Scratching the Surface

It is the bane of major cities worldwide, blight on the urban landscape. But many will argue that graffiti is a form of art and have examples to prove it.

Plural of graffito, a 19th century Italian word for ‘a scratch’, this spontaneous form of visual expression dates back to Ancient Rome and Greece, making its appearance in the Roman Empire as well. Scratched and scribbled, painted and sprayed, graffiti has existed literally for ages, from simple words to elaborate wall paintings. It is as varied, and as controversial as ever, with myriad underlying messages of social and political content as well as gang affiliations. And yes, it is often just plain vandalism. When it is not, however, it is truly an expression of creativity unlike any other, permeated with one-of-a-kind energy, appearing and disappearing from street walls, ephemeral and powerful at the same time. There are graffiti artists who have made the transition to gallery space, Jean-Michel Basquiat being the best known of the lot, followed by the illusive Banksy, albeit via different routes. Graffiti has also become a source of inspiration for other artists, particularly photographers, who immortalize its brief existence, becoming its de facto chroniclers.

Canadian photographer Joel Stevens has made the art of graffiti his muse, the artistic purpose of his work. His mandate is straightforward: “Graffiti is art. Graffiti writers are artists.” The way he chose to disseminate this art is anything but. Stevens seeks out graffiti in hard to access, at times dangerous places. Condemned buildings, back alleys, under bridges are his haunts, and he finds them all over the world, creating through his body of work a kind of virtual graffiti community, and an invaluable documentation.

Like many who look at the world through the lens of a camera, Stevens has a keen eye for colour and form, and the sites he chooses to focus on are anything but haphazard. The spontaneity belongs to the artists whose work he captures; his is precision and cropping. As is the nature of photographic images, what they present, and represent, is ultimately another work of art. The graffiti-covered wall fragments in Stevens’ photographs are no longer canvas; they are matter, space and colour in a new visual landscape.

In Stairway to Everywhere (Toronto) the corner of a wall recedes creating a perfect triangular composition. The spray-painted images follow the contours of the building, continuing on and beyond, yet in this picture they are held, framed in an elegantly staged visual dialogue. Stevens applies the same close up focus in Bridge Door (New York), so that at a first glance it looks simply like an abstract painting, a vibrant, colour-infused composition with myriad jostling shapes. The fact that it is a fragment of a peeling, graffiti-coated wall is soon evident, it does not, however, in any way change the reading of this photograph. A little bit this way, or a little bit that way, and the whole would have been lost, reality trumping the ephemeral beauty of the markings. The door is entirely obliterated by writing and the colours are dazzling. A sliver of a window in the upper right corner adds a touch of black, grounding the frenetic composition.

Railroaded (Paris) is a truly striking, somewhat ominous photograph. The viewer is presented with an image of a dilapidated, crumbling wall; there are two giant gaping holes in it, like enormous black eyes staring out. Fragments of brick and mortar are spilling out of one of them, piling up on the floor underneath. This scene of devastation and ruin is juxtaposed with the pure colours of bright yellow and turquoise graffiti, enormous words and letters in white against black, and black against white. The colour is what guides the eye in this piece, and one cannot help but wonder at Stevens’ artistic intuition. This is more than a photograph of graffiti; like the words painted on that wall, it speaks of the merciless, destructive passage of time, and of our desperate, doomed need to leave a mark. Even in such a forsaken location.

Stevens’ work is as contemporary as it gets, and supremely commercial. He presents his pieces as Acrylic Pleximount images, turning them into sleek objets d’art, instantly aesthetically pleasing. This is not necessarily original, and one could argue that it ‘gentrifies’ the actual content of Stevens’ photographs, taking away from the gritty reality of which they were born.

JOEL STEVENS. Galerie Lydia Monaro (Montreal).