Frilly Lizards’ Thoughts


Inspiration & Feedback on Art & Design. Please participate, share your views on any works of art or design; the artists and designers work you admire that give you inspiration in which ever form or discipline. Thanks you for taking time to read this. I’m interested to hear everyone’s opinion please share yours.

From the Street to the Tate: Communication, the Transient Audience of Graffiti

The main issue I wish to discuss during this paper is whether ‘Graffiti Art’ loses its context and meaning when placed within a gallery environment. To truly understand the relationship of the art audience, of this urban art form, an overview of the history of graffiti needs to be explained. Upon extensive research into the term, I discovered that the word ‘graffiti’ originates from the Italian word ‘sgraffio’ a scratching, from the word ‘graffiare’ to scratch. So with this in mind the common use of the word today, has evolved to mean more of an umbrella term with sub-categories such as graffiti writers, street-art, post-graffiti, aerosol art and neo-graffiti. Evidence of graffiti is prevalent from the beginning of mankind, this is shown in carved pictures such as the Lascaux Caves in France dating back to 11,000 BC (shown in fig.1). Bones or stones were used as instruments to carve into the walls, stencil and spray techniques were created by blowing coloured powder through hollow bones and around hands, to depict silhouettes.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 2.
i.   Political graffiti at Pompeii           

ii.  Graffiti politique de Pompei

iii. Second century pagan depicting a man worshipping a crucified donkey.

Decorating/illustrating manmade environments, has a long documented history (shown in fig. 2 iii), the list is far too extensive to elaborate further, but there is a definite tribal aspect to this art form. During the Second World War graffiti was used as a powerful form of propaganda by the Nazis to incite hatred towards the Jews and dissidents; but it was also an extremely effective form of communication for the resistance movements, as was the case of one of the most infamous of these campaigns ‘The White Rose’ (please see fig. 3).

Fig. 3.
i.   Three of the members of White Rose Resistance

ii.  Monument to the White Rose Resistance Movement

The viral nature of the message can be placed in secret places, coded and disguised. The location, often ‘city located’ and the context, often incorporates the freedom of expression in subcultures. Graffiti played a huge part in the student revolts of 1960’s and ‘70’s; French students used ‘pochoir’ (French for stencil graffiti) technique to express their views immediately to a wide audience. Many literary sources report that, today’s form of graffiti, was believed to have been developed towards the end of the 1970’s in New York and Philadelphia.

With this basic understanding of the term ‘graffiti’, the debate of whether the art under the category of ‘graffiti’ is purely site-specific can begin. Is it created purely to provoke a reaction or created to connect to a wider demographic audience? Is the intended original purpose of the artist lost when placed within a gallery setting? Does it lose its original context and meaning in this often controlled and sometimes considered sterile environment? By creating the art for the gallery as opposed to the street, is it changed and subsequently somehow loses the heart or passion?

Graffiti is associated with the urban ‘sub-cultures’ working outside normal rules of society. It is seen as an illicit, illegal activity, anti-establishment, anarchic. When this visual language becomes absorbed into conventional, mainstream culture it becomes part of the ‘establishment’. This creates a tension in viewing the work, an ambivalence towards the values the art is ostensibly expressing through use of the chosen media and setting, which stands for a different set of values. The artist has to interpret and visually communicate his/her views when creating a piece in the environment within a very limited time frame and often in difficult conditions, especially when considering the government’s views and the consequences of their actions whilst conducting this illegal act. Is the appeal of graffiti art the fact that it’s a free art form? Can this art be brought to a gallery as a commodity? Or does this act of sale, devalue the art and detach the artist from the original intended target audience thereby losing all its soul and meaning.

In a blog posted on 5th February 2008 with regards to World’s First Urban Art Auction Bonham is quoted as saying,

‘Exciting, fresh, edgy and challenging, interest for works was fever-pitch throughout the sale with 99% of the work selling – a truly extraordinary phenomenon that the market has never seen before. In other words, we had no idea what a cash cow this was going to be!’ (Bonham 2008).

Keith Haring was one of the first artists, whose art I connected with (at a young age) and made me, truly consider the deeper contexts of his work and thus opened my eyes to issues I was otherwise ignorant to. These contained very political concerns, a few of the topics that provoked my interest and raised my awareness in Haring’s work included the social exile suffered by people dealing with Aids, the homeless problems, and on mass, society’s disregard during the 1980’s to deal with these immensely important issues. Haring highlighted these issues in simple illustrations and placed them in full view of the passing public using disused billboards in New York’s subways to create his art (shown in fig. 4). 

Fig. 4. Keith Haring – Subway art utilizing disused billboards.

As the art world began recognising his work, they tried to embrace him into the establishment, he rejected this advance and stayed true to his roots. Haring used his skills and talents to engage in public works, which carried a social message. Many were created for charities, hospitals, children’s day care centres, orphanages and in conjunction with children in schools encouraging them to be creative and informing them that if you have a passion or message, share it. Money and your circumstances/background should never be an obstacle and your view is as important as the next person’s. I don’t consider Haring to have ‘sold out’ but he did benefit from his talents, designing for companies such as Swatch watches to obtain an income. Keith opened ‘Pop Art’ a retail outlet to let people access/own his work at a very low cost; he died of Aids related complications in 1990. I feel Haring’s art was successful due to its accessibility and simplicity of the graphic line, his uncomplicated illustrative style and bold use of colours. These were adopted by other areas of the arts, often performance related, they embodied the vibe and energy of the club scene and the youth culture of the time.

Keith has had many exhibitions around the world and was considered by many as a pioneer in the art world, this view includes myself. My reasoning behind this is his work was created for a purpose to bring issues to the foreground and aid discussion/awareness (shown in fig. 5), not merely financial gain. Even when undertaking commercial work Haring kept up many non-profit gaining projects in the community and his commercial work still contained a deeper message.

Fig. 5. Keith Haring – Ignorance = Fear, 1989

Keith had many artistic friends with whom he often exhibited. One of these artists was French graphic artist Jean-Michel Basquait who used to use the fundamental rawness and impact of graffiti art within his designs – I also consider Basquait to have been a graffiti artist to have achieved the transition to commercial artist (an example of Basquait’s studio work is shown in fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Jean-Michel Basquait

 So by researching these artists and trying to question their motives, I have digressed; back to the question at hand, can graffiti art be a commodity? Does it lose its context when created for a gallery or placed within a gallery? Does the artist have to alter their style to accommodate a gallery setting or make it desirable to a consumer? Is this still graffiti art? I shall continue to investigate artists who have made this transition so as to reach some conclusions.

Haring is by no means the only graffiti artist to make the cross over from graffiti artist to commercial artist, many have succeeded and continue to do so everyday. Banksy is probably one of the most famous of these artists, but Banksy is not creating anything original, his work imitates the work of a French graffiti artist Blek Le Rat. Banksy also uses famous prints of classic artworks treasured by the traditional art connoisseur to highlight contemporary issues and places them in gallery settings.

‘In a single day, he managed by these means to “mount” his own work in no less than four major New York collections; the Louvre and the Tate Gallery have also been among his victims. Amazingly, although seen by plenty of baffled museum-goers, these installations escaped detection by the authorities for as long as two weeks.

 Fig. 7. Banksy 2005 Art Instillation

In 2005, Banksy successfully sneaked a piece of fake rock-art into the Romano-British galleries of the British Museum. It showed a prehistoric hunter with a supermarket trolley, described in the authentic-looking accompanying signage as thought to show “early man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds” in the “Post-Catatonic era.” (shown in fig. 7) In this case, it was only a posting on Banksy’s own website that finally brought it to the attention of Museum officials who, to their credit, accessioned the piece into their permanent collection; and, in a delightful irony, it has since been on display in other venues with an accompanying notice saying “on loan from the British Museum.”’

Is this method of using this technique/delivery an attempt to reach a different audience, whom Banksy is unable to reach by the usual graffiti means? Or is it a satirical take on the establishment, of which Banksy is so critical? Is it to merge these two different worlds of visual communication? Or is he trying to show that he too is an artist but society sees him more as a desecrator, a common vandal? Returning to the origin of the word ‘graffiti’ to scratch – does this mean literally to scratch into or does it mean in the philosophical sense to scratch – reveal? If the meaning were, the first option, literally to scratch then where would Tribal Art come into this, Applied Art, Stone Carving, Wood Carving etc…could this also be considered graffiti art?

If on the other hand, graffiti’s meaning is to reveal, my imagination is evoked and leaves me to believe that artists like Slinkachu, could be considered graffiti artists. Slinkachu’s  – ‘Little People in the City’, a great book which contains photographs from various site specific art instillations from around Britain, using small plastic figures placed in various situations to show everyday feelings, emotions and social issues in society today? Will Self has written the foreword to the book and compares the collection as;

“In Levi-Strauss’s formulation, ‘the intrinsic value of a small-scale model is that it compensates for the renunciation of sensible dimensions.’ In other words: we cannot know what it feels like to be a tiny manikin – a borrower, Stuart Little, a Gulliver – adrift in the Brobdingnagian city, but we understand their predicament intuitively, because it mirrors our own responses to both a built environment – and a concomitant social form – that imposes upon the individual impotence at every turn.

Viewed this way, the tiny figures dabbing in great puddles, nearly submerged in gargantuan bird droppings, terminating bees bigger than themselves, or even indulging in obscenity – the exposure of the tiniest pansies – are more fully us than any possible full size models……………these artworks, the themes of which – if I take them right – are incontestably grand: alienation, suffering, survival: the collision between vulnerable human flesh and the materials – glass, steel, concrete – that constitute the modern metropolis. That the human flesh in question is rendered at 1/87th scale, and the human features are static, and blobby with paint, only counts towards their apprehensibility”.

An extract from Will Self – Little People in the City, The street art of Slinkachu.

Below are two examples (fig.8) from Little People in the City, The street art of Slinkachu:

Fig 8. i – ‘Terror Alert’.

Fig 8. ii – ‘Spare some Change’.

My personal interpretation of Slinkachu art in this book encompasses many of the fundamental elements of graffiti art, and I would consider this to be a graffiti/street art installation because it does tie into the argument that graffiti is a response to the city and city life.

During an interview in ‘Graphotism’ the question “Are you involved in any other art forms?” Spanish graffiti writer ‘Dems’ answered:

‘I still don’t understand the meaning of art, I’m waiting for someone to explain it to me. My graffiti has nothing to do with art. Graffiti is a gift we give to the city. We give our time, money and we work our asses off for nothing in return. I think some pieces of art are too expensive for what they really are. I’m not saying that I don’t like anything but graffiti. There are plenty of amazing street artists and most of them come from the streets like the graffiti writers.’ He continued to say ‘My work as a graphic designer is quite connected with my graffiti, but I try not to mix them. I like to keep my graffiti separate to my job. I do any kind of graphic design and also work on my own brand of clothing ‘Flux’. I think all graffiti writers have the ability to do any design work to earn some cash.’

(Dems, 2008)

Graffiti writer Gomer explains that:

‘Graffiti is supposed to be something about freedom and expression.’
(Gomer, 2008)

Would these quotes indicate that graffiti is more, an expression which cannot be contained, a freeform. If this the case, graffiti styles could influence other areas, but would not be considered actual graffiti?
UK graffiti artist Replete is described as ‘a cocktail’ he manages to keep very much in the tight knit of the graffiti writers’ community. He is widely respected, yet he mixes graffiti, fine art, sculpture, VJing and game design very successfully. So perhaps graffiti can continue to be ‘true graffiti’, evolving, crossing boundaries and therefore become a commodity. However, restricted and dependant on who and how it is delivered (an example of Replete’s art is shown in fig 9).

Fig 9. Replete – When Autumn Leaves… (Start To Fall)

In concluding this debate, several artists explain my sentiments and feelings perfectly:
Pure Evil (an example of  Pure Evil’s work is shown in fig. 10) – graffiti artist and commercial artist during a blog discussion on his website:

‘I think graffiti/street art is taken off the streets it just becomes art. The artists who have all been successful in galleries and auction houses are the ones who have been able to make the transition in their work to fit the new environment. Essentially the art they do in the gallery is a souvenir of their work on the street. They have to start thinking inside the box (the rectangle or square canvas/white cube) and work changes its impact because it has been isolated from the street and taken indoors, like a fragment of the moon that has been brought into the laboratory.’

Fig. 10. Pure Evil – Guernica 2007

Graffiti artist Grafter (an example of Grafter’s work shown in fig. 11) believes that:

‘Most artists usually acknowledge the difference between their street work and their studio work. By its very nature street work has to be done within certain time constraint and therefore tends to be more exciting rawness to the execution. Work that is intended, to be sold can be prepared and executed in a much more clean and defined way, and the artist can of course take as much time to complete it as they wish. I always see the canvas/ print version of a piece as a sanitised, clean version of the original street piece.’

‘For sheer excitement and value from a piece you can’t beat the street version, and the wall/street furniture that it’s done on also adds to the overall appearance and make it much more of an event. For an example of the artists technique, skill, and vision then the studio version is often technically better.’

(Grafter, 2008)

Fig. 11

My feelings are that if graffiti art, whether it be an illegal piece in our environment that makes you stop and captures your attention whilst wandering through a city, a piece on a gallery wall, hung in a private collection or just in your home – if it evokes deep emotion, speaks to you, provokes the imagination, and provides you with a perceptual experience, the argument for placing it into an art ‘type’ is yours entirely. In the flux of the moment the class in which you place graffiti is a personal choice and the taxonomy can be argued. I personally love the originals in the urban environment teamed with street furniture and merged into our everyday life, they make me stop and take stock of the surrounding environment and the society in which I exist. To me, it is refreshing to recognise a piece of work by an artist and appreciate an image that is created purely because the artist wanted to create and has no financial attachments. I do have several pieces, which I treasure in my home – to me they are souvenirs of the deeper message and spirit/passion of the original street version.

Fig 1: Lascaux Caves in France –

Fig 2:
i. Political graffiti at Pompeii –           
ii.  Graffiti politique de Pompei –
iii. Second century pagan graffito depicting a man worshipping a crucified donkey. –

Fig 3: Members of White Rose Resistance –
ii.  Monument to the White Rose Resistance Movement –

Fig 4: Keith Haring – Subway art utilizing disused billboards. –

Fig 5: Keith Haring – Ignorance = Fear, 1989 –

Fig 6:  Jean-Michel Basquait –

Fig 7: Banksy 2005 Art Instillation –

Fig 8:
i. ‘Terror Alert’
ii.  ‘Spare some Change’.

Fig. 9: Replete – When Autumn Leaves… (Start To Fall) –           

Fig 10: Pure Evil – Guernica 2007

Fig. 11: Grafter


  • John Berger (1972) Ways of Seeing – Penguin Books Ltd. 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
  • Slinkachu (2008) Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkachu – Boxtree/ Pan Macmillian Ltd. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Rd. London N1 9RR Basingstoke and Oxford
  • Nicholas Ganz, edited by Tristan Manco (2004) Graffiti Art: Street Art from Five Continents – Thames and Hudson Ltd. 181A High Holborn, London WC1V 7QX
  • Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller (1999) Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design – Phaidon Press Ltd. Regent’s Wharf, All Saints street, London N1 9PA
  • Marc Gundel (2002) Haring Posters: Short Messages – Prestel, 4 Bloomsbury Place, London WC1A 2QA
  • Germano Celant – Editor (1997) Keith Haring – Prestel-Verlag, Mandlstrasse 26 . D-80802 Munich, Germany
  • Roger Gastman (2004) Enamelized: Graffiti Wordwide – Gingko Press / R77, R77 Publishing, PO Box 34843 Bethesda, MD, 208227 USA
  • Tristan Manco (2004) Street Logos – Thames and Hudson Ltd. 181A High Holborn, London WC1V 7QX
  • Edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall (1999) Visual Culture: A Reader – SAGE Publications Ltd. 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP

Journals, Publications & Magazines

  • The International Graffiti Writers Publication (Issue 52) Graphotism – Graphotism Headquaters, Graphotism House, Hackbridge Station, London Rd. Wallington, Surrey SM6 7BJ

Websites: All Site Accessed December 2008


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