It’s crazy how much you can learn and to what degree your perspective can shift to alter your opinion when you quite simply open your eyes.
People tend to experience cities ‘the way they’re supposed to’. That is to say, the main streets. Activity follows official destination and purpose – retail, office, public space, nodes, entertainment and attractions. These places are the face of a city – the parts that people recognize and thrive off of.
But think of your good friends, and think about how you truly know them. I mean, really know them.
It is understood that when you get to know someone well, you learn about who they truly are on the inside. Perhaps, this might be called ‘the soul’.
I believe cities work in that same way. There are many different ways one can identify the true soul, heart, or spirit of a city, such as with culture, people, and values of a place. But one aspect, common in every city, has been known to be a realm of true expression, but also of disrespect and controversy. If you look just around the corner and under the ‘skin’ of a city, you will begin to notice and discover street art.
Most people have a strong opinion about street art. They hate it with a passion, they adore it and follow it, or they feel relatively neutral towards it because they don’t really pay attention to it.
People who dislike street art are more likely to call it ‘vandalism‘ because it has affected them directly in a negative way. I believe that this is a very good point – it doesn’t really seem fair to go to work in the morning only to realize someone has tagged some sort of half-assed scribbly-looking thing on the window of your shop. It’s hurtful, inconvenient, disrespectful, and seems just plain useless, right? What makes people think they can just walk up to someone’s property and ruin it with an egotistic tag of their undecipherable sudo graffiti name? It’s a valid argument and has a lot to do with common courtesy.
I like to say that people who love street art have been blessed with enlightenment and understanding. Because when you open your eyes to the world of street art, peer just behind the curtain and look, you realize so many things. First of all, I think you realize that the people who are ‘vandalizing‘ property in a tasteless way are ruining it for everyone. Every street artist is suddenly ignorantly thrown into one big basket, assuming they are all ‘bad people‘ that are capable of disrespect.
But here’s the truth; and I’ll tell you a story. One day I was randomly wandering the alleys parallel to Queen Street West in Downtown Toronto to look at the art and take pictures of the ones that I like. I was eventually lucky enough to bump into a few graffiti artists working on a piece. I stopped to watch, and took in the glory of witnessing the focus, control and talent in action right before my eyes – it truly is beautiful and unlike anything else. One of the artists noticed me lingering for a while and introduced himself to me – “Hey, how’s it going, I’m Artchild.” Baffled, I tried to collect my thoughts so I could respond without sounding like a 14-year-old meeting Justin Bieber. He seemed pleased to process that I definitely knew who he was – of course I did; he’s one of the most popular and accomplished graffiti artists in Toronto. So we got talking about graffiti culture, and he eventually said one thing that really stood out to me – “When you get really good at it and people know who you are, no one goes over your work.” Interesting – there is no ‘pro-graffiti’ legislature that says you can paint wherever you want but you can’t paint over talented work. Savvy street artists simply inately know about respect. When a piece stands the test of time, it’s because it’s worthy. When other artists don’t paint over a piece it’s like saying, “your work is great and it deserves to stay there.”
Here’s a good example of where street art respect went without saying:
Popular and anonymous artist Anser tagged another one of his widely recognizable all-one-line faces on the side of this Kensington Market shop. When Chou – another well-known artist – was commisioned to paint the otherwise vandalized wall, he started by covering all the eyesores and left Anser’s face peaking out through Chou’s classic bubbly background. In the screenshot above, taken from Chou’s Instagram feed, you can see that he left it there because he respects Anser’s work. Here is the final result:
If you’re REALLY lucky store owners will respect your work too. In the following picture, another one of Anser’s unwarranted faces sits on a the side of a shop off Dundas West. Over time other taggers began hitting the wall next to Anser’s face. When the owner took out his paint bucket to re-paint the wall as he usually does, he painted over everything and left Anser’s face. He must have really liked it.
I once asked Toronto artist JAH where he ‘draws the line’ and without a second thought he listed “people’s homes and places of worship.”
The theme of respect comes up a lot when I learn about and think about graffiti and street art. So this got me thinking a lot about street art history, legislature, and perception or education. If this form of expression is highly based on creating appealing art and valuing respect, why is it not tolerated, and why is it not more engrained in the status quo of our lives?
Before I realized that I had an interest in street art, I was ignorant towards it. I made a lot of assumptions and didn’t really understand it. I saw the ‘ugly’ stuff (usually ‘practice’ work) and assumed that most of it was like that – absolutely incorrect. I also saw the general style of stereotypical ‘graffiti’ and assumed it was all the same, which is not necessarily in line with my personal taste in art in general, leading me to believe that I simply did not like graffiti. The day I decided to turn a corner and take the alley to look at the walls, I saw the same thing but in a new light. And I saw that it was alright. It can be alright. A few weeks later I cut another corner through an alley, and tried to soak in the graffiti that I saw, trying to come to terms with what I liked and disliked about it – I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. That was when I stumbled upon what has come to be one of my favorite pieces of all time:
The first piece that truly moved me. It may not move you, because it may not be in line with what you like in art, which is fine. But it really hit me deep and I realized that I did in fact love street art – just not all of it. And in that realization, I also realized that you don’t need to like all of it to like street art. It’s like an art gallery – you walk through it in the same way you walk the alleys, and you observe. You’re probably going to like less than half of what you see, and only a few will truly smack you in the face with a big fat WOW.
I also bumped into popular graffiti artist Bacon in Kensington Market while he was working on this unique piece (can you read it?) :
There is no question when it comes to Artchild’s technical skill, because a lot of these guys have got it, and Artchild might as well be one of the best Toronto examples to show that off:
There are all kinds of styles out there. From an artistic perspective, there surely is street art out there that anyone could appreciate or enjoy. Just take a look at all the different styles…
So here comes the big question – what makes unwarranted (illegal) street art ‘okay’?
Most people would say that if anything is illegal then it’s a black and white matter. Illegal = shouldn’t happen. But what if I were to propose that, under certain circumstances, unwarranted street art is currently sitting in a grey area? If most people could agree that there are in fact certain times or ways that unwarranted graffiti can be enjoyed, doesn’t that mean that something about it is acceptable? Doesn’t that warrant some kind of upgrade into the legal side of things?
The City of Toronto has taken initiative by trying to find innovative ways to give street artists incentives to ‘sign up’ to do their work, as they recognize the importance and the beauty of street art. Many of the very accomplished artists do seek permission before starting a piece, especially if they want to create pieces that take a lot of time. But aside from these two ways, there is always a constant struggle for artists to add to their city’s sense of place, and the two main reasons are as follows:
1. Ignorant “artists” vandalising
2. Ignorant viewers dismissing
It’s ironic that streetart fosters so much ignorance and disrespect, when it is based in awareness and respect, isn’t it? So my conclusion is as follows: if the ignorance of the people could be uplifted in some way, and if the true goodness of streetart culture could be brought into the foreground (less taboo), then less vandalism would occur and less viewers would dismiss the activity as a whole.
But at the end of the day… talk to any street art or graffiti veteran and they’ll tell you – struggle or none – that the culture belongs behind the curtains. I guess knowing where to ‘draw the line’ will have to wait another day.
I want to hear your opinions and stories – sound off in the comments.