Painting the Streets
Cedar Lewisohn is an artist, curator, writer and publisher known for his interest in Street Art and Graffiti. Amongst other things, he curated the exhibitions Street Art (2008) at Tate Modern, and Rude Britannia (2010) at Tate Britain. His publications include Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution (Tate Publishing, 2008) and Abstract Graffiti (Merrell, 2011). As Sotheby's goes street, with an unauthorised retrospective of Banksy, Anna McNay speaks to Lewisohn about what it is that makes Street Art art.
Anna McNay: Hi Cedar, thanks a lot for agreeing to talk to me. Obviously, you’re well known for your work on Street Art and Graffiti, but you’re also an artist yourself. What kind of art do you make? It’s not Street Art, is it?
Cedar Lewisohn: No, I’m doing mainly wood carvings, which I then turn into large-scale prints. It’s basically a kind of drawing, with a little bit of abjection. Drawing and abjection, mixed together, which is quite quickly made, and which I turn into quite laboriously carved wood panels, which I then hand print.
AMc: So why the interest in Street Art? What came first? Did you start with that?
CL: That’s a good question! I guess the thing is that I was interested in Graffiti from when I was a kid, so 12, 13, 14 years old. I’m from near Bromley, and, you know, I just used to hang around with people and take photographs of what they were doing…
AMc: You never did it yourself?
CL: I had a strong interest in the subject…
AMc: No comment?!
CL: … is all I’m going to say! I think I was basically a very bad and unaccomplished Graffiti writer, and I was more interested in the general culture of it, you know, as kids are… So I had that interest from when I was a kid, and then, I was also interested in art at the same time, and I eventually ended up at art college studying sculpture, and I kind of forgot about the Graffiti for a while. When I graduated and started writing about art, this is about 2000, I really started to notice the reemergence of Graffiti. I was still interested in it, and I just started to notice it in galleries. Artists like Barry McGee and Eine, and there was a lot of stuff happening round the East End, so it reignited my interest.
I think the thing about Graffiti, you know, it’s like being in the Masons… Once you’re in the gang, you never really leave. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve done Graffiti in the past – musicians, film makers – and even though they’ve stopped doing the actual practice of the Graffiti, they still say it affects the way they look at the world, and it affects their perspective on things. It never really leaves you. So, like I say, around about the time I graduated, I started to see this reemergence – it’d probably been happening for a while before I started to notice it – but I wrote a couple of articles, and, you know, just kind of had an eye open for it. Skip forward a few years, and I proposed my first book for Tate Publishing, which was called Street Art…
AMc: That was 2008?
CL: Yeah, that was published in 2008, and that book really was primarily about two things: (i) putting Street Art and Graffiti in an art historical context, so saying this isn’t an art movement that’s evolved totally in isolation, and (ii) defining some distinction between the subject of Graffiti and Street Art as two not totally separate genres, well, separate genres, but related.
AMc: That was going to be my next question, actually. What is the difference? Can you sum it up?
CL: It’s not clear cut. I mean, I wrote a whole book on it! But, very generally speaking, what I tend to say is that Graffiti writing is just that. Graffiti writing has tagging pretty much at its core, and is essentially a text-based gesture or art form.
AMc: But it becomes so abstract that perhaps you lose the idea of there being a letter or text involved?
CL: Yeah, absolutely, that can happen. Or people can give up on the text altogether and just do figurative stuff, but somehow the tagging is the core. Whereas with Street Art, text is not the core. Also, another thing with Graffiti is that text can be the subject. Text, essentially, is the subject. But with Street Art, text is very rarely the subject.
AMc: What do you mean, the subject?
CL: Graffiti is essentially an art form about typography. It’s a form of typography. That is the core of Graffiti. Things stem out from that, but essentially that is the heart of it, calligraphy and typography. Graffiti writers are typographers in themselves – a lot of them are obsessed with typography. It’s affected typography around the world. The way we perceive typography. Because typography doesn’t have to be, you know, Helvetica. It crosses over a little bit with calligraphy, and so it can be hand gestures, or more quirky gestures… Typography is this kind of invisible language that’s all around us, that’s subconsciously affecting us. Graffiti writers are very aware of that. And that is one of the core subjects of their work: the use of typography and calligraphy. The bending of typography, the curving of it, and the abstraction of it. Just doing things with type and font and text.
AMc: So you don’t think it necessarily has to carry a message, as such, or have a purpose, or a point that it’s trying to get over?
CL: It depends what you mean by message… I mean, I would argue that there is a message in typography in its purest sense. Take, for example, the Times newspaper. Just its font carries a message. It has serifs on the letters, it looks old, it looks classical. There’s a message in that type. But perhaps by message you mean something political, ethical, moral…?
AMc: Yeah, yeah, I do…
CL: Well, then, no, absolutely not. The whole thing about Graffiti writing is that it’s a totally open forum. The message could be ‘kill whoever’, or it could be ‘save whoever’. There’s no set or prescriptive political doctrine.
AMc: Is it a completely open forum though? You’ve said elsewhere that the audience is a further characteristic for distinguishing between Graffiti and Street Art – that Graffiti is an internal message for an internal audience, one Graffiti writer writing to another, whereas Street Art is generally available to the wider public...
CL: Mmm, yeah, I’d pretty much go for that… I think Graffiti writers essentially are communicating amongst themselves. For the uninitiated their tags are just abstract scribbles which don’t make any sense, but people within the scene can distinguish between them, and they know who the different taggers are. Any lay member of the public can look at some Street Art and maybe get something from it, if that’s the idea of the work. But I think there’s a lot of confusion about the difference between Graffiti and Street Art, and any Graffiti that isn’t tagging, in the general popular sense, is somehow now called Street Art. That, in my opinion, is totally incorrect. The majority of stuff you see on the streets is usually Graffiti based. There is a lot of Street Art around, but there’s way more Graffiti. Essentially people seem to think that Street Art is some kind of Graffiti that’s not offensive, because somehow tagging is offensive…
AMc: Or Graffiti that’s not illegal?
CL: I don’t know about that. Maybe. Graffiti doesn’t necessarily have to be illegal. It can be. And neither does Street Art. They both can be legal or illegal. It depends. But essentially they’re primarily illegal, yeah.
AMc: I was interested, actually, that, in your book, you put Street Art as a subgenre of Graffiti, and not the other way round. Perhaps you’ve just explained that by saying that Graffiti is more ubiquitous…
AMc: I mean, just because, from my point of view, it seemed that if Graffiti was primarily based around the tagging and the text, and Street Art was wider than that, then why wasn’t Graffiti the subgenre?
CL: When we talk about Graffiti writing, we’re essentially talking about the movement which evolved out of New York and America in the late 70s, which had tagging at its core. Street Art emerged as a genre at roughly the same time, maybe a bit later, and was basically the fine art side of it, a kind of fine art Graffiti. Graffiti was such a massive movement, especially with the subway painters. It was so ambitious, and it moved around the world with really huge-scale productions. I think the Street Art that you see now, and even the Street Art that you saw in the 80s in New York, with John Fekner, Basquiat, and Keith Haring, they were reacting more to the Graffiti writers, they were taking their inspiration from the methods of the Graffiti writers, they were learning from the Graffiti writers, and that affected their practice. That’s why Street Art is a subgenre, in my opinion, of Graffiti.
AMc: Just to go back to the issue of meaning and politics, I know that political meaning is quite significant to you, and it was, for example, an important theme in the Orbitecture II show you curated in Southend in 2011. Do you think Street Art, rather than Graffiti, has a political meaning, or has to have? Or can it just be art for art’s sake, producing something beautiful but not necessarily with meaning?
CL: Well, there’s a lot of stuff to unpack there. I am interested in politics, and I’m getting more interested in politics, but I don’t claim to be an expert. Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, didn’t like art particularly, but he liked tagging-based Graffiti because he thought it was devoid of meaning, and, as such, he thought it was one of the only kinds of art forms that actually did have a political resonance. I tend to agree with that. Doing an abstract tag-based form, which isn’t really understandable by the mass populus, and at its purest sense cannot really be brought into consumerism, is a stronger political statement than doing some kind of beautification of the city or some kind of overtly political, message-based gestures. But, obviously, tagging-based Graffiti is subsumed into the market in a million ways. It is used by corporate companies all the time as a form of branding. This is a parody of the pure gesture, but sometimes it becomes very hard to distinguish. I’m interested in the ideas of another French philosopher, Sylvère Lotringer, at the moment too. One of the things that he talks about is this idea of capitalism being an all-encompassing kind of vapour that is totally around us, and everything is included in it. I think if we’re going to talk about politics we might as well just talk about capitalism, so, no matter how political an artist you think you are, you’re still somehow involved in capitalism. That’s the big problem, and I think it’s a really interesting position to be in and to think about, particularly as an artist. What do you do if whatever you do is feeding capitalism, even if you are doing something that is totally opposed to it? Where does that leave you?
AMc: What do you think of Graffitists turned gallery artists, such as Ben Flynn [Eine, whose work was presented as a gift from David Cameron to Barack Obama in July 2010]? Does this progression legitimise the claim that Graffiti is art, and that Graffitists would be artists were they given access and means? Or is it just the result of everything becoming subsumed by capitalism, everything becoming a commodity?
CL: The thing about Graffiti is that it’s such a big universe, so the idea of being a total vandal, and being an artist, well, you can do both. Some Graffiti writers are not really interested in being an artist though – they’re just interested in vandalism, they’re interested in getting their tag out, and they don’t really see it as art, they probably don’t even like art! But, funnily enough, there is something strangely artistic about that, in a kind of auto-destructive, Gustav Metzger kind of way. Graffiti offers a creative outlet in which to create an identity. Actually, that’s another distinction between Street Art and Graffiti: Graffiti artists usually aren’t art school trained, whereas Street Artists often are, and often have a studio practice already. They know about materials, they know about art history. Someone like Ben, he had that stage in his “career”, where he was purely doing hardcore vandalism, but actually he was always doing something slightly artistic as well. This is a guy who probably didn’t go to art school, as far as I know, I think he was working in an insurance company or something like that, and he was just doing Graffiti at night. It allowed him a creative outlet, and now, ten, twenty years later, the guy’s got a gallery career. He’s progressed into that, and he’s probably had a lot of fun along the way as well. I think it’s a good thing that more artists are able to have careers these days, and that they’re able to come from a Graffiti background and have a career. I think that’s a really good thing.
AMc: What about someone like Daniel Halpin (aka Tox), who was convicted of vandalism in 2011? Ought he to be considered an artist? Or is he ‘just’ a Graffitist? Is he a criminal?
CL: Well Tox is a perfect example of someone who is just a pure vandal.
AMc: You don’t think there’s anything artistic about what he does?
CL: It depends how you define artistic. Like I just said, I think personally there is something artistic in pure vandalism. In the same way that we could talk about punk music or noise core – whatever noise core is, you know, like just 50 screaming guitars at full volume that broke the amps – and you could say ‘Is that music? That’s not Mozart!’ It depends how you define music. Some people might find that kind of hardcore noise quite musical, in the same way that I find hardcore vandalism aesthetic and artistic. But do I consider Tox, what he did, artistic? No, I don’t think so.
Maybe I can make just one final point though. There is also, I think, a political element to people who just paint pretty pictures or abstract gestures on the street. I think the idea of making the world better, and making the world around you more beautiful, has something political about it. Essentially, no matter how futile the idea that capitalism is totally engulfing our every breath, at the end of the day you’ve still got to make art, and you’ve still got to do what you can to make the world a better place around you.
A version of this interview appeared online in issue 5 of Art Selector in July 2011.