Above: (DSGN)Cllctv exterior, courtesy of Julia Green.
Those That Know
“As a fine artist I’ve always had this really delicate relationship with graffiti. Thinking about it in two ways: as a graffiti artist acclimated to the social sphere [of fine art], and the relationship between the two conceptually. Like, what is graffiti? Is it defined by its word? Does it separate itself via medium, i.e. aerosol, or maybe as an illegal act—which begs the question, is it graffiti if it is allowed? Or maybe I'm just a purist. But what is graffiti—why does it happen?” – HEIR.
Traditionally, the proverbial graffiti community (i.e. the agent network of graffiti writers) operates distinctly from the institutional art world. While allowing for the interchange of influence, the distance between the two systems can generally be distilled to 1) graffiti’s stylistic history emerging independent of the canon of art historical epochs and 2) an opposition of ideological values. For most, the signifiers of the systems align so that the graffiti community represents resistance to oppressive hegemony in the act of “graffiting” itself and common themes within graffiti work (their ethic-motives), while the institutional art world (and its associated spaces, like museums and galleries) represents “highbrow” culture and the interests of the ruling class.1 These connotations are an oversimplification, of course, but are useful in discussing the conflicts between the two systems.
When a gallery space is activated in the transmission and circulation of graffiti work, we enter a nebulous territory of valorisation created in the overlap between the institutional art world and graffiti spheres. In Graffiti, Street Art and the Divergent Synthesis of Place Valorisation in Contemporary Urbanism, Andrea Mubi Brighenti posits that “[with the apparent integration of graffiti and street art into the ‘mainstream’] we are facing different, incompossible (i.e. mutually exclusive) yet simultaneous processes of place valorisation.” The relationship between graffiti cultures’ value system and the institutional artworld’s value system is neither convergent or divergent, but reflects Deleuze’s theory of “disjunctive synthesis” [Deleuze, G. (1969). Logique du sens. Paris: Minuit.] More on this later. On the outcomes of this valorisation circuit, I would note that the institutional art world’s entrenchment in capitalism extracts profit from the “authenticity” conferred to graffiti’s “anti-establishment” ethic-motives, which strips that work of its value in graffiti’s ethic-motives codified system, and subsequently transmutes the work.
Looking back at industry trends over the last two decades, we’re past the point where we argue whether graffiti should be considered a viable genre of fine art (it is) or if it deserves recognition in fine art spaces. We’re arriving more now at asking if the institutional art world, with all its valorization circuit’s commercialism and pitfalls of exploitation, is actually a desirable place for graffiti to be included.2
“I feel like the graffiti world and the artists that work within it are taken advantage of more often than not. What are we to do though? Like my buddy NAKU once said, ‘This is our sacred sanctuary. Don’t let them in. They can go fuck themselves.’” – HEIR.
This isn’t to say however that the graffiti community doesn’t benefit from its interactions within art institutions—we can list the boons of art professionalism ad nauseum. The rub lies in the aforementioned transmutation that results from Brighenti’s valorisation circuit. If a graffiti writer’s career3 started in the traditional way (independent of formal arts education, developed from exposure to graffiti as it is found in public and/or the influence of a mentor, fostered by peers in the network), then consorting with arts institutions is a marked shift. Basically, if they’re creating works not on the street, works that can be sold, they’ve taken on a different sociological mantle. They’ve become an agent of Howard S. Becker’s “Art World;” an artist, which is distinct from being a graffiti writer.4 The line between “graffiti'' and “street art” is blurred.
Still, is this a negative distinction? Not objectively. However, Brighenti marks one attitude towards this transmutation in Expressive Measures: An Ecology of the Public Domain:
“To [traditional graffiti writers], as well as to several cultural critics, street art has, in the meantime, turned into the veritable mark of urban gentrification, the proof that capitalist dynamics have entirely recuperated the spontaneous creativity from below that characterized the early 2000s explosion of global street art [...] This way, graffiti art and street art have been ingrained in the official scripts of urban revitalization and urban promotion.”
Through this lens, the ethic-motive value of graffiti work that is created within a relationship to the institutional art world is destabilized. Compounding this issue is that in the graffiti world galleries are simply unnecessary. Graffiti as an artform exists within a subcultural network with an internally driven loop of development. A fundamental feature is its occurrence in public spaces—in fact, it cannot be avoided in public spaces. It’s installed on the architecture and is distributed freely on train lines, on the internet, in flicks sent between friends. Graffiti does not, and never will, need galleries. So then the question becomes: why have graffiti in galleries at all? Who is it for?
Before we consider answers to those questions, we return to the idea of disjunctive synthesis. There are ways the graffiti sphere and institutional artworlds can overlap which don’t undermine their respective agents. Brighenti describes the phenomenon: “...Graffiti and street art are not being integrated, tolerated, accepted or recognised by the cultural and economic establishment. Rather, integration is surpassed in both opposite directions, i.e. simultaneously towards expulsion and capture, or re-inscription.” (Brighenti, 2016)
What’s interesting is watching this phenomenon play out in real time in the Northside Neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, trailing behind a towering 6-foot-something graffiti writer going by the name of HEIR.
I met HEIR a little after 8 on the first Friday in January, shivering outside the (DESGN)Cllctv gallery’s front entrance on Hamilton Avenue. Actually, I had set up an interview with him in advance, but didn’t realize who I had been talking to until sometime later in the night—none of the artists were overtly identifying themselves—since they were all exhibiting under their graffiti writer aliases.
HEIR and the other 16 writers in the exhibition, Open Window Theory6 belong to the crew TTK. Of them, only a few consider themselves “fine artists,” and the work inside the gallery ranges from tagged road signs to high-concept installations. The gallery is an arm of (DSGN)Cllctv, a creative consultant team founded in 2019 by Julia Green and Michael Gonsalves that serves a collective of a couple dozen artists, some of which are graffiti writers with fine art practices.
Although HEIR is not under (DSGN)Cllctv’s consultation umbrella, he worked closely with them in putting together this show, and traveled with them to Miami for ArtBasel in December. The experience helped in defining what makes the collective, and their gallery, a unique niche for the graffiti community. “They are artist-driven; they’re open-minded in their vision [of the gallery space] where other galleries are prescriptive.” For an artist like HEIR, whose CV boasts a packed exhibition record and multiple Fine Arts degrees, working with Green and Gonsalves offered some reprieve from the graffiti writer vs. fine artist identity conflict. A major factor in combating the one-sidedness of the valorisation circuit lies in reversing the direction of transmutation–instead of graffiti’s visual language being re-inscribed into the institutional art world’s vernacular, the graffiti community can commandeer spaces that standardly uphold art institution signifiers. This is a task almost comically well-suited for graffiti.
TTK’s presence at the (DSGN)Cllctv gallery encompasses the entire front edifice of the building. Contrasted with the neighboring storefronts, the effect is jarring–but it sidesteps the pitfall of performativity thanks to a key characteristic of the building’s history, which Green cites as one of her motivations for pursuing the spot in the first place. Multiple exterior walls of the property feature the work of the late graffiti writer and tattoo artist Jason Brunson, who was legendary not only for his skill but also for the warmth of his character. “Jason’s spirit can be felt in the alley–we appreciate what he meant to the graffiti and tattooing community and we felt like for that reason alone the building felt right. We live in the neighborhood and feel a part of the community, and [the commissioned] murals we provide to the community gives people a sense of pride while also continuing the spirit the Jason had.” The proud preservation of the building’s original graffiti predating the throwups added for subsequent gallery events lends credibility to (DSGN)Cllctv’s engagement with the graffiti community and avoids undermining the authenticity that is so imperative in graffiti’s value system.
Finally, it is this prioritization of and loyalty to local graffiti history that gives us our answer for who this whole endeavor is for. A small cluster of work hangs in the place of honor beside the wall text for Open Window Theory: all originals by the infamous 2BUCK. One aerosol painting and three small drawings—pages from a sketchbook, it seems—stand out compared to the more developed work on the surrounding walls. The weight behind these works comes from their placement, and for those that know, the significance imparted by the name 2BUCK. For a show to encompass the voice of TTK, it would simply be incomplete without 2BUCK. Though he tragically passed in 2015, you’ll still see his name pop up in new places in cities all over, a living legacy carried by the devotion of his friends.5 Open Window Theory at (DSGN)Cllctv demonstrates that a gallery is not inherently a cold institutional space, but can instead be a place of opportunity for celebration and preservation for a community where loss is inherent to the very practice of their art form.
On the floor below stands a fire extinguisher modified to spray paint, which the crew had used on the gallery wall itself. HEIR drew my attention to white flecks on the 2BUCK’s closest painting, and the continuity of splatter leading up and onto the ceiling–
“I think it was 2011 I think, NOEP and I were at a hole in the wall in Louisville—I can’t remember. Someone's living room where people were hanging artwork. We’d been down in Louisville staying behind Spinelli’s with TANGO for a couple of weeks, trying to get away from some bad beef we had with other writers in Cincinnati… But yeah, I really wanted this canvas from 2BUCK, and he kept saying that it was $35, which I could not afford to spend at all. I only had $5 in my pocket. So I was basically just like, yo let me get it… and yeah he let me have it for $5, because at the end of the show it wasn’t sold and he just wanted to hurry up and go to the corner store and get blunt wraps and sweet tea. It’s one of my favorite pieces I have. And then [while installing their work in the gallery] ALKOM went and blasted over it [with the fire extinguisher] by accident, AHA! Nah, Jon [2BUCK] would’ve laughed. It almost makes it that much more special to me.”
The care taken to include 2BUCK’s sketches is mirrored by the presence of a few open sketchbooks scattered on a ledge by the gallery door. In these blackbooks visitors are invited to create their own works, collected in an improvised anonymous volume; works that are ultimately just an exercise of community building. By providing a space where the public, without barriers, can respond to and expand the work in the gallery, TTK’s show subverts Becker’s model of gallery-as-tastemakers turning profit. They casually overthrow the driving mechanism behind the financial value of their own work in exchange for the value of community. The artists and public both receive an outburst of collective creativity completely free. And while the visitors writing in the blackbooks have no indication of what will happen to the work therein, the creation of the record itself is reason enough to do it.
- There is a wealth of texts that reinforce this suggestion; the following sources came up frequently in my research pertaining to this essay: Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain Stuart Hall (ed.), Tony Jefferson (ed.). Subculture: The Meaning of Style Dick Hebdige.
- A common topic of discussion surrounding this viewpoint is the mechanics of gentrification. Brighenti’s studies, quoted in text, are helpful references: Graffiti, street art and the divergent synthesis of place valorisation in contemporary urbanism, Andrea Mubi Brighenti. "Expressive Measures" in "Graffiti and Street Art Reading, Writing and Representing the City" Andrea Mubi Brighenti.
- Using the word “career” as it is employed by Richard Lachmann in “Graffiti as Career and Ideology,” American Journal of Sociology, 1988.
- .Art Worlds, Howard S. Becker. This essay was also written with reference to Outsiders: Studies In The Sociology Of Deviance, Howard S. Becker.
- 2BUCK’s legacy is also discussed in my previous essay, Block by Block and heavily documented by external sources (Wave3 News even ran a story on it in 2015) A nice write up by The Source features images of some of his work here.
- TTK’s artist statement for Open Window Theory explains that the title is a reference to “Broken Window Theory,” a criminology theory that gained traction in the 80’s which aggressively targeted graffiti. The policing tactics that arose are very controversial and the theory is now increasingly considered problematic. The artist statement is available here: https://www.dsgncllctv.com/thosethatknow
Chelsea Harris (she/her) is an artist and writer whose work explores concepts of home and the experience of loss. Working primarily in oil painting and creative nonfiction, she elevates the image of figures in her life whose memory might otherwise be marred by stigma or misunderstanding. Harris currently holds the position of Studio Programs Manager at The Speed Art Museum.
(DSGN)Cllctv exterior, courtesy of Julia Green.
Works [left to right] by SITH, TITAN, SPAZ, and QAEK, with incidental placement of champagne.
Accidental paint splatter from fire extinguisher on 2BUCK painting and ceiling.
(DSGN)Cllctv retail space with work by artists in collective.