After reading the fabulous Street Art Santiago by Lord K2, I became fascinated with the complex sociopolitical messages encoded by swirls of spraypaint. I was thrilled, therefore, to receive an advanced reader copy of Graffiti Murals. The art is absolutely beautiful, and provides a great glimpse of graffiti in the urban northeast. Sadly, however, I think that my view of the text suffered, both by my mismatching expectations and in comparison to Street Art.
My favourite textual section of Graffiti Murals is easily the introduction. Verel discusses graffiti as emblematic of a sociopolitical battle and a fight against "Disneyfication," but also points out that murals can be a signal of impending gentrification. To me, this strikes at the complex core issues of street art: as Lord K2 points out, the varied forms of street art reflect even more varied motives, from the joy of creative destruction and defacement to political activism to a desire for a sense of community.
Unfortunately, from that point forward, Verel abandons these complex motivations and focuses on one simple thesis. Verel is very upfront about what he is trying to do: he seeks to "prove," via a series of case studies, that graffiti--a particular variety of carefully bowdlerized graffiti, mind--is a positive thing for a city. He attempts to demonstrate, via interviews with graffiti artists, building owners, and random neighbors, that carefully apolitical graffiti can be pretty, create a sense of community, and prevent defacement by "bad" graffiti.
Note that this already implies a moral judgement on the graffiti, something that Lord K2 carefully avoided. "Good" graffiti is "nice." It's done with the owner's approval. It may even be an imposed advertisement of the owner's product or slogan. It is inoffensive. It is apolitical. It is colourful. It is controlled. It is clean. It is, to use Verel's own concept, "Disneyfied." Granted, I understand that some graffiti, such as gang symbols used for intimidation and territory marking or hate graffiti, can be seen as objectively bad. But Verel's "good" graffiti so carefully tows the line of the corporate world that I feel that some of its soul has been lost. When it came to artists painting out company slogans, something in me died.
But my real issue from the book came from what I see as an utterly unsubtle, unacademic, close-minded bias about the central thesis. Verel wants to prove that "good graffiti" is good for the city, and he's not willing to hear any other opinions. His interview questions, thoughtfully included in an appendix, come across to me as suggestive of the "correct" answers. (For instance, I'd consider "Do you think it makes the neighborhood a better place?" and "Do you think it's better than a blank wall" to be leading questions.) In one section, one of his interviewees said that the graffiti was "ugly." Verel's response? To belittle and minimize the interviewee and twist his response into a positive one:
"It's possible that Rama didn't fully understand the question being posed; English was obviously his second language. But even if he did, and he genuinely felt that a blank wall would be preferable, he did say at another point in our conversation that he felt that the neighborhood was improving, with the foot traffic around us serving as proof. So even if he is not affected in a positive way by the mural, it can be said that he is affected by others, like Ronnie, who do see it in a positive light."
This casual dismissal of the interviewee's opinion that the graffiti was ugly and made the place look worse because English wasn't his primary language struck me as patronizing, self-serving, and offensive. His commentary on a member of the mayor's Community Affairs unit is equally biased. Verel questions Carrero's right to pass judgment on the quality of graffiti (even as he busily does the same) but notes patronizingly that he doesn't "actually think Carrero is a philistine who can't be bothered to learn about art." How kind of him! Verel does, however, claim that Carrero is "at best" neutral to beautification efforts and that his arguments against the economic benefits are an invalid "cop out." He then follows with an entire chapter where he systematically dismisses the reasons given by his interviewees who decided on buffing, at various points calling them "paternalistic," ill-informed, and flat-out wrong. He implies that buffed business are basically money-grubbing, soul-stealing corporate entities. I understand that Verel is trying to prove a thesis, but dogmatically dismissing and belittling every difference of opinion does not make for a convincing argument. Such an intolerant attitude, albeit to a viewpoint that the author sees as intolerant, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
I have incredibly mixed feelings about this book. Verel has some interesting ideas and a potentially compelling thesis, but he is so focused on proving his point that to me, he came across as dogmatic and close-minded. On the other hand, many of the murals are utterly gorgeous, and there are tons of photographs in the book. At least half of the book is composed of these beautiful images. Overall, especially in conjunction with Street Art Santiago, it makes for a thought-provoking read.
~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, in exchange for my honest review. All quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and may not reflect the final version; however, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~