I recently attended an artist’s talk at the Elliot Louis Gallery held in conjunction with their exhibition Letters: A Drawing Show by 7 Graffiti Artists. This exhibition featured a wide variety of paintings, prints, and drawings created by several local street artists whose work is relatively unknown in the Vancouver commercial art world. Of interest in the discussion was the notion of ‘legitimacy,’ which was ascribed to the featured artists by the moderator. The moderator, who represented the gallery, used the term ‘legitimate’ in the sense that the artists in the show were working legally, as opposed to graffiti artists who ‘exhibit’ on private and public property.
YouTube still from “It’s All About Art: Letters”
The artists, however, proposed a different definition of legitimacy. They considered it in terms of an artist’s history, working method, and mutual acknowledgement of several unspoken principles in the graffiti world. If an artist displays advanced techniques, avoids confrontation with senior artists, creates technically complex designs, and is consistently active in the graffiti community for an extensive period of time, then they may be considered legitimate. A teenager with a spray can, no matter how talented, will not. It is through legitimacy, in this sense, that a graffiti artist may become respected.
Some graffiti practitioners further specify that an artist is only legitimate if their work is strictly illegal in nature, for the very criminality of graffiti constitutes the essence of the graffiti act. Others propose that presenting graffiti in a gallery context, particularly a commercial one, undermines the legitimacy of a graffiti artist. In the appropriation of this art through a capitalist venture, something is supposedly lost – the age old adage of ‘selling out.’ That said, I do not wish to suggest that the majority of graffiti artists support this view; the artists participating in the exhibition certainly did not. I was interested in hearing about their opinions, so I raised the issue during the question period.
Of the four artists attending the session – Asesr, Ensoe, Sueme, and Easer – two of them spoke up. Sueme, who is a successful graphic artist during the day, defended the commercial exhibition of graffiti work. He emphasized that, as the graffiti movement grows (Sueme earlier noted that, statistically speaking, the number of practising graffiti artists would ‘squash’ those working among other genres), artists are always looking for new ways to communicate the essence of their art. The commercial environment does not represent any form of institutionalization, but rather, another venue for artistic innovation; it predicates entirely different creative challenges and opportunities than those presented by the street.
In one respect, the work on display clearly reflected Sueme’s point. Some of the pieces conformed to our preconceptions of graffiti art: fluid styling, evocative colours, and dynamic form, as if a back alley wall had been transplanted into the gallery. That said, these pieces were actually in the minority; most of the work represented a wide variety of techniques. It was apparent that the term ‘graffiti’ not only referred to the specific content of some of the work, but more broadly, its thematic inspiration. Several silkscreens were highly evocative of the subversive nature of street art, utilizing eye – catching motifs and visual scenarios reminiscent of urban culture; yet, they were otherwise quite formal in tone. Other pieces commented on the nature of graffiti itself. What struck me was how fresh, exciting, and diverse these pieces felt – not merely the repackaging of urbanity for a commercial context, but something new altogether.
Another artist, Ensoe, furthered Sueme’s response and discussed the possibilities of the medium in a more technical sense. Aerosols are effective in an outdoor, street environment, and can produce astounding visual effects if handled with dexterity – but what happens when they are introduced into the gallery? The working method changes – the physicality of the techniques used outdoors is no longer appropriate – and something entirely different emerges. “I want to express what can be done with it,” says Ensoe, referring to his own methods as ‘clinical.’
‘Clinical’ is certainly what comes to mind when examining Ensoe’s work. His abstract geometric compositions are extremely careful – though the use of angular, bright shapes does evoke the intangible ‘essence’ of graffiti, they are more likely reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s paintings. It is difficult to believe that these delicate, perfectly straight lines applied to a canvas are the results of the same medium, hands and mind that produce the frenetic murals, declarations, and scrawlings to be found on public property throughout greater Vancouver. Yet the very display of these techniques speaks to the remarkable diversity of aerosol as a medium, and to the immense skill and artistic sensibility with which these so–called vandals are endowed.
What also surprised me was that I was clearly not the only one to have arrived at this conclusion. The majority of the other attendees to the talk were not young students or artists, but rather, affluent and middle aged collectors and enthusiasts. Furthermore, they endorsed very little of the conservative backlash usually found when discussing graffiti, and instead expressed an authentic interest in learning more about its culture. A number of pieces had already been sold, while several were acquired during the talk itself. Evidently, though graffiti is still relatively under-represented in Vancouver, it certainly had no difficulties finding enthusiasts in ‘legitimate’ circles.
Though the items on display were clearly desirable, I think that their connotations of social rebellion were not primarily why Letters was such a strong exhibition. Rather, it is because, as Sueme suggested, they were representative of the profuse range of aesthetic and conceptual possibilities engendered by ‘graffiti.’ If the studio environment provides a novel creative venue for graffiti artists – a venue which has, in this instance, produced a consistently outstanding creative output from a variety of different backgrounds – then the utilization of this environment should be celebrated, not criticized. Provided that local graffiti artists continue to be treated with respect and open-mindedness, as they were in Letters, I expect that they may be able to further show us new ways of thinking and expression.
‘Letters: A Drawing Show by 7 Graffiti Artists’ was a part of this summer’s Vancouver ‘Drawn’ Festival. For further images of the exhibition, which was up from July 5 – August 6, 2011, visit ‘Letters: A Drawing Show by 7 Graffiti Artists.’ To view more work by Scott Sueme and Ensoe, visit Tangled Wires at the Ayden Gallery, which closes September 4th.