It says something about graffiti when it’s being considered not only as high-end art, but as a home decor choice. We take a look at the graffiti scene in Tucson, and ask why it’s struggling to remain underground. By Gillian Drummond.
When a spray-painted piece by elusive British graffiti artist Banksy sold at auction last month for $1.1 million, it wasn’t just the price tag that got people talking.
The stencil piece, named Slave Labour – showing a young boy hunched over a sewing machine stitching Union Jack bunting – had been displayed on a shop wall in a neighborhood of north London. Earlier this year, it disappeared and resurfaced at an art auction in Miami. After a campaign to have it returned, it was sold at a private auction in London.
Banksy himself is said to believe his art should stay where it is. The anonymous buyer, who can now enjoy the piece at his or her leisure, would no doubt argue otherwise. But what does it say about graffiti – a movement that prides itself on being public and free – when it has become art that is both sought-after and private?
Jaque Fragua, an artist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico who practices graffiti and mural art frequently in Tucson, doesn’t even like the words ‘graffiti’ and ‘art’ being used together. “I’m trying very very hard. I’m training myself to never say that compound phrase,” he says. Why? Whereas Jaque sees art as a career of hobby, he sees graffiti as a way of life, and one that is tribal. “It’s like a community of hobos or bikers. It’s like a whole new fraternity.”
Phil Tanfield, editor-in-chief of graffiti magazine The Infamous, echoes his argument. “I don’t think people really understand about graffiti unless they know, spend a lot of time with, and care about somebody who writes graffiti,” says Phil. “But even then, no matter how much one knows or has researched/talked to people/knows “famous” writers, one never understands it unless they try living it. Not just going out for street tags once, but living the way a graffiti writer lives for a minute, by which I mean several months.”
Jaque uses graffiti and mural art to spread political and racial messages. A Native American, he references America’s class and racial struggles in his work, which appears outside of Tucson’s Cafe Desta, among other places. “For me, there’s no other thing that you can feel that comes close to what graffiti is, on a spiritual, emotional and mental level. It’s complete freedom. I have the ability to create an environment where I have self-love, I have self-pride, I have self-dignity, I can create whatever I please,” he says.
Filmmaker Ricardo Bracamonte grew up with graffiti on Tucson’s south side. He even dabbled in it himself, with some late-night ‘bombing’ in tunnels when he was a teenager. But it was short-lived. “I was terrible at it,” he laughs.
After spending a summer living in Spanish Harlem in New York, he gained a deeper appreciation and fascination for graffiti; he was moved by it, he says. So much so that he decided to turn it into the subject of his University of Arizona BFA film thesis. The result, the 8-minute-long Bombing Arizona, was part of the Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson last Spring, and has appeared in four other film festivals, including this year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival and the 2012 San Francisco Latino Film Festival.
The film documented graffiti artists and their reasons for doing it – from a love of the Bible and wanting to share religious messages, to escaping troubled family lives, to enjoying the adrenalin rush. And in telling their stories, it created art within art. Ricardo secured permission for artists to create murals at several locations. One of them was the Tucson meat market Carniceria La Noria at 1st Avenue and Prince, where an image of Frida Kahlo is so popular, the owner has told Ricardo he wants more.
Another location Ricardo used was a residential perimeter wall at his aunt’s house, by a wash on the south side of Tucson. “That wash is the main walkway for a lot of kids who go to Sunnyside’s Sierra Middle School. I wanted to create art for that community and give them a sense of pride,” he says.
He had personal reasons too. His aunt helped raise him; his parents both worked and would drop him off there at 7am and pick him up at 5pm. Ricardo remembers his Tia Elsa teaching him a lot, from tracing letters all the way to reading and National Geographic magazine. “She’s a very smart woman. I wanted something colorful for her house,” he says.
The mural, depicting barrio-to-border living, and Tucson’s controversial Mexican American Studies program, didn’t last long. Within weeks it was run over, he says, using a graffiti term for being painted over. “It upset me how quickly it happened, but it comes with the territory,” he says. “We ran over someone when we did ours. It goes back to the idea of ownership.”
Mezo (his nickname and graffiti signature) is one of the writers who decorated Ricardo’s aunt’s wall as part of the film project. Mezo tried for some time to secure legal graffiti space for Tucson’s youth, attempting to get non-profit groups involved and “the City on our side”. But he says: “I never fully succeeded and my energy and drive to do that isn’t there any more.”
Mezo works three part-time jobs and doesn’t do as much graffiti as he used to; he says he doesn’t want to risk getting arrested, because he has jobs to hold down. But he carries markers in his pockets just in case the urge comes; he says it’s a habit that’s hard to kick.
Meanwhile, the graffiti movement is proving to be a challenge for local authorities. Mezo says graffiti is not going to go away, particularly given its resurgence in connection to the hip-hop culture. “For youth, hip-hop is a universal language and the graffiti ties it all together,” he explains. Those battling graffiti in Tucson know this only too well. With around 70 cases reported a day and more than 2,300 in the last year, Tucson City Council and police are stepping up their fight. The council uses a private contractor to deal with covering it over or removing it, and police have assigned more officers to graffiti. Tucson City Council spokesman Michael Graham says graffiti costs the city $60,000 a month, a figure that has more or less stayed the same for the last three years.
Jaque draws a distinct line between what is graffiti and what is a mural: murals have permission, he says: “I feel like graffiti is illegal. That’s the universal definition of graffiti.” And he’s spent time in jail for some of his own graffiti work. (In Tucson, a graffiti misdemeanor will get you a $250 fine and a minimum of 20 hours’ community service.)
For public artist Joe O’Connell of Tucson-based Creative Machines Inc and JB Public Art, the illegality of graffiti is part of his attraction to it as an art form. “I respect how graffiti artists in the 70’s in cities like New York and Philadelphia carved out a space to express themselves. To some extent that lets me overlook the fact that a lot of the work doesn’t look all that great. The fact that it was done against the law by people who figured out the logistics of the subway system – how to get in, create a little art, and get out – that raises it closer to the level of art. When you take the act as a whole: the finished piece plus what it took to make it, you get closer to art.”
Adds Joe: “A lot of times graffiti has to be done in a hurry so you don’t get caught, and it is not easy to erase mistakes. That puts a premium on simple, powerful designs executed without hesitation – and that’s a good thing to cultivate in any field.”
Joe’s own work is sculptures, but he admires many graffiti artists, including Banksy, as well as “ad-busters” who alter billboards. But he says he has neither patience nor respect for tagging, when graffiti writers and crews simply leave their initials on a surface. “Maybe if you climb a tower and put your name in a really tricky spot that means something, but I remember somebody tagged the gate in front of my shop and I was pissed. All they added to the world was their name, executed in a lame loopy piss ant derivative style that said nothing new. It was as if they stood up in class, interrupted the teacher without raising their hand, got the attention of the class, but then had nothing to say.”
For his part, Ricardo does not distinguish between a spray-painted defacement of a garden wall and a giant mural that took half a day to do. “For me it’s all the same. It’s the same because it’s an expression. It reminds us of class struggle and where we are in our society.” His film is designed to provoke as much as graffiti is, he says. “I went into it wanting to put it into people’s faces. I wanted people to ask themselves ‘Where did this come from? Why did he put his name on this? And what gives him the right?’ I wanted to start a conversation.”
Ricardo was limited by both time (the film had to last no more than ten minutes) and resources. He raised $800 on Kickstarter, put in another $200 of his own money, and couldn’t afford proper lighting to film at night. And so this is a subject he would like to return to. As he narrates at the end of Bombing Arizona, “There is no resolution to this story. Graffiti has none. As urbanization continues, so will graffiti.”
Adds Mezo: “If you look at history, writing on a wall isn’t anything new. The urge, that need to express something, that’s always going to exist.”
From street to living room: graffiti becomes home decor
For homeowners looking for a bit of street art in their living room, it’s never been a better time.
“There’s been a surge in the graffiti street art movement, thanks to people like Banksy,” says Wendy Fixman, owner of Montreal-based Eazywallz, which produces stick-on fabric wallpaper for residential and commercial use. Graffiti images are one of its biggest sellers, snapped up at a reasonable price – from $119 for a 12-square-foot panel – by people who want a splash of color or something urban-looking in (usually) a modern home.
“Artists like Banksy have really catapulted a lot of these ideas and images. A lot of our customers want to add a splash, and that’s what this gives,” says Wendy.
Eazywallz panels are designed so that they can be removed and re-applied – in case you make a mistake installing it, or in case you want to redecorate or move the wallpaper elsewhere. The company says the product won’t damage the wall behind it.
Resource Furniture, which just opened a showroom in Los Angeles, has a new line of high-resolution photographic wallpaper called ConcreteWall, featuring images of concrete, brick and graffiti. Made of polyvinyl, and with no repeat pattern, it can be sized so that the photo fits your space, and also color-enhanced to match your surroundings. Price: $18 per square foot.
“It’s a brilliant decor for urban chic interiors like edgy underground restaurants and boutique hotels”, says 3 Story’s Madeleine Boos.
Tucson graffiti writer Mezo has mixed feelings about what he calls the “glorification” of graffiti. He sees the irony in people making money out of a movement that was based on being public and free. “But at the same time there are opportunities for artists. It’s a really cool opportunity for a lot of these people to make money and make a living out of the thing that they do.” Some of the best artists he knows are friends in Tucson who will never make any money out of their art, he says.
Mezo and a friend have started a sideline business selling clothing like T-shirts, with graffiti images on them. Its name is Flowers & Bullets. “Flowers are the art,” says its Facebook page. “Bullets are the struggle.”