The Fondation Cartier in Paris is presenting the exhibition Born in the Street – Graffiti (July 7 – November 29) which brings to light the extraordinary development of an artistic movement that was born in the streets of New York in the early 1970s to rapidly become a worldwide phenomenon. Yet, despite its immense popularity, this essentially illegal activity continues to evolve at the periphery of the contemporary art world, its origins and history little-known to the general public.
In the interview, the curator, Leanne Sacramone, talks about the history and the institutionalization of Graffiti, and the concept of the exhibition.
©Exhibition View Born in the Streets – Graffiti, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, du 7 juillet au 29 novembre 2009 Photo© Olivier Ouadah
Selina Ting [ST] : As an art essentially born in the street, like the title indicates, how can we show graffiti in an institution? What are the challenges for you as the curator and how does your curatorial direction adapt to this problematic?
Leanne Sacramone [LS]: The big challenge was how we could show graffiti in a way that is true to experience, because it’s essentially an urban phenomenon, it’s essentially ephemeral. So we decided to do this by showing mainly documents, photographs and films of graffiti, esp. its beginning, in the urban context of New York City through the historical section of the exhibition. These are among the only traces that remain of the early graffiti works. And we can see how it looks within the urban context.
On the ground floor, i.e. the contemporary section, we asked artists to realize works on site, to keep sort of the urgency that exists in the graffiti in the streets. As these works are meant to be ephemeral, at the end of the exhibition, what we enjoyed seeing here would be destroyed. Basically the whole building is covered in graffiti, the hallways, the facades, the garden and the fences that we built outside in front the Fondation Cartier, which is open for graffiti writers to come and work on freely. There is the idea of proliferation you can feel in graffiti both in the urban context and in our gallery, and to keep the authentic spirit of the graffiti.
ST: Are they all commissioned works?
LS: Yes, they’ve all been realized specifically for the exhibition. On the lower level we also commissioned three pioneers to realize three large murals about the size of the New York subway trains, and they are P.H.A.S.E.2, Part One and Seen. And Seen has actually reproduced train he did in New York on scale in 1980s.
ST: Can you give us an idea of the development of graffiti? How it started in NY and spread worldwide?
LS: Yes, Graffiti began in the neighborhood in New York, it came out of many other phenomenon that is very complex and the history is very complex. But essentially graffiti started to really develop in Washington Heights in late 1960s – early 1970s. It was a Latino working-class community in Washington Heights, and these young people began to tag lamp-posts, buses, walls, etc. and very quickly the phenomenon spread to the Bronx, Brooklyn and these young people began tagging inside of the trains. Very quickly there was an esthetic revolution and these young people began developing different writing styles, different signature styles and different lettering styles. Then they started working on the outsides of the train and made contour around their letters, decorative motifs to the insides of these letters, and created different shapes and these forms became more complex until they were almost eligible, like the Wild Style, which is one of the most famous graffiti styles. So, this whole aesthetic revolution was very rapid and graffiti spread very rapid throughout the city.
ST: How was it spread to Europe and worldwide?
LS: It was first photographed mainly by Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper who made graffiti known worldwide with their book, Subway Artists which was distributed worldwide. Also Henry Chalfant made a documentary film called Style War in 1983. Both the film and the book became popular in Europe, many Europeans have seen them in the early 1980s. There is another film, Wild Style by Charlie Ahearn about graffiti writers, such as the famous ones Lee and Lady Pink. It’s part-fiction part-documentary on the New York scene in the early 1980s. It has inspired many young people in Europe and in the world to begin doing graffiti and it also crystallized the idea that graffiti was associated with Hip Hop which to many graffiti artists today it may not necessarily be true but for Europeans who began graffiti at that time, it was associated with Hip Hop.
ST: What are the major differences between European and American graffiti artists?
LS: The Europeans were very interested in different texts of comics, Japanese Manga comics or basically comic strips in general. Maybe it was sort of more sophisticated in doing graffiti in terms of knowledge of drawing, of art in general. There is this difference, in particular with the French, I think.
ST: What about other parts of the world? Is there a shift of style or geographical centre in graffiti itself?
LS: Brazil is a centre for graffiti artists, so much happening there, and so many interesting artists coming out of Brazil. For example this Brazilian artist Vitché.Vitché grew up in an industrial town in Brazil with a lot of factories, and he really wanted to make things, even as a child he picked up pieces of wood in the street and made sculptures out of them. He also discovered New York style graffiti and he was inspired to do his work in the street and to beautify his town with colours. His work is very sublime, basically using red, white and black. It is very different from the other lettering style graffiti artists. It is very imagery and figurative. These imageries are very much inspired by the work of American Indians, he also took his iconography from the carnival and the circus. I think it is very interesting that you can find in Brazil.
ST: How can we say it is graffiti and not mural painting?
LS: The border between the two is very thin actually. I think graffiti in itself also comes from the tradition of mural painting. But of course, there is a difference between pure mural and pure graffiti. For Vitché, he’s working in the street and also includes lettering in his work, there is definitely an influence of graffiti in his work.
ST: One of the definitions of graffiti is that it’s illicit.
LS: Yes, graffiti is basically illicit writings in the streets. One of the key ideas is illegal. Yes.
ST: Are there any artists that you are showing here had been caught by the police?
LS: Yes, for example, Nug, he is a Swedish graffiti artist. He actually went to art school in Sweden and for his diploma, he did a film called Territorial Pissing, which caused a scandal. In the film, we saw him spraying paint in the interior of the train, basically vandalizing the train. At the end of the film, he jumped out of the window. This film created a scandal for him in the press and legal problems for him. It is interesting because in the film you would never know if the whole thing is real or is staged.
ST: How was it be institutionalized in the last 40 years?
LS: Well, from very early on, there was a graffiti writer called Coco144 who collaborated with other graffiti artist, and their goal was to work in the studio and have this form of expression be recognized as an art form. So as early as 1972, there were gallery exhibitions. And then in early 80s, it became fashionable, it became part of the whole art scene in the lower east side of New York and many galleries were created, such as the Fashion Gallery Fashion Moda in 1978 in the Bronx, and later on Patti Astor created the Fun Gallery, so there were galleries completely devoted to graffiti as early as the late 70s. There were collectors, very important collectors who were interested in graffiti as art, so these all began quite early. In Europe as well, in the 1980s there were exhibitions in important museums and there were people began collecting, in Holland, in particular. And now, there are many graffiti artists crossing over into the art world, having gallery exhibitions and there are galleries specialize on street art and graffiti. The artists are working in many different ways, not just traditionally paint spraying but also branching into sculpture, installation, etc. working with different materials and support. It’s very diverse, very complex.
ST: Is collecting the major reason of bringing graffiti from street painting to studio painting on canvas? I have in mind for example, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
LS: Well, for the purest graffiti writers, Basquiat was not a graffiti artist. The art world considered him graffiti artist because he really was inspired by the energy of the city at this time and he started writing his poetic statements in the streets, but for the purest graffiti artists, you have to do the train and Basquiat was never doing a train. He was doing his poetry in the streets and he was very inspired by this energy that was in New York at that time and began to use the street as the place for his work. Indeed his works became extremely… you know many galleries began interested in his work, and they sold his work and promoted him as an artist. And he’s a very great artist.
ST: Can you explain a bit the idea of the train in graffiti?
LS: For a purest graffiti writer, there are two things. One, is the lettering, the tag, the signature. There is the idea of style, of motif, to make it unique. This was not Basquiat’s primary focus. His focus was writing on the street his poems, his poetic statements and then later doing his drawings, his sketches, his paintings. But a graffiti writer start working on the tag, then he moves on to the trains and to become king, meaning you have done many trains that have crossed the city, that you are a city writer, that your works are visible throughout the city, you have gone up on many trains. These were originally what graffiti was all about.
ST: What about today? How is graffiti perceived today?
LS: Today, graffiti is entering the gallery, the art world. There are auctions devoted entirely to graffiti. There are lots of collectors interested in this art form. So I think it’s a very dynamic force in today’s art world. It is also influencing fashion. It’s very much into the world of fashion, the world of design. On the other hand, there are many artists, studio artists, who are interested in graffiti, in the colours and forms of graffiti and they have taken these forms, transform them and use them in their own work. So I think it’s a very dynamic and powerful force.
ST: Are you a specialist in graffiti?
LS: I am art historian, but not specialized in Graffiti
ST: What are the difficulties for you to curate an exhibition on graffiti?
LS: There are many difficulties. I think it’s another world. It’s world that has different kind of model, different interests from the world of contemporary art. So you have to understand that world and entering to it. It’s a world that can sometimes, for outsiders who haven’t pay their due, we can say, difficult to enter.
ST: What about working with the graffiti artists?
LS: It’s very different to work with graffiti artists. Their work is outside, it’s done in a spontaneous way; there is the idea of pseudo name, certain anonymity. Some of the artists can be very exclusive, mysterious and difficult to get into touch with. There are many artists, everyone is different. But in general, I think there is sort of mysterious side, even the idea of animosity. But at the same time, they want to be seen. With graffiti artists, sometimes it is very difficult to get into with them. And to on the organization, you know, an institution has to organize things precisely and graffiti artists do the work when and where they please.
ST : Thank you very much!
Born in the Streets – Graffiti
Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
07 juillet – 29 novembre 2009