When Walls Talk: An Exploration of Graffiti Through The Queer Lense (Queering Graffiti), Part III: The Street Art Movement
July 16, 2012 2 Comments
Canadian graffiti culture reinforced hegemonic structures of gender oppression in K FEVER’s experience, however the female graffiti artists from New York City did not identify with the same type of discrimination.
Lady Pink does assert that the graffiti scene is now mostly white males, which is a changed demographic from the largely minority based graffiti artists of the subway movement. While more girls are beginning to show up on the scene—certainly more than ever before—Lady Pink reiterates the presence of young white men. Lady Pink goes on to discuss her experience as one of the first female artists in the 1960s; she constantly felt the need to prove herself as a capable graffiti artist because she was a girl. However, male graffiti artists provided her with instructive guidance in aesthetic, social, and moral aspects of graffiti life; they began to see her as an equal—equal enough to be a challenge as well as a rival. Lady Pink also identified the need to use violent action as a means to maintain respect—whether the individuals are male or female.
While answering a question about how to defending artwork, Lady Pink exclaims, “In the graffiti world, if someone destroys your art, you know what we do? We find out who did it and we kick their ass!” This reveals the reinforcement of masculine narratives instructing physical violence as a way of gaining and maintaining respect. It is also revealing that masculine narratives dictate underground graffiti codes of conduct (http://www.brooklynmuseum.
Although the counterculture of graffiti challenges many hegemonic concepts, there are aspects of oppressive social narratives, and how these narratives are entrenched in social conditioning. One beautiful and liberating aspect of graffiti is the ability to spread awareness about the social conditioning that brainwashes the masses.
In his article “Things are Queer,”Johnathan Weinberg asserts that, “Queering all works of art—that is, making them strange in order to destabilize our confidence in the relationship of representation to identity, authorship, and behavior—is a potentially political act…”(Weinberg, 13). Many graffiti pieces are motivated by political issues of racism, sexism, and hetero-sexism; these artists transformed their marginalized experiences into inspiring artworks.
Through anonymous graffiti identities, street artists of every creed are able to publicize aesthetic, political and social statements about society (Herring, 331). One of the trailblazers of urban graffiti, Keith Haring is most famous for his “Crack is Wack” mural in New York City. Weinberg would assess his works as queer because they usually did not correlate with his homosexuality. His depiction of crying babies and barking dogs are other motifs often associated with him, but have no sexual relevancy. Haring’s political statements about the drug epidemic rampant in American culture during the 1980s brought awareness to the problem; his intentional choice of painting the mural on a handball court of a playground, in an area where urban teens often socialized, and in a city where drug use was prominent shows the way that queering space can incite social awareness (Herring, 343).
Bringing light to the dark, sometimes hidden, aspects corrupting society is a significant facet to the graffiti and street art movement. The separation of identity behind artistic representation—or the anonymity of graffiti art—allows artists to be as graphic and blatant as they so desire (without facing punishment). Christopher Reed divulges the problematic nature of “the social contract of community consensus” that seeks to marginalize queer representation (Reed, p.1). In terms of regulating public space, the relationship between the community and the hegemons in charge is unbalanced. The hegemons with command over public space entirely control what is socially acceptable and worth publicizing; the community has no control over what is shown, and therefore unaware of everything they’re denied access to.
“The people who run our cities don’t understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit…the people who truly deface our neighborhoods are the companies that scrawl giant slogans across buildings and buses trying to make us feel inadequate unless we buy their stuff…any advertisement in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours, it belongs to you, it’s yours to take, rearrange and reuse. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.”
– Banksy, “BANKSY: EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP”
Banksy, like many street artists, is bothered by the in-congruent relationship between how public space is controlled and used (the people who use it [general public] versus the people who control it [capitalist ]; he indicts society for brainwashing the community through advertisements that dictate needs, desires, or interests of the masses. He takes it upon himself to change public space for the sake of social change, awareness, and at the very least, a more aesthetically pleasing environment:
“Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums. Graffiti has more chance of meaning something or changing stuff than anything indoors. Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren’t listened to. Graffiti is one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make somebody smile while they’re having a piss.”
Banksy is an inspiring graffiti artist from the UK and is internationally acclaimed, with works illegally decorating the streets of urban cities across the world. He also has illegal and legally hung works at museums across the world. (Banksy made recreations of classic paintings, twisting the Japanese Bridge Money painting with images of shopping carts and parking cones, satirically indicting the consumerism of society. Another painting depicts a slave cut out of the painting of a cotton field, and sitting on the frame smoking a cigarette—this can be interpreted as a comment on the framework in which historians choose to show the history of African Americans in this country).
However popular his works may be, he refuses to “sell out” or reveal his identity; his aesthetic freedom and success in the graffiti world depends on his anonymity. In his documentary “Banksy: Exit Through The Gift Shop,” as well as his published books, Banksy discusses that for him, street art is a movement dedicated towards indicting society of its faults and defects while creating public awareness about important issues; the social awareness street artists seek to incite through their art characterizes graffiti as a stepping stone towards social change.
Part IV: Coming Soon!