Written by Christian Penn
**Disclaimer: The topic of “graffiti vs. street art” is a sensitive topic to those passionate about the subject. After being asked to write about this as it pertains to the North Shore of Staten Island, it is important to make some distinctions between the two and their differing roles according to the author. This will be a multi-part series. Part I focuses on this general concept and future articles will be more focused on the direct relationship with graffiti, street art and the North Shore community.
Graffiti and Street Art on Staten Island: Part I
The North Shore of Staten Island is undergoing a renaissance in its own right. Years of abandoned warehouses and vacant lots are finally getting the facelifts they desperately need to revamp interest to outsiders or non-natives. But to people that have been on the North Shore for the past decade, one of the most obvious signs of change is the amount of new high quality art murals adorning the sides of buildings all along Bay St and the surrounding streets. While the North Shore of Staten Island, specifically Stapleton, has always been viewed as the artsy part of the borough, before the last 12-18 months, the previous 5-7 years have seen somewhat of a lull concerning the public arts on Staten Island. With just an occasional legal graffiti piece ,or commercial hand painted advertisements for local businesses, or a rotating selection of quickly opening and closing galleries and venues, art enthusiasts have understandably been less than impressed with public art offerings in Staten Island as a whole. However, the rapidly growing adornment of color gracing the facades of both new and old buildings throughout north shore communities can be attributed to the rise in popularity of “street art” as opposed to “graffiti”. This recent distinction and separation of genres is worth investigating and understanding the differences as it relates to the artist, the viewer, and the commercial businesses affiliated with the creation and display of the art.
Graffiti vs. Street-art is becoming more and more of a heated debate, with each side heavily defending itself against negative associations with its competitor. The two genres of art have, for a long time, lived in harmony with each other, foregoing the need to distinguish themselves from one another. In the not so distant past, asking anyone about "street art" would leave you with blank stares, as the genre and terminology had not yet infiltrated popular culture the way "graffiti" had. Before popular artists such as Shepard Fairey (OBEY) or Banksy were household names and the term "street-art" had been adopted to classify different styles of outdoor art, virtually all art found on the street was considered graffiti, regardless of the imagery used, be it letters or characters or abstract visuals. That is to say, the need for labels and semantics were irrelevant. Artists were mainly concerned with seeing their name in as many places and as colorfully and creatively as possible.
Things changed when artists started to focus less on their name or tag, and concentrate more on visual designs incorporating important socially conscious themes, or general artistic expression without the need for letters or names as the main image. Traditionally, since the initial rise in popularity of graffiti in the 1970's, artists spent the majority of their efforts painting or writing just their names. Slowly, popular comic characters and sceneries were added to the abstract letter styles to fill up space, but the main imagery was still fundamentally rooted in spreading the artist's tag. Hip-hop's competitive nature lead to the evolution of styles, forcing artists to twist letters into unrecognizable contortions, and often combining new original characters with all kinds of pop culture imagery to take space on bigger and bigger walls. Two decades after the rise to pop culture, graffiti artists were producing murals that stretched the length of a city block, including every aspect of "traditional" fine art mural techniques including perspective, color theory, design, typography, and more; but still the focus was the writers' tag and spreading the name. The eventual progression of graffiti led to certain artists focusing more on one aspect of a mural, be it a character, or a landscape, or a just a general design that held a significance and not based on the artists signature.
When writers began to focus on artistic concepts beyond just letters, it paved the way for new artists to gain recognition on the street using imagery based around political or social themes or personal narratives or expressions, rather than traditional letter graffiti; enter the “street artist”. Different years are mentioned when pinpointing the onset of more and more “street art” but eventually there was a clear distinction between artists that made their name known by spelling it out in letters, and other artists that chose to focus solely on images, often not bothering to even leave a tag or signature; gaining recognition instead through repeated iconography often with similar styles (stencil art) and media (wheat paste) used to create art on the street. The result being a new genre that transcends the boundaries that pioneers imagined when they were just writing their names in beautiful letters on the trains.
With the expansion of the art form and new styles and subjects adorning streets and cities all over the globe, a new audience emerged with a new found admiration for art that was outdoors, once considered graffiti. With the new imagery, the art became more about the viewer than the artist. By painting different visuals instead of names, mainstream society was exposed to a wide range of images which began to compete for space on city walls. Because of graffiti’s history and negative associations with crime and the horrible misrepresentation about its positive impacts on communities, there was a need for the art world (curators, critics, gallery owners, etc.) to differentiate from the artists that chose to paint their name vs. artists that chose to paint images. However, the effort to categorize the two is pedantic, and only fits the needs of those who insist on identifying certain art as “not graffiti” or “not street art”. But what does this categorization ultimately mean? The arguments to making the subject of a painting the artist’s signature in bright bold letters over and over again versus creating an icon out of a deceased pro-wrestler versus painting a photorealistic historical portrait becomes less relevant when you look at the results and impact that mural has on community. Public art, be it graffiti or street art, adds color, draws attention and provokes thought and dialogue among communities and visitors. It’s role is not to be defined and limited to labels, its role is to inspire and instigate.
With all the debate around the semantics and labels of “street-art” vs. “graffiti”, isn’t the relevant question whether or not the art looks good? And this is entirely subjective. For every complaint about the presence of “graffiti” on walls in a neighborhood, you can find hundreds of art enthusiasts that will defend that stylistic lettering as valuable public art. In the same sense, plenty of image heavy socially conscious street-art with obvious hi-technical skill and technique can be viewed as distasteful and unwanted by local demographics or communities. If Stapleton graffiti artists had not spent the last 20 years claiming this area as the art haven of Staten Island, we would never have witnessed the evolution to the beautiful legal pieces all along the same railroad tracks and north shore developments. So call it what you will, but art is art. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Whether you choose to define something as street art or graffiti, it’s all ART! The result is the dialogue and the meaning and the emotions behind the visual, how it makes the viewer feel. Personally, this author feels great about all the colored walls from different artists of all ages and styles. Let the renaissance proceed!