According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, graffiti is, “pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall, building, etc.” However, although graffiti may not be illegal by definition, it is prohibited in most public spaces and considered by society–and the law–to be vandalism. Despite this, numerous graffiti artists exist, each with their own artistic styles--which is why, when meticulously examined, no two instances of graffiti are identical. The varied artists are motivated by personal and political impulses–two such examples are Banksy, a European street artist, who uses satirical art to show his political views and Dolk, a Norwegian street artist who uses pop-culture in his work–and as such, like all art, graffiti is meant to elicit a reaction in the viewer. Some artists will tag their signatures onto the work while others choose to remain elusive. Most graffiti artists use spray paint and markers for their work, however, there are also those who prefer stencils and even some who choose freehand. And yet, no matter the inspiration behind it, graffiti is still widely illegal; in particular, as a continent, Europe has taken extensive measures to ‘clean up’ the art. And yet, as with all things, there are a few places known to tolerate graffiti; one such place is the city of Amsterdam. Amsterdam still has a good amount of street art, showcasing a loose sense of the city’s gedogen (noun: tolerance of certain illegal activities). In particular, the graffiti on Spuistraat (or Spui Street)–some of which will be discussed below–is famous and considered by many tourists to be the best in the city, due to the fact that the graffiti is found all throughout the street and seems to hold an “artistic quality.”
Image 1: The giant piece on Spuistraat
At first glance, Spuistraat looks just like any other street in Amsterdam; winding, narrow, and crammed with both people and shops. However, further down the street, a giant piece of graffiti spans the entire front of a building (Image 1). Upon sighting the vandalism, the visceral reaction might be disappointment, however if one were to look closer, one can realize this graffiti transcends the concept of public defacement. In fact, this image shows a clear genealogic connection to the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein, known for his works such as, Drowning Girl and Whaam! As such, if Lichtenstein’s work is considered art, then this particular instance of graffiti can be given the same title. As can be seen in Image 1, the enlarged and exaggerated Ben-Day dots, the comic book script of the word “BOOM,” and the primary colors mirror similar elements in Lichtenstein’s work. The graffiti artist not only emulates Lichtenstein’s style, but also showcases his or her own personal respect for the artisthrough their portrayal of the graffiti. Additionally, the lack of a tag helps point to two potential ideas regarding the artist’s intentions:
(1) This particular work of street art is meant to pay homage to an artist by publicizing a version of their work;
(2) The artist, unable to create his or her own style, chose to borrow from a more well-known and successful artist.
This is, of course, only one possible interpretation of the work. Another one is that, rather than paying tribute or seeking out a style, the graffiti artist was attempting to make a statement against the classicist economy we live in. In our society, the elevated work that is considered “high art”–something frequently featured in museums and often quite expensive–is more easily accessed by the upper class and few people outside that sphere of influence can experience it. If the graffiti artist was choosing to combat this reality with this piece, it would return Lichtenstein’s work, and the comic books that influenced him, back to the public sphere. Although comic books are a form of pop art for the masses, Lichtenstein took that style and turned it into ‘high art’. However, by using this comic book style–heavily reminiscent of Lichtenstein’s work–the graffiti artist has brought the style of the comic book back to a place where everyone has access to it, no matter their class, race, gender, or sexual orientation. However, as stated above, art is meant to elicit a reaction from the viewer. No matter the graffiti artist’s potential political incentive, on a basic level, this piece is still a success because it caused someone (me) to stop and reflect on it, creating a connection between me and the anonymous artist. As a viewer, the monumental piece left its mark on me--as I stared at it, I couldn’t help but think things like, “How did they get that exact color blue,” and ”How did they get all the way up there?””
Image 2: More art on Spuistraat
On this same street are smaller pieces that represent a more ‘traditional’ approach to graffiti (Image 2). There doesn’t seem to be a common subject matter between the works; in fact, their haphazard placement, rather than creating one cohesive piece of art, makes it seem as though multiple individuals were fighting over the same canvas. Additionally, it seems likely that the works in Image 2 were created by multiple graffiti artists–the subject matter is dissimilar (this will be further explored) and it seems like there are three distinct styles amongst the designs–which also detracts from the space. If, at one time, there had been a personal or political message, it has become a bit overshadowed by the other aforementioned qualities. Additionally, these three seem use a different style than the art in Image 1; Lichtenstein’s influence is absent. However, that doesn’t change that fact that the pieces of art in Image 2 still manage to incite another, different type of conversation.
In regards to the actual works in Image 2, those containing words will be mentioned and explored first, as they are crafted predominately with bright colors and are more discernible from far away. On this piece, the words read, “No Bikes” in both English and in Dutch. The graffiti seems to have been done with a spray can, and is large enough to be seen from about ten feet away. And yet, even these two pieces of graffiti could have been painted by two different artists as there are distinct styles used for both. Either way, this instance of graffiti introduces a rule that others are expected to follow; it seems effective as there are, in fact, no bikes present. In this manner, even though this graffiti is illegal, it’s being used in service of enforcing another law. As such, this space illustrates a delightfully unexpected moment of irony, prompting us to question which rules are important, if it matters who makes the rules, and who may choose to break them.
The next distinct bits of graffiti would be the art on both the far left and far right sides of Image 2 that seem to emulate the famous street artist, Banksy. In both cases, the graffiti artist seemed to use a stencil, which made for cleaner lines and–presumably–expedited the graffiti-making process. The hooded figures on the left could be Banksy’s, considering they are comprised of the black coloring characteristic in his work. Banksy is known for making social and political commentary through graffiti, and that particular element can be seen in the work on the right, where a stenciled stick figure is beating another stick figure already on the ground. This scene is accompanied by the words, “Stop police brutality.” The statement here is political; the art is a clear criticism of the unchecked power of the police, through a visual, rather than verbal medium. The picture is striking and haunting, one that stayed with the viewer (me) even after I left the scene. This could be an original Banksy work; but his popularity makes it difficult to determine if it is an original or just a copy by a fan or disciple. Still, much like the aforementioned Lichtenstein/comic book style, the precision and care of this graffitied artwork is evident and compelling.
The third style shown above is the yellow form that uses both stencil and spray paint, combined with the red colored sign to the left of it that reads, “Nooduitgang” (Dutch for “Emergency Exit”). There is a similar color scheme for both, pointing to the idea that this work was created by the same person or group of persons. On the sign, the words “Stink Fish” have been added, and it seems as though the graffiti artist has attempted to spray paint over the original words. This artist’s work seems much closer to vandalism than the previous two. It is a personal piece, and the ambiguous, yellow form does cause one to think about a flame or a lion—something powerful, majestic, and dangerous. However, the clear ruination of the warning sign causes one to speculate about the graffiti artist’s goal. The new “Nooduitgang” sign to the left of the original is further proof that the old one was too damaged to be of any use to the proprietor, leading more credence to the idea that, as this graffiti doesn’t seem to add anything to the property, it appears to be more like vandalism than actual art. This third piece in Image 2 manages to introduce the idea that a number of different factors–such as the artist’s actual intent and what the viewer actually thinks of a piece of art, for starters--creates the fine line between art and vandalism in graffiti.
For those individuals willing to believe that art comes in all forms–legally or otherwise–graffiti has the potential to be more than just the defacement of property. In most cases, it makes a personal or political statement and allows the viewer and the artist to meet, almost as producer and consumer, in a non-temporal point of intersection. At first glance, the art on Spuistraatmay seem to be vandalism, but if a viewer takes the time to appreciate and reflect on the details of the art–how it was made and what motivation might have been driving its creation–the graffiti can transcend its illegal connotation, allowing it to become true art, even if only on a busy street.