Art & Lit

Does a graffiti museum miss the point?

Carsten Koall/EPA
Carsten Koall/EPA

Abigail Eardley considers the contradictions inherent in the set-up of a graffiti museum.

Graffiti is synonymous with being anti-establishment; refusing the common practices of canvas, paint, ornate frame and established art galleries. An art form that often attempts to disassociate from the stifling connotations of art, graffiti is empowered by a distinct apathy towards its audience’s reaction. Originating in ancient Rome and Greece with Latin curses, poetry, and advertisements for brothels, graffiti has since developed into incredibly detailed illustrations such as that of 50 hand-painted dogs by Sinna One in Brighton.

Graffiti’s questionable legality, and hesitant relationship with society’s established structures makes it uncomfortably placed to become the subject of a museum. Urban Nation in Berlin is one of the first of its kind in the world, celebrating contemporary street art from across the globe. Featuring artists as varied as Cryptik, who uses hypnotic patterns of lettering in his work, to the paintings of hyper-realistic Adele Renault, to the surreal Fernando Chamarelli, Urban Nation champions diversity and individuality in its chosen artists. These works spill over into enormous outside installations, moreover, decorating the building’s walls, and a metro station close by.

Despite the evident success of the museum – permitting a space for one of the most modern art forms, championing a largely criticised artistic concept – there remains a question of its authenticity. In graffiti’s very definition is a refusal to be commercialised, a celebration of anarchism, and a scepticism of traditional, elitist artists. A future where the works of famous graffiti artists are appropriated from the streets to art galleries and museums destroys the spirit and purpose of the work. Inherent in graffiti is its speed to minimise the risk of getting caught, its controversial statements, its disregard of artistic trends and its embracing of temporality and transience. By providing a permanent home for graffiti, what is lost is the idiosyncratic and unparalleled qualities that define it: its ability to connect with an individual, unexpectedly and spontaneously, in a single moment.

By providing a permanent home for graffiti, what is lost is the idiosyncratic and unparalleled qualities that define it: its ability to connect with an individual, unexpectedly and spontaneously, in a single moment.

The art of Abu Malik Al-Shami, in Syria, for example, is so poignant as a result of its lack of condoned museum space or position in an art gallery. Painted on the crumbling walls of bombed buildings at the quietest times of day, Shami’s work questions a war and regime that has caused so much bloodshed and danger. This is graffiti that is drawn with paint salvaged from destroyed art shops, and is totally aware of its likely destruction. Artworks include a faceless girl standing on a mountain of skulls, writing the word hope and a young girl pointing towards a heart on a blackboard, attempting to teach a soldier about love.

Shami’s work is far more effective, genuine, and meaningful because it does not conform to a museum’s strict guidelines, nor society’s expectations, and is painted on the shattered ruins of a broken city, not crisp canvas with expensive paint. At its heart, graffiti is cultivated in order to comfort those who stumble across the artwork largely unexpectedly, its secrecy providing support for those who cannot afford to visit art museums, or feel excluded from the popular narratives of society.

At its heart, graffiti is cultivated in order to comfort those who stumble across the artwork largely unexpectedly, its secrecy providing support for those who cannot afford to visit art museums, or feel excluded from the popular narratives of society.

Urban Nation is far from a failed museum, with beautiful, intriguing and incredible artwork from across the globe. It is the first of its kind, innovative, and attempts to incorporate the original methods of graffiti in its installations. It works with local neighbourhoods and communities, encouraging artists from the city. Yet fundamentally, no museum can genuinely showcase graffiti by removing it from the streets. It is impossible to replicate the spontaneity, the transience, the anti-establishment sentiment of a work by containing it in a commercialised gallery space. The appropriation of such an art form is hollow and awkward, compromising its integral meaning as anti-establishment art.

Featured image copyright belongs to Carsten Koall/EPA.

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