Art or Outrage? : Award-Winning Documentary on Graffiti Has Won Approval From Educators but Criticism From Those Who Say It Glamorizes Crime
There was something strange about the vapor cloud that wafted in front of Bob Bryan that night as he traveled with his family down Melrose Avenue.
It was billowing from a storefront near Larchmont Boulevard, followed by a man wearing a face mask and carrying a dripping aerosol can.
When Bryan pulled over, the man explained that he was painting graffiti. Isn’t that illegal? asked Bryan. No, the graffiti was the backdrop for an opera, the man replied.
Intrigued, Bryan hurried back with a video camera to start a six-month journey into a Los Angeles subculture, raising the provocative and controversial question: Can public graffiti be an art form and not merely vandalism?
The result is an award-winning documentary that has aired on public television, landed on video rental store shelves and is starting to pop up in schools and museums across the country. A committee for the Los Angeles County Office of Education has endorsed the video as “appropriate and useful classroom material.”
Bryan’s “Graffiti Verite” is being praised as a portrait of those some consider to be street artists.
But the 45-minute documentary is being criticized by others as something that glamorizes criminals whose spray paint has spread a blight across Los Angeles.
“It’s not something that in my mind that should be glorified, quite frankly,” said Lori Gay, president of Neighborhood Housing Services of Los Angeles, a community revitalization group.
“Is it art? No, sorry. You ask them what they think about it when the time comes [that] they own their own house and somebody comes along and defaces it.”
The debate doesn’t surprise Bryan, a director and cameraman whose past work has involved mainstream entertainment such as “The Goofy Movie” and “Murphy Brown.”
He discovered that representations of drawings once found only in back alleys now have a place in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art and Laguna Beach’s Orange County Museum of Art.
And he found that spray-painters compare their work to that of Picasso and catalog their styles with labels like “Old School.”
“At first I thought I was seeing smoke pouring out of that shop,” Bryan says of the evening he stopped on Melrose. “The more questions I asked, the more I realized I didn’t know what was going on.”
It turned out that a handful of graffiti painters had borrowed the empty Hollywood store to work on backdrops for the Peter Sellars production of “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.”
Bryan spent several hours that night photographing young men with nicknames like Toonz, Axis, Mear and Man-One as they sprayed bold figures on the opera scenery. As the paint dried, Bryan sat them down and recorded their thoughts about what they do.
Soon he was being introduced to other graffiti “writers,” as they describe themselves. In the following months, 28 of them were videotaped explaining why young people scrawl their names on walls, and how that practice has grown to include larger, more elaborate drawings that can have the look of a mural.
The documentary’s narration is done by the spray-painters themselves, none of them repentant for their past as taggers. They trace the history of Los Angeles graffiti to the pre-aerosol days of the 1940s, explaining the evolution of lettering styles and the expansion of tagging into what they call “piecing.”
The pieces photographed by Bryan were painted on abandoned walls or on the sides of buildings donated by owners. But many of them are bordered by traditional gang-style graffiti.
As the camera panned over examples of his work, Man-One--a 25-year-old East Los Angeles college graduate whose real name is Alex Poli--predicted even wider respect for graffiti painters.
“Fifty years from now we’ll be in the books,” Poli said. “Two hundred years from now we’ll be like Van Gogh.”
One of those in the video, Charles Bojorquez, now 47 and a Mt. Washington resident, acknowledges starting in 1969 by spray-painting along riverbeds.
He quit what he calls “illegal tagging” 12 years ago. But the man known to generations of taggers as Chaz won’t criticize those who spray-paint in public places.
“We don’t want to deny where graffiti art came from,” he said this week. “But now I want to put my art on walls that have never had graffiti: inside institutions.”
Three of Bojorquez’s paintings are now in the permanent collection of the National Museum of American Art in Washington. Four others are owned by the Orange County Museum of Art.
Bolton Colburn, senior curator at the Orange County museum, said Bojorquez’s work was acquired because it reflects part of Southern California’s culture. “He’s one of the few artists who has made the transition from the street to the gallery,” the curator said.
Colburn described Bryan’s video as “gritty” and said it does not glamorize graffiti.
The video has won praise from organizations ranging from the School Library Journal--which recommended its use in high school and college art classes--to the Council of International Non-Theatrical Events, which has endorsed it to represent the United States in international film festivals.
But some of those involved in Los Angeles’ continuing fight against graffiti worry that the video sends the wrong message to young people.
“Some of these people have gotten quite good with graffiti. But they’re still painting and defacing private and public property,” said Stephen Getzoff of Encino’s Community Tagger Task Force.
Tim Weissbarth, president of Sylmar Graffiti Busters, said competition between taggers has led to the larger and more elaborate graffiti now showing up on walls.
“Van Gogh, to my knowledge, did most of his practicing on his own property,” said Weissbarth, whose group paints over as many as 10,000 graffiti sites a year. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of youngsters will mimic the people in the film. Very few of the taggers I deal with will ever become artists.”
David Bermudez, coordinator of graffiti abatement for L.A.'s Central City Action Committee, added: “Graffiti could be considered art if it were done on perhaps a controlled environment like a canvas. For the most part I’d say this is vandalism.”
And what about the opera that got Bryan involved in his documentary? Times music critic Martin Bernheimer reported that the “bright and brash” cartoon-like backgrounds were “probably the most striking part of the show.”