In Masayoshi Kikuchi’s revolutionary Dreamcast opus, Jet Set Radio (a video game), players are set a skate around the environs of a future dystopian Tokyo landscape, with the chief objective of winning territories from fellow graffiti-obsessed gangs. The player paints the city with graffiti, improbably perfect in its rendering and a vital component of the game’s gorgeous cel-shaded aesthetic. In the game’s context the tags, big and small, are intended as signifiers of a youthful subversion of a future that is literally stuck in time (its levels find various parts of the city lodged in permanent noon, night or twilight), and of a future so strapped of outlet and an ideal that such a thing as meaningless conflict based on graffiting could rise to become the youth’s most prominent occupation, even something to believe in.

Appropriately, Jet Set Radio was one of the earliest exhibitors in the debate as to whether or not video games could be considered as having the artistic principle: this game had its own moral incentives, its concept was highly original and its aesthetics popularised the cel-shaded style single-handedly.

Fundamentally, it makes beauty from a divisive theme; it might therefore be called art precisely because it gives us reason to consider whether or not graffiti can itself be art.

In the game graffiti is the prevailing symbol of a lawless dystopia as envisaged in the 1980s, and a representation of a broader social dysfunction which remains the preserve of a certain kind of rebellious youth. And youthful rebellion is cool; it can be beautiful, even. The kids you play as, headphoned- to-the-teeth and decked out in radiant apparel, are cool. And so the question becomes unavoidable: is graffiti art? If it is, in what ways does it relate to the forms of art whose status we take for granted? And if it is art, does that mean our society is in some way shaped like Kikuchi’s vision?

To ascertain any kind of answer to any of these questions one must countenance views from along a very broad spectrum of opinion. As well as representing an artistic calling (which does not by default make it art per se), graffiti, by functioning as a means of expression, has developed into a subcultural nucleus that has its own political dimensions. You may hear the practice being invoked as a conduit for any number of efforts: those of feminists, Marxists, graysexuals and witty members of the Spanish underclass.

In such places as Spain and Greece, where economic instability is at its most provocative towards prosaic everyday life, this subculture is particularly large and particularly geared towards political consciousness. In Athens not only does regular graffiti abound but a great many disused highway-side billboards have been co-opted and painted with existential slogans. It is as much a form of expression as Orwellian prose, which we would surely not shirk from calling art. On the other hand, in Friedrichshain, Berlin, the abundance of street paintings represent little more than an explosion of raw energy; political statements swept up and made mere decorations in a huge melange of tags and assorted murals. Its freewheeling abandon has come to encapsulate the district itself, to the point that Friedrichshain’s graffiti has its own tourist draw. It is to political nihilism what slogan graffiti is to political ideals of all kinds.

In Spain, the economic crisis seems to have nurtured a wave of particularly poetic graffiti, probably inspired by the Mexican Poetic Action Movement, and here the works have less in common with painting and are rather a direct means of giving distinct statements real volume. It is maybe the least masculine form of graffiti (many of the murals express deeply romantic platitudes)
 and appears to be not only a subtle but a positively dignified form of protest distinct from most political graffiti. This school, if you like, of graffiti is largely unremarked upon, and the artists often select their locations having adjudged which of their local city buildings are the least aesthetically pleasing in and of themselves.

The one man on the liminal boundaries of all these forms, and therefore the one who has derived the most success and publicity from graffiti as an artistic form, is of course Banksy. Many purists find his work loathsome, as purists often will when the work in question has ascertained a mainstream significance. We can see in much of Banksy’s work, derived from Blek Le Rat’s stencilling technique, a sort of aesthetic dedication that marks out the artistic mind, but neither his images nor his expressed messages function on all that high a plain. The Jet Set character I most liken to Banksy is that of Professor K, the exuberant DJ whose interludes provide narration among the silence of the player characters. Like that character, Banksy has become an icon of his form that nonetheless does not encapsulate, or even make overt suggestion towards, that form’s real depth.

I visited Rome as a child, and the volume of my memories of it speaks loudest not of the inside of St. Peter’s but of the way in which so much of this city’s beautiful ancientness has been desecrated by the spray-canned beast. The same fate has befallen Lisbon, Venice, the aforementioned areas of Berlin and bits of Copenhagen. Of course there are many people who hate this development. Graffiti is nothing if not divisive, and for some this alone is cause enough to call it art. Yet it’s impossible to look at graffiti as art without dubbing some of it as simply bad art, and when art is taking communal spaces in its hand it volunteers to be judged. For all the revolutionary calling many graffiti artists and fans see in the form, some are not willing to shoulder the burden of being labelled ‘subversive’.

There can be no definitive answer to the question I have posed: not immediately. Artistic developments in general often rely on a certain degree of posthumous appraisal and proper contextualisation before they are accepted or rejected by the canon. Graffiti’s artistic status is questionable, but its vitality is not, and that is the core element it shares in common with all art that has ever come to be considered as such. So forget calling graffiti art; it possesses both a little less profundity, and a more complex contemporary appeal than this generic tag allows.



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