Article: Reversal of Graffiti Subversive

Recently, there have been several news stories related to artists and graffiti. Japanese contemporary artist Nara Yoshitomo was arrested for tagging in New York, just before his opening in Marianne Boesky Gallery.  Boston based street artist Shepard Fairey, who created the famous “Obey”, has been accused of vandalism on public property in the city. He was arrested when he arrived at the opening of his own retrospective at Institute of Contemporary Art.

Contemporary and post graffiti has become an important genre and element in the arts today. If we talk about contemporary graffiti in art history, the discussion would start with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. If we talk about it in the current art market, the most significant figure is Banksy, whose works are the most popular lots in Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Banksy’s market success is not only because of the praise from celebrities, but because he creates strong images representative of British icons, political issues, anti-war and anti-consumer stories. Even though some art critics say Banksy’s art has no depths of thought or emotional complexity, it is what collectors and the elite want at the moment. Banksy’s appearance in the art market (or, in art history) heralds the beginning (but at the same time, the end) of graffiti’s transition to arts.  Any street artist who paints their graffiti on canvas will be seen only as followers and copiers, after Banksy. Only artists who refine the core spirit of graffiti and guerilla art can be evaluated further in contemporary arts.

Not everyone in art world realizes this point. As graffiti is absorbed and assimilated by the arts, it gradually loses its ideal of fighting against the system. In 2006, the Brooklyn Museum in New York had a cynical text for its exhibition Graffiti: “An exhibition of twenty large-scale graffiti paintings from such influential artists as Michael Tracy ("Tracy 168"), Melvin Samuels, Jr. ("NOC 167"), Sandra Fabara ("Lady Pink"), Chris Ellis ("Daze"), and John Matos ("Crash"), Graffiti explores how a genre that began as a form of subversive public communication has become legitimate—moving away from the street and into private collections and galleries. ......”

In Taiwan, several incidents show the same irony. In 2006, Taipei City Government curated a graffiti show in Hua Shan Arts Center and invited street artists to paint on a wall, where the government had previously arrested 8 street artists who had painted their works there. It caused a very sharp debate on the legitimacy of sub-cultures.

One of arrested artists, Bbrother, is one of the most active street artists currently. He also creates social projects, such as University of Fresh Markets, to debate the school system;  Apple Daily Series (Apple Daily is a gossip newspaper) to question why people can endure extremely bloody images on Apple Daily but cannot when it was a simulated graffiti.  Bbrothers' projects develop a different interpretation of graffiti in Taiwan. He has been invited to communities to teach children to “paint graffiti”, because parents now think graffiti is art rather than crime, and that painting graffiti is a good practice for being an artist.  This reflects how graffiti loses its position as opposition art, and how it becomes supreme above the official system.

By Ya-Ji Huang

Ya-Ji Huang

Yaji Huang is an art writer and curator based in Taipei and Shanghai. She worked for Art Taipei and the Aura Gallery (Shanghai) as managing director and has been writing for CANS-Chinese Contemporary Art News as a column contributor. In October 2008, she started Perception Unit and is working with young artists.