Visual Arts


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Wright laughs as he recalls the tough time he and Bernard had convincing the kids that they weren't a sting operation for the police department.

But certain police bureaucrats didn't support the gallery's project. "In Tucson, graffiti is a major political issue," says Wright. "The acting police chief hated us and what we were doing. The gallery became a negative focal point downtown. We would have meetings here with local writers and would invite members of the police department and local politicians to join us, but they never came. We invited them to our opening, but they never showed. It made the whole project very controversial."

Continues Wright, "The PD thinks that all taggers are gang members, which is not true. The whole community is scared to death of these kids. Not all of them are bad; you just can't lump them all together. The cops were out front in a van while our exterior mural was being painted, videotaping the kids, so that they could match the kids with their tags."

The local writers were very impressed by the New York City artists, who are akin to gods in the eyes of younger graffiti practitioners. "These New York writers are role models to these kids," Wright says. "During the symposium and workshop, they talked about the writers' responsibility to the community and stressed that it's better to show the owner of a building your portfolio and ask to do a mural legally. This was the first time that the 'crews'--individual groups of kids that paint together--actually came together in this town."

Despite the clearly positive results of the symposium and exhibition, there has been a serious downside for Sixth Congress Gallery in having undertaken the spray-can show.

"The show became so controversial that some of our important funding sources dried up," says Wright. "We're completely out of money at this point. It's going to force us to close."
He adds sadly, "Maybe we were just ahead of our time."

@body:Aerosol art may be a rebellious urban folk art romanticized by the likes of writer Norman Mailer, but graffiti itself is as old as the hills, dating back as far as ancient Egyptian times. Graffiti reflects man's primordial urge to leave his mark, not unlike a dog instinctively lifting its leg to mark the boundaries of its territory.

The term originally comes from the Italian word meaning scratchings or scribblings; some of the most famous early graffiti, interestingly enough, is found in the Roman catacombs. The Tower of London, medieval English alehouses, turn-of-the-century American frontier outhouses, even the Great Wall of China--all sport their fair share of messages carved by bored prisoners or would-be wits.

Even the walls of Pompeii demonstrate that graffiti was alive and well in 79 A.D., celebrating life, love, hate, sex and politics. In more recent times, the notorious Kilroy of "Kilroy was here" fame appeared during World War II in various unlikely places.

With the advent of the aerosol spray can and the permanent marking pen in the early 1970s came the dawn of real graffiti art, which quickly spread throughout all of New York's boroughs. Simple territorial tagging or "throw ups" were written to communicate with friends in the neighborhood or enemies from the outside.

Taki 183, a kid from Manhattan's Washington Heights who left his tag on subway cars as he traveled as a messenger throughout New York, was tracked down by a reporter for the New York Times in 1971 and achieved instant media stardom when he became the subject of an article. Thousands of kids from every borough began to take up the marker or spray can, intent on spreading their tags beyond their neighborhood and attaining star status by "getting up" on a subway train or wall. In 1973, New York magazine got into the act by giving out Taki Awards for the best graffiti.

For writers--so called because the movement started out with painting simple names sans other visual elements--fame was, and still is, the name of the game. There was fierce skirmishing to "get up" and be a "king" by creating "a burner"--an outrageously fabulous piece. Fast as a speeding subway car, kids added other wildly colorful ingredients to their names, developing complicated, interlocking, at times almost undecipherable, lettering for their tags called "wildstyle." Highlights, star bursts and three-dimensional shadings created the illusion of depth.

As competition for space grew, so did the size and complexity of writers' pieces, until entire subway cars were being covered, windows included, in the dead of night by crews with such rococo names as Out Ta Bomb, the Nation's Top, Crazy Inside Artists and the Vamp Squad. Building walls were also being covered, although according to Henry Chalfont, who, along with Martha Cooper, is one of the preeminent documentarians of the art movement and co-author of Subway Art and Spraycan Art, "New York writers have an almost mystical attachment to the trains, the giant worms, arteries in the belly of the beast." Imagery from the mass media, especially cartoons, started showing up, as well as original characters created as logos, holiday greetings, political statements and memorial pieces. Originality was and continues to be highly prized, and sloppy spray drips disdained. Not even the aggressive "buffing" or chemical washing of subway cars by New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority could dissolve the resolve of determined writers committed to their art form. As future writers from other cities in the United States and foreign countries visited New York, and films such as Wild Style, Style Wars and Hollywood's Beat Street circulated, the graffiti culture was imported to other locations virtually intact. However, writers outside New York have, for the most part, stuck to painting walls.

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Kathleen Vanesian