by Eric Vogel
“Graffiti is beautiful; like a brick in the face of a cop.”
– Hunter S. Thompson
They are everywhere. Look out of any window in Berlin, drive on a highway in Northern France, or take the subway in New York City. Like a mass of amorphous, gaudy chewing gum, they are sticking to walls, train cars, chimneys, bridges, delivery vans, garage doors and a multitude of other conceivable and inconceivable surfaces – united less and less by aesthetic quality or style, but rather by the sheer audacity with which they conquer our urban, 21st-century environment. Their history is shrouded in myth and legend ever since the first homeboy took up a spray can and scrawled his name on the wall – a name that he himself chose to voice his disagreement with the status quo.
Whether to call the result graffiti, street art, urban art or something entirely different has been of little concern to those artists. Their legacy is not taught to children in art class like the one of their colleagues who happened to paint on canvas instead of concrete. Nevertheless, the colossal effort of a huge number of protagonists which covers vast amounts of urban surfaces should be considered as nothing less than the original folk art of our time. The idols of this school carry spray cans and microphones instead of crucifixes and rosary beads, and the followers move in trance to drum beats instead of djembés, but the outcome of their actions in the concrete jungle, the brazen and confident visibility of their pieces affect everybody who shares the same space with them. While the reception of their works usually ranges from rowdy vandalism to subversive resistance to the visual encroachment of advertising in public spaces, the creators usually remain invisible and thus without credit.
This conception of urban art and its protagonists is of course more romantic than accurate. The movement has come a long way since the 80’s, has hijacked so many different contexts and cultures that all hope for a unified and accurate description of it has long gone out of the window. Nevertheless, it has never quite lost the paradoxical nature that seems inherent in the contrast between the visibility of its works and the invisibility of its protagonists.
Working in 2017, the (urban) artist is confronted with a plethora of contradictory approaches and unanswerable questions that directly inform his production. For one, this text is part of an exhibition in a room closely resembling a gallery. How can street art even be shown inside of a room, and is it a sacrilege to do so? Should we bring the street into the gallery or rather try to move the gallery out on the streets? And anyways, exhibiting works instead of going out and painting, is that something worth doing? What about painting walls legally, instead of jumping fences in the middle of the night? Who defines the rules of the underground and how shall we deal with the forces of the market? Should we be enthusiastic about the prospects of doing a prominent piece in broad daylight (and maybe even getting paid for it), or do we sell out, do we lose our edge which we honed so carefully in all those nights painting trains in the dark?
None of these questions are easily answerable; and that is why those urban artists are truly contemporary. Instead of trying to solve the unsolvable riddle, they accept and embody the paradox. Like the tricksters of folklore, they are attracted to mischief without being blind to reason. Their dissatisfaction with the world as it is fuels their colourful pranks, which are, while giving the finger to the man, actually an act of compassion to their fellow humans, whose lives they seek to enhance with their stencils and spray cans. While they love the material environment of their workplace – the smell of the aerosol, the metallic feel of train wagon under their touch, the adrenalin rush of going to places no ordinary person would go – they are not shy to engage in critical discussion or theoretical meta-reflexion about their chosen discipline.
Ultimately, however, even if the they enter the realm of fine art from time to time and know how to operate gracefully in the limited space that our society reserves for them, they remain vagabonds who cross boundaries on their own, self-appointed expeditions. For the urban art scene like no other is characterized by a grass-roots and genuine spirit of transnational cooperation, by a sense of community and hospitality that is unfortunately quite absent in many other forms of contemporary art. Urban artists travel from city to city not to enlarge their CV’s, but out of a desire to paint wherever opportunity arises. And thus their fascination for trains and delivery vans as canvasses: it enables their works, however ephemeral they might be, to travel too – sometimes in the same direction, sometimes in ways completely opposite to the intentions of their creators. Just open your eyes. They are everywhere.