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Graffiti, Street Art or Vandalism?

Graffiti, Street Art or Vandalism?
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A Tale of Two Cities, Portland and Portsmouth

First, let me confess that I am not a big fan of graffiti art. The trains that roll slowly behind my house are covered up as high as a person can reach with aerosol tags that all look pretty much the same to me in their use of loopy, block letters. There must be something about the furtive use of spray cans and big arm gestures that results in the canned look of urban graffiti.

The street art duo Herakut applies a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson to a Pan Am Railways trestle.

That said, I appreciate that graffiti has been an art form since the first prehistoric man/woman made his/her mark in a cave. The impulse to make one’s mark in society is primitive and powerful. To make one’s mark without permission is an even more powerful, taboo adding thrill to self-expression.

Currently, Portland, Maine, is in the midst of a public debate about the pros and cons of graffiti, aka tagging or street art. In April, the Portland Arts & Cultural Alliance held a panel discussion that pitted taggers against property owners in a city that has its fair share of graffiti. In fact, the local non-profit LearningWorks has sponsored Portland Graffiti Busters since 1994, during which time youth groups have removed close to a half million square feet of unwanted graffiti, 392 tags in 2010 alone.

The upshot of the Portland panel discussion seemed to be that, just as weeds are plants growing where you don’t want them, graffiti where it is not wanted is vandalism, while graffiti were it is permitted and designated in street art. The resolve seemed to be to direct the youthful impulse to tag everything in sight toward places amenable to the more artful of aerosol art.

Greek street artist Alexandros Vasmoulakis painted a face on a State St. facade.

That’s what’s going on in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the moment. The adventurous Portsmouth Museum of Art has organized Street a.k.a. Museum, an indoor/outdoor celebration of graffiti art (May 11 to September 11) curated by Beau Basse of LeBasse Project in Los Angeles. The “exhibition” brings a group of internationally-known street artists – Bumblebee, Andreas von Chrzanowski, Herakut, Shark Toof, and Alexandros Vasmoulakis – to Portsmouth to exhibit their work in the museum and create site-specific street art on buildings and bridges around town. It’s kind of too bad that Tim Clorius, another internationally-known street artist who lives in Portland, wasn’t included, but Street a.k.a. Museum seems to have the city well covered from Harbopur Place to Prescott Park, the Pan Am Railway trestle to Granite State Minerals salt pile.

“With its roots in popular culture artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michael Basquiat, street art has been with us for more than 30 years,” notes the Portsmouth museum press release. “Once considered an underground artform, it is now ‘mainstream’ and is a genre that has gained acceptance and popularity in the art community and by the general public, playing an increasingly prominent role as an artform and cultural influence.”

Except maybe in Portland.

“Portsmouth has had the same discussion,” says Portsmouth Museum of Art director Cathy Sununu of the art versus vandalism debate. “This show is a way to show that street art can be used in a positive way.”

[Portsmouth Museum of Art, One Harbour Place, Portsmouth NH, 603-436-0332.]

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Edgar Allen Beem

Author:

Edgar Allen Beem

Biography:

Take a look at art in New England with Edgar Allen Beem. He’s been art critic for the Portland Independent, art critic and feature writer for Maine Times, and now is a freelance writer for Yankee, Down East, Boston Globe Magazine, The Forecaster, and Photo District News. He’s the author of Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000). In 1988, he won the Manufacturers Hanover Art/World Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism for his coverage of the 1987 auction sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises. Ed says, “My credo as an arts writer has long been: ‘The work of art is the search for meaning.’ I believe art is not only a form of personal expression but also a form of inquiry, every bit as much a quest for truth as scientific research.” Ed Beem’s newest book, Backyard Maine: Local Essays, has just been published by Tilbury House, Publishers, of Gardiner, Maine. It’s not about the meaning of art; it’s about the meaning of family, community, and life in general. Edgar Beem is currently at work on a new book about contemporary art in Maine to be published in the fall of 2012.
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