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Graffiti comes of age in New York

By Prune Perromat
BBC News, New York

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"Graffiti will live forever" - Sharp

Comfortably seated in a $30,000 Louis XV-style armchair, in a luxurious room reminiscent of an 18th Century French salon, Sharp stares coolly at his latest piece of art, hung on the opposite wall.

The canvas depicts a porn star's bottom encircled by flashy pink, blue and purple sprays of paint recreating the letters of the alphabet.

"I am rethinking the traditional alphabet," he explains.

Nearly 30 years after spraying his first graffiti in the subway, Sharp now sees his work on display in major galleries.

In June, an exhibition in New York called "Whole in the Wall" displayed his work, and that of dozens of other big names of the street art scene, including Lee Quinones, Blade, Banksy and Blek Le Rat.

Despite graffiti's bad reputation, the exhibition's blending of street art and French extravagant furniture showed how graffiti has spread across the world since the 1980s.

"The idea was to show that graffiti is universal and that it has become a cultural and intellectual form of art which gathers all populations and all generations," explains Chantal Helenbeck, who organised the "Whole in the Wall" show with her twin sister Brigitte.

"But graffiti is also a typically American art that started in New York, and we wanted to re-explore this movement in its historical and geographical context."

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"We're not at odds with society" - Lee Quinones on how graffiti has evolved

This effort to see graffiti in a new light in New York comes after years of intense police pressure and residents' complaints.

In the 1980s, graffiti artists took advantage of New York's financial misery and strained police force to paint what seemed like every corner and wall.

But once Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani launched his intense law-enforcement strategy against petty crimes in the 1990s, the city's expanded police force made street art a primary target and began sending a new message.

Graffiti, which NYPD Commissioner Raymond W Kelly defines as "intentionally damaging private or public property by painting, etching, or permanently marking it in some manner" started to be considered a "quality of life crime."

In New York, spraying graffiti on public or private property now carries up to a seven year jail term.

'Not cool'

"Quality of life has become such a hot issue that we made a tremendous effort to...ease the reporting process," says NYPD Lieutenant Frank Rivera, in charge of the anti-graffiti programme in Manhattan's 34th police precinct.

"Before, people thought that their complaints would fall on deaf ears but that's not the case anymore."

"Even if [graffiti] is a great piece of art, it is illegal," says Commissioner Nazli Parvizi, head of the Community Affairs Unit, a New York agency that serves as a link between the mayor and local communities.

A man reading on a New York subway train decorated with graffiti (Picture: Martha Cooper, Subway Art, Chronicle Books 2009).
The modern graffiti movement began in New York city

She also points out that graffiti, of any type, is generally a sign that a place "is screaming for public action".

"Some people believe it's cool, but I believe that if you're doing graffiti on somebody else's property, without their consent, I think you're violating their property. So I don't think that's cool," says Clinton Langston, who helps scores of New York City neighbourhoods by removing graffiti and refreshing their walls.

For Leopold Vasquez, a community organiser in Washington Heights, a Latino neighbourhood in the north of Manhattan, graffiti is not the main issue, however - it is only a symptom.

"Graffiti doesn't happen because people wake up with spray cans in their hands," he says.

"It's kind of a tell-tale sign of the times. Graffiti is an indicator of where people are economically. We should not tolerate anyone going after private property, and it is our responsibility to bring resources so that our teenagers use their energy in the right place."

More mature

The massive police offensive starting in the 1990s enhanced to a great extent New York graffiti's subversive image, and hence its popularity among a number of anti-establishment contemporary artists.

It also forced New York artists to reconsider subway cars as their primary outlet and pushed some of them towards the world of fancy urban galleries.

The continuing criminalisation of graffiti provoked deep changes in the art form. Unable to perform the most dangerous (and what they consider the noblest) type of graffiti art - covering subway cars with gigantic tags - artists had to find new ways to express themselves.

"You can't stay 15 forever. You can't do heroin forever," says Sharp. "Change is inevitable."

For Lee Quinones, a well-known graffiti artist who now sells his paintings for hundreds of thousands of dollars, the change does not alter the soul of his art.

"Graffiti is a state of mind, it's not a thing, it's not a form," he insists.

The movement, he says, has become more mature over the years and more powerful: "We worked hard back then, now we work smart."

The success of artists like the UK's Banksy, whose paintings took over Bristol Museum this summer, indicates graffiti's durability as an art form, but it may also signal the decline of New York as the cutting-edge of the movement.

Sharp himself seems to accept this evolution: "People who contributed the most to the stylistic changes, and evolution of our culture, are not Americans. They are Europeans. The home of this culture is in New York city but this is by no way something indigenous to NYC.

"This is a global movement and it has been since (sic) more than 25 years."



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