Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Spew your Soul

We went to Silverlake recently and came across a building covered in graffiti.  I’m currently taking a class about hip hop culture, so I was especially intrigued.
The most dramatic graffiti was around the back of the building.  I had climbed through a fence to get around back, and as I spent more time there I felt more and more like I was trespassing.
No, it wasn’t the ‘No Trespassing’ sign. It had more to do with my sense of what tagging and graffiti is for.  Somewhere in my psyche it’s connected to an ominous social tension–to gang violence and territorial warfare.  I didn’t care about whoever put the “No Trespassing” sign up–I didn’t want to get caught back there by whoever created the graffiti.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but appreciate what I was seeing.  It was beautifully intense and dramatic.  Whoever these people were–whatever purpose the graffiti served, whatever situation had caused them to leave their mark–these peopel were artists.  I was reminded of something someone in a documentary had said about the first time they saw graffiti art on a subway car in New York: “It was like somebody let their spirit explode all over that train.
I have a tendency to put street artists like Banksy and Os Gemeos in a higher artistic category than that of people who tag buildings.  But is that fair?  The intent is certainly different, but shouldn’t that mean we judge it using different criteria?  What makes one thing vandalism and another thing art?


  1. I don’t think that “vandalism” and “art” have to be mutually exclusive. “Art” is just that which becomes legitimized as art by a certain group or perspective. Even from an essentialist perspective, that which is beautiful or provocative or exudes great skill can be destructive and/or illegal.

    BTW, I love the pictures.

  2. What are your thoughts on tagging vs. street art? Is there a difference? If so, where is the line?

  3. Hard to draw a definite line. I think one line could be drawn in terms of intent: tagging is often intended to mark territory and ‘street art’ is often intended to be aesthetically pleasing and/or socially provocative.

  4. Love the pictures of the flowers. Those flowers are beautiful. What talent to be able to create something so specific from a broad stream of paint flying out at high velocity.

    I kind of think that idea is a good metaphore for street art. People at high velocity stopping long enough to focus on creating something beautiful.

    Tagging vs. street art. Not sure. My ignorance says that tagging probably stems from a more violent place than art. Not a picture, but a threat. Can a threat be art?

  5. I think art is always threatening. Whether it functions as a copy, or commentary, or ecstatic utterance, art is something that doesn’t really belong here. It feels like its crossed over somehow. This is the difference I feel between decoration and art. Art is not aesthetics. Maybe I should say, art is not just aesthetics. What it is is harder to say.

  6. For once, I am going to agree with you without a fight. It’s probably just because you used the word “threatening” and that is “sexy.”

    I won’t even comment on the difference between art and aesthetics because it just seems to sticky right now. It threatens me . . . So the difference between art and aesthetics must be art.

  7. So do you distinguish between unsuccessful art and successful art? Are they both threatening?

    Or does it have to be threatening to be art?

    I would distinguish between art and craft — art by design serves no practical purpose, while craft can be practical and still speak to our “soul.”

    So graffiti is art, and tagging is craft. Sculpture is art and pottery is craft. Though good pottery and good tagging may speak to your soul (or threaten you) more than mediocre graffiti or sculpture.

  8. I don’t think it is enough to say that art threatens. You would have to threaten the word “threatens” with too much meaning too quickly.