The current exhibition at Tate Liverpool by the New York artist Keith Haring, whose fame rested on his early career as a street or graffiti artist, reminds me of an article I wrote a decade ago – God, is it really ten years? – about a show at Fondation Cartier in Paris. The show was entitled Born in the Streets – Graffiti and its aim was to celebrate street art around the world. Here is what I wrote.

The booklet accompanying this exhibition carries the following small print:

Born in the Streets – Graffiti does not promote or encourage vandalism. The defacement of private and public property is strictly forbidden by the French penal code (Article 322-1, 322-2 and 322-3) and severely punished by the law”.

It is hard to square this caveat with the show itself, or indeed with other statements in the booklet. The New York grafittists are said to be “among the true inheritors of the countercultural tradition of the 1960s”, who “found the city a place of expression and inspiration” and who “evoke the frenetic and explosive energy of the urban experience”. Their followers in contemporary cities around the world are described as defacing buildings and vehicles as “a tool for contestation against the dictatorship of the time”, or else as a way “to bring out emotions … stifled by today’s megacities”. This is openly to tout graffiti as political expression, or as art therapy for the urban dispossessed: in other words, as an activity to embrace and celebrate, rather than to severely punish. Then consider the children’s workshops being mounted at Fondation Cartier’s HQ on Bvd Raspail. Here, in a building that has been specially “defaced” all over by spray paints, “participants are invited to draw and then learn about aerosol paintings techniques”. If this is not a boot camp for budding graffitists, what is?

But these words and workshops are only aspects of the overriding paradox of this exhibition. In the very act of celebrating graffiti, the curators cannot help also murdering it, for graffiti is not just “born in the streets”, it can only survive there. Cartier have specially commissioned a number of large new works, on free-standing supports that stand in for stretches of urban wall. Of these, by ten artists including the Dutchman known as Delta, the Swedish Nug and the Brazilian Vitché, some are very good, others less compelling. But in relation to street-art they are, at best, creative developments, stylistic essays, or variations on a theme. The composers Shostakovich and Ives worked from popular tunes, but you wouldn’t call their symphonies folk music or ragtime. Nor are these paintings graffiti.

So visitors should shed any idea of travelling here for a direct experience of street art – but why would they need one? Real graffiti is all around us. The show is best seen instead as a history lesson and, as it happens, it is a very rewarding one. Originally applied by archaeologists to the words and pictures scratched on walls by Greeks and Romans, the term graffiti took on new meaning in the mid-1960s when slogans began to appear daubed or sprayed on inner city walls. It was in Paris during the events of 1968 that new heights of witty alienation and concise idealism were scaled: “Metro–Boulot–Dodo”, “Sous les paves, la plage”, and so on.  But perhaps Paris has had enough of 1968, because the Fondation Cartier narrative begins not here, but far from home, in early 1970s New York. There the political suddenly became personal, as graffiti took over the subway.

The entire basement of the Fondation’s building, got up like a dark and throbbing underground garage, is devoted to the phenomenon. The first thing you learn is not to call this graffiti: to its young practitioners it was “writing” and “tagging” and started out quite simply as a way of getting their names, or pseudonyms, on the subway trains and the back lots for as many to see as possible. At the start it was the crudest form of expression, a name plus address number: Coco 144, Frank 207, Eddie 181 but these quickly evolved into logographics, carefully designed in one of a number of illusionistic 3-D styles. The most popular was the bubble or marshmallow (rounded and bulging), but there was also the computer style (resembling circuit diagrams), the block effect (as in epic film posters) and others. Choosing writing as the alternative to joining a street gang, teenagers got high on the adrenalin of sneaking into subway train yards at night, or climbing to tag buildings in inaccessible places. But their overriding purpose, in response to America’s growing cult of celebrity, and its flipside of notoriety, was to get their names and identities “out there”.

The energy, courage and inventiveness that went into this pointless but exciting self-promotion was extraordinary, and news of New York’s craze for “writing” spread and began to be copied around the world. Simultaneously it was documented on film, and some very fine photography by Jon Naar, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant is shown here. There are also video interviews with the writers, well known in their day and talking with pride about their misspent youth. Some may have only retrospectively bought into the idea that they were making art. But many at the time had artists’ sketchbooks (“blackbooks”), in which their individual logos were worked out on paper.

The outcome of all this was a subway in which trains trundled around the system, their sides painted in a riotous anarchy of colour and design. It was to last only a few years. By the end of the 1970s the New York taggers had been defeated by security guards, razor wire and a fast-track programme of carriage cleaning. But their spirit had already been exported round the world, and it survives today in every city where there are discontented young people with access to spray paints and magic markers. Especially compelling in the exhibition is the sequence of short films showing graffitists at work – the Berliner DTagno, the Brazilian Alexander Orion, and Katsu, whose “impossible” long-distance spray painting is achieved by filling a fire extinguisher with colours. Perhaps the most intriguing graffitists are the pixadors, who scale the buildings of Sao Paolo at night and daub them with messages in a strange runic script – pixo – of their own invention.

In the real world, while some graffiti may be eloquent and sympathetic, most is artless, aggressive and regrettable. Fortunately that doesn’t destroy this show’s interest – though not the least interesting thing is the spectacle of France’s most expensive jeweller slapping its brand on the doings of the earth’s most wretched. There is something ruthlessly appropriative about that, but then, as Karl Marx is supposed to have said, the rich will do anything for the poor, except get off their backs.

Posted on August 22nd, 2019


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