject matter, the majority of Banksy’s work has the effect of making its space more beautiful. Banksy’s skillfulness, limited use of color and general difference from more popular forms of graffiti in New York City are what make his work, in the opinions of many fans of his pieces, more artistically valuable than others. Because of this effect, more people want to buy his work or show his work in public spaces. The aesthetic beauty in street art makes it a commodity, therefore making it more acceptable as art.
Street art, which becomes popularized and commoditized by the public, is the type of graffiti that is considered art. When it began as a response to injustice and unfair conditions in the outer boroughs of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, it was not considered as heinous a crime, due to an economic crisis. However, as Mayor Giuliani took office and began to focus on the eradication of low-level crimes, graffiti of all sorts became criminalized. As quality-of-life policing prevails and an era of consumerism grows, there becomes a distinction between “graffiti” and “street art.” “Graffiti” is what one would classify as the message “NYPD KILLS” scrawled on the Manhattan Bridge. “Street Art” is what one would classify as Tats Cru’s landscape-esque “The Bronx” mural. Tagging created to make the city prettier is less demonized than graffiti created by unknown artists who have a message.
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