Literate and Likeable

Published:  October 21, 2013

Max Olijnyk wonders what happened when graffiti became street art.

When I first travelled to Europe about 10 years ago, Barcelona was at the top of my list of places to visit. My main motivation for going anywhere back then was skateboarding (on the whole, it still is) and Barcelona was the Mecca. Exploring the city, I found smooth granite ledges and perfectly angled banks around every corner. It was like the whole place had been set up as a skater’s paradise. What impressed me more was how skateboarding fitted in with everything else.

The people seemed to have a much more sophisticated relationship with their environment – the city was a place to hang out in, not just to travel to for work, or for partying or shopping. Kids played football and cricket in the squares and people of all ages sat around talking and playing music until late at night. While I was skating a huge lizard- shaped sculpture (coincidentally a perfect quarter-pipe), a small crowd of people gathered and clapped as I rolled away from my rather unimpressive trick.

Another thing I noticed was the graffiti. As well as the chaos of tags, the walls were covered in legible jokes and poems, repeated graphic patterns and lifelike portraits. I liked how inclusive and accessible the artwork was: a reflection of its surroundings rather than a covert attack on them. It was as if the graffiti world had relaxed a bit and lifted up the blinds to the outside world. I ended up taking just as many photos of the graffiti as I did of the skaters.

Upon my return to Adelaide, I began working off my credit card debt at a skate shop. One of the guys who worked there was a graffiti writer (let’s call him Greg the Graffiti Guy – GGG for short) and we became friends. GGG showed me his photo album folio of twisting letters and sharp, architectural forms painted on trains, walls and various surfaces all over the world. I didn’t understand what was going on, but it looked cool. Nearly every night after work, GGG would go out painting. And every other week, he would disappear on trips to other cities to do the same.

Following one of his trips to Melbourne, GGG told me about all these ‘normal kids’ with paintbrushes and stencils painting alongside the graffiti writers. “It was weird,” he said. I agreed it was strange, but thought it sounded interesting at the same time, a bit like what I’d seen in Barcelona. By the time I made it to Melbourne myself, the movement was in full swing. The laneways were full of stencil art, funny little toys perched on signs and wheat- pasted posters. Breaking the anonymity code of graffiti, the ‘normal kid’ stencil artists were owning up to their work.

They were interviewed in the papers and it turned out they were literate, likeable sorts. The council started getting behind them and suddenly there were legal street art sites all around the city. Walking tours, dedicated exhibition spaces, coffee table books.

I wonder if the excitement I felt when I first visited Barcelona is similar to the experience visitors to Melbourne have when they walk up and down Hosier Lane. They certainly share a lot of similarities. The work is bold and colourful, with clever nods to other art genres. It has a way of making the laneway feel like a living thing.

But I don’t like it, and I’m not exactly sure why. Is it because I’m older? Is it because I think I’m too cool? Even typing the words ‘street art’ makes me feel uncomfortable. Because from where I’m standing, this art is no longer mediated by the streets. And if it is, they’re sheltered, gentrified streets. Boring streets.

Traditionally, a graffiti writer or skateboarder has to break the law – you are using the city and private property for a purpose it wasn’t designed for. To get any good at it, you have to practise, so you break the law a lot. The process of enmeshing yourself with the culture has a by-product of making you look at the city in a different way and, in most places, you are treated differently as a result. You get kicked out of places by security guards, you run from the police.

These experiences shape your character and, in turn, your creative output. Many of my favourite artists, writers and designers are skateboarders or graffiti writers, even if it was in a previous life. There seems to be a common attitude, a freer approach to structure that comes through in their creative work. The work doesn’t necessarily reference graffiti or skateboarding (it rarely does, in fact), but it shares a certain energy. It’s like the excitement I felt when I saw that graffiti in Barcelona, or when GGG showed me his photo album, or I hear a really good song.

In my opinion, street art is graffiti with the excitement taken out of it. Everything about it is easier, safer. It’s like skateboarding at a skate park, as opposed to the streets. The rules are different, the risk level is lower and the whole thing is more predictable. The environment no longer provides that incidental educational experience.

Making street art seems more like a commercial undertaking than an artistic practice. Perhaps I’m looking at the wrong stuff, but it all seems very safe and boring.

It’s kind of unfortunate that things like graffiti and skateboarding collide with mainstream culture at all. It hardly ever works out. Collaborating with ‘the man’ always seems to instantly rinse all the fun and vitality out of it. It’s a shame, because it means the general public is never exposed to the essence of what is going on behind the closed blinds of underground cultures.

All they see is the mess, the senseless destruction of private property and the occasional misrepresented caricatures in the media. Street art, on the other hand, has grown and flourished on the back of that mainstream interest. It’s a more palatable version of graffiti, without the inbuilt need to go against the grain.

Maybe beating ‘the man’ at his own game is the thing to do these days, and the concept of the ‘underground’ is outdated. When you’re not spending all your time being different to everyone else, perhaps you can get some really interesting stuff done. It’s a tricky one.

I returned to Europe with my girlfriend last year. We travelled around France, Sweden, Germany and the UK, as well as spending a week in Barcelona. The walls were still swimming in graffiti, though this time I hardly noticed it. I suppose it wasn’t such a shock to the system this time, or maybe I just wasn’t as open to it. In the afternoons while my girlfriend had her siesta, I went skating.

The city was exactly as I remembered it, if a little more run down and sinister. At one spot near the beach, I was trying to work up the courage to grind along the top of a steep bank, riding it down to the footpath below. A small crowd of people gathered and looked on as I approached the ledge. When I ollied onto the bank, my board stuck on the granite edge and pitched me violently onto my hip.

I stood up and tried to walk – I had given myself a dead leg and wouldn’t be able to walk properly, let alone skate, for the rest of our time in Barcelona. Someone called out, “OK?” I looked up and smiled, gave the thumbs up. I’d like to say the crowd broke into spontaneous applause, but they didn’t.

Max Olijnyk is a writer, photographer, jeans designer and skater living in Melbourne, Australia. He writes for The Age, The Thousands, Doingbird, The Heavy Mental and his personal blog, Note To Self.

Tim Lahan is a New York-based graphic artist and designer, working with The New Yorker, Jack Spade, KENZO (France), McSweeney’s, Pitchfork, Nike, and The New York Times.

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