Subculture Rub: Tracing the Winding Path of Street Art

From our perch in the early 21st century, when multinational corporations hoover anything remotely hip, it is easy to forget how hostile the climate for hip once was. The church, the law, capital and mass opinion all lined up against hip, as against a disease.

                                                                             — John Leland, Hip: The History, 2009

When the image of scarf wearing, bespectacled black man in the vein of the famous 2008 Obama campaign poster began popping up around D.C., Prince of Petworth blogger Lydia DePillis wondered just who was responsible.  After a circuitous route than took DePillis to DC “wheatpaste” artists DIABETIK and DECOY, the local writer concluded the prints belonged to one Steven Cummings.  Of course, Cummings seemed to take no real interest in reveling his identity.  Nonetheless, DePillis and the Prince of Petworth  agreed that the portrait deserved recognition awarding it the 2011 best wheatepaste for D.C.   Yet DePiIlis admitted the art itself seemed almost secondary:

One of the most widely disseminated images appears to be a portrait framing a somber man of indeterminate age, who stares directly ahead through large circular glasses; a bowler hat and high collar complete the vaguely Victorian ensemble. The impressive part is the distribution: The artist has deployed the image all around the city, on telephone booths and boarded-up windows, as well as via small stickers attached to free newspapers.

While some blog commentators suggested the images reminded them suspiciously of the iconic 2008 Obama posters produced by Shepard Fairey, others recognized that Cummings’s efforts were both an emulation and extension of the kind of street art popularized by Fairey and Banksy.  Cummings’s prints served simultaneously as subliminal adverts for his own art exhibit at the Smithsonian affiliated Anacostia Community Museum and a means to reshape abandoned D.C. buildings into something more the urban detritus.

Inspired in part by the work of Andy Warhol and built on earlier movements like grafitti and punk/hardcore, the rise of street art over the past few decades helped to reorganize conceptions of public space and people’s relation to it.  However, though it shares obvious similarities with graffiti and is often miscategorized as such, its aesthetic and ideological impulses stem from different sources. Much like punk and hardcore before it, debates about street art encompass several important issues.  How do we debate art’s value? How much does the process or act count in the creation of this art? To what extent, does the trajectory of street art reflect broader trends of commoditization of subcultural movements?
Punk Rock Redux

[T]he tensions between dominant and subordinate groups can be found reflected in the surfaces of subculture – in the styles made up of mundane objects which have double meaning. On the one hand, they warn the ‘straight’ world in advance of a sinister presence – the presence of difference – and draw down upon themselves vague suspicions, uneasy laughter, ‘white and dumb rages.’ On the other hand for those who erect them into icons, who use them as words or as curses, these objects become signs of forbidden identity, sources of value.”

— Dick Hebdige, Subculture the Meaning of Style, 1979, 2-3

Writing in 1979, Birmingham School icon Dick Hebdige set out to examine the meaning of style and subculture and its connection to race and class.  Hebdige juxtaposed the development of various subcultures including Mods, Teds, Punks, Skins, and others, illustrating how the style from each transmitted messages internally and externally. Though he highlighted the political aspects of style, Hebdige also cautioned that “the meaning of subculture is … always in dispute, and style is the area in which the opposing definitions clash with the most dramatic force.” (3)

Context meant something as well. Punks took a post-modern bricolage of items ranging from safety pins to rape masks to swastikas (ugh), all meant to separate the objects from their original meanings.   The rearrangement and transmuation of objects, in use and meaning, set punk apart making it “kinetic [and] transitive … concentrat[ing] attention on the act of transformation performed upon the object…” (123).  Yet, as Hebdige also noted media, society, and business recuperate subcultures through commodization, making it less threatening but also freezing their importance. “Once removed from their private contexts by the small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale,” argued Hebdige, ”they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable.” (96)

Thirty years later, New York Times reporter, John Leland placed the punks, mods, and other subcultures seen as “hip” in a longer historical context, noting that what once threatened the status quo was now marketed as a consumer necessity by corporations and multinationals. As Edward Morgan noted in his recent book on mass media portrayals of the 1960s, political meanings of important historical epochs have been overwhelmed by profit driven media and culture.  Figures like Che Guevera, silk screened onto countless t-shirts, no longer represent rebellion (or at least not real revolution) but rather have been transformed into “a mass produced commodity itself or the seductive hook to draw one into consumption.” (Morgan, 264)  With these warnings acknowledged, one can argue that even in this more ambiguous environment, movements and subcultures emerge that at least momentarily challenge dominant ideas and ideologies.

Emerging in the late 1970s, Punk did this.  In Britain appropriating the language of crisis, punks mocked the “alienation and emptiness which [had] caused sociologists so much concern, realizing in a deliberate and willful fashion the direst predictions of the most scathing social critics,” writes Hebdige.  They celebrated in “mock heroic” language the decline of community and the “collapse of traditional forms of meaning.” (79) The spectacle of punk’s commodification aside, today, street artists like punk style and graffiti art before them, use fairly blunt instruments to populate public spaces, created by neoliberal economics, with distorted visions of consumerism.

Pretty vacant
Yet if Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols manager and widely acknowledged cultural conman, used the Sex Pistols to promote himself and punk more widely while cashing in on the controversy, what are we to think of street art practitioners like Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader and others?    McLaren’s antics with the Sex Pistols drew inspiration from the Situationist movement, which promoted public acts of absurdity or provocation to force social change.  Yet, looking back at his experience with Johnny Rotten et al., McLaren argued it really wasn’t about what the band created: “I never thought the Sex Pistols would be any good … But it didn’t matter if they were bad.” With this in mind, how do we think about street art? What do Cummings’ above provocations mean in 2011?
Exit through the Gift Shop

I am quite willing to agree that graffiti is Art, but I don’t believe the act of painting them is an art form, if you see what I mean. Or maybe you don’t. You may be too old to understand my argument.

Roger Ebert

It probably sounds rather obvious to note how much the process of making art, and the background story behind the artist have come to reflect artistic worth in the eyes of critics, collectors, and to a certain extent, the broader public.   In many ways, the Banksy directed Exit through the Gift Shop cleverly interrogated this idea.

Though meant to be about the brief history of street art it came to be defined by Thierry Guetta, a street art enthusiast and amateur documentarian who spends nearly a decade serving as roadie to some of street art’s greatest practitioners (for what it’s worth Guetta, like McLaren, ran a clothing shop).   For years, Guetta filmed and aided Bansky and others’ in their artistic endeavors. Though Guetta filmed hundreds of tapes, his lack of organization and poor filmmaking skills never resulted in any real documentary.  When asked by Bansky to produce one,  Guetta’s finished product left the mysterious street artist shaking his head. Yet, Guetta didn’t spend all those years at essentially apprenticing for naught.  Instead, with the encouragement of Banksy, the entrepreneurial spirited Guetta developed his own moniker, Mr. Brainwash, and proceeded to knock off derivations of those artists for whom he had apprenticed. He managed to get an article in the June 12, 2008 of the L.A. Weekly – more or less hyping his upcoming show – which ultimately resulted in Guetta selling millions of dollars of street art.

While some have called the documentary a brilliant distillation of all that is wrong with the art world, others have applauded the documentary as a film but questioned the veracity of its story.  “As a documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is as about as reliable and structurally sound as that house-front with the strategically placed window that falls on top of Buster Keaton,” admitted the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.  Roger Ebert acknowledged the same in the opening line of his review but argued this “only adds to its fascination.”  The movie’s inclusion in the best documentary category at the 2011 Oscar’s only ratcheted up the controversy; after all, This is Spinal Tap (1984) might be the greatest doc about rock music ever, I mean providing it wasn’t fictional.

Certainly, many critics noticed the movie’s arc seemed suspiciously perfect. On-line magazine and “cultural aggregator” perceptively broke down ETTGS, pointing to numerous scenes that suggested Banksy and Fairey collaborated to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.    Others pointed out that the movie’s authenticity remained beside the point:  the capriciousness of the art world and the increasing importance of hype served as Bansky’s message, the truth behind Guetta didn’t matter. “The fact that the art world was unable to see through the hype is not in dispute, and that’s the important part of this story,” noted one observer.  Besides, the same critic noted, if process matters, didn’t Banksy deserve credit for basically proving that not only could he counterfeit money (the movie features a scene in which Bansky reveals thousands of fake 10 pound notes with Princess Diana’s face on them) but also an entire movie.

Still,  Bansky’s “hoax” accomplishes several goals.  It widely publicized street art, documenting a phenomena that seems perfect for the post X Games extreme age. Remember, the street art skill set revolves as much around selecting the most spectacularly difficult spaces for appropriation.  Gymnastics and a keen disregard for personal safety might be as important as aesthetics.

Yet, much like the celebrated skateboard doc Dogtown and Z Boys in which director Stacy Peralta documented the very Zephyr skating team he helped pioneer, ETTGS serves as a vehicle for Banksy and Fairey to secure their place as street art icons (a dubious term considering the anonymity of most street artists).  Peralta raised the Zephyr team to godlike status. As numerous critics noted, he never adequately addressed this obvious conflict of interest.  Superslice alleges a similar occurrence with ETTGS:

It’s A Banksy Film that’s deifying Banksy as the greatest living street artist and will soon make the case for him as the greatest living artist by trashing both the opinion makers (those duped by MBW and the so-called greatest living artists, Hirst & Koons et. al.)

Again, like punk and street art, context mattered for Team Zephyr.  Whether one considers skateboarding akin to ballet or vandalism, the Zephyr team’s appropriation of local schools for honing their craft re-imagined these spaces into places of creativity and opportunity. Style proved as important as content not only to the teams’ coaches but too all its key members.

Team Zephyr

It must be noted, in many ways, the kind of vertical skating style Zephyr created, through appropriation of public and private spaces (empty swimming pools that didn’t belong to them), had never been seen before.  As numerous skaters admitted, Tony Alva, Peralta, and others drew on surfing for their style but there were no antecedents for the ramp based maneuvers that show up on today’s ESPN X Game highlights.  In contrast, it would seem individuals like Banksy do not emerge out of the artistic ether without drawing upon earlier inspiration. For observers like superslice, Banksy exhibits a love hate relationship with Andy Warhol.  One moment Bansky emulates Warhol’s sense of self and manipulation of media, while a second later, he is using his art to promote an anti-capitalist critique of the world. Warhol seemed to have fewer problems with capitalism, art and commerce or at the very least he never displayed the same kind of political discomfort that Banksy exudes.  Of course, while Banksy should be applauded for voicing reservations about capitalist hunger, it also remains a truism that as a recent Economist article pointed out, some of history’s greatest artistic epochs depended on rich patrons and nefarious moneylenders. “Great financial centres have often been great artistic centres – from Florence in the Renaissance to Amsterdam in the 17th to London and New York today,” the British magazine opined.  “where would New York’s SoHo be without Wall Street.”  (Economist, The Dangers of Demonology, January 7, 2012)   Would Banksy’s images mean as much had the West not witnessed over 20 years of neoliberal economic development often hollowing out public spaces for corporate logos and advertisement? In this way, the old debate rages on regarding the balance between art and commerce.  How much was Cummings “wheatpaste” explosion about reshaping vacant D.C. buildings into a medium art and how much was just about Cummings?

Street Art 2012 

I was fearless /wanted all of it/high on pcp/I could do anything /we were rubberheaded /we got tranquilizers from a leather motorbag/Peace in Hermosa, Wings over Inglewood/I surfed the walls on angel dust/four finger baggies across those ruling hills /my reckless driving , I’m in your living room/I crashed my face and broke my tooth /exposed a nerve was spitting blood/chorus/check under the wood forgot his pills/he’s kind of in a riptide/try not to see/Peace in Hermosa, wings over Inglewood.–

“Peace in Hermosa”, OFF!

When Southern California hardcore band OFF! put out their First Four EPs album in 2011, writers noted it sounded like music for the current age. “It’s an economic shithole out there right now– the same conditions that led to hardcore in the first place,” grumbled Paul Thompson. “This music is built for a climate of frustration and powerlessness, and its bare-knuckled punch-in-the-face is a long-needed wake-up call to nostalgic escapism.”  The album’s final song, “Peace in Hermosa,” both lyrically and sonically sounded like a night spent on uppers gone awry.  Clocking in at 1:32, Keith Morris’ vocals fade out in a slow dirge as the pills wear off and dark reality comes seeping back into the narrator’s life.

Unlike hardcore’s heyday, the early 1980s where Ronald Reagan’s optimistic credo of “It’s morning in America” contrasted with the threat of nuclear annihilation, today Americans struggle through much worse economic times but live under the hazy unknown of terrorist attack.  OFF! doesn’t so much challenge the status-quo as document it.  Punk rock and hardcore simply meant more in their original contexts: deindustrializing crisis ridden Britain and  falsely optimistic Reaganite America. The Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the Poor” sounds a lot funnier in this context.  One should not forget that punk and hardcore pushed back against a bloated music scene, filled with progressive virtuosity (King Crimson, Yes, Styx, REO Speedwagon) but devoid of passion. Process – or the lack thereof – meant everything.  Knowing how to play your instrument paled in comparison to the act of playing it.  On Off!’s new album not a single song lasts more than 1:45 and like a Banksy piece it’s gone before you know what happened. It’s not hard to see the symmetry between bloated 1970s arena rock and a twee art world invested in ivory tower video installations of the 1990s.  Street artists embraced a more visceral take on creativity, one that like punk and hardcore, provided a big tent for anyone with the right instincts.

In many ways, street art represents a snarky update on the graffiti and hip-hop of 1980s, but it also demonstrates an ideological symmetry with punk and hardcore . Good street art both documents and challenges the staus quo, yet as with rap, the tag or print used operates as an alter ego.  As Hebdige noted at the outset, for both those who place such work on a pedestal and others who denigrate its existence, Banksy’s simpering apes and menacing rats and Fairey’s Andre the Giant mean something.  How’s it’s positioned, where it’s placed, the art itself, all matter.  Though the act of graffiti can certainly be considered political (tagging NYC public transit subway cars must say something right?), much of its direct message wasn’t.  If graffiti grew to international popularity, it did so through individuals applying their craft in specific locales.  Street art like Fairey’s Andre the Giant/OBEY image multiplied through a transnational network of like-minded people.  Though Fairey argues the message one draws from it remains idiosyncratic, the whole idea of placing it in these settings is to force people to reconsider their environment. Graffiti may have promoted this subconsciously but fewer artists wrote manifestos like Fairey’s 1991 take on Phenomenology (and no, William Upski Wimsatt’s Bomb the Suburbs doesn’t count since half of it was about hitch hiking).

“I am your demon cleaner” brought to you by Trustocorp

The process by which street art comes into being shares more than a little in common with punk and hardcore: the strict DIY ethic.  Populating public spaces with guerilla art characterized by irony or sarcastic critiques of foreign policy, consumerism, race, and countless other political positions, heightens the very importance of its placement and the space it occupies. If English punks employed the language of crisis to mock the very authorities so worried about Britain and its youth, so too do street artists use the very marks of consumerism and corporatism as a means of critiquing those very systems.  Unsurprisingly, characteristic of such a diffuse movement, there exists a diversity of street art styles.  For example, aesthetically, the brutal Andre the Giant/OBEY images of Fairely send one message, while the tongue in cheek work of mysterious street art collective (well it could be an individual but the anonymity of the movement makes these distinctions tough) Trustocorp blend in colorfully with the wider environment.  In recent months, Charlene Weisler’s urban montage blog, much like superslice, has documented “yarn bombings” across NYC. More organic and craft-oriented than Trustocorp, artists like Jessie Hemmons cover familiar objects in brightly colored “yarn bombs”, perhaps most famously the Wall Street Bull.

“Your finest fake tabloid please”

While, Trustocorp’s work questions consumerism, race, and foreign policy cleverly, one could argue the context and clandestine process mean as much as the image.  The work draws attention for its placement as much as its aesthetics.  Many EFTGS reviewers called Mr. Brainwash’s work derivative, but to uncultured viewers like myself, Guetta created some clever images.  Besides, couldn’t one argue that Fairey’s OBEY campaign was built on a derivative image reproduced and rearranged in public spaces countless numbers of times?  As noted by DePillis at the outset, the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the image might be just as important as the print itself.

Street Art + BK Adams + Steven Cummings = 
Was there ever any doubt?

My idea was to make BK be known and recognized. I really enjoyed BK’s art and the things he created, I just felt nobody knew who he was. The quickest way to get recognized is to be seen as someone who is hip or cool. In our conversation BK told me a story how he liked to sleep outside, that he had gathered some trees and he was going to build a bed where he could sleep outside. I went to his studio on Maple View Place to photograph him as he built this bed.–

                   — Text from Steven Cummings photography exhibit “Call and Response: Community and Creativity” at the Anacostia Community Museum

“When people try to get to pure about it, hip leaves the building.”.

— John Leland, Hip, 11

The 2012 photography exhibit “Call and Response: Community and Creativity” by Steven Cummings illustrates the influence that street art has had on more conventional artists but also demonstrates the ways in which it has become (and perhaps always was) as much a tool for self promotion.  Local photographer  Cummings spent the last couple years collaborating with D.C.’s “eccentric” BK Adams (or Art Man as he calls himself) whose work had been featured in 2010 at the aforemetioned Anacostia Community Museum.  Local media depicts Adams as an elusive eccentric working near the now hip H street corridor, an area that features run down store fronts next to fast food joints next to homeless shelters next to boutique “new American creative” restaurants.  Throughout Cumming’s retrospective, Adams appears like the lost member of TV on the Radio, nearly always maintaining perpetual motion, like an artistic inspector gadget (or as a 2010 Washington Post article described him “a walking matisse” who lived in a “Never Never Land of art” obsessed with making found objects “beautiful”).
Who put this fucking chair here?

Adams drew attention in 2010 for his numerous public art works that apparently were independently installed.  In an attempt to “beautify the city,” Adams clandestinely planted pieces throughout the city, perhaps most famously, a blue chair atop a poll that led the local Hill Rag to ask “Who put up that mystery chair?”  However, in the vein of Banksy and others, Adams splashed photos of himself with the words “I AM ART” all over the city.  One Columbia Heights blogger complimented the prints but asked, “I’m not an art expert so I’m not sure who is depicted …”  Adams’s “self-portrait” prints bear more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Brainwash and others.

Mr. Brainwash

The collaboration between the two men appears to be mutually influential. Working and occasionally residing in, appropriately enough, a Victorian home perched on the hills of SE Washington D.C., one can see Cummings’ interest in working with Adams.  Adams’ backstory makes for an intriguing narrative. A former truck company owner turned public artist working in a home that overlooks the largely African American community of Anacostia.

Cummings’s collaboration with Adams reveals two artists playing with ideas about race, history, and identity (one could toss in street art here as well). Steven Cummings’ photos of himself, others, and Adams playfully ask questions about Black identity without stridency or even any direct racial implications. Cummings’s text provides a straightforward narrative that admits to wanting a larger audience and professes to be following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol and Basquiat.  If African American style and culture seemed trapped in doo rags and hardcore rap in the 1990s, Cummings suggests a myriad number of ways out of this sartorial corner in the 21st century.  Others have noted the shift in style among prominent Black Americans.  With Kanye’s Bipster fashion, Odd Future’s skatepunk aesthetic, and the “rise of the nerd-look” among NBA players from Kevin Durant’s press conference backpack to Lebron James’s hipster glasses, Black style seems far less limited and more diverse today than 20 years ago.  Granted, one could argue this has as much to do with who the media decided to highlight, but Allen Iverson – incredible talent that he was – was never going to rock a backpack to a press conference. Cummings’s photo of Adams, replacing Huey Newton in the iconic photo of the Black Panther leader only enhances this aspect of his work.

Does it matter that the way in to Cummings’s work depended in part on street art origins that amounted to self promotion?   Sure Cummings remained silent about bombing the city with his “wheatpastes”, but since they effectively served to advertise his work across the city- they stretch as far as Takoma Park near the D.C.-Maryland border – one can’t discount this point. To their credit, Adams and Cummings appear completely aware of street arts’ radiating meanings. One could even argue that Cummings and Adams purposely appropriate and gently mock the very street art discussed here. Obviously, street art’s credo can’t be summed up by one person, but whatever definition one ascribes to, Banksy and others clearly intended to engage their audiences politically.   Adams and Cummings do this, but also don’t hide their hope that others will see their work and be inspired.

In the end, who even cares anymore how an artist gets our attention? Forest rockers like Grizzly Bear sell their songs to car manufactures and in the process expose themselves to thousands of new fans who never would have known about them.   Street art like skateboarding and punk  has probably crested as a underground political movement, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. OFF!’s new album reimagines hardcore in its most stripped down form, making something very old sound very new.  It won’t sell any copies and but it remains a stark take on 21st century existence and probably one of the greatest hardcore albums of the last 30 years.   Twenty years from now, someone will revisit street art’s early days, remapping it in old ways that seem new. In fact maybe Steven Cummings, BK Adams, and others already have.