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Graffiti Art
In nearly every profession, there is a group known as "bottom feeders". In the law profession, they're called "ambulance chasers." In show business, we know them as Elvis impersonators. In the retail business they're seen in fair booths where they are sometimes referred to as "slicers and dicers". On television, they host talk shows where the guests hit each other (perhaps we should call them "Springers".) In the world of art, they're called graffiti artists. City workers use powerful, abrasive, chemical cleansers to eradicate their work, or simply paint over it. (In which case, ironically, they have prepared a new, blank canvas upon which these subway rats with their cans of spray paint may turn out yet another dastardly masterpiece.)

In 1980, a group of artists, writers, and critics organised what they called the "Times Square Show." They allowed the bottom feeders to move up a notch in the art world. The show featured exclusively the work of New York City graffiti artists in all their anti-establishment glory. It was held in a former "massage parlour" in (where else) Times Square, an area of city which, at that time, had degenerated into a conglomeration of XXX-rated movie theatres, strip-joints, and pornographic bookstores. Critics disagreed as to whether the show debased art or "uplifted" the neighbourhood (probably a little of both). But whatever the case, it brought to light a number of very talented (though untrained) artists with a certain rough freshness which the New York art world at the time badly needed.

Two of these were Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Haring, born in 1958, fit the image we have of the New York street punk, though his paintings on black photographic paper were actually quite light-hearted and amusing. After making something of a name for himself as a result of the Times Square Show, he took his art into the subways where he worked with chalk on the black panels used to block out obsolete advertising. Basquiat's work was much darker in nature with Caribbean motifs and profound philosophical texts. After the Times Square show, he began studying the work of Picasso and Dubuffet. Like Picasso, his work often had a childlike quality in dealing with various black/ethnic themes. In keeping with his Haitian ancestry, he painted on crude "wooden canvases" made up of whitewashed slats mounted on a wood frame. Both artists died in their 30's. Neither ever used spray paint.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
31 August 1998


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