The Gentrification of Graffiti

The gentrification of graffiti as art.

Does haute graffiti spell liberty or death for street art? There are many layers to that question, which is not to be taken figuratively in the slightest. This week LA-based graffiti darling RETNA became the latest sanctioned artist to take on the famous graffiti wall at Bowery and Houston, replacing a previously sanctioned installation by Brooklyn duo Faile.

Here is a video of RETNA taken during his process:

An interesting 57-seconds of performance art: have you ever seen a more perfect circle? It’s also an unexpected and unintentional piece of historical theater, too. What was once a clandestine, subversive, anti-establishment, “up yours” middle finger to the powers that be – with the added thrill of being where you’re not supposed to be, dodging the law during the most criminal of hours of the night and early morn’ – has become mainstream, lunch hour entertainment on one of the most gentrified corners in the nation.

RETNA, a.k.a. Marquis Lewis, himself seems bemused at his own mainstream success. In an interview with ELLE, he recalls his ascent to becoming one of the most sought after street artists this side of Banksy.

“[I]t wasn’t really called street art at that time, it was just graffiti. When I first saw it I knew that was what I wanted to do I just never really thought that it would turn into a career.”

And quite a career it is. From being arrested as a kid in the name of honing his art, to the Bowery and beyond (i.e., his full scale hieroglyphic installation on a $60 million private jet), he has very much arrived.

Meanwhile, the Bowery’s “arrival” is a bonified “nuh duh” at this point. Obviously. And on today’s Bowery, it would not be a stretch to assume that few passersby know of the history and significance of the Bowery Graffiti Wall – or the many, many layers underneath.

Complex offers a thorough must-read history of the wall. In summary, three decades ago Keith Haring did the wall’s first mural, said to be his first large-scale public work. It was then bombed and pieced (more on that in a minute) by illegal graffiti until curator Jeffrey Deitch and developer (and wall owner) Tony Goldman began sanctioning off murals on the wall to high profile contemporary artists in 2008.

Haring’s wall

The Os Gemeos version of the wall of 2009

May Day by Shepard Fairey

In fitting fashion, the new installations have been targeted over the years by NYC graffiti writers many times, from tagging…

…to out and out destruction revealing the layers underneath.

Bombing and Tagging vs. Mural-izing

The level of street art these days bears little resemblance to the tags of Cool “Disco” Dan, though even he is recognized as an artist in his own right. His work is owned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and featured in books; he credits his tagging with keeping him alive and out of jail throughout the 80s and 90s during DC’s crack-smoking mayor’s, “murder capital of the world” years.

Decades later, the city government is nurturing future Disco Dans through its MuralsDC program, like the Deitch/Goldman collaboration but on a more civic scale. The intention is to keep kids out of trouble via bombing (spraying or marking a wall with one’s tag, or name, i.e., Che, Sleazy, Stamp, or Moe) and piecing (large scale abstract forms).

This tagging, piecing, mural-izing distinction is interesting to keep in mind when you consider the war raging across the pond between the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy, and the artist with the most street cred, King Robbo.

The two have been battling it out for the past three years after Bansky “improved upon” a piece King Robbo had created in a nearly-impossible-to-reach location twenty four years prior.

Face-slapping, resentments and destruction ensued. Team King Robbo was born.

In another touch of irony, this video captures one neighbor’s dismay at the willful destruction of property, a casualty of the graffiti war. He calls it a “horrific stain,” “a random act of vandalism,” done at the hands of wild, out of control kids.

The addition of red paint certainly changes things, but isn’t this street art?

Images: Wright Wedding; Bowery BoogieBusiness InsiderComplex; Cool Disco Dan; The Guardian; BBC News

K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.