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The Vandalism Vandal

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Beef has always been part of graffiti—disputes over territory, drugs, respect. But street art has traditionally been friendlier and “kind of art school-y,” Jake told me. “This is the first time that blatant graffiti hostility has really manifested itself. There’s no way around it: Somebody’s just destroying your piece. That’s what’s making people so upset.” Ultimately, Jake believes that the Splasher’s assault will have an “evolutionary” effect: It will weed out the weak artists and toughen up the strong. But it’s not a serious threat. “Street art is a manifestation of the life of a vibrant city,” he told me. “As the seasons pass, more graff will come, new street artists will come and put up work—and you can’t fight that. Even if you had an army of Splashers. That would be like trying to fight the ocean.”

Outside a Chinese grocery, we saw a big Shepard Fairey poster of an idealized fifties couple ecstatically cradling a bomb; it had been hit with a zigzag line of dripping orange paint, which Jake saw as proof of the Super Soaker theory. “There’s no way to throw a bucket of paint like that,” he said. “But with a Super Soaker you could imagine, like, psssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” And he did an expert pantomime of Rambo mowing down a column of enemy soldiers.

We stopped at a building on Spring Street that had been painted up even more thoroughly than the Candy Factory. Back in December, its owners had given street artists permission to go to town on it, inside and out. Now it’s being converted into luxury condos. “This is where the splashing really started in earnest,” Jake told me. “I think this really drew the ire of the Splasher. This is just the most egregious example of street art in New York. The wall has just been so bombed out. It’s like so gross and embarrassing—it makes me really want to just go and, you know.”

“Splash it yourself?” I asked sharply.

As a Splasher suspect, Jake made almost too much sense. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the scene and an excuse to wander the nooks and crannies of the major art neighborhoods daily. Sometimes he even went out with artists when they put up work. He was an intellectual, certainly capable of writing about “fetishization” and “alienation.” And when a splash went up, he always seemed to get the first picture—a fact that had given both of his blogs immeasurable underground clout. He was the Peter Parker of the affair.

He pretended not to hear me.

“Oh, look at all this stuff going on inside now,” he said, turning away to look through the building’s half-open door.

A little while later he left me at Houston Street.

“That would be a major coup if you could track him down,” he said. “Of course, it might also lead to him getting killed.”

It was possible that I heard a slight tremor in his voice.

III. NOTES ON THE FAME GAME:
The propagandist mind, or how to get digitized into a video game.

Whatever its merits, the Splasher’s campaign was crippled by a few blinding ironies. First, no matter how artful the best street art inarguably is, it’s still illegal—so the Splasher was only vandalizing vandalism. Second, insofar as the Splasher was fighting paint with paint, he was destroying street art by creating new street art. He seems to have intended the splash as a gesture of pure, violent action, devoid of any art—zero-degree painting. But as everyone knows from art-history class, this is called “action painting,” or Abstract Expressionism. And it’s pretty artsy. A Jackson Pollock recently sold for $140 million, making it the most expensive painting in the history of the world. Fetishized commodity, indeed.

But the most damning irony of the Splasher is that, in critiquing the bourgeois fad of modern street art, he harnessed the same machinery of self-promotion used by the most mercenary artists—anonymity as a buzz-bomb exploding through the blogs and the mainstream media—and in doing so, he became more famous than most of his targets as well as the ultimate guerrilla-marketing campaign for street art’s spring 2007 season. His critique of branding, in other words, achieved admirable market penetration. His critique of commodification has itself become a commodity.

Even in the eyes of some of its most dedicated fans, street art was ripe for splashing. Whereas graffiti tends to bloom in a city’s poorest neighborhoods and spread outward, street art breeds in pockets of gentrification—Soho, Nolita, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Dumbo. If, as Jake Dobkin suggested, street art tends to be “art school-y,” this is because many of the artists have been to art school. It’s graffiti with an M.F.A. To some—e.g., the Splasher—this looks like yet another example of racial plagiarism, the classic Elvis move: The privileged classes co-opt an art form developed by the urban black poor, “improve” it by bleaching out the danger and incivility, then import it into white culture, where it suddenly becomes lucrative. It’s rich kids’ getting a contact high from poverty. In the cynic’s view, street art has reduced graffiti—the once-forbidden language of the repressed—to a minor-league system for galleries and museums. Subversive street art is an oxymoron: Modern graffiti is just an infinitely clever guerrilla-marketing campaign for artists’ brands, one that’s even more insidiously effective than a corporate campaign, because it hijacks the cultural credibility of the street (rebellion, authenticity, freedom) without paying any of the economic price (poverty, prison, repression)—and it expertly hides the fact that it does so. So street artists who pimp themselves out to Mountain Dew or Vans or Sony or Hummer are actually more honest than those who make a show of their artistic “purity” while selling out to wealthy collectors and museums. They’re just making explicit the nature of the game.


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