Graffito Wars?

I don’t know if anyone is following British graffiti artist Banksy’s one-month “residency” in New York City – I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t – but it’s got me thinking about how art becomes “art” and classifying adaptations. Banksy’s been releasing pieces (usually one a-night) in undisclosed locations in the city and it’s become a kind of Urban Outfitter’s Where’s Waldo race against time to find these pieces before they’re “defaced”. Yes, local graffito artists are defacing, or perhaps re-facing, Banksy’s original pieces (which are NOT considered defacings), and galvanization occurs. I’ve read/heard several heated arguments about how Banksy, with his pithy and “challenging” pieces, is a real artist, and the myriad competing taggers are simply vulgar opportunists, but I could also see how the second-degree graffiti can become a kind of challenge, piggy-backing, or engaging with the more famous, foreign Banksy who has claimed his/her motivations for coming to New York as an attempt to re-capture the “danger” of Banksy’s original work. But Mayor Bloomberg also weighed in, claiming that any kind of public defacing is evidence of urban decay, or that “maybe” Banksy is an artist, but this art should not be permitted.

Here’s the original Banksy’s:

And here are some examples of how they have been defaced (a kind of second-degree defacing):

The Mayor’s ingenious art criticism (I’m thinking along the lines of “I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it”):


Banksy’s residency has also brought up some interesting social issues, as evidenced when several East New Yorkers discovered a Banksy piece and decided they could profit off it by covering it up with cardboard and charging admission. They argued that most Manhattanites and Brookliners who were coming to see the work didn’t normally give a damn about this neighborhood, and so if outsiders wanted to participate they had to pay. Here’s an article with a video in which one of the art-guardians asks what the art-work is “worth”? Amazing.





5 thoughts on “Graffito Wars?

  1. I was wondering, Professor Greetham, if this question of graffiti and defacing could perhaps speak to Bacon’s body of work? I can’t talk to the whole of his work, but I do know that his series of Screaming Pope paintings were an important piece of inspiration for Chris Nolan’s vision of the Joker character for “The Dark Knight” film, both visually (the distorted face, the purples and blacks) and conceptually (the act of defacing, questions of irreverence, and the process of adapting). This begs the important next question, how would Batman feel about Banksy bringing urban decay to Gotham City?

  2. Fascinating stuff. The relation between Bacon, the Joker, and Banksy is certainly a very provocative one for us. Should I assume we all know “Please Exit through the Gift Shop”?

  3. That’s the assumption I was working under, actually! I’m guessing that Bansky has become appropriately mainstream, and that this is what contributes to his being considered an “artist” (and not so much his technique or whether or not his art contains a message) and thus the backlash against the Bansky defacers. How can defacing factor into your concept of contamination?

    • Maybe a question of agency. Who gets to it to whom, and what if you do it to yourself, as in the later Bacon pieces with sides of beef. Again, as in so much else we’ve looked at, it may be a matter of distance travelled and what’s left intelligible/recognizable of the “original.” “R & G” is a conscious bow to “Hamlet” as is the Updike, but what of “Lion King” and those innocent young eyes?

  4. While we’re on the topic of graffiti, I want to put in a plug for 5 Pointz, a warehouse in Long Island City, Queens that is covered in (officially sanctioned) graffiti art. It’s about a block away from MoMA PS1, and hard to miss when you go by on the 7 train. Apparently the real estate company that owns the land wants to tear it down, making its future uncertain – so if you’re interested, you might want to check it out sooner rather than later.

    This is the Web site:

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