written by Eddie Arroyo
People move shoulder to shoulder along Northwest Second Avenue, yelling, drinking, laughing – music deafening perception. This is the Wynwood Arts District during Art Basel week and its Saturday. Was my vision altered or did reality present a new version of Gallery Diet? It had been bombed, vandalized – graffiti covered its exterior. Come Monday gallery owner Nina Johnson-Milewski expressed her discontent on Facebook declaring,
“Dear idiot graffiti artists, you are derivative, lame and completely useless… Thank you for destroying a non profit free public library and financially impacting a small business that has cultivated culture in Miami for 7 years. Get a life and a clue, it might behoove you to read a bit about the history of graf and why your current use of the technique is not valid. #wynwood”
By Friday, the wall had been painted over back to white. It’s rare to have a public figure express raw unfiltered emotions. I found it to be a very honest and telling response, especially due to the fact that graffiti has been one of the factors responsible for the growing change to the neighborhood over the years, accelerated with the blessing of developers.
Even its terminology has evolved from graffiti to Street Art. I had never really given too much thought to the validity of graffiti due to its juvenile impulse and its association to vandalism. However, given the rise of graffiti’s legitimate child, Street Art, it did raise the question… is it derivative, lame, and completely useless? Before I continue, it’s important to note the differences between vandalism, graffiti, and Street Art.
In its purest sense, it is the destruction of form. An expression absent of any discernible skills or trade. Originated from the behavior of the Vandals which were an East Germanic tribe (or group of tribes) – barbarians. Their actions where experienced by the Roman Empire in 455 AD during the sacking of Rome. It was a response to the territorial conflict which occurred at the time and the Roman Empire had a history expanding and growing as a nation.
What was unique about this event was when British poet John Dryden monumentalized it, “Till Goths, and Vandals, a rude Northern race, Did all the matchless Monuments deface (1694)” Hence forth, its legacy evolved as a taste for destruction. This sentiment was expressed by Rob Goyanes’ list on Art Slant, “The Top 10 Crimes Against Art in 2014”, citing the vandalism of Prada Marfa, Ai Weiwei’s vase smashed at the Perez Art Musuem Miami, and the Jeff Koons retrospective.
In contrast, graffiti’s aim is to improve the environment through the act of vandalism. Through mastery, graffiti is an expression of social advancement both visually and conceptually. Derived from the Italian word “graffiato” (scratched) – reminisce was found on the walls of sepulchers or ruins during ancient Roman times. This technique was used by craftsmen in the practice of pottery.
First “modern style” graffiti can be found in the Greek city of Ephesus (in Turkey) where local guides state it was a sign for prostitution. An abundance of carvings still exist in the region expressing declarations of love, political rhetoric, and social ideas or discontent. Through the artistic skills of the time; an individual can effectively express subjective ideas through methods of vandalism. Its approach has evolved to utilize modern forms of artistry such as contemporary graphic design – an aesthetic rooted in commerce.
What’s interesting is how the two words have become interchangeable. This rests on perception. If one is a property owner who does not appreciate the altered form then it is vandalism. However, if one recognizes its skill (much as Johnson-Milewski had) then it evolves into graffiti.
This said, there is a recent phenomenon that was initiated by the late developer Tony Goldman in an effort to make graffiti useful. His project was to allow international graffiti artists to paint on his commercial property. Wynwood Walls was born. Goldman’s actions helped to validate graffiti and accelerate it to the more acceptable term.
I noticed what would subsequently become Street Art in the mid to late nineties utilizing techniques such as stenciling carried out by notable artists such as Bansky and Shepard Fairey. It was quick and could be repeated on any hard surface. Social commentary was the conceptual basis for the work. Since then, its ideology has grown to one of acceptance and a degree of compliance.
Street Art is essentially sanctioned; a mural with a graffiti aesthetic.
Apparent, when Greg Allen wrote “Miami School Goes From Blank Canvas To Mural-Covered” on NPR regarding the RAW (Re-imagining the Arts in Wynwood) Project established to raise funds to a much needed art program at Jose de Diego Middle School.
What’s curious is the word graffiti was not mentioned at all. It’s a conscious effort to disassociate its relation to this act of vandalism and to present it in the context of a mural. Essentially what street art has become is the illegitimate child of vandalism. Further reinforced by Carolina del Busto’s article, “New Downtown Miami Whole Foods to Feature Parking Garage With Curated Murals” in the Miami New Times Blog.
Goldman recognized its value when commissioning a number of international graffiti artists to contribute to his open walls essentially turning them into Street Artists. As time passes, Street Art will be seen more and more as an acceptable expressions of public art. Presenting a formula that seems to be gaining prominence where vandalism (V) is associated with graffiti (G) but not with street art (S):
G = V ≠ S = G
The Vandals’ legacy was apparent to me that Saturday standing in front of Gallery Diet and other parts of Wynwood. Walking along its streets, I can clearly see the difference between what is considered street art as opposed to graffiti. Much of the recent renovated buildings and murals had been tagged and vandalized. Warehouses altered to house commerce in the form of boutiques, restaurants, and bars.
I could not shake the feeling of what was intended. An impulse to protest the change which will inevitably come to this region of the city, to protest the same spirit the Roman Empire carried out so many years ago. Vandalism is a “fight against culture”, in the destruction of monumental history – which comes in the form of Wynwood itself. The basis of which is the philosophy of a culture imposing itself on another through expansion. The practice of vandalism is one of defiance.
I think back to what Goyanes stated when ending his list of 2014 art crimes by writing, “one must trudge on, and keep creating to replace what’s been lost.” I question building on a structure which seems to be unsound. I will not denounce a practice which has an effective history of testing its foundation.
Photo by Scott Olson/ Ferguson/ Getty Images