Opinion: Graffiti and MOCA’s ‘Art in the Streets’: A $36.52 review


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Graffiti: Is it art or vandalism?

Heather Mac Donald, in her Sunday Op-Ed ‘Tagging MOCA,’ left little doubt how she feels. In a scathing attack on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s ‘Art in the Streets’ show at the Geffen Contemporary, she writes:

The exhibition honors such alleged high points in graffiti history as the first cholo tag on the Arroyo Seco parkway and the defacement of L.A.'s freeway signs, without the slightest hint that graffiti is a crime, that it appropriates and damages property without permission and that it destroys urban vitality.


But I’m the kind of person who likes to make up my own mind. So I went. And though I’m not an art critic, I’m often critical -– in a kind of old-fogey, I-remember-when, don’t-get-me-started and, I’m-not too-modest-to-say, totally-endearing way.

Right off, though, I’m a little ticked, because you have to pay $6.50 to park. I hate to pay for parking. I mean, I visited Monet’s house in Giverny last summer, and parking was free -– and that was France, for heaven’s sake; plus Monet is way more famous than Saber or Fab 5 Freddy.

But my sour mood is somewhat lifted by the really funny painting on a steamroller out front of Yogi Bear being squished. I’ve always loved Yogi, and Boo-Boo too -- though there’s no Boo-Boo; there is, however, a lot of red paint on the ground, so maybe that’s supposed to be Boo-Boo.

I digress. You have to wait outside in the hot sun to be called in before you can pay. It’s 30 bucks for the four of us; my sour mood returns.

Once inside, there is -- no surprise -- graffiti everywhere. There are also -- somewhat surprisingly -- guards everywhere, as if these were Picassos on the walls and not glorified gang tags and the like. One child actually -– gasp -- touches a graffiti-covered Cadillac. And -– seriously -– his mother quickly issues a ‘Honey, don’t touch!’ warning.

OK, now for what really matters: My favorite ‘works.’

First is the 1963 Buick Special; the graffiti is inane, but I drove a car just like it in high school, though mine was blue with lots of rust.

Second is the very large, well, how can I put this -- it’s a collection of lost-pet fliers that people put up over the years, collected by the artist and made into a wall hanging. I like it because it’s practical: If it were somehow ‘damaged,’ it could be easily ‘repaired.’

Finally, there’s a movie. Or should I say many movies that chronicle individual street artists.

In one, a French guy is interviewed. The filmmaker asks him: Why do you paint on public buildings and the like?

Good question, he says. ‘I’ll have to think about that.’

A lack of introspection, it turns out, is not uncommon among some street artists. Another film shows a German guy who started by simply tagging -– writing his name on buildings and the like. He says he came to realize the limitations of this style. And that epiphany came after only ... 12 years.

So now he goes out at night and paints trains. He uses paint cans and rollers and lots of masking tape. When he’s finished, he leaves all that strewn about. Later, he’s shown standing by the tracks, admiring his work as the painted train roars by.

He’s an artist, not a tree-hugger.

There’s plenty of other stuff, but those were the highlights for me.

We leave, and I get lost trying to find the freeway, and pretty soon we’re driving down side streets. Just about every building has street art on it. Some of it’s really great.

And you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking I just spent $36.50 to go to an art museum, and I could’ve seen the same or better stuff for free just driving around downtown L.A.

And I’m thinking that Heather Mac Donald is wrong, and right.

She wrote:

It might have been possible to mount a show that acknowledged the occasionally compelling graphic elements of urban art without legitimizing a crime. Such an exhibit wouldn’t include glamorizing photos of freeway, subway or L.A. River vandalism -- and would unequivocally condemn appropriating someone else’s property without permission. ‘Art in the Streets’ does not come close to that standard.

Here’s my two cents (actually, make that $36.50 plus two cents):

I say that if it hangs in a museum, or is put up on a building with permission, it can be art.

But if it’s put up on my garage, it’s vandalism.


Tagging MOCA

How graffiti artist Smear built his brand

Banksy redefines the Oscar campaign

Photos: MOCA’s ‘Art in the Streets’ show

Ted Rall Cartoon: Is MOCA to blame for a new wave of graffiti?

Testing the 1st Amendment and the definitions of ‘art’ and ‘vandalism’

--Paul Whitefield