Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Quarterly Quirks: Graffiti as Vandalism or as Art?

Urbanism doesn’t particularly lend itself to practical jokes, but it has the potential for quirkiness and whimsy.

That’s close enough for me to offer this quarterly urbanist celebration of April Fool’s Day.

For this quarterly quirk update, I did something a little different.  Rather than sweeping over a range of subjects with quirky angles, I focused on a single subject.

I looked at graffiti, also known as street art, particularly the phenomenon of Banksy and the aesthetic alternative that he’s creating.

And once I was thinking about Banksy, I found myself in a philosophical conundrum.  What a way to begin a New Year.

We presumably all agree that graffiti is generally a bad thing.  It sets the stage for further unlawful activity and diminishes neighborhoods.  But occasionally someone comes along who takes graffiti to another level, imbuing street art with skill, insight, and whimsy.  It becomes difficult to call these people common criminals.

Banksy is one of those.

Banksy has recently been in the news.  During the fall, he made a month-long visit to New York City, putting his characteristic street art at many locations, most of them in contravention of existing laws.  Despite his scofflaw attitude, or perhaps because of it, New Yorkers flocked to view his installations.  Atlantic Monthly and CNN both covered his time in the Big Apple.  (If you’re not familiar with his work, I recommend looking at the photos in one or both links to gain a sense of his style and content.)

For many, he’s a star.

Despite that status, it’s not even clear that he exists.  His Wikipedia article acknowledges the possibility that there is no Banksy, just a cooperative of street artists who jointly act as “Banksy”.

Trying to decipher the mystery, the Daily Mail investigated in depth and concluded that Banksy is Robin Gunningham from Bristol, a former schoolboy from the Cathedral School who has left behind a trail of red herrings and blind alleys that make a master criminal proud.  But even with its effort, the Royal Mail couldn’t completely prove its case.

A website described as his official site provides no insights.

Whether a real person or a clever cooperative, Banksy is changing the debate about street art and encouraging those who would tread a similar path.  In Minneapolis, an underemployed graphic artist is pasting his face over the photos of realtors on public advertisements.  And he’s doing it with great skill.  The realtors, perhaps relieved not to be decorated with mustaches and missing teeth, don’t seem offended and instead revel in the attention.

Meanwhile, Banksy’s art is going for increasing prices at public auction, including this recent sale in Los Angeles.  Collectors including Angelina Jolie and Christine Aguilera have begun acquiring his work.

So what do I think about Banksy and those who follow his lead?  I don’t know and it makes my head hurt trying to figure it out.  On one hand, I like the bright line rule that all unauthorized street art is bad and should be removed.  That would be the engineer side of my personality.

But then I look at some of Banksy’s work, smile at his whimsy, and acknowledge the validity of much of his social comment.  I instinctively can’t support any rule that stifles his creativity.

But how do we give official approval to Banksy, but not to the average untalented tagger?  How do we distinguish between the two?  I get queasy thinking about a Planning Commission debating whether a particular street artist offers sufficient whimsy to be given free rein.

In the end, the only reasonable standard is to ban all unauthorized street art.  But if Banksy or his artistic equal ever visits the North Bay, I’ll root for him to avoid the authorities and I’ll look for opportunities to take a personal look at his work.    It’s that quirky and pertinent.

Meanwhile, we should remember that Banksy and his social commentary exist only because there are urban settings that fit his style and that provide adequate audiences to receive his message.  It’s not among the top reasons why cities are important, but it’s on the list.

On that note, have a Happy New Year.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

(Note: The street art photo is purportedly by Banksy and is from the Wikipedia article on Banksy.)

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