Art or Not?

Graffiti is seen both as urban scourge and maturing underground art form

May 18, 2008|By Lauren Shull | Lauren Shull,Special to The Sun

Barry Heintz pulls the trigger of a powerwasher to blast away the last vestiges of an eight-foot-long and two-foot-high sprawl of graffiti in a Mount Vernon alley. He has already blasted it with a chemical mix called Taginator Graffiti Remover and scrubbed at it with an ordinary push broom. When he's finished washing, nothing remains but a few small patches of white underneath a crumbling windowsill.

Heintz, maintenance supervisor with the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, may be graffiti's worst enemy. But many others in the city consider it art.

Just a mile and a half from the alley where Heintz attacked the unsightly black and white name, the DB5K Gallery has an exhibition showcasing famous graffiti "writers" and the movement's progression over the decades. Prices in the Foundations of Style Writing show range as high as $1,000, and on opening night, a dozen pieces sold.

Graffiti is a strange hybrid. Across the country, people vilify it as vandalism indicative of neighborhoods in decline; others laud it as urban art worthy of museums. This year alone, Baltimore will spend nearly a million dollars to keep streets and alleys pristine. Meanwhile, DB5K in Fells Point is selling writers' signatures, or tags, drawn on everything from torn pieces of paper to stolen street signs, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington has incorporated large panels of graffiti into an exhibition about hip-hop's influence on portraiture.

Different from gang graffiti, which is used mainly to mark territory and threaten violence to other gangs, hip-hop graffiti began in the late 1960s in Philadelphia. It focuses on creating abstract letters and words for the pleasure of painting, and increasing visibility of a street artist's talents. Hip-hop graffiti spread to New York City, where it became wildly popular - by the early 1980s, almost every subway car was covered in spray paint. A subculture developed, including hip-hop music, breakdancing and skateboarding.

"It was a way to identify with where I was coming from in life," recalls the graffiti artist known as Stab, who would not provide his full name. He began tagging Baltimore at 13 and was guest curator at the DB5K show. "I didn't want to be on the soccer team or the baseball team. I wanted to be out on my skateboard."

The movement is still going strong, despite the best efforts of politicians and city workers.

Graffiti is visible on many streets and alleys in and around Baltimore. Heintz says that here in Lovegrove Alley alone, he has painted every door and scrubbed the walls clean a few times. Hidden behind some scaffolding a few feet away, there is another, even bigger, tag.

There are fewer tags downtown than there used to be, he says, but still enough to make Heintz - who has been cleaning up after the taggers for 15 years - go out once a month in his pickup truck, scrubbing and spraying.

"We have smaller tags now - it seems like they're hitting everywhere but downtown. The outskirts [of downtown] are covered," he says.

DB5K's walls are covered as well, but with the mostly illegible tags framed with price tags. Stab says the show is more about education than making money, though opening-night sales brought in a couple of thousand dollars.

The show "is an overview about an art movement," said Stab, 38, one of the grandfathers of hip-hop graffiti "writing." A self-taught artist, he also creates found art pieces and reverse technique on glass - painting scenes backward on old windows. He defends what he does on the streets, calling that art as well.

Graffiti has "been culturally effective for so long that it can claim it's become high art," he said. "It's undeniably an art form but it's more than that - it is a culture and a community."

Hundreds of people flowed in and out of DB5K at the show's May 2 opening, the gallery's biggest ever, according to owner Daniel Fountain. The diverse crowd ranged from young hipsters to older men with dreadlocks down past their waists. Many were writers themselves, trading tags and showing off sketchbooks. Empty Natty Boh cans littered the corners of the rooms and the windowsills.

"The show was incredible," Fountain said. "It was awesome - two stars more than I expected."

Though some graffiti artists object to displaying their work in galleries, others want it to be seen as art in the eyes of the masses.

Graffiti, Stab said, has "grown up out of being a fad ... but now you have it developing on into [established] artists changing the way they do art. We're never going to have classic art again."

Museums and the established art world appear to agree. Recognize!, an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery, includes photographs and paintings of hip-hop artists, films, poems and an installation piece. Connecting the rooms of the exhibition are massive graffiti panels, done by graffiti artists Dave Hupp and Tim Conlon.

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