Another F**King Debate About What Art Is And Who Gets To Decide (Ft. JESWRI)
Since the beginning of the co-opting of urban art, there has been much debate about what art actually is and who gets to decide.
Actually, more likely, it’s been debated since the beginning of the creation of art in general, but we’re most concerned with urban art; graffiti and street art.
Spurred on by the chaos around Graffiti Removal Day, we’ve been having more conversations than usual about the “powers that be” interfering with an art form that is, at its core, all about freedom of expression.
Wanting to look at this topic from all angles, we connected with Melbourne based muralist and illustrator, JESWRI, who hails from Sydney and grew up in the Sydney graffiti community.
Aware of his mainstream popularity and the subculture that enabled it, JESWRI shares his thoughts on the culture as a whole, the problem with policing it, and what our streets could look like if we left the policing of urban art to the artists themselves.
Image credit: Mitch Fong.
You can listen to JESWRI on the Street Art Unearthed podcast discussing this and other topics, or you can read on for select excerpts around what street art is and how it should be policed.
Navigating the Labels
I think that I can only really speak from experience and my knowledge. I don’t want to go out and say, “This is what I’ve been told, or this is what I know about this person.” But I was a graffiti writer, and I transitioned from graffiti into street art. So I offer a nice perspective on the two.
I think for me, I struggle even to call myself a street artist because I do a lot of internal projects as well. So I just call myself an artist.
I think the difference between graffiti and street art is not that different. Whether you want to explain it or not, it’s not. Street art can still be illegal. Graffiti can still be paid for.
I think graffiti as a style, however, can only be held in graffiti. If you were to paint graffiti lettering or wild style or any graffiti elements, it would come under graffiti. But equally, street art can be graffiti as well. So you can still have stencils, which are considered street art, but that can still be graffiti. Look at Banksy, for example.
In my opinion, I don’t think they’re very different at all. I think it just kind of comes down to a name. But in regards to the style, graffiti has the upper hand of owning a certain section of it, if that makes sense.
Graffiti History and Popularisation
Modern graffiti, from my understanding, got popular and put into galleries in the 70s, after the Style Wars movie and after Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant.
It was popular even in ancient Greece, way after indigenous tribes used it as a communication tool. Because that’s what it is. Ultimately, I see graffiti as a communication tool. People will use it to convey or express how they’re feeling or something that they want to draw attention to. It doesn’t have to be a name. It can just be an exercise of communication. I always see graffiti as being the voice of the voiceless.
It’s like someone has a pseudonym or a nom de plume or an alter ego, and they can come out, and they can have this voice, and they can go, well, Jesse might not be able to say something, but JESWRI can.
Hip hop lent itself off the back of graffiti. But hip hop equally came from being a blues genre that was oppressed and stolen. Same with break dancing as well. Break dancing was taken as a rebellious movement to congregate and to have a voice. It wasn’t just this new, cool dance move. There was messaging. There were stories to be told.
It’s a subculture for a reason. There are layers. There are so many layers to this. There are writers, bombers, artists, burners. There are now gallerists, too. There are stencil artists, commission artists, and character people.
Who Gets to Judge What Art Is
One of my biggest things about this Graffiti Removal Day is that graffiti is always going to be removed, and we can’t stop it. But, if you put together this coalition or this group of people that are going to try and remove it anyway, they’re just trying to point out who’s an arsehole, who’s not an arsehole. So it makes it easy for us to go, “Oh, cool, sweet.”
They look and go, “What is graffiti? What isn’t graffiti? Oh, well, this wonderful picture of this lady that is part of the community or this firefighter or whatever is part of the community, then let’s paint him. But that Black Lives Matter graffiti piece over there, that is graffiti, let’s remove that…” Whereas the more important one would be the Black Lives Matter mural. But they’re still going to remove it because they’re now policing what can go up and what can’t.
You’re putting up subjective opinion into people with no knowledge of art, no precedence in the subculture, no artists in general. Just talentless people.
I think that they need to boot a lot of those people, a lot of those liberals. They need to boot the uncultured people that they have employed. They need to stop being privately funded or publicly state where their money’s coming from. Then, once booting these people, they need to employ people who have an idea — people who are in the arts movement.
They need to say, “All right. Cool. Out with the outdated. Out with the uncultured. Let’s bring in gallerists. Let’s bring in people who understand arts. Let’s bring in artists, actual artists, active artists.” Let’s bring in people who are established within the graffiti community. People who understand not only graffiti subculture, but street art culture, and people who appreciate art.
That’s probably the easiest thing that you can do. And, obviously, change the name.
What Happens If We Don’t Police Graffiti
Well, there’ll become this natural order of things. Graffiti already has a natural order. There are already natural rules that we live and stand by that even I’ve taken into street art. We just kind of police ourselves. I know that that Nazi symbol doesn’t belong here, so I’m going to go over it. You don’t need to remove it. We’ll do it.
There are basic rules of what you can and can’t go over if you’re another artist. The very, very entry-level shit is this: You can’t go over someone that’s better than you. If you want to go over someone, you have to burn them. You have to deliver the fucking best Burner you can think of. All of it too. You have to cover the entire wall.
Photo credit: Yeah Rad.
You can’t tag over other people’s pieces — “cap it.”
If given a chance, I think graffiti can uplift a suburb. The natural order of things can push out the… insects. No graffiti writer or graffiti artist, or bomber is going to go and tag a shop window. Nobody’s going to actively go and draw Nazi symbols or dicks anywhere.
The natural order of things will push these people out. What you would see, if uncontrolled and untamed and left to its devices, is that graffiti as a subculture can really make a qualified, gentrified district. Even the train lines as well.
I think Scott Marsh made a great point… Think about how much paint and money they waste every week by covering up graffiti. Thousands, millions of dollars go into buff paint, and it’s ugly. There’s nothing more shit than doing that.
I remember when I was a kid, my mum used to take me on the trains and go around, seeing all the colourful pieces. We used to see all the graffiti on the street, and I was like, “This is sick. This is so colourful. This is awesome to look at.” If that was allowed, that would ultimately brighten up a lot of people’s days. That’s where graffiti started from. People really just wanted to paint colourful shit on New York trains and brighten people’s day.