The Pop Culture of Graffiti
The Art History Archive - Canadian

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The Pop Culture of Graffiti – Street Art and Graffiti

Toronto Graffiti Art

By Ruth Wilgress ( - May 2011.

Tagging verses Graffiti art is arguable. It all starts somewhere. The actual word, singular graffito; is the name for images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property. Graffiti is any type of public markings that may appear in the form of simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. Graffiti has existed since ancient times, with examples dating back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

Today paint, particularly spray paint, and marker pens have become the most commonly used graffiti materials. In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner's consent is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime. Sometimes graffiti expresses social and political messages and a whole genre of artistic expression is based upon spray paint graffiti styles. Recently to some it is an art form worthy of display in galleries and exhibitions; to others it is merely vandalism.

Toronto Graffiti Art

Both art forms, street art and graffiti, are a part of the outsider art movement – that being artists with no academic or formal training in visual arts. Art history has shown us for centuries the progression of the visual arts is moving further away from the elitist viewpoint. In the past art was seen as a technical skill that only a few talented artists mastered. The wealthy commissioned, bought and determined what, was “good art”.

Gradually as time has moved on we have gravitated towards more of a freedom of expression and the brave have taken huge risks towards revealing the question of what makes art real art. Art is a visual form of expression, inherit in all of us. Although some art connoisseurs still to this day hold on to their traditional views and disagree. Whoever takes the opportunity to expresses themselves visually may be considered an artist. In the modern art world we see more innovative artists, and art has veered into the commercial world. Artists are in the position that they must learn to market their creative work. Also the question has arisen and is often is debated about what makes art, art.

Toronto Graffiti Art

Many graffiti artist revolt and make their statements about the commercial world we live in. Noise pollution is an issue in the urban areas and with advertising and branding the quiet visual pollution surrounds us everywhere. Some graffiti artists see their creative process as a revolt against visual pollution. The overwhelming billboards and messages that pollute the streets in the city can leave us feeling inadequate and helpless at times. Some see the street art and graffiti art as a revolt against the arts media marketing.

Why must only the commercial world have control of this form of expression and visual dissonance? However, the controversies that surround graffiti continue to create disagreement amongst city officials/law enforcement and graffiti artists who wish to display and appreciate work in public locations. There are many different types and styles of graffiti and it is a rapidly developing art form whose value is highly contested.

Toronto Graffiti Art

Graffiti has evolved into a pop culture existence often related to underground hip hop music, b-boying, and a lifestyle that remains hidden from the general public. Graffiti can be used as a gang signal to mark territory or to serve as an indicator or "tag" for gang-related activity. There is a huge controversy in regards to the evolved graffiti art, stencils, sticker art, wheatpasting / street poster art, and street installations.

However, the ‘Street Art’ is typically used to differentiate this new movement from graffiti, vandalism, and corporate art. Many non profit organizations encourage creative self expression among youth and start mural projects among the street to beautify the areas. However, often there is a large amount of cross over between the two art forms. In New York City, Spring Street was one of the World’s most famous Street Art canvases. On December 15, 2006 the outside and inside of the building, in need of flat roof repair among other things, was opened to the public in one final and mass display / installation of Street Art before the building was cleaned up and turned into apartments.

In Toronto some value the beauty of the graffiti and street art forms as it becomes more acceptable in certain places. This is true especially if the art form is disrespectful of private property. Local walking tours such as the Murals and Public Art in the Junction Triangle has organized a free walk in west Toronto that is bordered on all three sides by railways tracks and underpasses, making it an ideal place for public art. This walk on Saturday May 7, 2011 at 10am explores the painted murals, ghost signs, graffiti, and other public art throughout the neighbourhood. The appreciation and interest for this Outsider art is increasing.

The Street is an Art Canvas

Toronto Graffiti Art

The graffiti art sub-culture can be very dangerous. Many of these bombers or artists not only risk being caught by authorities vandalizing insulated concrete forms of public buildings, but they also risk their lives. The term bombing is done everywhere and can be as simple as freedom of expression. These bombers often don’t feel like they have a voice in society and this tagging one’s signature can feel empowering leaving a legacy behind in a place where you feel ignored or forgotten.

Such is the case for 18 year old Bardia Bryan Zargham in 2005. On a section of the CPR tracks in mid-town Toronto, the young man was struck by an oncoming train. Bardia Bryan Zargham was a graffiti artist and he was writing his tag – his graffiti name – on the side of a stationary freight car when a train hit him. His tag was Alpha, the beginning of everything. Alpha was known as the King of the Bombers. He was to be good at writing his name in big letters in a few short minutes and then moving on to do it again. Rest in peace Alpha.

Toronto Graffiti Art

Exit Through the Gift Shop

The documentary movie Exit Through the Gift Shop is an insightful and interesting view on graffiti or street art. It’s a story of how an eccentric French shop keeper and amateur film maker attempted to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner. The film contains footage of Banksy, Shephard Fairey, Invader and many of the world's most infamous graffiti artists at work. So many artists have incredible messages that they so much want to share with the world on the street.

Living in the city of Toronto I must admit there are times I see these tags or art works and I am repulsed; however, more times I feel a great amount of joy and appreciation for the risk and work involved, including their colourful beauty. I recognize that I feel these contradictory emotions in an art gallery as well. Art evokes emotions. Graffiti is part of our modern day urban pop culture. It would be a shame to have Rob Ford eliminate all of this artistic form of expression in Toronto.

See Also: Toronto Rooftop Patios

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