The Toxic Side of Being, Literally, Green

Via the NYT, Design – The Toxic Side of Being, Literally, Green re-published, or re-presented, or whatever from the International Herald Tribune.

I had no idea that ‘greenwashing’ (as a term) had been around for so long—almost 25 years—and was interested to read of the history of green pigments and green in culture. Good times.

Also, and lest we forget: Green is the color of Money.

Robbo vs. Banksy: Graffiti FTW!!!1!

Graffiti Artist Robbo Took the Road – WSJ.com.

I don’t have any idea how long this will be available for free, but it’s up as of today, so I hope it will remain freely available in perpetuity.

Here’s the nutshell: Banksy dissed a ~25 year old ROBBO INC. piece, and now ROBBO has come out of retirement to wage war against the street artist. Gogo Robbo (and friends). Well, ‘dissed’ may not be quite the right word, but it had the expected effect: ROBBO is now busily dissing Banksy’s all over, and I say Good for Him.

I need to keep an eye on this as it develops. Banksy is something of a tourist commodity for London (and Bristol and other parts of England), and I wonder what reaction—if any—authorities will have to the battle being waged on London streets (and canals). On the one hand, Banksy’s works are as illegal as ROBBO’s; on the other, Banksy has an incredibly high market value and exists as something of a (sub)cultural icon, and the presence of his works adds value to neighborhoods and landmarks.

Additionally, I believe the responses by ROBBO (and TEAM ROBBO) bear a relationship to the activities of ‘the Splasher,’ who features prominently in my Master’s thesis “Street Art and the Splasher: Assimilation and Resistance in Advanced Capitalism.” I also feel that the discussion could be useful in my attempt to resolve my own confusion about what separates street art from graffiti, and may help to define this separation.

Also, the comments (available here) are quite interesting—if largely unsurprising—and range from ‘vandals should be shot’ to ‘I like Banksy, but that Robbo guy (and the rest of his vandal buddies) should be shot,’ with typical misunderstanding of the impulses behind graffiti, the purpose and import of vandalism as a hobby and as an integral part of capitalism (without vandalism, glaziers, painters, sandblasters, graffiti policemen, etc. would enjoy far less business and would thus contribute less to the economy, and this is not to mention loss-prevention departments at hardware stores, Wall-Marts, and other purveyors of spraypaint), and other myriad issues surrounding graffiti (and, by extension, street art, if ‘street art’ is indeed a separate activity) in the twenty-first century.

Keith Haring at Deitch Projects

From “Bad Boys of Art at Manhattan Galleries,” by Roberta Smith, 11 February, 2010:

The 1980s certainly had no shortage of genuinely hopeless bad boys from both sides of the Atlantic, but Keith Haring 1958-1990 deviated from the norm by having something close to a heart of gold. It always seemed emblematic that his subway graffiti did no lasting damage: he drew in white chalk on the black paper covering unrented advertising panels. Even more characteristic was Haring’s habit of painting public murals pro bono. During his lifetime he completed 16 such works at hospitals and children’s centers around the world, including the 70-foot-long “Mural for St. Patrick’s Daycare Center,” from a San Francisco building. It dates from 1985, was dismantled in 2006 when the center lost its lease and can be seen in an enormous all-white space at Deitch Projects 18 Wooster Street, SoHo through Saturday, and then again from Feb. 23 through Feb. 27. It looks stunning.

Executed in acrylic on wood, the mural is populated by a range of charming cartoon characters and animals inspired by Haring’s childhood drawings, including a self-portrait at one end. The forms are rounder, the energy less aggressive and antic than usual, as if Haring were softening his style, summoning his younger self for younger viewers. Which makes it all the more interesting that he was clearly at the height of his powers, working with complete assurance and ease. The mural is a superb calligraphic performance, revealing the bad boy as a Zen master in a state of grace.

Of note here is two separate statements, both with important links to my current exploration of graffiti.

First, Roberta Smith notes an interesting aspect of Haring’s graffiti: it “did no lasting damage…” This suggests that graffiti usually does lasting harm to the surfaces on which it is put, and I wonder to what ‘lasting’ refers in this context. Spraypaint and wheatpastes are ephemeral: they do not hold up to environmental factors and are removable with commonly available implements (and a fair amount of elbow grease). Carvings, etchings, and other sorts of surface-marring techniques do indeed do “lasting harm,” but such techniques form a small sub-set of the graffiti milieu in contemporary society.

Now, it is largely true that writers desire their works to stay ‘up,’ to remain visible for weeks or months or years: this is likely why drill bits, etching compound, and other sorts of permanently destructive tools/media entered into use. In fact, a writer recently commented that he would like to develop a bleach-based ink for marking on awnings, cloth banners, and the like.[1]

However, graffiti is, for the most part, non-destructive, or not destructive in the same way as, say, a rock thrown through a window would be destructive. So it is interesting to me that Ms. Smith would point specifically to the nondestructive aspects of Haring’s production.[2] Of course, Smith’s assertion that Haring’s work was not destructive is a rhetorical device used to illustrate his “something close to a heart of gold,” so perhaps I’m reading too much into the statement.

It must be noted, though, that most graffiti is nondestructive and is, in some sense, a productive activity: Haring’s graffiti produced an international art career; CHUNK tags produce proof that CHUNK exists.

Second, Ms. Smith refers to the mural as “a superb calligraphic performance,” a statement that points out two of the most important aspects of graffiti practice: the style and form of the letters, and the confidence with which the writer gets his or her name out into the world.

Contemporary graffiti is, at its core, a form of calligraphy. Writers spend a great deal of time working on their letter forms and developing what artists and art historians call a ‘hand:’ an intimate knowledge of materials and techniques, and the body’s ability to deploy various materials and techniques.

In referring to Haring’s execution of the mural as a ‘performance’ also points to the active, performative nature of graffiti in general, a topic that requires much more space and time than I’m willing to go into today.[3]

And I would like to apologize for being so absent lately. Life has taken its toll (in fact, it’s had me in a choke hold for weeks), but I hope to be able to get back to work on this project soon, and with a greater sense of urgency and commitment.


[1] EROK, interview by James Cockroft, November, 2009, DSC Clubhouse, Dallas, TX.

[2] There is a difference between chalk on paper and spraypaint on brick: the point is that neither is particularly destructive to the surface. In fact, it might be argued that chalk on paper is more destructive than spraypaint on brick, since it seems to me that removing chalk would likely cause more damage to the paper than removing spraypaint would cause to brick.

[3] I spoke about this at some length in a 2008 lecture entitled “Varieties of Performance in graffiti and street art.” An essay version is forthcoming.

Amazon, “Name Tagging” and “today’s street art culture”

From time to time, Amazon sends me email advertisements for books and whatnot based on other stuff I’ve purchased from them. From my view, this is an occasionally helpful—if often useless and slightly annoying—and sometimes amusing ‘service,’ and I’ve actually purchased maybe .001% of the books that have been advertised to me in this way.

So I was excited to see today’s offering: “Save 20% at Amazon.com on “Name Tagging” by Martha Cooper.”  Woo! Martha’s still out there taking pictures of graffiti! Gogo Martha Cooper!

I opened the email, clicked the embedded link, and went to Amazon for a closer look: 96 pages, probably mostly photographs, nice to look at and useful for image/style analysis and whatnot, but likely lacking in interviews, historical or theoretical analysis, and other sorts of content that might be of interest to a historian/critic/theorist like myself. But down in ‘Editorial Reviews’ section, under ‘Product Descriptions,’ I found this interesting statement:

“In Name Tagging, graffiti photography legend Martha Cooper presents a dizzying array of “Hello My Name Is” stickers adorned with tags, the origin of graffiti and today’s street art cultures.” via Amazon.com: Name Tagging.

. . .the origin of graffiti and today’s street art cultures. . .

So street art is a culture separate from graffiti, or part of graffiti but special and somehow other than graffiti. In fact, the construction of the phrase suggests that graffiti has been deprecated in favor of ‘today’s street art’ culture. Tags are “the origin of graffiti” and the origin of “today’s street art culture.” Is graffiti not also a culture of today? Or is it merely that street art is popular and marketable, where graffiti remains somewhat marginalized? rather, street art and graffiti are both popular and marketable, but street art contains an important distinction: street art is contemporary, current, new; it contains within it the ‘today-ness’ that appeals to wide swaths of the buying public, as opposed to mere ‘graffiti,’ which is apparently something other than current, contemporary, or of-the-day.

This is interesting to me, especially since I still have no idea exactly where the line between graffiti and street art stands, what necessary and/or sufficient conditions exist for a mark on a wall or a sticker to obtain the status of graffiti (or street art), or if there even are any measurable differences between the two. And the publishing blurb offers nothing in the way of an explanation, though the last sentence contains this little gem:

“. . . Cooper’s camera has captured the artistry and audacity of these artists and their distinctive tags.”

People who do graffiti are called ‘writers.’ People who do street art are ‘artists.’ Can I leave it at that? I don’t think so, since graffiti is (on my view) a visual form of expression, and creators of visual expression are in some sense ‘artists.’

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. Is there really any need to quantify street art (or graffiti)? I don’t know. But thanks to Mark Batty Publisher for their interesting Amazon product blurb. I expect to revisit this in the future.

Guerilla Marketing

In a previous post, I briefly mentioned an advertising phenomenon known as ‘Guerilla Marketing.’ It occurs to me that this concept might prove useful as this examination of graffiti continues.

In 2005, Sony hired TATS Cru to design and carry out an advertising campaign in major cities throughout the United States. Stencil graffiti and wheat-pastes featuring space cadet-looking children using the Play Station Portable (PSP) as a rocking horse or skateboard or some other toy began appearing on the walls of various ‘hip’ neighborhoods in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

This was not the first instance of such a ploy, but it stands in my mind as a sort of milestone or signpost in the graffiti milieu, due to the reaction the campaign received from local residents, the State and the graffiti community.

Initially, the advertisements appeared to be graffiti (or “street art”), and were thought to be an isolated incident, and there were vehement protests when it was later revealed that Sony paid for everything, including the right to place advertisements on buildings. The stencils and wheat-pastes were quickly crossed out, and some individuals began writing angry comments about TATS Cru, Sony, and the PSP on the streets and online. See here, here, and here.

Reactions from the graffiti community were equivalent to reactions to rival or inexperienced writers: stencil works and wheat-pastes were painted over, and comments expressing disgust were written nearby.

A Queens Councilman demanded that Sony take down the ads and pay $20,000 to New York City’s anti-graffiti program.[1] This same Councilman joined Mayor Bloomberg in opposing a 2005 graffiti exhibition and demonstration organized by Marc Ecko, and employed similar language to describe both events, claiming that the Sony advertisements and Mr. Ecko’s exhibition existed to encourage children to commit crimes.

From the standpoint of materials and techniques, there is no difference between the TATS Cru PSP adverts and, for example, Shepard Fairey’s OBEY posters, Banksy’s rats, or CHUNK Tags for that matter. However, insofar as the Sony/TATS Cru advertisements were legal—Sony rented advertising space from building owners—this separates the TATS Cru PSP ads from CHUNK tags and OBEY posters, but only in cases where CHUNK tagged an object without permission. (The existence of ‘permission’ walls should not be forgotten.)

But not all instances of Guerilla Marketing are legal (or sanctioned) in this same way. For example, in 2001, IBM was fined more than $120,000 for damages and clean-up costs associated with a Guerilla Marketing campaign for the Linux operating system. And the existence of illegal and unsanctioned Guerilla Marketing ploys largely erases the legal/illegal distinction between Guerilla Marketing and the various sorts of graffiti.

But there must be a difference, given the varying reactions to Guerilla Advertisements and graffiti. It’s just that I have yet to see any real, material difference between the two activities.[2] In fact, it could be argued that Shepard Fairey’s illegal OBEY works serve merely to advertise his clothing line, graphic design work, and/or gallery shows, though I am not comfortable making such an assertion at this time.

I think, however, that Guerilla Marketing is special sort of graffiti and believe I can define the phenomenon with some amount of specificity:

Guerilla Marketing – drawings, paintings, leaflets, wheat-pastes, and other materials placed on public and/or private property by individuals or groups acting as agents of a corporation or other entity for the express purpose of advertising a product or service. Advertisements may or may not be sanctioned by property owners.


[1] http://www.nypost.com/p/news/pol_get_graffiti_ads_off_the_wall_GROUpqVsiA2XHXmspywMNK accessed 22 January 2010.

[2] I would like to claim that the difference lies in the power of Corporations to influence public policy: Sony, for example, gives contributions to politicians. Politicians make laws and charge others with enforcing such laws. Therefore, Sony has direct control over what policies are enforced and what policies are ignored, and, hence, who is charged with crimes and who is allowed to go free. This is, however, completely fallacious and based in a Nouveau-Marxist Ideology that has very little relationship to everyday life. It is thus beyond the scope of this study at present.