Recently, three well known NYC photobloggers headed up a bike tour of some of the best graffiti and street art spots in Brooklyn. It was a good time. Threats of bad weather scared off the masses and left us with a nice manageable group that wound its way from Williamsburg through Greenpoint and into Long Island City, ending at well known graffiti mecca 5 Pointz.
While that finale was certainly fitting (and tough to top for volume), what struck me throughout was the sheer diversity of styles: from iron work to paste-up to spraypaint to yarn.
Stories told during the tour revealed some interesting cultural tensions just beneath the surface. After all, looking back on classic graffiti documentaries like Style Wars, the scene then was once very different. Back in the day, most writers were inner city kids who, lacking the opportunities many of us take for granted, made their name by painting it on walls and trains that traveled further than they felt they could. Now that graffiti has become hip beyond those communities, though, formally trained artists from wealthier backgrounds have joined the fray. But it’s less clear how welcome they are. Tension 1: schooled vs. self-taught.
The second tension lies between established graffiti artists and the lesser known. Once you sell your first piece for big money, it changes things (and that’s happening more and more now). Some say you made it, others say you sold out. Graffiti artists expect artists to paint over with work of their own and that leads to much of the multilayered beauty of street art. But just straight up defacement is different. And we saw some of that when it came to the more famous artists. Sounds like jealousy. Tension 2: fame vs. underground.
Don’t get me wrong: the graffiti world is not drama-ridden so far as I’ve seen. The artists I’ve met have all been extremely cool and largely selfless. But I do find the fact that haves and have-nots mix so readily in this world fascinating. It changes how you think about art when you know a little more about the world the artist lives in. And the world they don’t.