The value of graffiti

Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 5:29pm

A piece titled “Slug Money”

A piece titled “Slug Money” Buy this photo
Courtesy of August Quinn

New York City

Going to elementary school every morning in New York City, I would always look out the train window hoping to catch a glimpse of something I could never quite forget. Painted on the wall about midway between the 103 and 96 St. stops on the 1 train line in Manhattan, there were two vividly-depicted life-sized rats schemingly grimacing at one another. An assortment of wildly-written words, profanities and codenames I didn’t understand surrounded them.

This kind of experience has characterized countless other childhoods in the city since the 70s. While back then street art was the sign of a generation, it’s since fully incorporated itself into the subconscious of children born in the 90s onward. In that time, it’s hybridized in unforeseen ways in response both to its urban context and, increasingly so, the decontextualizing force of the internet.

For 21-year-old street artist August Quinn (@bozo_207), inspiration comes just as much from the toy store he grew up around the corner from, Kidrobot in Soho, as it does from the graffiti he grew up around.

“Whenever I would take the train I remember, even as a little kid, looking out the window and seeing all the tags in the tunnels,” Quinn said. As I replied that the exact same thing had happened to me, he said “I know, it happens to so many people, and it gets in your head. I fucking love it.”

For Quinn and so many others from the city, it seemed natural, almost a foregone conclusion, that he would paint. Starting a little over a year ago, he began setting out alone at night to find spots. He had plenty of ideas from years of filling sketchbooks, but this was a different medium entirely.

“It took me almost six months just to figure out how to get control of the drip,” he told me when I asked if he had trouble with the paint itself. Even with a better grasp on the medium, paranoia can dominate when the canvas is the city. No matter where you go, there are eyes on the street. And even if you can bank on passerby not to tell, any one of 38,000 cops can pull up on you while painting. 

“Dead Rose Album for Jack Hollows”

“Dead Rose Album for Jack Hollows” Buy this photo
Courtesy of August Quinn

It can be advantageous, then, to go out with friends. “That’s the difference between doing street art and painting in the studio is that street art you’re interacting with the world … going out and meeting people. It’s just more social,” Quinn said.

Quinn met his friend George when he noticed him painting one night during a visit to London last year. They painted together several times during the remainder of his stay. More recently, he met a guy in Vancouver who’s been tagging the word “work” for over ten years now. It’s interesting, though, that a Google search for “work graffiti Vancouver” yields no results.

Such is the transient nature of street art. Even the work of those held highest in the community — people like Zexor — can be almost entirely painted over citywide within weeks of its completion. Other artists can be to blame, but most of it can be put on buffing, a rage against street art that has been just as fervent an effort as the art itself since the ’80s.

This summer in the city, along with upticks in illegal fireworks and gun violence, graffiti also made a resurgence. Trends like these lead some conservative media outlets like the New York Post to allege a one-for-one relationship between graffiti and acts of violent crime. While graffiti does increase when police are distracted by other issues, in reality, most graffiti is arguably harmless posturing and is disconnected from other crimes or infractions.

Despite many wins for the graffiti art form, it is met by constant resistance in the form of institutionalized removal efforts that cost city agencies thousands. Not to mention that all the while, these artists could face felony charges for their work. I’m not saying graffiti should be universally legalized — there are other aspects of street life to cherish — but felony-sentencing is too harsh of a punishment for the offense, and its mass appeal should be accounted for in the law. As a kid, two rats painted on a moldy concrete wall illuminated by sparks from the tracks was one of the most poignant things I’ve ever seen. People like Quinn should be given more freedom to create these affecting works for the next generation of artists.

 — Ben Vassar, Daily Arts Writer

A piece called “Tomorrow Starts With Yes.”

A piece called “Tomorrow Starts With Yes.” Buy this photo
Courtesy of Hans Hummer

Detroit

Full disclosure: I am not a graffiti artist. I am not a street artist. In fact, my ability to draw or paint in any medium is at best mediocre. In my parents’ living room at home, they have a self-portrait hung on the wall that I drew when I was seven. The painting has earned a number of exclamations of surprise and disgust. “What is that??” is common, but I’ve also heard a “That’s horrifying,” and a “Why is your face melting?”

Despite my below-average ability to draw or paint (or spray) any sort of visual, I have an affection for graffiti. There is more to graffiti than an edgy image on an otherwise crumbling wall. It has the paradoxical effect of blending into the fabric of a city, yet also being something that draws the attention of a passerby. You can get as good a measure as any of what a city is like and what it means to the people in it by looking at its graffiti. Detroit, a city that has gone through so much, is a prime example of this, especially the Dequindre Cut.

The Dequindre Cut is a walkway on the eastside of Detroit. It was initially a railroad line. In 1998, after the rail was no longer in use, The Cut was sold. In the years of abandonment between its use as a walkway and its use as a railroad, graffiti artists flocked to The Cut; it was turned into an oasis of creativity. When the walkway was commissioned in 2003, it was decided that the murals would stay up, and to this day The Cut is filled head to toe with graffiti that has only grown in the years since its redevelopment. Graffiti artists have been invited in and commissioned to add to these murals, creating a blend of new and old graffiti and capturing both the past and the present of Detroit.

A common theme from these murals is hope, which, if you’re an outsider, might seem out of place. Detroit seems to be the favored punching bag of people who have never been there. References in national media and social media often paint Detroit as a derelict, depressed city. There’s no denying that Detroit has had and does have its problems. “The Paris of the West” as it was once affectionately called has historically suffered from uprisings and a mass population exodus due to globalization and automation. In recent years, Detroit was hit first and hardest by the Great Recession, and although it’s undergoing an exciting revitalization in Downtown and Midtown, the city is dealing with issues of gentrification and poor funding for its public schools. The murals along the Dequindre Cut express both the vibrancy of Detroit and its people today and the hope for a better future. They cut right to the soul of Detroit — its people. “Detroit vs. Everybody” isn’t a slogan of aggression, but rather one of toughness and self-reliance in the face of the economic challenges that have beset the city over the past seventy years. Through it all, Detroit has retained a sense of defiant optimism.

Another mural located in The Cut.

Another mural located in The Cut. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Hans Hummer

Pass under one of the many archways in The Cut and you might catch a glimpse of another mural: It’s a Black woman with an afro staring straight ahead. Her gaze is unflinching, uncompromising. Her hand raised to her temple with her lips slightly parted; it seems fitting that behind her are shades of blue, pink, green and yellow. It is an image of strength and power outlined by colorful optimism. In a city that outsiders see as only blight and industrial ruins, color remains.

— Peter Hummer, Daily Arts Writer