There is a lot of scholarly work written about graffiti and street art. There are shows and books dedicated to this art form. I’m neither a scholar nor an artistic institution, but I was a college professor with a long-standing love affair with graffiti and street art!
Having attended high school in Massachusetts in the early 70s with many kids from New York City, I learned second-hand about street life in NYC. A kid named Buster talked about the graffiti tag “TAKI 183”. TAKI was a Greek-American graffiti artist who tagged subway trains, fire hydrants, and lampposts with his signature tag, “TAKI 183″—a combination of his nickname and the street where he lived in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan, New York.
Living in the Chicago area and taking public transportation meant I saw my fair share of graffiti and street art. Back in the 70s, there were a lot of gang tags, but living in those areas taught you the difference between a gang tag and self-expression.
Let me be clear, I am all about self-expression, but gang tags have to be painted over. Gang tags aren’t art, in my opinion. When I last lived in Illinois twenty years ago, we were encouraged to remove gang tags as soon as they went up, and I still feel that is a good policy.
Historically, graffiti goes back thousands of years but became an art style during the 60s and 70s. I wonder how much the Abstract Expressionists and group of painters, mainly from NYC, were the basis of influence. The Abstract Expressionist movement flourished between 1943 and the mid-1950s, including painters Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, and Lee Krasner, to name a few.
I’ve been taking photos of graffiti since 2016, starting with a trip to Norway. Since then, I begun working graffiti into my art.
Graffiti can often be found in skate parks. Locally, one of our skate parks is loaded with graffiti and very little art. At first blush, it looks neat, but upon inspection, you can speculate that several of the taggers are young. Their obsessions with male body parts, sex words, and political views often indicate a less mature mind. I usually can’t work with much of this type of graffiti as it has too much junk in it.
In the last year, I have discovered places that encourage graffiti and street artists to paint their buildings. In Marion, Indiana, the warehouse owned by the Grant County Warehouse Mission (GCWM) permits graffiti artists to paint the exterior of their building. They have some requests: no swear words, no obscene art, and no politics. Because they are a religious group, they encourage works of faith but don’t require it. I understand the artists respect the GCWM terms. The GCWM building is mainly graffiti but has beautiful, raw energy.
Street Art has a different purpose than graffiti but can have the same raw energy, depending on the artist. Some street artists have made careers of their art, such as Shepard Fairey. Fairey is famously known for the iconic Obama Hope poster in 2008. When visiting Pittsburgh in 2010, I had the pleasure of seeing a Shepard Fairey piece.
To find a combination of graffiti and street art, you must visit Indy Walls. Indy Walls is multi-purposed as artists’ studios, event venues, and a marketplace. It’s located in Indianapolis’s neighborhood called the Old South Side. Like GCWM, they welcome graffiti and street artists and have do’s and don’ts respectfully spelled out on their site. One point they make to the artists is to be respectful to the community that Indy Walls coincides with, which I love! I am told that if you visit Indy Walls every three months, you will see different art on the exterior walls.
In the case of street art, many artists sign their work, unlike most graffiti. I contacted one of the artists, Josh Brinson, a.k.a. @bezol_one, an Indianapolis artist. His piece at Indy Walls is a tribute to his best friend, Kyle “Stuffy” Rogan. Josh wrote, “Kyle was stopped at a red light on his motorcycle when a car rear-ended him in a hit-and-run. He was an incredible artist, musician, and skateboarder, so I’m glad I honored him in such a way.” It’s a great piece of art, and I am thankful that Josh let me share it.
Indy Walls also has street art created by artists from outside of Indianapolis. One piece was painted by a Texas artist, while the artist of another painting came from Mexico. The rap artist, Caskey, commissioned a large street painting to use in one of his videos.
In the paintings, Jail Cell and Jail cell 2, I used graffti from photos I in Norway. I love the colors and raw energy it lends my work.