Droppin’ Knowledge: What Makes a Monument?
Memory and legacy shape our pasts and allow us to reflect on those who have made great strides in our shared histories. As a concept, history can sometimes feel murky; it is crafted, curated and re-purposed, often not in the direct fashion these ‘historic’ events went down. Some moments in history are commemorated with monuments, statues, works of art and craft that depict a scene, a famous leader, sometimes an entire war. These monuments are meant to act as bookmarks, a point of reference, a place that encompasses a tribute to something/someone greater. How do we determine what is monumental? And for whom? A small act of kindness is monumental for some, but not every teenager helping shovel a driveway has a statue erected. Art in particular is an interesting perspective on history, where the heroes and villains often overlap, and the subjectivity of their work is often loss. Context, in this sense, is very important.
In December of 2012, the graffiti world, the art world, the real world, lost a monumental graffiti writer. NEKST, or Sean Griffin as friends and family knew him, painted for over 20 years. He created a legacy of his own, a beautiful past of intense, clean work. And in 2013, MoCAD (Museum of Contemporay Art Detroit) honoured that legacy, with a massive mural painted by some of the artists NEKST touched closely. This was an incredibly important day for graffiti. Even if it washed by you on your timeline, if this is the first you’re hearing of it – a move like this, an honouring of a graffiti writer by a major public institution is the first of many heavy-footed steps towards a general respect for the complicated, personal, passionate and often dark realm of what it takes to be a successful graffiti writer. Graffiti writers take risks like no other artist, and pursue a passion that has often been described as a life-long addiction.
So why is this so important for every graffiti writer worldwide? Why does this particular memorial/monument matter so much? Context. Detroit is fighting an uphill battle, MoCAD has better projects to throw its money into, but they chose this. This collaboration is a bookmark, in the contemporary history of graffiti, where only one year after a death has an artist been truly remembered and respected by his artistic community. In this contemporary context, artists wash in and out with the tide. It’s an overnight fame. It’s trends that last three weeks and then move on to the graves of Tumblr’s past. Here though, this mural, this monument, stands triumphantly and shouts loudly that graffiti is going nowhere. This is not a trend. Our writers, our artists, are not bandwagon-ers, they’re in it, for life.
You could argue that every retrospective show of Basquiat and Haring or the Beautiful Losers tour acted as monuments of their own, but for me what makes the NEKST x MoCAD collaboration so special is its respect for his style and technique. That his close friends knew exactly how to honour him, and to honour his contribution to contemporary graffiti.
“What we painted for him on the exterior of the Museum is representative of two styles that Sean is known for all over the country … and these are the largest versions of his name ever done to date. Just the way he would like it.”
MoCAD gave an important monument to the graffiti world. Though we know NEKST will never be forgotten, this mural is a tool to introduce the rest of the art community to the graffiti world’s heroes and great motivators. A way to say in the midst of many other shared histories, that graffiti matters, and so do the artists that create it.