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Abraham Ritchie: The Unfulfilled Promise of Graffiti




The successful transition of graffiti art from the outside world to the inside of a gallery remains a challenge largely unmet by graffiti artists.

Graffiti has come to include a wide array of subgenres so let me be clear about the form I am discussing: Large, multi-colored, elaborate, spray painted murals that take up large walls, commonly called ‘burners’ or ‘pieces'. These works involve words and sometimes figures, executed in a variety of styles. Graffiti like this has tremendous presence on the street and even within a museum's bookshop. But, with only several exceptions, I have yet to see it widely transition into a gallery setting.

Though artists like Shepard Fairey and Barry McGee have found major exhibition opportunities, their work is substantially different from the spray paint-based graffiti murals discussed here.

I see the challenges to graffiti murals as (1) simple acceptance of graffiti as an art form; (2) legal issues attending the work; (3) graffiti's site-specificity and how to bring that into a gallery setting; (4) institutional willingness to show this kind of work.

Graffiti art produced during the 2009 "Meeting of Styles" held in Chicago. Image courtesy of Meeting of Styles and

There are no doubt obstacles to the acceptance of graffiti as a legitimate art form and there are substantial legal issues. In October, ArtSlant writer Athena Newton in Amsterdam interviewed graffiti artist Laser 3.14 and summed up the tensions surrounding graffiti as an art form. She wrote this introduction to her interview:

“To some, graffiti is considered vandalism; destruction of property, a crime against society. Others believe it to be grassroots creativity; a proletariat method of social and political communication. I personally see it as expression…in every sense of the word.”

Graffiti next to Chicago's Elevated Train lines. By H2O and nre2.

It should be noted that those “some” to whom graffiti is “vandalism; destruction of property,” etc., include police, judges and the actual laws of most cities. For them, graffiti is vandalism and destruction of property, whatever else it may be. It’s impossible to deny that the production of graffiti in public spaces does result in property damage. However as Ms. Newton indicates there is also a wide segment of the population that appreciates the art of graffiti.  I am clearly part of this group, but more importantly, so is President Obama.

In a letter from President Obama to artist Shepard Fairey, the President thanked Fairey in terms that acknowledged the artistry of graffiti: “Your images have a profound effect on people whether seen in a gallery or on a stop sign, I am privileged to be a part of your artwork and to have your support.”

This statement of support indicates that one of the most powerful persons in the world understands the art in graffiti and understands its interaction with the public world (through noting placement on a “stop sign”). However, the President remained silent as Fairey was charged in Boston with 28 vandalism-related crimes and in July pled guilty to three of them (the rest of the charges eventually being dropped), receiving 2 years probation and a $2,000 fine.

Graffiti playing off of "Advertise Here" sign (sign has since been removed, though graffiti remains constant). Work by H2O and nre2.

Damage to property occurs because graffiti frequently relies on its site-specificity, as could site-specific art installation; however this site specificity is also part of graffiti's appeal. Several years ago I was flying out of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. As the plane took off and climbed into the sky, I was looking out the window watching the city get smaller and smaller. On the ground close to the runway concrete foundations had been laid for Chicago’s ever-expanding housing subdivisions. Even from hundreds of feet in the air I could read the writing on the wall of one foundation. Summing up the risks of graffiti art while creating a completely unique and site-specific artwork, in big block letters the spray painted mural read, “Art is Risky." If graffiti can be site specific to an outdoors location it can surely have a specificity to an indoors location, it just takes creativity on the part of the artist.

Mario Ybarra, Jr. Promised Land, 2007. Staircase installation, Capp Street Project. Mixed media. Image courtesy of CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.

In August, 2008, I had the chance to interview Mario Ybarra, Jr., for ArtSlant. Our published interview focused on his exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, “No Man is an Island,” but ranged into the topic of graffiti art coming into the gallery, though this segment of the conversation has until now remained unpublished. I couldn’t resist asking his perspective about the subject as Ybarra, Jr., has incorporated graffiti style into his work and is one of the few artists to utilize wall-sized murals (see above). Here’s what he had to say on graffiti becoming specific to a gallery setting:

Mario Ybarra, Jr.: I think, that as an artist, you need to find a strategic way of bringing graffiti style in. If it’s planned and it’s part of the intent and you bring graffiti in, I think that [makes a difference] . . . As an artist, you have to understand that graffiti is part of a [visual] language, it’s like one word in a language. If you only know graffiti, you only know one word. You have to know the other words, the basic, shared words. So that way if you know the language, you can bring in this slang word.

Abraham Ritchie: Are you saying that there’s a lack of art historical knowledge or artistic knowledge?

Mario Ybarra, Jr.: On the side of graf[fiti] kids that have no understanding of art history, just to be honest with you, they have to understand the museum, as an institution, and if they’re even interested in working within it. They need to know the language of the museum, and work within [the museum’s] constructs . . . an artist interested in showing in the museum and dealing with the museum, but who wants to hang on to a piece of graffiti culture, [has] to know both. If someone doesn’t understand the museum or its art, you can’t just dismiss it and be like, “That’s so wack, I don’t understand that.” That’s like not learning a language even though you want to communicate with someone. You have to understand both languages.

Ybarra, Jr., fairly points out that there may be some adaptation, and even education, necessary to bring graffiti into a gallery setting. In Ybarra, Jr.’s own practice, his murals quote art history, especially the murals of Diego Rivera, but he isn’t afraid to include graffiti elements like arrows, cartoonish figures and of course spray paint.

Gordon Matta-Clark. Graffiti Photoglyph (top), 1973. Gelatin silver print with spray paint. Coat Closet (bottom), 1973. Building fragment (plaster, wood late, nails, panels). Image courtesy of Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark & David Zwirner and Erik Wenzel.

Ironically the entrance of large, mural-sized graffiti into the gallery has been accomplished not by graffiti writers, but by photographers. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, the 2007-8 traveling exhibition “Gordon Matta-Clark: You Are the Measure,” included Matta-Clark’s 1973 Graffiti Photoglyphs, photographic images, accented with paint, of the now legendary graffiti-covered New York City subway trains (seen above). In September, Chicago’s Kavi Gupta Gallery opened the 2009-10 art season with a solo exhibition of photographs by Melanie Schiff. Recently relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles, Schiff presented photographs that featured LA graffiti writers’ work along forlorn storm drains and culverts. Though graffiti is one of many elements in Schiff’s work, it is clear the photographer understands graffiti’s visual potential.

Melanie Schiff. Hellroom, 2009. Digital c-print. 20” x 16”. Edition of 1/ 5 with 1 AP. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery.


There are undoubtedly challenges in bringing a site-specific, outdoor, illegal art form into the gallery, and I have briefly gone over a few here. That being said, the promise of such a crossover likewise remains, serious artists working in the style should be trying to firmly establish the art form and communicating it with the public, and graffiti artists should not be worried about “selling out.” Art institutions should be linking graffiti to art history, establishing a basis for understanding the artistic impulse. Large graffiti wall murals relate to typography, calligraphy, action painting, fresco painting, art brut, etc. The list goes on.

Menace, Select Inverse, Onyx, Novem, AFA. Installation for "Inside Out" at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC). Image courtesy of the SSCAC.

Interestingly, maybe unsurprisingly, smaller institutions willing to take risks are presenting graffiti wall murals (though the Los Angeles County Museum of Art did present “Belmont Ruins”). The CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco sponsored the aforementioned wall murals produced by Mario Ybarra, Jr. In Paris, Fondation Cartier has just extended their Né dans la rue – Graffiti (Born in the streets) full-scale graffiti show due to popular demand.  Here in Chicago, the South Side Community Art Center’s “Inside Out” features large scale graffiti murals made right on the gallery walls, a move I am advocating here (seen above). Though I have yet to see these works in person, I hope that these projects indicate a new institutional awareness in graffiti and certainly there are adventurous curators out there willing to show this work.

The artistic promise of graffiti can be seen all along the world's streets; it's time that artists and institutions try to present this genre as the art it is.

--Abraham Ritchie, Editor for ArtSlant: Chicago

(Images above caption as noted.)

Editor's Note:  a must read article from WebUrbanist, entitled The Secret and Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal)

Posted by ArtSlant Team on 11/3/09

Placeholder70x70-2 ALSO
I forgot to mention that a large section of this is now part of the historical art archives at the SSCAC. I'm full of fun facts.
Placeholder70x70-2 SSCAC things
Hey all! I actually put together the "Inside Out" fundraiser and just a couple FYI's to add. I was given carte blanche for the show and so were the artists. The room was actually in quite poor condition and we spent 2 days prepping the walls (and radiator :) and using Killz over water damage and etc. The plaster walls have always had boards attached to them in order to hang art. These boards were transformed into art in order to be torn down and sold in pieces to fund the restoration project. The whole project has been a great success and the restoration will be complete by the end of January. The SSCAC is a culturally specific historical institution and though the website is in slight disarray you can find out more about it at We appreciate the article and the talk that has spurred from it. I just thought i'd add a lil' more info for anyone that may like to know. Also, FYI, the piece shown above is solely the work of D Menace. (Select Inverse did a sticker piece on another wall and the Novem, AFA, and Onyx tags were shout outs so to speak... quite obviously i am not a graffiti artist :)
20120306131859-abe2bw Response to MICO
Thank you for your input MICO. It's especially interesting to hear the commentary of an artist on this subject.
A5464-8280-logo1 The Real Problem With "Graffiti"
Let me begin with the suggestion that: The term "graffiti" is to "Writin' " what he "n" word is to African American. As a member of the Original School of Writin' (1969 - 1973) in NYC, I can tell you that the number one problem with "graffiti" is that the people who are not members of the Original School because of the chronological reality, need to un a stand that we, the inventors of this Culture, DID NOT and DO NOT call our Culture "graffiti." We called it and still call it "Writin' ." As you will un a stand after you digest the page the infamous "g" word is a racist and denigrating term that those powers that be gave our Culture for the reasons explained on that web page. Secondly, the illegal element of Writin' is one of the more powerful elements of this Culture. Once you remove this element of illegality by bringing the work on a canvas or any other surface into a gallery or museum, or once one does "legal" Writin', then obviously, the same is no longer illegal. It is no longer Writin'. This the reason why I call what I do today "an extension of the work I did on public surfaces in NYC as part of the Original School of Writn', or "Abstract Social Realism." I feel that the confusion over thhis issue is created by the greedy gallery owners and other art world entrepreneurs who in their quest for exploiting a working man's original art form, confuse everyone who is uneducated about out Culture with their idiotic attempt at trying to make our Culture "legal" without realiizing that as I explain above, it's impossible to do so. MICO
20120306131859-abe2bw Challenge Remains
Thanks for your input Natalie. I agree generally with what you are saying, but I think that graffiti could and should make the transition into the gallery, my point here is that the artists need to use their creativity to make that jump successfully. Is the appeal of graffiti art that it is "aggressive, destructive"? Not for me, the site specificity of the art is a major component, no doubt, but in the best work there's more going on than just putting something up on a wall. Like you say, there maybe be a different set of restrictions when presenting the work in a gallery but artists have always overcome challenges and graffiti artists should overcome this one.

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