Illustrated City Part 16

Counterculture Subculture

Counterculture Subculture

I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had much time for blogging; getting a post or two in each month about something artistic. Quite recently, I received a rebuttal to Part 9 of this series. I’ve already responded to it there, and you can certainly go there to read it but I’m using the fact that it’s high time that I made a new post as an excuse to reiterate my reply.

I stand accused of putting down the work of a Montreal tagger who goes by the street name of Neski. My accuser Jay Johnston has also appointed himself my judge, jury and executioner.

Mr. Johnston believes that sneaking around and vandalizing private and public property “without getting arrested” is about artistic “skill” and “willpower”, and admonishes me for being so lacking. Here’s where he’s correct. I don’t do graffiti, and won’t try. As much as I actually appreciate some of it, something he fails to realize, it’s never been a visual art that I’ve been inclined to pursue. The closest thing to it is graphic design, and while I’ve done plenty of that in my time I deliberately reduced my reputation as a graphic artist to push my original pursuit of expressing myself through illustration and photography.

Mr. Johnston doesn’t realize that Illustrated City is a street photography/urban photography project on street art and graffiti. The resulting output is this ongoing blog series in which I get to share my photography and considerations of these arts with others freely. This is especially since I am unable to take all readers to the places I go to in order to discover the work in real time.

Oh yes, there’s also that childishly impudent bravado Mr. Johnston expressed about me possibly being afraid to condemn Neski’s tags in person while it takes, after all, bold “skill” and “willpower” to “sneak” around vandalizing other people’s property “without getting arrested”.

Yes, I did repeatedly think to myself that it may be downright stupid of me to even respond to Mr. Johnston but he wasn’t unbearably juvenile in his quarrel with me, so I’m willing to oblige him with the fair, knowledgeable and logical discourse of art theory that I can only hope he’s looking for.

One of the things that I actually pity Mr. Johnston for is his perception that graffiti and the associated violence is a defining aspect of Hip Hop. I grew up on Hip Hop. I beg to differ.

Firstly, of course Hip Hop belongs in the art world. Secondly, I’m afraid that Mr. Johnston missed the point of that post entirely. Part 9 is NOT a criticism of Neski’s or anyone’s art; I even point out the quality of Neski’s work. Part 9 is an objective examination of the thought processes of certain – not all, individuals associated with graph-writing subcultures in many cities around the world, not just Montreal. Primarily the senseless killing and dying in the name of graffiti, and secondarily the vandalism aspects of some of it, which I explore more deeply in other posts of Illustrated City.

I must disagree with Mr. Johnston’s argument that the violence is a necessary aspect of Hip Hop subculture and; therefore, also graffiti subculture. I suspect that I’m older than him. I can, therefore, say that Hip Hop is only slightly younger than I am (I was born in 1970), and that it is a cultural extension of rap music which is older than me (rap has been around since the 60’s, there are still a lot of people for and against rap that don’t know this, and really don’t care). Violence has never been an ingrained cultural characteristic of Hip Hop. It has increasingly imbued Hip Hop since the early 80’s due to negative influences merely assumed to be part of the subculture like street gangs, inner city African-American and Latin-American organized crime syndicates, racial stereotypes from narrow-minded North American suburbanites and music moguls who financially capitalize on the marketing of these negative stereotypes in rap.

Additionally, not even graffiti is a fixture of Hip Hop. It is an anthropological fact that graffiti and Hip Hop are separate subcultures. Graffiti is much older. It is an artistic genre that has been in existence for thousands of years and has inadvertently given rise to subcultures. It would do a lot of artists a lot of good to understand this much of their art history (see Part 11 just for starters). Today’s graph-writers are actually putting a contemporary spin on a very old practice that could become, if adequately honed, an artist tradition (maybe a movement if they’re lucky). Those who accept the violence as just the way things are in the subculture are not doing graffiti, their individual work or themselves any favours.

There is a long list of Hip Hop artists; both visual and performance artists, who have tried to keep the legitimacy of Hip Hop alive through their art. It has not been easy as there is far too many who buy into the negativity and shallow-mindedness and ruin Hip Hop. Some of the abusers dare to tout that they are celebrating Hip Hop. They’re liars. They aren’t helping anyone or anything but themselves, frankly. They’re cheating everyone else, and the biggest victims are the Brian Kachur’s and killers who fail to separate the stains on Hip Hop subculture from the legitimacy of Hip Hop.

I do hope that Mr. Johnston takes the time to re-read Part 9, hopefully this time without being automatically adversarial and assuming that the post is about cutting Neski’s work down. If Mr. Johnston does, seeing that Neski is still amongst the living, Mr. Johnston should come to realize that I would love to say to Neski’s and any other’s faces that I personally want to see them remain alive, healthy and nurturing their God-given talent for the visual arts. Not be senselessly murdered off like Kachur was, or convicted of the crime like the accused have been. As Mr. Johnston indicates that he is an advocate for Neski, I imagine that this must make sense to him.

Seeing that Mr. Johnston likes to issue challenges, I challenge him to go to Brian Kachur’s mother and sister, and the families of the accused (I suspect that Mr. Johnston is in Montreal), privately tell them about Neski and his personal thoughts regarding Hip Hop subculture, and ask them if they think that killing in the name of graffiti is a proper way of life and death for Neski. I imagine that they’ll say “NO” and if they do, then would Mr. Johnston really dare to argue with them? For crying out loud, in different terrible ways, these families have lost their children and siblings.

Finally, I’m repeating the question I ask of all taggers at the end of Part 9, as they’re on the frontline of the calamity. What do they suggest should be done about preventing the violent infighting in their art?

9 thoughts on “Illustrated City Part 16

  1. What a shame that you had to go and defend your position. As an artist, your work should stand and speak for itself. the fact that someone decided to be petty and critical says that they don’t understand the true nature of art. Good for you for standing up and holding your position.

    • I’m not a pacifist. I also practice the martial arts; therefore, I believe in physical self-defence. It’s frightening; however, to think that there are people who inject violence into everything, and try to excuse it as a fundamental way of life. It’s absurd.

  2. Interesting post, Allan. I don’t even pretend to understand the ins and outs of art, graffiti, any of the above. I am, sadly, not part of an artistic clan, group, culture. I know what I like and try to respect what others do, but that’s the extent of my involvement. So maybe I’m wrong in saying this but might being more versed and educated in the culture and medium your commentating on and respect for a fellow human being and his/her talents be a help? If you love your work so much, doesn’t an appreciation for similar art come into play? As Sgt. Oddball (Donald Sutherland) said in Kelly’s Heros, ‘Stop with the negative waves!’ ( I could stand to learn more myself, obviously.)

  3. Speaking for myself, I do appreciate some graffiti, certainly Neski’s. That’s one of the reasons why I started this project in the first place. Killing and dying for this art, it’s attached subculture or the Hip Hop subculture is not art appreciation, however. These are instead ways to ensure either the gradual decline of these entities or their very prevention from growing into something more.

    In specific reference to Hip Hop, I like how Andre Benjamin said it in an interview. He said, in effect, that rap and Hip Hop are currently at a stage in which they’re trying to turn into something else, just as rock has splintered and generated new genres. Rap and Hip Hop just don’t yet know what it is that they’re trying to transform into.

    Also, don’t relegate your artistic taste because your don’t paint, play guitar or know the origin of the Pasodoble. Knowing more about, and participating more in the arts is always a great thing but merely knowing what you like is still enough. It’s important.

    It’s people like you who are the uncelebrated contributors to arts proliferation. You may not realize it but when you buy a picture to hang on a wall in your home or office, sing a song you’ve heard that moves you or select a colour to paint that wall in your house you prove every single time that art has an important place in your everyday living. So, you’re opinion counts. You are an expert.

  4. I’m not sure I understand why you bothered with Mr. Johnson. A rational argument with not change his position and he feels obligated to misunderstand or ignore the larger picture.

    We are part of a larger society, or culture, and have certain, unspoken responsibilities to to that same society, whether we agree with it or not. If we refute our end of that larger, unspoken agreement, then we should not expect that same society to support us. So much for tagging, it can be beautiful, it can be art, but is never legal, legitimate or defensible.

    It would be easy to use the argument, “When in Rome”…….etc. but he would not understand that either.

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