Sunday, May 13, 2007


A friend of mine had me watch a documentary called ‘Style Wars’ about a group of youngsters in New York City who painted their names in public places, mostly on the subway trains. The paintings were executed with spray-paint in bold designs in variations of a constantly changing style that had been developed by different early masters of the art. There were different schools and influences.
Everybody who has spray-painted knows how one short moment’s hesitation leaves its mark. These guys were in complete control of their tools while they worked in the narrow space between two rows of parked subway trains, walking on the ground. They worked together two or three in different constellations and they always worked in a rush of concentrated creativity with an uncertain deadline of discovery threatening.
It was in all senses a mobile art form. Their works of art traveled around town and revealed themselves to the initiates at random moments like a confirmation of their community. These kids were also break-dancers and rappers and some were as young as 11, most were in their teens and some in their early twenties.
The group of artists was the aristocracy of the tribe of ordinary of taggers who just had a graphic curlicue signature that they tagged wherever they fancied, sometimes on top of the more elaborate designs. There was even one guy who only worked on top of others work; on the best he could find he would paint his big logo right in the middle.
It was the beginning of an ongoing cultural warfare, on one side the young fought with the spray can, on the other side the City did its best to destroy whatever they could, washing the cars in a paint solvent. They also fenced the cars in and complained of the millions of dollars they put into the fight against tagging.
The young taggers expressed their contempt for a society that had left them with the hard crusts to chew by using the property of the society as their canvas. It was all about obtaining name recognition by marking their territory.
My feelings are mixed. I have great admiration for the artists, and in boring or grim environments even a cacophony of tags enliven the place, but when simple tags spread on the perfect old buildings in Europe like a skin cancer, it is not art anymore to me, just a barbarian cultural invasion and an expression of immature desperation. The point, of course, is revolutionary, which is why society reacts so strongly.

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