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Graffiti as Art in New York City

[ NEW YORK, NY - NYC - 4/7/2002 - www.Littleviews.com ]

Painted building. Park Slope-area, Brooklyn

>>  Decorating building exteriors with beautiful sculptures, images and jewel-like colors is common in many parts of the world. With the exception of "Painted Ladies" (Victorian homes with vividly painted details), however, modern Americans limit their use of bright colors and exuberant patterns to the Christmas season.

The sight of bland dwellings in smaller cities is balanced by distance between buildings, trees, lawns and flower beds. When populations are dense, unfortunately, the bland exteriors of closely-packed buildings are as exciting to look at as shipping container store yards.

To relieve the monotony of container jungles, some people, usually teens, illegally paint buildings with random decorations. While this is vandalism, a case can be made to encourage the legal creation of hand-painted exterior designs. If done with vigor, painted designs could transform acres of uninteresting urban dwellings into highly expressive and colorful clusters. As it stands today, unfortunately, many urban walls are used to support clashing billboards, few of which have any artistic merit.

Kove Brothers Hardware Store, ManhattanI hate defaced surfaces as much as anyone, but began to see the value for large scale, thoughtfully executed graffiti (murals or wall paintings) when taking the Number 7 train to Flushing, Queens. From this elevated train, I saw miles of industrial-looking building walls, most devoid of decoration except for billboards and graffiti.

Bland expanses of walls beg for decoration and decorated they get. Although most of the graffiti you'll see along this route is comprised of chubby lettering, some graffiti is sharp, incorporating bold streaks of color, excellent design and exacting execution.

Love vanDull, flat walls need personalized decoration in much the same way as interior walls do. Expanses of plain exterior walls rob communities of their identities, making these areas appear needlessly harsh. Unfortunately, when building owners don't use exterior walls for visual advantage, the uninhibited youth who live around them do.

To keep walls from being vandalized and improve the way neighborhoods look, a few building owners hire skilled artists or talented kids to paint murals. The wall featuring the professionally executed antique car mural (top picture), for example, might have become alphabet soup had it remained bare. (Park Slope-area, Brooklyn)

Former graffiti at 11 E. 17th StreetThe Kove Brothers hardware store in Manhattan (second and last pictures) put a stop to vandalism by extensively decorating the exposed sides of its building, including a stern portrait of one of the brothers. They even decorated the areas under their front windows; areas that are often hit hard in other establishments because they're easy to reach.

The Love Van (third picture) is exceptionally well-done in a graffiti style. While I don't know whether it has a professional mission, I have seen other delivery trucks purposefully and artistically decorated in the graffiti style without a hint of other defacing graffiti painted over them. This is in contrast to dirty, bland trucks that regularly get hit by squads of spray painting urban terrorists.

There are some locations where graffiti is not only tolerated (probably because it can't be stopped), it becomes a magnet for developing art forms.

If you are near Union Square, for example, check out the displays surrounding the parking lot on 11 E. 17th Street. (3rd and 4th pictures)NY worker at 11 E. 17th Street Here you'll see a mixture of ordinary graffiti tagging (words and initials) with well-developed art. Variations morph regularly. The four foot high green faces shown here have since been replaced by new images.

From the beginning of time, people decorated their dwellings, using pattern as a means for self-expression and, yes, marking territory. Are we so different from those people? A thousand years from now, will archeologists "discover" that our culture worshiped laundry detergent and cigarettes because so many sturdy commercial billboards became part of our remains?

Ornamental masonry and statuary on great dwellings, marking religious and governmental environments, are similar to graffiti in that they convey messages. Generations of workers (artisans) supported these messages, with skills to do so passed along in family-run businesses.

The messages? Exterior decorations showed visitors who owned a building, what was likely to go on inside, when various events would take place and why these events took place there. Exterior decorations had a commercial element (they attracted people), but conveyed it with style, imagination and beauty, rather than the direct pitches we see on today's billboards.

Kove Brothers Hardware, ManhattanPerhaps if we invited the community to start transforming bland structures into more urban varieties of Painted Ladies, we'd see less random defacing and more intelligent and inviting forms of creativity emerge. We'd also attract visitors in a far more profitable way than is currently being achieved through billboards.

Don't believe me? Have you ever seen the lines of people trying to see decorated communities during Christmas, with some neighborhoods collecting money for the showing? And, of course, there are paid tours and/or printed tour guides for Painted Lady neighborhoods wherever these neighborhoods can be found. With a few cans of paint and a little creativity, this phenomena could potentially occur all over New York, reinvigorating neighborhoods, businesses and institutions in otherwise forgotten localities.

Equally important, if we understood and encouraged exterior building decoration, we'd open up new employment streams for artisans, once important members of the building community. How much more fun would this be to see than the painted cow and other silly promotions that periodically and quite temporarily hit our streets?

Questions? Comments?
Karen Little

Article and photos by Karen Little. First published on 4/7/2002. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.

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