Street Art, Graffiti, Tagging -- Same or Different? MOCA Show Blurs Debate

Artwork by Revok at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Little Tokyo

This post is in support of Departures, KCET's oral history and interactive documentary project about Los Angeles neighborhoods. The series has covered art in the streets, whether it be murals or graffiti, in its installments of Venice and the L.A. River

The Museum of Contemporary Art's ambitious Art in the Streets carries a decree declaring graffiti is a contemporary art form. While the show has been tagged as a success by critics and been enjoying solid attendance, the exhibition isn't matching the action found on the streets.

Authorities announced Sunday that Jason Williams, who is know as "Revok" and as a member of "Mad Society Kings" (MSK), was arrested Thursday at LAX. He is one of the participating artists in the exhibition that surveys the history of street art -- his arrest is just another footnote in the show.

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Art in the Streets' auspicious introduction wasn't a high profile press junket or opening night celebrity filled reception. It was the whitewashing of a mural by Blu, first commissioned by MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch, that made censorship a debate topic before the show began.

Now the topic is vandalism.

A wheatpaste by French artist J.R. on the side of the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA was defaced by tagging.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's report there is an increase in tagging at the Little Tokyo/Arts District Gold Line station, located across the street from MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, and inside the light rail cars that bring young audiences to the show.

"The exhibit kind of glorifies graffiti," is the oft-used quote attributed to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Augie Pando, who helps oversee the County's anti-graffiti task force. And it was sheriff deputies who arrested Williams just as he was about to board a plane headed for Ireland. The street art legend was wanted for an outstanding warrant for failure to pay restitution from "previous vandalism crimes" and now held on $320,000 bail. The arrest also netted evidence of his current graffiti work seen on the Metro Blue Line.

LAPD has responded to the increase of graffiti around the Little Tokyo-based Geffen Contemporary by stepping up enforcement. LAPD Senior Lead Officer Jack Richter has vowed to "prosecute anyone caught defacing public space," reports the New York Times. Richter, who stated the increase in stickers and tagging is in part due to the exhibition, has always been a steady enforcer of those caught applying graffiti on his Little Tokyo and Arts District beat.

More On This Topic From Departures

Audio/Slideshow: Graffiti artist Saber One talks about graffiti along the L.A. River.

Video: How the Venice Graffiti Walls came to be.
During the opening weekend of "Art in the Streets," the LAPD detained two French nationals, one who was believed to be "Space Invader," reportedly caught with buckets of grout tile scouting a historic building in Little Tokyo.


Part of the ongoing debate of the aggressive police activity around Little Tokyo stems from former LAPD Chief William Bratton's broken windows theory that considers tagging, even if defined as street art, as a criminal element.

In contrast, the Arts District is reveling as an outdoor street art gallery by hosting a number of artists to place work, with permission, on walls around the neighborhood just a few blocks away from the Geffen.

As expected, street artists are defending their form of expression and say the exhibition is influencing the perception that street art is more than just vandalism.

Deitch says the LAPD is overreacting and that the "anarchy" displayed by the street art subculture was to be expected. He has also reminded street art critics that MOCA is cleaning up after the renegade artists.

In a series of interviews, artists and Deitch have been quick to point out the exhibition is helping bring an economic bump to Little Tokyo cafes, a talking point supported by street art advocates.

Some, however, may not agree.

"I have to keep scrubbing out names in my bathroom. Business has been a little better, but not enough to pay for cleaning up," said one Little Tokyo restaurant owner who agreed to speak to KCET if remained anonymous. "I agree that some of it (is) very good. But if it is art, I want to have a choice if its goes on the wall outside my building . . . or on my sink."

The debate is bound to go on, even after the show ends its Los Angeles run August 8th.

Related: The Politics of Murals Has L.A.'s Legacy Fading

The top photo on this post is by Flickr user helkimchee and was used under a Creative Commons License. Second photo by Robyn Vallejos/View From a Loft

Twitter: @KCETdepartures
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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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