The Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles is celebrating graffiti, but not on its own property. MOCA’s pyramid-topped headquarters on Grand Avenue is conspicuously tag-free. In Little Tokyo, the museum has always painted over the graffiti that appears occasionally on the outside walls of the Geffen Contemporary, its satellite warehouse exhibition space. And now that its latest show — proudly billed as the first major American museum survey of street art — has triggered a predictable upsurge of vandalism in the area, MOCA is even cleaning up graffiti on neighboring businesses.
Why is that? “Art in the Streets” suggests no answer. 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.
In fact, MOCA’s practice of removing graffiti from its premises represents cutting-edge urban policy. Over the last three decades, urban theorists have come to understand the harmful effects of graffiti on neighborhood cohesion and safety. An area that has succumbed to tagging telegraphs to the world that social and parental control there has broken down. Potential customers shun graffiti-ridden commercial strips if they can; so do most merchants, fearing shoplifting and robberies. Law-abiding families avoid graffiti-blighted public parks, driven away by the spirit-killing ugliness of graffiti as much as by its criminality.
But MOCA’s hypocrisy in glorifying a crime that it would never tolerate on its own property is easily matched by the two-faced behavior of graffiti vandals themselves. They often dress up their egotistical assault on other people’s property with defiant rhetoric about fighting corporate power and capitalism. (How spraying your tag on a bodega on Cesar Chavez Boulevard weakens corporations is never explained, of course.) But what happens when these scourges of profit and bourgeois values see an opportunity to get rich? They turn into unapologetic capitalists.
Britain’s Banksy sells his stencils for thousands of pounds at auction. Sticker and poster vandal Shepard Fairey widely promotes his extensive line of clothing and collectibles. Saber, lionized by MOCA for having painted what is reputed to be the largest-ever tag on the “banks” of the Los Angeles River, near where the 5 Freeway meets the 10, has sold designs to Levi’s, Hyundai and Harley-Davidson.
“Art in the Streets” co-curator and longtime graffiti promoter Roger Gastman vaunts the corporate clients that he brands with graffiti chic. None of these lucrative arrangements would be possible without a stable system of property rights, which graffiti vandals respect only when their own wealth is involved.
Good luck to parents trying to keep their children away from a tagging lifestyle, now that word is out that a fancy downtown museum has honored graffiti with a major exhibit. And those children who visit the show will learn that MOCA thinks tagging is cool — just look at that life-size, animatronic tagger endlessly spraying his tag high up on a wall!
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.
Schoolchildren who deduce from the show that graffiti is a route to fame and contracts with Nike will have about as realistic an understanding of their career odds as boys who think they don’t have to study because an NBA contract awaits them. Every hour that a student is out tagging is an hour not spent studying, attending school or getting crucial sleep — all activities essential to future success.
In January, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s top financial advisor recommended cuts to the city’s graffiti-abatement budget. City Council members and the mayor himself rose up in protest.
“Art in the Streets” gives no clue why Angelenos should care so much about graffiti eradication. Indeed, if graffiti is the boon that “Art in the Streets” suggests, why should taxpayers shell out $7 million a year to have it painted over? If, however, the public is right to demand its removal, why is MOCA promoting it? I asked MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch whether Los Angeles should suspend its graffiti removal efforts. “I don’t know,” he responded.
The ultimate responsibility for “Art in the Streets” lies with MOCA’s buzz-hungry trustees, from Eli Broad on down. When Deitch first proposed a graffiti exhibit, any conscientious trustee should have asked himself: “Would I welcome unauthorized ‘street art’ by some Saber wannabe on my immaculate mansion or business?”
In case the answer is not obvious, let’s listen to the taggers themselves. “I’ve never written on my own house,” a former tagger from Gardena’s Graffiti Bandits Krew told me. He was waiting to get his tattoos removed at Homeboy Industries downtown. “I wouldn’t like it if someone else did it on my house.”
Another ex-tagger from Graffiti ‘N’ Drugs in Pico Rivera finds my question about whether he would tolerate graffiti on his home silly. “Why would you want to [ louse] up your own house?” he asked me. “That’s why you go out and mess up other people’s cities.”
MOCA’s administration shares a defining trait with the graffiti vandals whom the museum is celebrating: self-indulgence. The graffiti criminal combines the moral instincts of a 2-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult: When he sees a “spot” that he wants to “mark,” he simply takes it. Deitch and his trustees can toy with graffiti’s “outlaw vibe” (as co-curator Aaron Rose euphemistically puts it), knowing full well that their own carefully ordered lives will be untouched by graffiti’s ill effects.
But large swaths of Los Angeles and other urban centers are not so protected. “Art in the Streets” has already earned MOCA accolades from the art world, but it will only increase the struggles of Los Angeles’ poor communities — and its not-so-poor ones too — to enjoy the security and order that the wealthy take for granted.
Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor with the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, from whose spring issue this article is adapted.