How Banksy Is Ruining Graffiti

How Banksy Is Ruining Graffiti

I’m filming veteran Minnesota graffiti writer Daesk paint a legal graffiti wall in Northeast Minneapolis. As he paints I’m approached by someone sauntering up to the piece. He’s young, trendy, and has the Uptown look of somebody fresh out of art school. Before he can even open his mouth to ask me the question, I already know what he’ll say.

“You ever seen that movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop?,” he asks. I’m right.

“What do you make your stencils out of?”
-Banksy drone

Normally I don’t mind questions, but lately every one has been the same. The inevitable follow-up question is, “What do you make your stencils out of?” He – and plenty of other curious graffiti aspirants – are feeling their way around the art of graffiti, hoping to emulate the style and technique of the most-famous graffiti artist in the world: Banksy. But, what they don’t understand is how their new-found fascination with the world of graffiti has sparked a downward spiral for the representation of the existing culture.

Though almost everyone who saw the film probably considered cutting out some Marilyn Monroe stencils and hitting the streets, thankfully most viewers talked it up for a couple weeks and left it at that.  However, there has still been an overwhelming flood of art students who have hastily cut up some stencils, found a wheatpaste recipe on WikiAnswers, and plastered up some dumpsters in the arts district. Not only is their work generally shoddy and uninspired, but their etiquette is practically blasphemous in most graffiti circles. These Banksy emulators are doing nothing more than mimicking the work and stylings of another artist – which, in a culture that’s built on originality, is missing the point entirely.

I asked Minneapolis-based stencil artist Biafra, who has been making stencils since long before Banksy became famous, about this trend. “I would say that there has been a big shift in the stenciling game since Exit Through the Gift Shop came out,” he confirmed. “Now more than ever, you see people hopping on the bandwagon trying to ‘be famous like Banksy’, and their work reflects that.  You might see their stuff up around town for a month or two and then you never see anything again. People are getting too hung up on finding the fastest way to get famous overnight.”

After my frustrated rants on the subject, I am bombarded with questions on the difference between “graffiti” and “street art”, and what the source of the conflict is.  It’s difficult to explain, but likely rooted in public perception.  Part of the longtime graffiti ethic is its underground, counterculture nature, and the fact that it is rejected by society and regarded as a criminal activity.  Sometime in the nineties, advertisers caught on to its popularity and graffiti sold out to MTV sets and Kool-Aid commercials, but the art world and general populace still didn’t respect it as an art form.  With the advent of “street art” and socio-political “conscious” graffiti, there was much more public support, and demand for street art in the art community at large.  While traditional graffiti has been scorned for years in the public eye, “street art” managed to skip straight onto gallery walls and into high end collections and fashion lines.

“It’s almost like people think stencil art is a fine art.  Which, I don’t think it is.”
-Eros AKB

I asked Eros AKB, one of the most highly-respected graff writers in the Midwest, to weigh in on the topic.  He has also noticed the trend in the art world, saying, “The main thing that sucks about it is that the art-world and mural art buyers are now asking for stencil art.  I’ve lost many jobs this past year to stencil artists because of that movie and the popularity of the street art movement.  It’s almost like people think stencil art is a fine art.  Which, I don’t think it is.”  The problem is that Exit Through the Gift Shop has been praised almost universally, and is probably the most mainstream representation of graffiti that exists.  It has even been hailed as the beginning of a graffiti revival, and while this may be true for street art, the ramifications on traditional graffiti have been very negative.

With a style pioneered, and essentially ripped off of Blek le Rat, Banksy managed to find public support for illegal art in a way that was unprecedented.  With clever stencils that make clichéd social statements, he managed to hit the nerve of the trendy young art scene.  His film tapped right into this, and it was so widely popular that it sparked a whole new wave of artists.  This trend was helped by the fact that stencil art requires much less skill and technique than traditional, aerosol graffiti.

Most traditional graffiti artists got their start ducking down under bridges to find the newest pieces by their local graff writers, beltlining Rusto from Menards, and scribbling toy pieces with other high school punks until they figured out line control.  However, there has been a new wave of artists of a different sort.  With newly-popular techniques like stencils and wheatpaste, it opens doors to graffiti that require less time and practice.  Spray can graffiti takes years to figure out and perfect, while stencils only take a couple hours drawing and cutting something out, and little to no spray technique.  Eros said, “It takes years to master a spray can for graffiti, anyone can cut out a stencil and spray over it. Sure there is a lot of skill in the type of stencil used and how you cut it out but it doesn’t compare to the fine art skills and coordinated mechanics it takes to actually paint with a spray can free-hand. There is actually fundamentals that you need to build in order to use spray paint for graffiti art. There is only basic technique involved in stencil art.”

The main problem with this new wave of street artists is their general lack of respect for the established graffiti scene, and their lack of knowledge concerning graffiti history and etiquette.  There’s no quicker way to piss off a graff writer than to paste up your Shepard Fairy-esque wheatpaste over their tags, or to spray some played-out stencil over a piece that’s been riding for ten years.

How Banksy Is Ruining GraffitiEros said, “Some seem to not have any respect for those that obtained the space prior to them. I think that in the future there will be a fight for the space between the wheat-paste/stencil artists and the graffiti artists.”

Biafra agreed, saying, “I also think the newer generation of stencilers fail to recognize that stenciling and graffiti have a rich history that they need to learn. They need to learn what can go over what (tags, throw ups, pieces) stuff like that, there’s nothing worse than seeing a nice tag ruined by a poorly cut stencil that looks like it was sprayed with both eyes shut.”

I’m not condemning stencils or wheatpastes, or even street art in general.  There are countless artists who have been using these mediums long before Exit Through the Gift Shop, and in much more original ways, while respecting and even being part of the graffiti community.  The real crime lies in the uninspired, unoriginal, corporate street art that has been flooding the scene.

Unless you’re a writer, or are at least one of those hopeless Flickr-addicted graff-head railfans, you might not have noticed this trend.  The least you can do is to think twice before asking a graffiti artist about Banksy, and do your graffiti homework.  As Eros put it, “I don’t hate on the fact that the movement is growing in popularity, I just don’t respect it as much as those that pioneered the way with graffiti art. Each involves risk to get your work out there but the technical skills involved, vary. Overall, anyone expressing themselves is a good thing.”

Just like with any art form, there are real artists that need an outlet for self expression, and there are fakers, simply trying to capitalize on the latest trend. Graffiti and street art are no different, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a huge number of creative artists still around. If you still want to delve into the world of graffiti, pay your dues and learn how to perfect the craft before you start going over cats.

If you want to break free from the Banksy cult, here are a few of my favorite artists to check out: Eros AKB, Biafra, Deuce 7, Roids MSK, Ewok AWR, River/Aqua TCI, Nmph HM, Baer TKO.

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