Monday, February 27, 2017

Prejudice, Spray Paint, and Graffiti

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with Rick Muto, director of the Axom Gallery in Rochester, NY. We were sitting in my studio in front of a large painting I had just begun. On it I had inscribed a heart-felt graffiti I had found from the excavation of Pompeii (see below). Our conversation turned to the sources of inspiration for this nascent work. Fortunately, Rick is a good listener and he let me drone on. This morning, I felt compelled to retrace my conversation and to elaborate upon it. So when someone inevitably asks the question, “what was your inspiration?” I can refer him or her to this blog entry.

The fabric of the above conversation is woven with strands of historical observations and personal reflections that stretch from early man to present day art movements. Running through this pattern is a connecting thread of the interrelationship of artistic expression with art media, specifically spray paint. And one more thing, there is a stain of prejudice on this fabric that has fortunately been blotted out years ago.

Let’s begin with the metaphoric strand – the inspiration for this story. The year might have been 1968, I was an art student attending R.I.T.. Standing with my friends outside the Bevier building we noticed the unloading large abstract canvases of Bob Taugner’s work for a retrospective exhibit. Bob was one of my painting teachers and a real character! Eager to get a glimpse of his paintings, we approached to get a better look. Our eyes scanned the canvas and there at the bottom of one painting was a gesture of color made with spray paint! What! Spray Paint! Sacrilege! How could he defile his oil painting with spray paint? It wasn’t even an art supply. Now, I wasn’t alone with this ridiculous prejudicial reaction. Years later, I checked with my friend Jerry Infantino and he felt the same. To this day, I am unable to understand our response. It was totally illogical. I loved Franz Kline and he used house paint. I loved Rauschenberg even more and he used everything he could find or get his hands on. We must of caught this prejudiced perspective somewhere, but I’m clueless as to how. Taugner’s painting was probably done in the early 1960s. If we were thinking right, we would have considered using spray paint to be an innovation at that time. It was not until years later with the rise graffiti art that spray paint would become recognized as important art medium.

Side note: When I was in school, Rochester Art Supply was where we purchased all our paint. At that time they sold everything but not spray paint. Stop in today and you’ll see an impressive display of paint stretching the width of the store of, you guessed it, spray paint!

Here’s where this story meets a fork in the road. To the right it explores graffiti and to the left, spray paint. Let’s turn towards spray paint.

We think of the aerosol propelled paint as a modern invention of the 1950s. It is quite possible that my painting instructor may have been one of the first to apply it to fine art. The speed and portability of spray paint made it the common medium of the graffiti/street artists of the late 1970s. However, spraying your identity (tag) on a wall isn’t that new. 

Examples of graffiti tags or logotypes identifying the writer.

In fact, artists were also expressing themselves with spray paint 40,000 years ago. In Patagonia, Argentina there is a cave called Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) where early man sprayed their tags. These innovators combined colored natural pigments with unknown watery binders in a spraying device made from bivalve shells and hollow bones. They used their lung power in place of fluorocarbon propellant, and sprayed a cloud of paint mist creating a perfect handprint on walls deep inside of dark caves. And what is more amazing, they were not the only ones. Prehistoric hand images, mostly created by a spray paint method, can be found on cave walls in Egypt, Spain, France, and even on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi! Some may refer to these forms of expression as the oldest known graffiti. However, I think they are much more profound than we can understand.

Cave of the Hands, Patagonia, Argentina

So let’s segue to graffiti.  

A common view of graffiti is associated with vandalism, self-aggrandizement, and bathroom walls. However, it would be a mistake to superimpose this mindset onto all graffiti especially ancient graffiti. Ancient graffiti held a completely different position in the minds of the public. It had a level of respect, and was at times interactive. The culture of that age did not see it as a defacement of property. In fact, it was the accepted way to communicate public notices, political discourse, art and poetry, prayers and insults, as well as a means of self-expression and many times the sharing of goodwill. The excavation of Pompeii has focused light on the graffiti in ancient times. The work of Rebecca Benefiel, professor at Washington and Lee University, has added a new measure of illumination to the wall scratches of the ancients. 

Graffiti scratched on a wall in Pompeii

Not only has she revealed the diversity of the content of graffiti but the actual process of painting or incising on the plastered walls. I find that there are parallels between today’s writers of graffiti and their ancient counterparts. In some cases the content is ageless but what caught my attention is the process of mark making on walls and how it influenced the letterform.

Today’s graffiti artists have produced innovative letterforms probably due to a combination of factors. First, applying spray paint on a large format space. Aerosol propelled paint facilitates large sweeping gestures made from the shoulder not the fingers. And you need a large “canvas” such as a wall to accommodate such strokes. Second is speed. For obvious reasons, the letterforms had to be executed rapidly. Many letterforms designs bordered on illegibly – giving them a feel of asemic writing. Graphic designers can now purchase fonts based upon these street artist’s letterforms. This relationship between surface and media may have had its creative effects on writers of graffiti in Pompeii.

Examples of letterforms and designs that the medium of spray paint influenced.

One of many new fonts based on graffiti 

Back then, sharp metal tools were used instead of aerosol paint and most of the time messages were scratched into the walls (easier and faster than painting). However, it turns out that incising the stucco on the walls of Pompeii had its problems. Rebecca Benefiel discovered that for some reason making vertical marks in plaster was much easier than making horizontal ones. Therefore, the letter “E” sometimes became a new letterform of two vertical lines. This was a typographical innovation created by the relationship between artist, medium and wall surface! Isn’t this the same interrelationship that produced the new letterforms by today’s graffiti artists?

Most graffiti from the ancient world has been lost or erased. However, almost 11,000 examples still can be found in Pompeii (more than it’s estimated population). They were written by virtually everyone: male, female, slaves and the free. And, contained almost every subject and intention, from the sacred to the profane. Thereby transforming ancient graffiti into social and cultural artifacts. Here’s a copy of the inscription that inspired my painting:

The inscription might be read:
"Secundus greets his Prima wherever she is: I beg you, lady, love me." 
It is assumed that Sucundus (Second) and Prima (First) may have been slaves and their names were cognomens. This graffiti is one of six found in Pompeii where Sucundus expresses his love and yearning for Prima.

Here’s the fascinating part, the majority of all of Pompeii’s graffiti is not found on the exterior walls of the city but discretely incised on centrally located interior walls in most of the homes. These inscriptions were less than a centimeter tall and were poetic, welcoming or uplifting in their content. Walls everywhere had an accepted utility for messaging for the ancients. Maybe like the electronic Facebook “wall” of today.

So there you have it, my convoluted weaving of thought that began during my college days: the recounting the prejudicial reaction to the use of spray paint for fine art, which lead to contemplating its application in the graffiti art movement today, in Pompeii, and prehistoric times. Overlay all this with my interest in daily life in the ancient world and a career of creative attachment to the power of mark making (see blog dated Dec. 2014) and letterforms, and we end up with a pattern of inspiration that finds expression in my abstract painting entitled “Second Loves First.”

I’ll post a photo of the painting when it is completed.

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