The other kind of American Graffiti

Joker graffiti in Batman 1989

By C.J. Bunce

American Graffiti.  Just two weeks ago the George Lucas classic coming of age film about high school graduates in 1962 came back for the first national release in movie theaters in decades (we discussed it here at  In a series of interconnected vignettes Lucas gave us a snapshot of kids and cars and cruising culture, popular then and now.  American Graffiti wasn’t the original title, and, as the story goes, the film’s backers had no idea what the title meant, but it was better than Another Quiet Night in Modesto or other proposals so they just went with it.  No graffiti actually plays into the plot, and the viewer can conceive his or her own meaning to this now classic movie title.

Graffiti as pop art?  Actual graffiti in America, in many ways hasn’t changed a lot, and it doesn’t share the same feelings of nostalgia as the eponymous film.  A form of vandalism, its very nature is something covert, rebellious and illegal.  Spray paint is the medium and the canvas is anything and everything from highway overpasses to train cars to building walls.  The stealth required gives the creator a challenge–maybe even the adrenaline rush that fuels some that are behind it.  Over the years the costs to city governments to wash or sand or scrub off graffiti prompted many cities to work with local graffiti artists–designating projects and mural locations where local creators could show off their creativity.  It’s a constructive bridging of law and order and a radical form of expression.

Iowa State Fair 2013 butter cow
A freshly cleaned up butter cow at the 2013 Iowa State Fair.

The purpose of graffiti is varied.  The messages can be words, symbols or pictures.  The message can be political, such as the defaced butter cow that appeared this weekend at the annual Iowa State Fair–a real-life protest by fringe animal rights advocates much like we’ve talked about here in Mike Miner’s Liberator series.  The message can also be to communicate, such as marking territories, to annoy, or to simply entertain.  Today some graffiti is recognized as a form of modern art.

But graffiti has a price and the average street artist does his or her work at great risk.  Along with the butter cow, where the demonstrators hid out overnight, only last week an 18-year-old self-proclaimed graffiti artist was killed in Florida when he was tasered by a police officer in hot pursuit after he was spray painting a wall near a McDonald’s–generally a non-lethal method to stop someone, yet the shock was too much for his body to handle.  He was called an artistic genius by his peers.  His death has spawned the typical opposing forces of support and hatred–the kid was breaking the law, on the one side, and the kid was just a typical street artist, on the other.  How are we supposed to reconcile the two sides?

Banksy Flower Girl auction
Banksy’s art “Flower Girl” on the cover of the December Julien’s auction catalog.

Contrast this young man’s street art with this week’s announcement from Julien’s auction house.  If you’ve followed the modern art scene, and even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard of the shadowy figure that is the artist known as Banksy.  Because of his social commentary he is heralded as a semi-legitimate artist in his native England.  Banksy says he was inspired in part by 3D, a graffiti artist who later became a founding member of the band Massive Attack, the band that composed that thumping theme to the TV series House, M.D.  Banksy’s own documentary about the street art scene, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was a Sundance hit and was even nominated for an Oscar in 2011.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is exciting and informative and recommended viewing for lovers of good documentaries, fans of modern art, and people who like watching modern day eccentrics.

So what’s the big news this week?  Julien’s is auctioning off an actual chunk of wall containing one of Banksy’s works–an incredibly rare chance for someone to own a piece of this type of unique street art, otherwise destined to be painted over.  And the estimated price range the auction house is putting on Banksy’s work?  North of $300,000.  The only other known work that has sold went in a private sale for $1.1 million.  Check out Julien’s website for more information about its December Street Art auction.  They call it… “Blue Chip Urban Art”.  Pop art–and pop culture–has something for everyone and apparently where graffiti, or street art, or urban art, is concerned that means a free view on a passing train or the amount of an average Joe’s life savings as a mere investment for the infamous “one percent.”

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