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2011- The Year Street Art Broke. Part One of Two

Art in the Streets MOCA Los Angeles Graffiti on East City Art

Esplanade outside the "Art in the Streets" exhbition opening night Saturday April 16, 2011 at the MOCA LA's Geffen Center. Photo Copyright East City Art.

Part 1.  The Backdrop.

Legitimacy has its risks and rewards.  On the one hand moving into the mainstream often allows artists to reap financial rewards, become famous and gain an established voice.  On the other hand, especially if an artist was part of a movement that worked against the establishment, going mainstream often results in cries of “selling out”.  On the eve of the MOCA Los Angeles Geffen Center’s watershed opening of Art in the Streets controversy inevitably reared its head.

Art in the Streets MOCA Los Angeles Graffiti on East City Art

Entrance to the Geffen Center. Photo Copyright East City Art.

While not the first exhibition in the United States to focus on street art, Art in the Streets brings together over 100 artists to produce both a historiography and a visual display of the movement.  Developed by the MOCA Los Angeles’ new director Jeffrey Deitch, the exhibition promises to be the most comprehensive exhibition on street art ever undertaken to date.  It is important to note that in 2006, the “Beautiful Losers” show toured the United States focusing mainly on contemporary writers.  However, it neither attempted to create a historical narrative of street art nor did it attempt to document movements within the movement.    Art in the Streets on the other hand labors to do just that- the exhibition narrates the history of street art while providing a visual backdrop made up of new content, older pieces by artists such as Keith Haring and period photographs.  One of the difficulties in mounting an exhibition based on a form of art that is essentially outlawed is that street artists rarely retain documents, older work (much of it is spray painted on walls after all), drafts or even photographs.  In addition, street artists work outside of convention by definition and do not subscribe to the rigors of systematic archival techniques often developed in art schools or encouraged by curators during the career of conventional fine artists.  Despite these setbacks, Deitch and his staff were able to find photographs and other artifacts to piece together a timeline of the movement’s history.

Art in the Streets MOCA Los Angeles Graffiti on East City Art

Embroiled in controversy from the onset- Museum Director Jeffrey Deitch speaks to reporters at the opening. Photo Copyright East City Art.

The lion share of the work and represented artists at the exhibition come from New York and Los Angeles.  While it is understandable that these two cities’ writers should show most of the work due to both cities long standing history of producing street art, the peppering of other cities’ movements was at odds with the rest of the exhibition.  Even more at odds with this retrospective were works from disparate European artists.  While both Gastman, one of the exhibition’s co-curators, and Deitch, in respective interviews with the LA Weekly noted that the intention of the exhibition was not to be all encompassing or exhaustive and that they would inevitably be criticized for omitting certain artists or periods within the movement, it is the job of the curator and director to restrict, excise and edit.  The show would have felt more cohesive had it been limited to the United States and specifically, if it had been limited to the cities of New York and Los Angeles.  Focusing the scope of the show and refining its historiography would have lent more credibility to the curators’ attempt at a well-documented timeline.

Art in the Streets MOCA Los Angeles Graffiti on East City Art

The social ills of graffiti? A Baltimore City poster warning of the social ills produced by graffiti on display at the exhibition. Photo Copyright East City Art.

Naturally, an exhibition focusing on a subject that is regarded as vandalism by property owners and illegal by authorities did not come without its share of controversy.  The Los Angeles Times noted that “Bombs”, “Tags” and other forms of street art began emerging in large number in and around the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles which is  adjacent to the MOCA Geffen Center.   While the ongoing  struggle between property owners and law enforcement officials versus graffiti artists seems obvious, these same artists were also pitted against the MOCA and in particular its museum director Deitch, when he decided to remove a museum sanctioned mural by Italian writer blu.  The writer had painted a mural depicting coffins wrapped in dollars bills on the side of the MOCA Geffen center.  While the subject pictorially quoted a number of politically sensitive topics, because of the mural’s proximity to a war veteran’s memorial, Deitch determined that the mural was too controversial and ordered it whitewashed.  Naturally, this set off a firestorm of anger from street art practitioners who already viewed a museum style show on street art with both suspicion and disdain.  It reinforced their opinion that once writing is taken out of the street and into a museum, it becomes innocuous, subjugated and irrelevant.

Art in the Streets MOCA Los Angeles Graffiti on East City Art

Overall view of the exhbition's entrance including a skate ramp in the foreground. Photo Copyright East City Art.

However, Art in the Streets had important buy-in not only from veteran writers such as Chaz Bojorquez but by contemporary street artists and long time followers of the subject.   The exhibition was co-curated by respected figures in street art such as Roger Gastman a graffiti artist originally from Bethesda, MD who penned the authoritative book The History of American Graffiti and by Aaron Rose who owned New York’s Alleged Gallery which showed street artists such as Shepard Fairey, Thomas Campbell and Ed Templeton in the early 1990’s.

Art in the Streets MOCA Los Angeles Graffiti on East City Art

Keith Haring graffiti on a leather hide. Photo Copyright East City Art.

There is no doubt that street art has had a profound influence on our culture since the 1970s.  The fashion industry, the fine arts and graphic design, just to name a few disciplines, have all looked to street art for inspiration.  Art in the Streets is a feast for the eyes, a visual whirlwind of color and form set in a large format dwarfing the onlooker and leaving a permanent imprint on its audience.  Ultimately, one gains a new insight into the aesthetics of graffiti and herein lays the legitimacy of the medium- it is original, creative, sensational and, yes, beautiful.   The alley dumpster, the billboard or the subway car no longer need to be the canvas of the street artist.  In Sheppard Fairey’s case, his artwork at Art in the Streets had already made the transition from the brick wall to the gallery.  Neatly painted on canvas and ready for consumption, Fairey’s work can be easily removed from museum’s wall and readily placed in one’s living room.

Art in the Streets MOCA Los Angeles Graffiti on East City Art

Graffiti in Oxaca City, Mexico in 2008. On the left, the APPO, Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) "Lives"; to the right "No more weapons!". Photo Copyright East City Art.

Despite the potential new direction this exhibition offers, the importance of street art as a form of expression to voice unpopular or repressed opinions should not be diminished.  From the graffiti of oppressed ancient Romans found in the archeological excavations of Pompeii to the streets of present day Oaxaca City where graffiti is still used to lash out at the Mexican government for a bloody repression of peaceful protests in 2006 which left dozens dead, graffiti allows the powerless to scream that which is forbidden in the public forum. At the time of this article, many Libyans struggle for the right of self-determination.  The Financial Times ran a series of photographs documenting street art mocking Muammar Gaddafi around the streets of major Libyan cities (see the slideshow here).   While we begin to embrace the aesthetics of street art and celebrate its legacy, let us not forget its roots and one of its most important purposes- a means of expression for the voiceless and the silenced.

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Part 2. Survey of work

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Phil Hutinet
Authored by: Phil Hutinet

Phil Hutinet, a third generation Capitol Hill resident, is the publisher of East City Art which he began in 2010 to document and promote the growing contemporary art movement in the eastern communities of Washington, DC. In 2012-2013, his consultancy work east of the river yielded the Anacostia Playhouse, Craig Kraft Studios, the Anacostia Arts Center and the 2012-2013 LUMEN8ANACOSTIA festivals. He currently produces EMULSION, East City Art's annual regional juried show. In 2015, he coordinated the Gateway Open Studio Tour and continues to consult on numerous regional art projects. Hutinet has been interviewed by or has made appearances on the BBC, Capital Community News, Washingtonian, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, WOL Radio, WJLA ABC News Channel 7/Channel 8, WTOP and other local and national media.