NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2002

more feature articles:

The Passenger
Kendell Greer's art of terror
by Joseph Whitt

POST-GRAFFITI

by Gean Morenu



A year after „Freestyle,š the show that gave us the term „post-black,š and in light of the traveling post-Latin American exhibition „Ultrabaroque,š I‚m not sure whether speaking of post-graffiti is productive. If nothing else, these exhibitions remind us that the overused prefix leaves concepts stranded in semantic vagueness. But regardless, I intend something much less ambitious than mapping a massive cultural shift, or a dissolution of calcified identities, or anything of the sort. Rather, I simply aim to highlight the very concrete fact that graffiti artists have moved, in great part, beyond the realm of street art, to squat in the worlds of design and illustration.

As graffiti finds respect in these territories, nostalgia for its shotgun wedding with the cocained-up eighties art world seems to be boiling. Dondi White was one of the children of this marriage and perhaps the first (Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring aside) to receive a mainstream biography, an honor in this instance made doubly dubious because Dondi White: Style Master General (Regan Books, 2001) renders him graffiti‚s one-dimensional monk; its saintly boy wonder sans the homosexual subtext that may have complicated things in the man‚s man world of the train yard. This book provides an album‚s worth of snapshots of Dondi‚s work, making it indispensable for those tracking the evolution of graffiti styles. However, it disappointingly tosses out context, alluding to 1970s New York merely to throw into relief Dondi‚s magnanimous innocence: he chose graffiti over gangs and, apparently, neither took drugs nor had sex. He raised pigeons and played handball, instead.

From Brooklyn‚s train yards to Manhattan, the ride was short: Dondi began showing at the legendary Fun Gallery in 1982, after two years of solid group shows. Again, in this new setting, Dondi behaved in exemplary fashion. Modest, shy, probably glowing with saintly light, he managed to evade envious colleagues, promiscuous looky loos, and drugged out, reckless dealers. De-contextualized, his sudden dropout from this world in 1985 is meaningless. What could Mother Teresa, loved by all and infallible, possibly be running from, or renouncing, or feeling exhausted with or defeated by? G-rated to the point of exasperation, this book also cannot deal compellingly with Dondi‚s AIDS (of which he died in 1998) nor handle the massive disparity between his work on the trains and his mediocre paintings. Because it cannot take the hype around these paintings for hype, it also cannot dissect that hype, nor can it dissect what that hype did to Dondi‚s life.

Corman McCormick, famous East Village alumnus, provides an elegiac foreword that, while better than the rest of the book, pretends that graffiti‚s apotheosis occurred right before it was exiled from the galleries in the mid-eighties. But it‚s way too obvious these days that, rather than becoming again the inconsequential literature of neighborhoods, graffiti went on to do with the web what it couldn‚t do with the gallery/museum system: it created a) global networks, and b) global demand for its off-shoot products. Surf a handful of graf sites and you‚ll realize that the juxtaposition of work from, say, the West Bank, Geneva, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and Gary, Indiana, is commonplace. In these web sites, a row of digital images summarize the negative imprint of the global corporate modelųsomething like an underground rhizomatic network. But graffiti‚s situation is more complex than that of merely assuming a peripheral position or antagonistic attitude. The inverted model it has become is plugged into the currents of capital.

These web-based networks have, in fact, found concrete extension in the world of animation, publishing, clothing design, record covers, fashion, ad campaigns, toy production, graphic illustration, etc. Graffiti negotiates daily with the „cultureš that corporations support and create. It has fused its gloriously ornamental down-and-out vernacular with the very culture and the attendant social arrangements that foster the possibility of maintaining folks down-and-out. In the process, it has become something more ambiguous than simply an embodiment of an oppositional stance or the semi-reckless behavior of dispossessed or unruly kids.
Futura 2000 in action in 1982 (photo by Ivan Dellatana courtesy of Tony Shafrazi Gallery NYC, Booth-Clibborn Editions/Futura 2000).

If Dondi White didn‚t partake in the graffiti global machine, his contemporary and graf world veteran, Futura 2000, has led the way. He‚s a one-man industry who specializes in, well, everything. His bio includes gallery and museum shows, clothes and toy design, a library of record covers, collaborations with young fashion rags and so on. But Futura (Booth-Clibborn, 2000), a monograph dedicated to him, isn‚t interesting for the biographical tidbits that ostensibly hold together the barrage of disparate graphic styles. Rather, it‚s the explosion of these graphic vocabularies, and the impressive range of presentational techniques, that are interesting. Deploying lessons learned from rapid video editing and ambitious graphics, this book is characterized by its rat-tat-tat, video game speed, surprise on every page layout. It continually de-familiarizes, de-stabilizes, even explodes, what has hardened as mainstream book and magazine design. It does this by relying on all sorts of visual metaphors that confuse the page with a computer monitor, a TV screen, a photo album, a teenager‚s journal, a record cover. It also does this by introducing elements that inherently deconstruct the book format, like vinyl stickers that once used literally leave a ghost of their presence behind and alter the page they were on. Or, it juxtaposes a bit of autobiographical narrative with the standard instructions and warnings that accompany toys, in the process collapsing the importance of one kind of text over another by making them all subservient to intense graphic presentation.

Scrawl: Dirty Graphics & Strange Characters (Booth-Clibborn, 1999), Scrawl Too: More Dirt (Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2001) and Schizophrenic: Lowdown Graphic Engineering Part II (Die Gestalten Verlag, 2001) are among a slew of recent books showcasing the work of graffiti artists who, like Futura, are leaving their mark on mainstream industries. All these books deliberately confuse systems of representation. Any number of ways of depicting the worldųphotography, animation, web design, text and othersųco-habit in these books, on equal footing. And this collapsing of the differences between systems, and the resulting stylized or choreographed chaos, makes these books interesting. They almost make accessible and seductive the complexities of self-reflexiveųthat is, historically aware and conceptually denseųgraphics. But, in the end, they can approximate these graphics only very superficially. These books are more the graphic equivalent of MTV machinegun editing than Bruce Mau‚s kin.

 Like several recent books, Scrawl Too: More Dirt showcases graffiti‚s crossover to mainstream industries (cover design by Dave Recchia and Mike Dorrian courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions).


After the high of these indisputably exciting books wears off, one is left to wonder, no doubt waxing more romantic than one ought to these days, what graffiti‚s communion with capital and corporate culture means for its future. Clearly, some of the things that this union has produced have revitalized and tweaked numerous cultural artifacts, including record covers, fashion spreads and web sites. But once corporate culture has milked graffiti for all the profit it can produce, will it leave graffiti, like punk, a bloodless carcass on which certain hopes worth rescuing are projected? Or will graffiti again have something to do with train yards, adolescent fraternity, stealing spray cans, expressing disaffection and defying authority?

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