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A Global Look at Graffiti and Street Art, with an L.A. Angle

Rafael Schacter holds a Ph.D, but as his twitter profile warns, it is "useless in an airplane-based emergency." However, as an anthropologist, he may reveal that international graffiti and street artists are a consult to the ills of society. He is the author of "World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti," by Yale Press, and the upcoming "Ornament & Order: Graffiti, Street Art, and the Parergon," from Ashgate. Schacter is an honorary research fellow at the Department of Anthropology at University College, London, and Co-Curator for the Street Art Expo at Tate Modern.

With "World Atlas" featuring a Los Angeles artist on the cover, we wondered if there is graffiti work in London that can be seen as a visual link to Los Angeles. "Not really, sorry!" He said. But he did have other insights for us.

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Ed Fuentes: Revok's work signifies the power of what you refer to as "Independent Public Art." Is it the powerful aesthetic or the subtext of the repeated unauthorized installation that makes a flash point?

Rafael Schacter: As I discuss briefly in the book, Revok is both one of the world's most influential exponents of contemporary graffiti, as well as one of the most articulate critics of the often unjust treatment of graffiti artists by the police and judiciary in the United States. He has experienced the so-called "war" on graffiti at first hand, and most definitely become a lightning rod for the LAPD over recent years; his constant (and dangerously coherent!) rebukes of their actions directly led to his being harassed, jailed, and for all intents and purposes forced from Los Angeles itself.

Whilst the details of his encounter with the LAPD have been much discussed, his reaction to it, with his remarkable Detroit Beautification Project, really displays Revok's argument -- his belief in the positive potential of graffiti and his disgust at its treatment in L.A. -- more than any verbal statement could.


I see the two terms, street art and graffiti, growing into defined aesthetics from each other. That's clear in the title of your new book. Would it be wise to begin establishing how they are differing from each other, even with overlapping intent?

Personally, I find both the terms quite difficult. Within an academic context, I actually try not to use them at all. I use a couple of neologisms instead, as I feel they both mean so much -- so many different things to so many different people -- that they end up meaning nothing at all. Moreover, with graffiti so often connected to vandalism and street art to "acceptable" art, I feel their usage means people start relating to the topic in a certain way as soon as they're mentioned.

And this is all without mentioning the fact that many artists don't like being labeled at all, or mentioning the depreciation the term "street art" has had to encounter with so many people taking up the mantle of "street-art" despite the fact that they never work in the street at all!

Or, perhaps more correctly, the depreciation emerging from people, for some reason named street-artists, who work in the street solely to promote their non-street work, using the street for purely instrumental purposes.

I prefer the term Independent Public Art, or Informal Public Art, perhaps. From there, each style or each work can then be discussed on its own merit, without any baggage attached.


"Art in the Streets" at the Museum of Contemporary Art leaned toward New York forms. How did you come to recognize Chaz, and Los Angeles, as a pure West Coast movement?

With graffiti emerging on the East Coast of the States, it may be (or perhaps not) understandable that the show was more dominated by the art from there. However, L.A. most definitely has its own unique flavour -- from the gothic style "Cholo" graffiti emerging from East L.A., the style taken up so beautifully by Chaz Bojorquez, to the domination of AWR and MSK today. The city has a reach, history and present. It's something impossible to miss when examining the aesthetic in a geographical sense. Art is always affected by environment, inescapably so, and L.A. is a perfect example of this.


As you know, there is no lack of controversy with graffiti. How do scholars reconcile it as a statement of existence and invasion of public space?

Graffiti is controversial, but strangely more so than many of the other illegal messages that pervade our environments -- the illegal advertising hoardings, the billposters, and vandalistic architecture that confront us all everyday. There are also many reasons why people choose to work illegally in the public sphere, sometimes, yes, to make a mere statement of existence, to take ownership of public space. But also to express joy, to test their physical skills, to show allegiance to their friends, to shout in hate as much as in love.

Yet, true public space, and L.A. is often used as an example of this, is becoming harder and harder to find. The privatization of the commons is a real and present issue, and one that the battles over graffiti often bring to the fore.


From David Hockney to Alfred Hitchcock, there is a U.K. response to the California sun as an environmental aesthetic. To you, is it a factor in reading works from Los Angeles?

Absolutely. As I said, environment always affects work. I think the intensely vivid, complex, graphic work, which has been emerging out of the city, has undoubtedly emerged in part due to this.


With the way you look at murals in this book, and in the upcoming title "Ornament & Order: Street Art, Graffiti, and the Parergon," I would like to suggest Willie Herrón's "The Wall that Cracked Open" (1972) as an early work that uses calligraphy, even through he approached it as a muralist, not a graffiti writer.

Thanks for introducing me to this great work. As a part of the Independent Art World, we do look at murals within The World Atlas, and I touch upon them briefly in "Ornament & Order."


What's also interesting to me is how you look at graffiti as an anthropologist, versus how an art historian would look at it. Is there a subtle difference? Is it about reading the context or intent?

I am definitely an anthropologist rather than an art historian, although I feel that I'm often being pulled into an art historian mode by being asked to comment on specific pieces of work for example -- which I'm often a bit uncomfortable about doing.

As an anthropologist, the perceived "quality" of a work is of much less relevance than its mere existence -- what it does, how it does it, why it does it. So I'm interested in the meanings people invest into works, the effects of those same works, and at the same time I want to examine the importance of the practices and performances that brought these works of art into existence.

That is crucial actually -- the rituals and the artifacts in equal measure. As such, I'm actually more interested in entire oeuvres, rather than individual pieces, and in the social relations that these artworks instantiate and produce as much as the artwork themselves.
But then at the same time, for many art historians, this sort of approach is becoming more and more common; we're all studying material culture after all, and disciplinary boundaries are being broken down. I'm just lucky enough that being an anthropologist, I get to work directly with the people I'm studying!

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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