In the winter 2016 issue of Acrylic Artist I interviewed graffiti writer Jamie O’Neill, who without apology started his art career on the streets, painting his letters on walls and railway cars. Today his art, which he is painting on canvas in a more traditional format, hangs in galleries and on family room walls although it still depicts graffiti lettering on railcars. Working on that story forced me to reconsider my views on graffiti—is graffiti vandalism of public/private property or is it art? After I finished the feature I became more aware of the graffiti in my southern Ohio neighborhood. As an avid photographer I went off in search of this street art as subject matter for my own photo series.
It’s almost a cliché to say that art should make us think, but if we stop to consider graffiti as an art form, there’s plenty to think about. Maybe there’s a required shift in our thinking in order to call graffiti art? This street art, made by artists who may not be known to us, is often in fact well known in the artist’s inner circles on the streets. Can we say that we don’t see it as art when it’s on a train or the side of a building, but if that same design is put it canvas it then becomes art? Can we say the murals adorning city walls across the city are art because they were commissioned or sponsored, critiqued and vetted by a committee, but the designs that have been thrown up on a wall at night are not?
Recently I headed out with my camera along a nearby trail, the Valley View, and I passed a handful of runners, some kids and people out walking their dogs. I continued on, heading to a spot known as a teenagers’ hangout and a popular destination for photographers looking for that model-on-the-railroad-tracks picture. I’m here to photograph the graffiti though.
The tags (graffiti) at the tracks were not inspiring. They were more a mash-up of initials, off-color words and scribbles. I thought Jamie would shake his head and tell me to move on, so I did. I headed to a water culvert to find the better graffiti writing.
Later that day I saw this on the Cincinnati Art Museum’s website:
So is it art now—now that a famous, well-respected and studied photographer has photographed the graffiti?
Do you see where I’m going with this? When is it art? Who says it’s art?
One thing I do know about the work of graffiti writers—it makes me think.
FOOTNOTE: Think graffiti is just for young artists? Check out how graffiti is helping those with dementia- yes, even grannies do graffiti!