Two films about prominent graffiti artists have come out this year. One is Exit Through the Gift Shop, a “prankumentary” by the notoriously reclusive British street artist named Banksy. The other is Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a traditional documentary featuring never before seen interviews with Basquiat who made a name for himself doing graffiti work before landing in galleries and museums.
I’m excited to see both films, but it re-opened an unresolved debate for me on graffiti: is it art or crime?
When I was a bit younger I unequivocally loved street art. It all seemed so bad-ass and more like an urban beautification effort than anything destructive. Ironically enough, it was the seminal documentary from 1983 called Style Wars that made me change my mind.
Maybe I’m just getting old, but to me, the same people glorified in the film and who I thought were so cool (before I actually knew much about them) seemed more immature and disrespectful than anything else. Rather than making ugly urban spaces look more interesting, they were really just defacing other people’s property by plastering their initials over everything. What egomaniacs!
To me, Banksy is a bit of a different case because he often really does make ugly urban spaces more interesting and because he is creating actual, often political, artwork not merely signing his signature (see images above).
Now I have some qualifications when I say I like street art. For it to be good it has to be 1) more than just a stupid signature 2) it has to actually look cool 3) and most importantly, it can only be on an abandoned building about to be torn down.
Where do you stand on the graffiti debate?