Infamy: A Graffiti Documentary

Aside from my passion for political art and propaganda, I have a keen interest in documentaries. Combine the two, and I’m in heaven.

Lately, my interest has been piqued by documentaries about graffiti, whether or not the art shown and discussed is politically themed. Because so many of the political art pieces I discuss are works of graffiti, I decided it makes sense to learn more about the art form itself.

Hence, last night: I watched the documentary Infamy, which catalogues the lives and minds of six of America’s most prolific and political graffiti artists. Viewers are introduced to the world of street legends Saber, Toomer, Jase, Claw, Earsnot, and Enem. Interesting characters—all of them. Saber’s designs are mathematically complex; Toomer is part of a graffiti gang; Jase has a fetish for slamming trains with graffiti in particular, but the fumes from countless paint cans are beginning to threaten his health; Claw is perhaps the only notorious girl graffiti artist; Earsnot is breaking stereotypes as a gay, African American graffiti artist in the hardened streets of the Bronx; and Enem is devising a revolutionary new graffiti style in Philadelphia.

With tell-all honesty, these artists reveal why they are so willing to risk everything to spray paint their cities with graffiti images. From the streets of the Bronx to a San Francisco tunnel, from high atop a Hollywood city billboard to the walls of Philadelphia, from the Mexican border to a Cleveland train yard, Infamy analyzes and glorifies graffiti through a simulated viewing experience.

EXPLORING GRAFFITI LEGENDS - Infamy, a documentary on six of the most legendary American graffiti artists, explores the reasons behind why writers risk it all to get their art on the street.

Adding depth to the documentary, the conflict between graffiti artists and local law enforcement is explored as both sides seek to answer the question: is graffiti art or crime? The audience also meets Joe “The Graffiti Guerrilla” Connolly, a notorious and well-known “buffer” who clearly views graffiti as the latter. With a vengeance matched only by the artists who produced them, Joe paints over graffiti murals and markings in his neighborhood, determined to keep the area free from vandalism. He even warns potential vandals to take their dealings elsewhere with a sign reading, “Graffiti no longer accepted here. Find a day job please!”

Watching the documentary, I had no idea that graffiti was such a territorial art. For an artist to be taken seriously, he must claim entire sections of a neighborhood by spraying and tagging his designs on every available surface—walls, buildings, lampposts, post office boxes, doors, road and traffic signs, etc. Furthermore, he must maintain his designs by repeatedly coming back and checking that no one has painted over them or drawn something on top of them—a major offense in the graffiti world.

While such offenses among artists competing for fame are common, offenses and run-ins with the law are almost just as frequent. Every one of the six legends has faced either criminal charges or repeated warnings from law enforcement. Yet, despite potential ramifications and repercussions, they all continue to create their art illegally, often sneaking out at all hours of the night or lying to cops outright in the middle of the day about permission to paint a particular area. When asked why they risk it, they all give different answers, ranging from “graffiti is like an addiction” to “the kids like it” to “it’s personal.” But my favorite answer was Toomer’s: “It’s like the people who carved Mount Rushmore. They wanted to leave a mark, and that’s all we’re doing. It’s the same thing.”

Just make sure you brush up on your graffiti vocabulary beforehand. For a relative graffiti novice like me, prior knowledge of the following lingo would have been most helpful:

Bomb: to paint many surfaces in an area.

Heavens: pieces that are painted in hard-to-reach places such as rooftops and freeway signs, thus making them hard to remove. Such pieces often pose dangerous challenges to execute, but may increase an artist’s notoriety.

Piece: a large and labor-intensive graffiti painting (short for masterpiece). They often incorporate 3-D effects, arrows, and many colors and are considered the full and most beautiful work of graffiti. A piece requires more time to paint than a throw-up. If placed in a difficult location and well executed it will earn the writer more respect (also called murals).

Racking: shoplifting or robbing, not limited to but including paint, markers, inks, caps, and clothes.

Tags: a stylized signature, normally done in one color. The simplest and most prevalent type of graffiti, a tag is often done in a color that contrasts sharply with its background. Tag can also be used as a verb meaning “to sign.” Writers often tag on or beside their pieces, following the practice of traditional artists who sign their artwork.

Throw-up: a throw-up or “throwie” sits between a tag and a piece in terms of complexity and time investment. It generally consists of a one-color outline and one layer of fill-color. Easy-to-paint bubble shapes often form the letters. A throw-up is designed for quick execution, to avoid attracting attention to the writer. Throw-ups are often utilized by writers who wish to achieve a large number of tags while competing with rival artists. Most artists have both a tag and a throw-up that are essentially fixed compared to pieces. This way, they have a recognizable logo for others to identify them and a mark that characterizes their own individual styles.

Writer: a graffiti artist.

Political Graffiti in Nairobi Demands Attention

Out of Nairobi, Kenya, this politically-charged wall protests political instability, corrupt government officials, lack of reform, high unemployment, and rising prices. The wall spurred a feature cover on February 29, 2012 by NTV Kenya, the largest broadcasting station in Kenya, covering a wide region across the country.

The art lists a slew of problems affecting the country, including: land grabbing, political assassinations, tribal clashes, drug dealings, famine, tax evasion.

Perhaps the most powerful image is of a corrupt politician sitting on a throne with a box full of money chained to his seat—a symbol of how politicians use money to reel in votes. To add to the picture of corruption, the politician’s thoughts are articulated in the words, “I steal their taxes, grab land, but the idiots will still vote for me.”

One section of the wall has a bullet list of characteristics of the type of leader the people desire: visionary, patriotic, intelligent, honest, competent, courageous, and in touch with the people.

A final section of the wall recalls the corrupt and undemocratic elections that took place in December of 2007. With the words, “my voice, my vote, my future,” the artists assert that this is how the democratic voting process should be—responsive to the people.

Kenya has experienced political problems since 2007, when a crisis erupted after disputed elections. Violence erupted across many regions, particularly in the slums, and protests raged in Nairobi.

Watch NTVKenya’s coverage of the street art:

Street Artist Influenced 2008 Obama Campaign

Designed by Chicago-based street artist Ray Noland, this perfectly outlined work of stencil graffiti depicts Obama shaking the hand of America. While no year is listed, it was presumably done shortly after Obama took office. It’s similar to another Chicago piece featured a few postings ago which portrays Obama delivering his Inaugural Address to the American people.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - Chicago street artist and graphic designer Ray Nolan depicts newly elected President Obama shaking the hand of America in a tried-and-true gesture of trust and sincerity.

Demonstrated by the oldest gesture of friendship and trust in the book—the handshake—this piece is a spot-on representation of the relationship between the president and the American public. It makes no qualms about the expectations of the president, who gives his word to be honest and fair to U.S. citizens with the simple shake of a hand.

Dubbed “the creator of Barack Obama street art,” Nolan’s designs contributed to swells of support for Obama and his presidential campaign in 2008. His most significant contribution was the “Go Tell Mama” campaign, in which a number of materials—posters, buttons, t-shirts, etc—were mass screen-printed with the slogan “Go Tell Mama I’m For Obama.” The campaign was not limited to the streets however, but went viral with an animated video as well. While the campaign had its roots in Chicago, its accompanying images and message quickly spread to other cities like Detroit and New York, making Nolan a subject of mass influence.

GO TELL MAMA - The first poster in the "Go Tell Mama I'm For Obama" campaign initiated by Ray Nolan featured Obama's face surrounded by megaphones resonating with shouts of support. A rally on Obama's shoulders shows supporters picketing with signs containing messages like "Surge of Diplomacy."

Nolan continues to feature Obama in a number of his works, rallying the populace to back the president again as runs for reelection this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this YouTube video, street artist Ray Nolan talks to the Chicago Tribune about his “Go Tell Mama” campaign and other designs featuring Obama. 

Almost Like A Stamp

It’s almost like a stamp.

This piece of political art, showing Bill Clinton—complete with an ‘I’m Awesome’ look in his eye and a stereotypical cool-guy head jerk—is etched on a street corner in Berlin, Germany.

STAMPING GROUNDS - On a street corner in Berlin, Germany, this stamped stencil graffiti calls President Clinton a pimp in reference to his extramarital affair with White House intern Monica Lewinksy.

It reflects an opinion on the Monica Lewinksy sex scandal that came to light in 1998 concerning an extramarital affair between United States President Bill Clinton and 22 year-old Lewinsky, a White House intern at the time. While the relationship was kept under wraps until 1998, it was allegedly begun in 1995 when Lewinsky first began her internship.

The subsequent investigation of the nature of the relationship led to the impeachment of President Clinton by the House of Representatives, although he was later acquitted of all impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice by a Senate trial.

Only six years old at the time, I do not remember the news or the reactions that followed. I don’t remember any detail about Clinton’s presidency, and it’s probably a safe bet that most of the American public doesn’t recall anything other than the scandal. It’s likely even a guarantee that a majority of the public can recite on-the-spot the phrase which is debatably the most famous line ever said by Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He didn’t know when he was saying it that he’d just created a great punch line.

Another equally brilliant line uttered by Clinton, although perhaps less well-known, was in reference to the meaning of the word ‘is’ (since that clearly confuses so many). In response the truthfulness of his statement that “there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship,” Clinton answered that it depended on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. Now THAT’s desperation. Talk about REALLY reaching for something.

Whatever good may have been remembered about Clinton and his presidency, it was, and still is, completely overshadowed by that scandal. The Lewinksy affair is a dark mark on his term in office and on his reputation as a man.

Almost like a stamp.

Bush Butchery Slaughters America

These two graffiti illustrations are not found together, but are in fact two separate pieces on different walls in different cities. I thought it appropriate to group them together, given the common butchery theme.

The first is designed in the spirit of a company logo with a name (Bush & Sons), a slogan (‘family butchers since 1989’) and a fitting icon (recently used butcher knife). Compared to the second piece of art, a stencil graffiti piece, it’s fairly mild in nature.

BUSH BUTCHERY - The first of these two commonly themed graffiti illustrations resembles a company logo.

Behold the not-so-mild work of art: George Bush sporting the American flag as an apron and looking all too ready to exact vengeance on his next victim. Notice the butcher knife in hand (also recently used), and if I’m not mistaken, what appears to be blood dripping from the side of his mouth. I can’t quite make out the words, but given the Jack-the-Ripper theme, I’m sure they’re not pleasantries.

BUTCHERING AMERICA - The second graffiti illustration has Bush wearing an American flag for an apron and holding a butcher knife, clearly symbolizing that he has butchered America. More accusatory than the first, it also employs a much more controversial graphic.

Obviously Bush has plenty of haters. Under his administration, a lot of controversial legislation and widely-disliked policies were enacted. Bush initiated the No Child Left Behind Act and pushed for socially conservative efforts like the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and faith-based welfare initiatives. He declared a War on Terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks and during his term, the U.S. invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. He pushed huge tax cuts, collectively known as the ‘Bush tax cuts,’ and was also confronted with an economic recession and massive immigration problems. A number of these policies, actions, and initiatives were strongly opposed by a large portion of the public, and by the end of his second term in 2008, Bush had lost a lot of his popularity and support and suffered through scathing criticisms.

But does that warrant art like this? I don’t know. The focus of these pieces seems not so much an attack on policy or action, but on the man himself. There’s a clear message that HE butchered America (figuratively speaking, of course). But one man is not responsible for the state of America today, just as one man could never fix it.

For whatever reason, as Americans, we expect the President to fix everything. We vote based on who we think can change everything for the better. That’s naïve. The President is just another person like the rest of us, and therefore, all we can really expect of him is his best effort.

‘No Future’ Mural Is Short-Lived

Another piece of Banksy genius…

This mural, done in 2010, features a colorless and rather petulant looking child holding a red balloon which forms the ‘o’ in the phrase ‘NO FUTURE.’ It appeared on the side of a private home in an area of Southampton, England known for its lively nightlife and drinking culture. According to BBC News, the mural increased the worth of the privately owned house by 20,000 euro.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - One of Banksy's most short-lived works, the 'No Future' mural attracted a flurry of attention before it was whitewashed over by an unknown protester hours later.

In 2010, Banksy was still entirely a mystery to the English populace, but his works of politically-charged street art were popping up all over the country. Catching the artist at work proved fruitless, but as people tried to discover the man behind the spray can, it became somewhat of a game to rush to find Banksy’s latest painting.

When this mural was found, it drew the attention of BBC News, the press, the art elite, and pedestrian passerby. Only hours after it was discovered, however, the image of the child was painted over with whitewash and the words changed to “GRAFFITI HAS NO FUTURE.” It is still unknown who censored the graffiti.

As with all of Banksy’s art, the message is quite simple, succinct, and clever while the illustration carries the true message—one of social protest.

It’s a shame, however, that the work was ruined. It only proves all too well that the argument over whether graffiti is art or crime is a potent one. Banksy’s work has on several occasions been called egotistic, with critics saying that his outspoken messages and longstanding anonymity show he has an “I-can-get-away-with-it” attitude and a “look-what-I-can-do” demeanor.

I disagree. I don’t think Banksy is trying to get away with anything. I think, as with all street artists who have social and political messages, he’s trying to let people take away something.

Cornered: Street Art Wraps Around Two Walls

Painted shortly after Obama’s 2008 presidential win, this street art in Chicago, Illinois depicts Obama delivering his Inaugural Address to America.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - A street corner depiction of President Obama delivering his Inaugural Address to the American public.

I’m fond of the double-sided aspect of this piece. Up to this point, I haven’t seen street art that wraps around a corner, but it’s an intriguing dynamic. Any pedestrian walking along would naturally wish to see what’s around the corner, and thus the artist achieves his goal of attracting attention to the work.

The custom of delivering an Inaugural Address, or a presidential speech in which the newly elected president informs the public of his intentions as the nation’s leader, began with George Washington on April 30, 1789.

Debatably the most listened-to speech in a president’s term of office, it’s no wonder that the words and phrases used by some presidents are familiar to the public. Here are a few famous quotes from various Inaugural Addresses:

  • “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” – Franklin D Roosevelt, 1933
  •   “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.” – John F Kennedy, 1961
  • “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” – Ronald Reagan, 1981
  • “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” – Bill Clinton, 1993
  • “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” – George W Bush, 2005
For more famous excerpts from Inaugural Addresses, click here.

Banksy Documentary Takes Inside Look at Street Art

I mentioned my newfound obsession with Banksy on Saturday. Let me just say: it has grown. That same night I watched a documentary produced by and featuring Banksy called “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Absolutely fabulous. Banksy is not only an artist; he’s a character. Having a naturally sarcastic way about him, his commentary adds wit and entertainment to the 86-minute-long look at some of the most famous images of political graffiti, protest graffiti, and street art.

Banksy produced the documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which takes an inside look at some of the most famous street artists in the world, along with many of their politically-charged works. Banksy is also a subject in the film.

Even more cool, viewers actually get to see three of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists—Banksy, Shephard Fairey, and Invader—at work. Given Banksy’s notoriously camera-shy reputation, the fact that he appears onscreen at all is remarkable.

The documentary begins when a Los Angeles based Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, gets the idea that he would like to film street artists in the process of creating their work. To gain access, he tells them he is making a documentary. In reality, he is only filming endless footage with no intention of making a cohesive movie. Unaware of this fact, many street artists from around the world agree to participate. As Thierry goes out with artists at night, he begins assisting them in creating their designs and even gains insider knowledge about the most sought-after locations for graffiti art.

The documentary also takes a look at Shepard Fairey's "Obey" campaign, and viewers will see him posting his graffiti in many locations.

After following Invader, Fairey, and other graffiti artists for a while, Thierry finally gains permission to tag along with Banksy, so long as he only films his hands working. In interview scenes, Banksy demands to be blacked out, and viewers never see his face. Banksy eventually convinces Thierry to use his footage to make a movie. After six months apart, Thierry returns to Banksy to show him the product of his work. At this point, Banksy realizes that Thierry is an amateur filmmaker at best, but still finds Thierry to be an interesting character—in an odd, yet appealing, way.

Banksy decides to take over the film process and uses Thierry’s footage along with additional material to make his own documentary about Thierry’s journey in this project. Since Thierry spent so much time involved in the process of street art, Banksy also suggests (rather offhandedly) that Thierry become a street artist himself. Not wanting to disappoint Banksy—whose suggestion Thierry takes very seriously—Thierry reinvents himself as street artist MBW, an acronym for “Mr. Brainwash.”

After being on the LA street art scene only a short while, Thierry throws everything into putting on a massive art show showcasing his work. However, as viewers will see, much of his ‘original’ work appears similar to other artists’. Despite the unoriginality, he gains fame and popularity, much to the other artists’ shock.

The film ends with my favorite line of the documentary, said by Banksy:

“I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”

Watch the trailer for the documentary here: 

Banksy: The Street Art Phenomenon

I’m undergoing an obsession (likely a fleeting one) with Banksy, arguably the most well-known, albeit controversial, street artist in the world.

I’ve mentioned him several times, but to review: Banksy is a graffiti artist from Bristol, England, whose artwork has appeared throughout London and other cities around the world. Despite being wildly popular, he’s managed for the most part to hide much of his identity from the media. Nobody can even say for sure what his real name is, although many assert that it is Robert or Robin Banks. However, he sings all of his works of art with the stenciled “Banksy” logo.

On the occasion that he has agreed to be interviewed, Banksy refuses to call himself an artist, although he is obviously considered as such by other artists and by viewers of his works. His street art style is very unique and most commonly employs a distinctive stenciling technique.

Banksy’s art is often heavily controversial and almost always politically loaded. His works offer commentary on a wide range of societal problems, but tend to focus most on urban decay and subjects in urban environments. His political leanings, which many believe to be left-wing, are often not appreciated by certain members of society. Sometimes viewed in an offensive light, his art is not always received well by older members of society, but he has generated somewhat of a cult following among younger generations.

In addition to his street works, Banksy does paid work for a few organizations and sells some canvases for a steep price.

In 2006, Banksy generated an unprecedented amount of controversy when he stenciled nine images on the West Bank Barrier, the 425-mile concrete barricade separating Israel from the Palestine territories. Israel constructed the wall as a security measure against suicide bombers. Painted on the Palestinian side of the barrier, one image depicts a hole in the wall with an idyllic beach, while another shows a mountain landscape on the other side. Still another shows the head of a white horse appearing to poke through, while he also painted a ladder going over the wall.

Banksy condemned the wall, but also described it as the ultimate holiday destination for graffiti artists.

Here’s a video documenting his work on the West Bank Barrier: 

Here’s another showing a number of his works around the world:

Society May Prompt Its Own Vandalism

Another work of Banksy stenciled graffiti: I’m catching the theme that he’s popular among political street art circles. I’m also catching onto his style (totally called that this was his).

This work (on a street corner in Belgium) touches on the idea of graffiti as vandalism, a topic I’ve previously covered. The art world and the public don’t always see eye-to-eye on the role, purpose, and legality of graffiti in society. Here, Banksy offers an interesting twist to the artist’s argument

On a street corner in Belgium, this is another stenciled graffiti piece by Banksy. It offers the idea that society itself prompts works of graffiti, an act considered vandalism by much of the public.

Protest art is, more than anything, a response. Something spurs it. Artists wouldn’t draw pieces protesting war if there was no war; images of the homeless wouldn’t appear if homelessness was not a problem in society; works favoring or disagreeing with one candidate or another or one issue or another wouldn’t appear if disputes didn’t exist among sides.

In short, politically-charged works of street art tend to emerge as reactions to societal problems and issues. It’s a classic example of cause-and-effect.  Where problems arise, art follows. And the greater the problem, the more likely it is there will be a united and powerful response among the street art world.

Furthermore, works of political protest art and street graffiti are not created simply to express an individual artist’s opinion, but to call attention to what they (and generally many others) view as an injustice existing in society. This ‘vandalism’ then, as many perceive it, is precisely the fault of society: as the acting impetus, it deserves to suffer the consequences.

Street artists will continue to launch responses to societal concerns so long as society remains imperfect. As such, it is unrealistic to ever expect walls and buildings devoid of art.