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Redefining art

Every time I go to a museum, I count the minutes until I can leave. Staring at a painting of some serious man, signed by an Italian name that I can’t even pronounce, has no appeal to me. 

But about a year ago, I started hearing about street art. It was the first time that “art” had intrigued me. I was avoiding homework when I saw an online photo gallery of street art around the world. It was different than art that was in museums. There was a stencil of an older man standing next to something he painted that said “Follow Your Dreams.” Over that was a red sign that said “CANCELLED.” Another piece was a rat looking up at writing that said, “If Graffiti Changed Anything—It Would Be Illegal.” I thought that was cool and almost funny since the art was in a way making fun of itself, because these artists are putting up their art illegally, usually on the sides of businesses or other buildings. It made me think, “Why did these people decide to create these pieces of art? And why would they risk doing it illegally?”

After that, if I saw a story on street art, I’d read it. Banksy, who hides his identity, is one of the most well-known street artists. He is from England and in the past few years his street art has popped up all over the world, even here in L.A. I saw a picture of his most well-known pieces around London, such as stencils of a man throwing flowers, and a little girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon. I also was seeing guys around school wearing shirts and hats that said “Obey” and I found out that they were from Shepard Fairey, another street artist. Fairey designed the Obama “Hope” poster and is known for his stencil-like art of Andre the Giant, who was in The Princess Bride movie, with the word “Obey.”

Street art seemed different from tagging 

This piece on the side of a building on La Brea Avenue west of downtown Los Angeles, seems to mock consumerism in Emily’s eyes.Photo by Emily Bader, 15, Cleveland HS (Reseda) 

At first I thought of the street art I saw on the Internet and the graffiti I saw in my community as two different things. I wasn’t able to see graffiti as art because of the tagging I had seen around my community. One Monday when I went to softball practice, I saw that our backstop, which our coach had just repainted for us, was covered in tagging. And to me, that wasn’t art. It was just ruining something that someone had worked hard to make look nicer, and it cost money to cover the tagging up.

But then I wondered, are they different? They were both done illegally in public spaces, so were they different only because the art was done in different styles? 

So was street art legitimate? It may be a form of expression, but it is usually on public space and illegal. Does that mean that it isn’t art? I wanted to say that it was, but being someone who goes by the rules most of the time, and seeing how tagging can ruin a space, I thought maybe it wasn’t right to put the art on walls around people’s homes and communities.

News stories I read on the Internet presented street art as something bad. “Oh no, someone painted all over a wall and messed everything up.” Whenever I told my parents about a piece of street art I thought was cool, they’d usually give me a look that said, “That’s what you think is art? All right, get your stuff, let’s go to the Getty.” 

I like that the messages are controversial

I mentioned street art to friends, but unlike my parents, the conversations were like, “I saw that! Pretty awesome.” We talked about how it was cool that people such as Banksy had the guts to put up art that was controversial. One piece of art that I thought was really cool was his painting on the side of a pub in a town south of London of two policemen kissing. I think he was sending the message that it shouldn’t matter if you are gay. 

Then, over winter break, I heard some of my friends talking about the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is about street art. After watching the movie, I thought that this had to be art, with the amount of time and thought put into each piece. In the movie, filmmaker and street artist Thierry Guetta, or Mr. Brainwash, follows his cousin, the street artist Invader, around Los Angeles. Through him, he meets other street artists and films them, too. 

One of the pieces he filmed was the production behind a telephone box that Banksy made to look as if it has been axed and was bleeding. These artists weren’t sitting in a studio in the Italian countryside, they were printing huge pieces of art and gluing or painting them on to the sides of buildings, usually in the middle of the night, and sometimes having to run from the police. They knew that they might be put in jail for vandalism or trespassing, yet they still did it, which shows their passion for it. 

I know that technically they are trespassing, but I think that because they are making statements with their art, they are in a way justifying it. Doing it on private property makes more of a statement and forces people to notice the work. I was still conflicted because I think the right way to present art is in a gallery. But to me that’s sort of a snore. Seeing it on the streets is what got my attention in the first place. So even though I know it’s wrong, the controversy is part of what makes it art. 

I thought it would be easier to decide whether street art is really art, and “How do you tell the difference between street art and graffiti?” by seeing the art in person. I went to the Venice Beach wall, which is one of the only places in L.A. where artists can legally put up their art. I saw five artists. Most were doing their name but in all different styles. 

An artist helps his friend propose to his girlfriend by spray painting on the public walls at the beach in Venice, one of the only places where it’s legal for street artists to put up their art.Photo by Emily Bader, 15, Cleveland HS (Reseda) 



Seeing their talent changed my mind about graffiti

Alex, 19, was putting up his name in what he called a “piece” style. He told me that a “piece” has more complicated letters, and a “bomb” is simpler, with easier to read letters. I realized each piece of art had many layers, like shadows and outlines. That’s the difference between tagging and graffiti style, which takes more time and talent. One guy said there’s a difference between graffiti style and street art. I agreed with him that street art sends a message, like if you want to say something against the government. Your name in block letters is graffiti. Now that I’ve seen what goes into it, graffiti is art. It’s not legal but it is art. 

After the Venice wall, I still wanted to see actual art on the street. I looked at an L.A. street art Facebook page and found some. There was a garage facing an alley painted with a religious theme. There was the John 3:16 verse, a big Satan creature and spaceships. It makes you think, “Why did that person decide to paint that? Were they angry about something?” I realized that art is anything creative and thought provoking. I liked seeing street art that made me think. The purpose of art is to make you think about what the artist intended, and to send a message. Art can mean one thing to the creator and something else to the viewer.

I also saw a stencil of a guy in a suit on the side of a building. I liked the style and how his glasses were the pop of color. The store next to it had a large silhouetted figure and then there was the smaller street art that you had to be looking for. It almost seemed like the street art was mocking consumerism. It reminds me of a Banksy piece in L.A. where he drew over the ‘ing’ in a parking sign and drew a swing with a girl on it. I think he was telling people to look around and ask when was the last time you went to a park. 

Now when I see street art, including graffiti, I think of it as art. With street art, anyone can express themselves. And you don’t have to go out of your way to find it. I don’t go to museums every day but you can walk outside and find street art. If you take a moment to look around and notice it, you never know when you might find one that speaks directly to you or is just plain awesome.