The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

90° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Cans carpet canvas with aerosol aesthetic

    Cans carpet canvas with aerosol aesthetic

    If kids don’t want to color inside the lines, nobody’s going to be able to make them; such is the nature of graffiti art. In a perhaps well-intentioned but tritely ironic gesture, Tucson’s Graffiti Removal Program provides an anti-graffiti coloring book for printing from their Web site. Inside, Mr. Tuffy the boxer encourages his young audience to “”Knock out graffiti in Tucson!”” with messages including the slogan, “”Graffiti is unwanted markings.”” That’s not just bad grammar; it’s an overgeneralization of an underrepresented art form.

    Graffiti is a coloring book’s ultimate antithesis. In cities around the world, names and murals sprawl across train tracks and cargo cars, through washes and under bridges, on billboards and in alleyways. Graffiti’s authors defend their chosen means of expression despite continual protests from the public and risk of arrest.

    The Graffiti Removal Program provides services through the city where concerned citizens can report incidents of tagging.

    “”We’re taking care of anything that’s visible from the street,”” said Elma Escarcega, a representative for the program.

    The graffiti abatement efforts were scaled back considerably in the last month.

    “”Because of budget restrictions, we’re committed to not doing alleyways, the trash cans or the stickers that are on the poles … and we don’t do sweeps of neighborhoods, either,”” Escarcega said.

    There are some legal walls available where artists can create in public view without consequence. Lt. Ron Stiso, commander of Community Events Services with the Tucson Police Department, hasn’t seen much result from these legal venues.

    “”The problem I see is that those individuals don’t take advantage of the workshops,”” Stiso said.

    Part of the problem could be that graffiti ignores conventional boundaries.

    “”Subcultures have their own internal rules and regulations about what ‘selling out’ might mean,”” said Lisa Fischman, chief curator for the University of Arizona Museum of Art. “”But there’s a way to use your visual voice to make the transition from the street.””

    As a result, these creations are finding their way to the most standard of venues: Graffiti, or “”unauthorized street art,”” now graces gallery walls as well.

    While receiving recognition in the art world is a struggle for every starving artist, graffiti and street artists tend to come from an even more difficult starting place. Often, young creatives turn to graffiti when they have no other outlet.

    “”Graffiti really comes from the kids – they got nothing and they got nothing to do, but they can steal spray paint and write on a train,”” said Kai One, a Tucson artist whose work has been included in group shows in Tucson and a solo show in San Diego. “”That’s pure expression, that’s when art is most important.””

    One is one of the few artists who began their self-expression through aerosol on others’ walls, but have been able to bridge the gap into gallery showings. Even those involved in graffiti abatement are in favor of this change.

    “”They want to express themselves,”” Stiso said. “”Certainly if they move it away from destroying other people’s property, they should be able to do that.””

    As the art world changes, even the upper crust of the fine art folk are taking notice.

    The stigma of street art has prevented the recognition of its validity as an art form.

    “”The fact that it’s pigment on a surface where it’s not permissible will, for a lot of people, totally negate any type of aesthetic value that the art will hold, even if it’s like the biggest masterpiece in the world,”” One said.

    Modern art museums will allow an arrangement of pillows on the ground or a solid colored canvas to qualify as a masterpiece, but have disdained graffiti works for their negative connotations.

    “”Museum-goers have expectations about what they’re going to see when they visit a show, and that rears its head too,”” Fischman said.

    Artists such as Banksy and Shepherd Fairey of OBEY Obama poster fame have, however, made names for themselves, and the rest of the public is catching on. Hotel Congress and Lulubell Toy Bodega are among the galleries in Tucson that have recognized graffiti artists as artists and not as vandals.

    “”Up until the last couple years, you were pretty much negating any kind of fine art career by giving yourself the label of graffiti artist,”” One said. “”When people thought of graffiti they thought of such a cliched thing.””

    Even though graffiti is moving up in the art world, many local artists would not go on the record for this story, saying that doing so might damage their chances of showing their work if they are associated with graffiti.

    “”I think a lot of street art is really cool, but museums are not the most flexible of spaces to display that,”” Fischman said.

    Even though he has begun to move his work toward the legal mural walls and gallery settings, One has not lost the soul or spirit of his work.

    “”I learned the craft of art from graffiti,”” he said. “”But the thing about graffiti is that the aesthetic really is adaptable to other mediums.””

    Artists aren’t the only ones making the adaptation. Graffiti art is becoming more prevalent as a marketing tactic in our society of graphics and advertising. It’s been used to attract kids who think they want to be part of the culture without the risk of getting caught. Even Urban Outfitters has used graffiti in display windows to sell hipster clothes to an edgier crowd.ÿThe eye-catching colors and graphic style of graffiti make it noticeable.

    “”But what they don’t realize,”” One said with a laugh, “”is that the real kids who are into it, who are part of it, are seeing right through it and laughing at it.””

    Whether or not the use of graffiti-style images will cheapen the movement itself remains to be seen. For artists who began their journeys through spray paint under the cover of darkness, the popularization of such a raw art form could come as a blessing and a curse.

    “”It’s kind of a double-edged sword for me,”” One said. “”I see an art form that has such great spirit, and that’s getting taken away. But at the same time, that’s the only thing that allows me to become economically viable with it.””

    For now, a handful of artists catch lucky breaks when open-minded gallery owners stumble across their work.

    “”It was kind of by accident,”” One said of securing his first show. “”I always wanted to show my art. That’s the thing about graffiti, is it forces people to see your work whether they want to or not. But you have to have some people who believe in you, who are more in the fine art world, who have an interest in graffiti but haven’t been part of it or don’t come from it.””

    One declined to describe his own aesthetic.

    “”Someone once told me that all you gotta do is paint,”” he said. “”And let other people decide what to call what it is that you’re doing, ’cause they won’t believe you anyways if you try to tell them.””

    More to Discover
    Activate Search