A Culture That Might Not Want Acceptance

Jason Boit

On my way to an art gallery in Queens one night I passed a large brick warehouse that stood apart from the surrounding buildings. I stopped walking, as did the friend I was with, and we gazed at the heaping pile of brick and mortar before us in awe because the building was covered from top to bottom in graffiti. Instantly my friend and I forgot about the art gallery that we had initially made plans to visit and began a self-guided street-level tour of the building’s exterior, where elaborate murals wrapped the façade like a blanket in a gallery in their own. My friend explained to me that the building was called 5 Pointz. For those not familiar with 5 Pointz, the “graffiti Mecca” (O’Reilly) is a 200,000 square foot factory building whose owner, a man named Jerry Wolkoff, had allowed popular New York based street artists to leave their mark on the exterior in the form of either a graffiti tag (usually the artist’s name or pseudonym) or a street art mural. While the name 5 Pointz is a reference to the five boroughs of New York City, and was intended to act as a focal point for artists from all over New York to convene and promote one another’s progression, it soon became a worldwide phenomenon, and artists from various continents have left their mark on the building as well. A well-known artist by the name of Meres curated all the work done on the building, and only extremely talented and street-famous artists were allowed make art. Throughout the years, the amount of art on its walls built up, and 5 Pointz became a collection of work from the best of the best in street art. 5 Pointz was one place where street art was welcome.

Graffiti and street art has, since its inception, been a medium ill received by the public. Street art has forever been viewed as vandalism and its artists as criminals. It is a suppressed culture, and often times the medium’s most beautiful and talented pieces are simply painted over to make a clean slate. As a result of such rejection, street art is a culture built upon its independence from society’s influences and expectations. At its foundation, street art is about the imposition of one’s own ideals on the public through self-expression, like a personal advertisement. Marc Schiller, author of Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art and an authority in the world of street art, states that a strong core “community has developed that pushes each artist” to “continue to push forward [these] ideals” (Schiller 10).

In recent years, street art culture has undergone dramatic changes in the way it is viewed by the public with the emergence of celebrity street artists—such as Banksy—who gain both respect and appreciation by the public and the rest of the art world. This new reception stands in stark contrast to the medium’s former rejection. While Banksy was a prolific artist long before this new acceptance, his documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop exposes how the public’s changing outlook on street art can create a new type of street artist that solely produces art to capitalize on the culture’s new acceptance for personal monetary gain, rather than producing art for self-expression. Banksy exposes this exploitation in Exit through the documentation of the journey of Thierry Guetta, a celebrity street artist whose roots in street art are too shallow to reach back to the days of suppression. While many believe Exit to be a mockumentary due to its satirical nature in its condemnation of the commercialization of street art, the film consists of true events. Both Banksy and Exit show that while the commercialization of street art serves to bring a suppressed culture into acceptance, it also fractures the foundations that the culture was built on, causing street artists and their graffiti to lose the unique integrity of the medium and to blur the lines between graffiti and traditional artwork.

At the time that Banksy became involved in street art, there were large legal repercussions if an artist was caught. When asked about how he became involved in street art, Banksy responded:

I was 16 years old when I first trespassed onto some railway tracks and wrote the initials of the graffiti crew (of which I was the only member) on a wall…That was also the night I discovered that beyond the “No Entry” sign everything happens in higher definition. Adrenalin sharpens your eyesight, each little sound becomes significant, your sense of smell seems more acute (Schiller 6).

Such consequences attracted the adrenaline junkies of the art world, who instead of heading in the direction of galleries felt that their art meant more if a layer of difficulty beyond raw artistic talent was required. Time constraints, the lack of light when working under the cover of night, and the constant paranoia of the police make the heightened senses described by Banksy a necessity, as every stroke of the brush or sweep from a spray can needs to be perfect. Reaching hard-to-get-to areas in hopes of finding the perfect brick and mortar canvas, areas that get an artist’s piece the most possible attraction, is another added difficulty. “Artists are often motivated by the inherent danger of putting up the piece,” and when this danger is undermined by public acceptance or the possible turn of a blind eye by police, that intrinsic motivation could be rendered nonexistent (Schiller 6).

A lack of danger is not the only new aspect of street art’s commercialization that would undermine artist’s motivation; the introduction of money as an incentive to make art—either through commissioned pieces or through hopes of fortune via fame—would as well. As evidenced by Banksy, street artists have an intrinsic motivation to express personal opinions about the political, social, and economic states of the world. Banksy fell in love with street art because of the way it made him feel, both while he was putting up a piece and after, as his art was an imposition of his own voice upon anyone who views it. To Banksy, “graffiti is a perfectly proportionate response to being sold unattainable goals by a society obsessed with status and infamy” (Schiller 6). Schiller states that “[street artists] give away their art for free, bucking the pressures of commerce that govern both museums and galleries” (10). At its foundation, street art is a rejection of the guiding economic standards that the rest of the public lives by. The introduction of money into street art is an incorporation of rejected economic standards. Also, the introduction of money destroys artists’ motivation through an over-justification effect, or “when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task” (Carlson 404). Naturally, older and more experienced street artists want to preserve the intrinsic motivation that caused them to get involved in the culture, so that new artists may serve to maintain the integrity on which it was founded.

As Banksy’s roots in street art are decades old, in addition to simply making art he often challenges against the direction street art is headed. One famous and fairly recent example is when he set up a pop-up stall outside of Central Park to sell original pieces for a mere sixty dollars apiece, compared to the thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars that his pieces normally go for in auction. However, Banksy chose to keep the pop-up stall incognito by hiring an old man to sell his art. As a result, passersby didn’t give the stall a second thought, and Banksy only made $420 during the whole day—a measly seven pieces. This shows that for Banksy, selling art is not about making the most money possible, and it could even be said that selling his art is not about money at all. Rather, irrational and dramatic fluctuations in the price of Banksy’s art keep it from being viewed only by those who could afford to buy it in auction, and this opens up a new audience who only need a spare sixty dollars. At the end of the day, once the pop-up stall had closed down and left Central Park, Banksy publicized the event on his website as an addition to “Better Out Than In,” his month-long art project and residency in New York. The title “Better Out Than In” is a reference to Banksy’s belief that art is better when left on the streets than when in galleries. The pop-up shop stunt—which lasted only one day—is an explicit example of this belief, as well as a direct rejection of the economic standards that guide society and their involvement in street art.

The pop-up stall and “Better Out Than In” aren’t the only examples of Banksy’s open opposition to the commercialization of street art. In 2010, Banksy pushed the extent of these actions even farther, and decided to delve into one of the most popular mediums for self-expression: film. Banksy had noticed the detrimental evolution of street art for a while, but was curious as to the extent of its impact upon new artists and the public opinion of the culture. Upon meeting Thierry Guetta, the subject of Exit, Banksy realized that Guetta was a walking exploitation of the commercialization of street art and decided to document Guetta’s involvement as his next major political art piece.

Guetta had no prior experience with street art before meeting Banksy and adopting a pseudonym, Mr. Brainwash. Guetta, a man that Exit describes as having a past filled with exploitative attempts at striking it rich, noticed artists such as Banksy and their successes through street art and decided to capitalize on the inevitable direction that the culture was headed. Seeing that Banksy was primarily a stencil artist, Guetta decided to begin with stencils as well. In an assessment of this imitation, Banksy states in Exit that “most artists take years to develop their style; Thierry seemed to miss out on all of those bits.” Guetta made the very subjective medium of street art into an objective, mass-production of meaningless pieces of artwork in order to get as much exposure as possible. Banksy stated, in a comparison of Guetta and Andy Warhol that “Warhol repeated iconic images until they became meaningless, but there was still something iconic about them. Thierry really makes them meaningless” (Exit).

In clarification of what defines a “meaningless” piece of art from one that has meaning, one need simply contrast Banksy and Guetta’s pieces that sell for equivalent amounts of money. Banksy’s piece titled “Love is in the Air”, which is listed at $6,700 on eBay (as of 10/17/13), is a stencil picturing a protestor in position to throw a Molotov cocktail who throws a bouquet of flowers instead. This piece is a juxtaposition of war and love, and could mean that all acts of war are done out of passion for one’s personal ideals. This is a representation of older street art culture, as Banksy is making a statement about how protestors are constantly deemed detrimental yet their actions are often times justified by their beliefs. However, an equivalently priced piece of Thierry’s—the “Marilyn Monroe Wig Set” stencil—listed at $6,750 on eBay (as of 10/17/13), consists of the iconic blonde hair from Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe piece superimposed on four random subjects, two of which are Michael Jackson and Star Trek’s Spock. The differences between Banksy and Thierry’s pieces are a clear representation of each artist’s roots in street art, and the monetary equality shown on eBay is a testament to how a piece’s value has come to revolve around hype rather than substance.

Whereas Guetta’s pieces are meaningless and do not represent the culture of street art, Banksy’s methods of giving Guetta as much exposure as possible made his pieces highly prized, with price tags running into the thousands. When famous street artists such as Thierry do nothing but sell their work for large amounts of money, the line between what defines them as street artists compared to gallery artists blurs. The integral piece of the culture that made it so unique—self-expression—becomes irrelevant when an artist conforms to public opinion, instead of imposing his or her own opinion on the public. When this happens, the foundations upon which street art culture was built fracture and fall away, suggesting that the commercialization of street art is not so much the evolution of a culture as it is the fading out of an old culture for a new iteration. A few weeks ago, this cultural dissolution that Banksy so ardently argues against made itself evident in my own life.

As most street art has a limited life span, 5 Pointz—which so amazed me those many weeks ago—does as well. In 2013, the New York Planning Commission passed its demolition unanimously in favor of its replacement by a $400 million housing project (Lamb). In an attempt to support the street art culture that will be destroyed, the new plan calls for 10,000 square feet of wall space to be used for curated graffiti (Lamb).

Since 5 Pointz’ destruction serves as a testament to the culture’s history of limited life spans, one might argue that the culture is being preserved by the 10,000 square feet set aside for street art. In truth, the building’s demolition is a prime example of how street art’s older culture is falling away to make room for the new. Now, rather than make street artists build enough street credit to leave their mark, one needs only a bit of artistic talent and a willingness to paint owner-contracted murals. These owner-contracted murals must be easy on the eyes for the new residents, commissioned for monetary gain, and they will likely need to incorporate the owner’s beliefs rather than the artist’s.

A culture that was founded on its independence and isolation from the rest of society, shaped by the rejection of societal economic standards, and made unique by artists’ personal interpretations of the ever-changing status of the world, street art has begun to play into society’s reigning belief that cash is king. While artists like Banksy, who represents the old culture, try to preserve its basis, new artists seeks to exploit the fame and fortune that street art attracts. Exit Through the Gift Shop’s documentation of Thierry Guetta represents a shining example of this new wave of street artists, and shows how the mass-production of meaningless art has evolved to rival that of Banksy’s, whose politically outspoken and symbolic art is arguably the most famous of this generation. As shown by eBay data, the public struggles to discern art with meaning from art without, and fame has become a key decider. Probably the most literal example of street art’s past being faded out by its future is the demolition of 5 Pointz, the epicenter for street art in New York City and the apex of street art. While the public may view the housing project’s acceptance for street art and opportunity for curated murals as the culture’s preservation, it is simply an opportunity for this new wave of street artists to get paid to transmute societies beliefs onto a wall.

Today, where once stood the magnificent “graffiti Mecca” called 5 Pointz there is a nondescript warehouse painted over in a pale white. People no longer put their busy days on hold to admire it. People no longer take trips on the 7 Train to visit this otherwise dreary area in Queens. The building once known for unifying the five boroughs of New York is now unable to attract an audience. There is no longer anything to look at, aside from a lone warehouse, solemnly waiting for its destruction. Street art has become a new culture altogether.

Works Cited

McCormick, Carlo, Marc Shiller, and Sara Schiller. Trespass: A History of
Uncommissioned Urban Art. Ed. Ethel Seno. Taschen Benedikt Verlag Gmbh., 2010.

Carlson, Neil, et al. Psychology: The Science of Behavior. 6th ed. London: Pearson, 2006.

O’Reilly, Anthony. “5 Pointz Demolition Shows Money Still Trumps Everything Else in
NYC.” PolicyMic. Web. 17 Oct. 2013.

CBS New York. “Lawmaker: Deal Reached On 5Pointz Redevelopment Plan.” CBS.
Web. 17 Oct. 2013.