The political power of graffiti: Erased from CHOP, on display in Everett

A new exhibit gives graffiti the stamp of artistic approval. But is graffiti still graffiti when it’s made with permission?

An exhibit of graffiti

The Schack Art Center's new exhibit showcases graffiti art from across the country. The works, amassed by a private collector in Washington, prompt questions about what is considered art, and whether the meaning of graffiti changes once it's preserved in a museum. (Schack Art Center)

Graffiti is a crime of “malicious mischief” in Washington state, with penalties of up to a year in jail and $5000. But in Everett, the Schack Art Center is celebrating it as a legitimate and important art form. On the outside of the building — which sits about three blocks from the Everett Municipal Court and six blocks from the Snohomish County Jail — an explosion of illegible type in sharp angles, tangled twists and jagged edges (by artists APEX and NEON) hints at the graffiti that covers the walls inside, top to bottom.

Under different circumstances, these artists could have landed in the courthouse for spray painting the wall of a private building without permission. Instead they're part of Schack Art Center’s new exhibit American Graffiti: From the Streets to Canvas. The show features more than 80 recreations of street graffiti pieces — many of which have been lost to time and repainting — replicated on canvas by the original artists.

Commissioned over a decade by a private collector who prefers, much like a graffiti artist, to remain anonymous, the works illustrate the ongoing conversations about the value of graffiti in the art world, the legitimacy of an art form rooted in an illegal act and the question of whether graffiti is even graffiti once it lands in a gallery.

Read more: Where will all the art from Seattle's CHOP go?

West Coast artist King 157 is considered the king of freight car graffiti. In this canvas recreation of a piece he originally painted on a train, he included the train car as well. (Schack Art Center)

“There's tons of misunderstanding at almost every level of graffiti,” says Susan A. Phillips, who has made a 30-year-long career out of studying graffiti. A professor and associate dean at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, Phillips authored the book The City Beneath: A Century of Los Angeles Graffiti, which came out last year.

“A lot of the misunderstanding comes from the hatred of graffiti because it violates laws and norms surrounding private property,” Phillips says. “That to me is one of the most powerful things about graffiti.” When a writer tags a wall, they have gained power in the space — if only temporarily.

Watch: Muralists reflect on the public art that flourished from pandemic isolation and social protests.

The Schack exhibit opened June 25, at a time when, 30 miles south in Seattle, protesters in the area known as CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) were coating the streets and surrounding buildings in graffiti and murals protesting police brutality and racial injustice.

Anti-police and pro Black Lives Matter graffiti was painted on the Cal Anderson Fountain while the area was still considered part of "CHOP." The spray paint has since been painted over. (Daniel Spils)

The CHOP graffiti was washed away about a week later, angering some participants. But the Schack show, which runs through Sept. 5, points to the value of preserving graffiti as shorthand for conveying messages, historic moments and movements.

Between 2003 and 2012, the mysterious collector spent late nights meeting with graffiti artists in shadowy alleys and streets, asking for the whereabouts of people notorious for wanting to stay out of the limelight — but it worked. His collection now spans more than 1,000 canvases (most 6 by 10 feet), the bulk of which were originally created by artists in Harlem, the Bronx, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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In 'Rattle Can Head,' Chris Pape (A.K.A. Freedom) paints his self-portrait with the face of a spray can in place of his own. (Chris Pape/Schack Art Center)

One corner of the Schack Art Center contains the collector’s prize possessions: four Freedom Tunnel pieces by Chris Pape (aka Freedom), including his self-portrait “Rattle Can Head,” in which he depicts himself as spray can, and tribute portraits of Woody Guthrie and Ted Williams. Between 1979 and 1994, Pape painted the original graffiti on the walls of the decommissioned Amtrak tunnel under Manhattan. When Amtrak recommissioned the tunnel, the company buffed out hundreds of murals — and also displaced the homeless people who had found shelter inside.

Also included in the exhibit is Pape’s homage to fine art, specifically Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” famously painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In Pape’s rough black-and-white version, he zooms in on God and Adam’s relaxed hands, their fingers reaching for each other, and beneath it posits, “What is art — Why is Art?

Chris Pape's recreation of What is Art — Why is Art?, one of his original murals from the Freedom Tunnel in New York City. (Chris Pape/Schack Art Center)

For Judy Tuohy, Schack Art Center’s executive director, that question speaks to why she thinks graffiti merits an exhibit. It’s an art form that requires skill and attention, she says. The exhibit is also an opportunity to center the voices of artists who haven’t traditionally been given platforms. Tuohy says a majority of the pieces in the exhibit were painted by people of color.

“[Graffiti] provided them a voice,” she says. “So what we're doing here is making that voice even clearer for our community.”

One voice that stands out in the exhibit is STAY HIGH 149, aka Wayne Roberts, who passed away in 2012. He started tagging buses in New York City in the 1960s when the city was dealing with rampant unemployment and financial instability. His pieces were the first to cover one whole subway car, from one end to the other, and his elegant signature with halos influenced young taggers for years. STAY HIGH, who was Black, changed his moniker to VOICE OF THE GHETTO after a High Times magazine article revealed his face and led to his arrest.

While many of these early graffiti artists were tagging their names rather than an overtly political message, their work invokes the saying that the medium is the message. It also highlights graffiti’s position as an easily accessible (albeit illegal) art form for the disenfranchised. As Phillips puts it, graffiti “becomes a way that anybody can insert themselves into the public sphere.”

Wayne Roberts worked under the name STAY HIGH 149 and helped popularize the use of New York City buses and subways as a canvases with his large murals in the 1960s. Before he died in 2012, he recreated this work for a Washington state collector. (Wayne Roberts/Schack Gallery)

Even as graffiti makes its way into more galleries and art shows, some still write it off as vandalism. But graffiti raises interesting questions about power and permissions.

Seattle’s Crick Lont, a former graffiti artist, says graffiti is like advertising, in that people don’t usually have control over when they see it. Graffiti can be found in any city, as part of the landscape on fences, alleys and bridges. It sends subliminal messages about who “belongs” where.

Lont runs Dozer’s Warehouse on Beacon Hill, a former plumbing warehouse turned unofficial graffiti museum. The warehouse is suspended in real estate development purgatory — its demolition date is constantly being pushed back, allowing for an ever-evolving show of graffiti. In this sense, Lont believes Dozer’s pays tribute to graffiti’s ephemeral nature. He is also of the school of thought that graffiti is only graffiti if it’s illegal. Once it hits an established gallery it is merely art in the graffiti style. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

In addition to hosting more than a dozen murals by graffiti and mural artists, Dozer's Warehouse in Beacon Hill is also known for its underground warehouse parties. (Crick Lont)

“If it’s done right, I think it’s awesome, especially for people in the graffiti scene ... It’s made it so even graffiti artists can make money,” says Lont, who started writing graffiti when he was 13. “The cool thing about galleries leaning towards graffiti or street culture is that it’s more blunt ... and it’s putting that message into the gallery, in the faces of people who normally wouldn't see it. You can sneak your messages in.”

Lont points to some of the short, sharp political messages seen at CHOP as examples of graffiti’s “bluntness.” Scattered across the streets and buildings around Cal Anderson Park, tags included messages for the current moment, such as “BLM” (Black Lives Matter), “Defund SPD” and “Say our names” alongside lists including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Charleena Lyles. Also evident: perennial protest graffiti, such as “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards), “police the police”  and the classic “Fuck the police.” The area also included mural-style graffiti, such as the large yellow, blue and pink, 1970s-style piece dedicated to George Floyd on Cal Anderson’s water fountain. Floating above the massive mural of his name were words said by his daughter: “Daddy Changed The World.”

“Relatively few people attend protests as compared to the number of people who later see images of them … circulated via social media,” says Phillips, the Pitzer College professor. “The images of graffiti from these protests are all over the place, and they're just as poignant as a crowded shot full of masses of people. They’re so good at crystallizing the impetus of the movement,” she says.

The political strife of the past month has given new life to graffiti as a tool and a voice — specifically to assert that Black lives matter. The act of “malicious mischief” challenges the institutions that deem Black lives dispensable and graffiti art erasable. As the city of Seattle scrambled to decide how to preserve the art at CHOP last week, it also erased graffiti coded with the demands of protesters.

Graffiti covered surfaces all over the CHOP area when it was still an active protest site. In this image, graffiti ranges from the concise "BLM" to the longer quote by slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton: "If you dare to struggle, you dare to win." (Daniel Spils)

Phillips says political graffiti is rampant in countries undergoing social change, but it’s been largely dormant for decades in America. “I think that's a signal of how there's been a kind of stasis around politics for many, many years,” she says. “The last time we had this much political writing in the U.S. was in the 1960s, and I think this period really mirrors that in terms of the transformation along the lines of social justice and societal transformation, around issues of policing and police brutality and racial justice.”

Today, Schack’s Tuohy, who is also Everett’s sitting city council president, says she sees graffiti’s validation and the hard conversations about race as long overdue. Over the past two years spent organizing the exhibit, she says she’s learned a lot about graffiti culture, its slang and varying styles. But her appreciation for it has also grown.

Now, Tuohy watches when trains pass through downtown Everett, hoping to catch a glimpse of graffiti on the boxcars.

“I'm looking at it as a little piece of art... or the wording, what they're saying,” she says. “I would paint every blank wall around here if I could.”

This story has been updated to correct a spelling; the Pitzer College professor quoted is Susan A. Phillips, not Susan. H. Phillips.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on arts and culture.