IF CAVE PAINTING is the start not of art but of communication, graffiti is also not art. If art makes history, graffiti cannot be art.
I devised this solution—like all my solutions, one part each ill logic, viscera, and things I read for the purpose—to address the problem of why I so loathe gallery or museum shows of Citibank-able graffiti. It isn’t that I have a predilection for authenticity. Nor is it a category thing. Many of the artists I’ve loved longest are writers, too: Cy Twombly, Ana Mendieta, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jenny Holzer used (respectively) ink and paper, blood and walls, markers and brick, and ink on skin to make work out of words. None of these works are to be confused with the long yawn that is “text art.” All have something in common with “real” graffiti, which once made history messy, which said to the winners, “You did not see me, but I was here.” Now you see graffiti next to the New Museum, and hear nothing.
Maybe my resistance to the art-ification of graffiti is because I don’t need graffiti to “speak to me.” For most of my life rap didn’t speak to me either, and my response was not to play like rap is poetry so that I could inflict my Comp Lit understanding on it. As per the excellent Earl Sweatshirt, “Rap music is rap music,” and graffiti is graffiti. It is writing in the purest or stupidest way, in such an (always illegal, and sometimes illegible) way as to render everything written unspeakable. Several summers ago a tattoo artist told me that graffiti writers don’t call each other artists or even graffiti writers but simply “writers,” and I almost understood something then. Graffiti says what it means.
To see it now I decided to spend some time with Mint & Serf, a pair of graffiti writers whose birth names are Mikhail and Jason. I went to them not because they are the greatest talents or most authentic voices of our time—or, if they are, I do not have the ears for it—but because they are white guys who hang out with white girls and go to the Whitney sometimes and show their new, huge canvasses on the white walls of the Bleecker Street Arts Club. In writing about their work, I don’t worry about colonizing, or like… cannibalizing, their way of life.
Made last year, these canvasses look rescued from the same stretch of 1990s anti-hero worship that produced Dan Colen’s “Trash” paintings. They are massive and cadaverous. Many were made in loose collaboration with a few of their writer-friends, and their tags pile up indiscriminately. Layers of paper and acrylic harden or peel scablike. Colors agglomerate and rot. Composition is a joke, each canvas a rotated corpse.
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