Droppin’ Knowledge: The Graffiti Affect
Art as it occurs in the streets is an “other” history. Inherently anti-institutional, it has never fit well within the academy or the museum; basically free, it has consistently had a problematic relationship with the art market; iconoclastic, it is often hard for many to read; and stemming from the countercultural or underground tendencies of youth, it is by and large all too easy for those who “know better” to dismiss it without regard to its content or its intent.
– Carlo McCormick, “Art In The Streets” 2011
For years graffiti has been tossed around in the academic art world, never quite getting the footing it deserves. Often accredited to deviant hooliganism, my professors and peers up their nose at the idea of a tag, only to ask me in private how I feel about Banksy. It seems the academic roster is quick to jump to big names like Haring and Basquiat, but often forget that the long-standing cult of graffiti is still running strong.
With Art Basel flooding our news feeds, and the spotlight placed firmly on street artists, graffiti is all too often left in the dark, exactly where it has been created. But here’s something to consider; what other art form truly engages all of your senses from beginning to end? From creating to viewing? Isn’t that what art is all about? Forget the hypebeasts for a minute, and let yourself fall in love with graffiti all over again.
There is a term in art-academia known as affect. Difficult to fully describe, the fundamental ideas address the ambience/feeling/vibe of a space, how that feeling can be identified in the senses, transformed by art, and transmitted between audiences. I can think of no better example of affective art than graffiti. When it’s being created, graffiti engages touch, smell, taste, sight and sound. The grip of a gloved hand to a brick wall. The cold stick of paint on a brisk evening. The aerosol that trails behind, sneaking into your nostrils and tickling your taste buds. A drag of a cigarette to embellish the moment. And, perhaps most importantly, that instinctual primitive vibe that dictates your execution.
This is affective. In its very nature, graffiti creates a vibe that is often indescribable. What’s even better is that graffiti plays subjectively on its audience. Some walk right by, some stop to mutter under their breath about vandalism, and others stop to appreciate it. Regardless of the end product, the act is undeniably engaging, moving, and affective.
Day in and night out, graffiti is engaging our streets and communicating across the city. Most art movements have lasted somewhere between 2 and 10 years, but no other movement then graffiti has created a committed subculture that is constantly evolving and expanding into new styles and techniques. Trixter, graffiti legend and co-founder of TAC crew, puts it best in The History of American Graffiti, “Most major art movements — impressionism, pointillism — are still being used by artists today, still being taught in schools, but the culture, the actual movement, generally only lasted a few years, maybe a decade. Graffiti still has its culture, and keeps developing, gaining depth.”
It’s hard to imagine an art scene with devoted Surrealists and Modernists mingling over some new markers and blackbooks, these things were not built to last, they weren’t built in the streets. Graffiti however is a movement and subculture based in social, political, artistic and communal values. It invites change and individual style as opposed to mimicry and repetition. With this flexibility and longevity, the impact graffiti has and will have on our society is infinite. It doesn’t need an invitation, in fact I believe graffiti is better off without one. The process of graffiti is inherently engaging no matter where on the street you stand. Engaging the senses, engaging the streets. That’s Gr’affective, and that’s worth recognizing.