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.
“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.
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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.
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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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?”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.