In the beginning, there was no distinction between graffiti and “real art.” So far as we know, a handprint silhouetted on a Neolithic cave wall by blowing red ochre dust against it was the first “tag,” as well as the first stencil art. In ancient Egypt, it was believed that a human soul was indestructible as long as some depiction of the individual was preserved, so by the Pre-Dynastic Period – 5,000 years ago – workers on mining expeditions were inscribing their own names, or those of their bosses or sovereigns, on rocks in the Theban desert.
From the taverns of first-century Pompeii to the Mirror Wall of Sigiriya in fifth-century Sri Lanka to Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre during the Crusades, from the Hagia Sophia and Newgrange Mound to Tikal and the Oregon Trail, locals and travelers alike have throughout history and across the globe been making their mark, literally, by the creation of graffiti. Napoleon’s passing armies added 18th-century postscripts to the relics of 18th-Dynasty Egypt; Michelangelo and Raphael tagged the ruins of Nero’s villa and Lord Byron the Attic Temple of Poseidon.
As the invention of the printing press concentrated the power of information dissemination more than ever in the hands of those wealthy enough to afford one, the poor and powerless took up graffiti as a weapon of political insurgency. But by the late 20th century, writing or drawing on walls was no longer seen as a justifiable act of piety, documentation, protest or art, but more commonly as vandalism. Mayoral campaigns have been built on promises to rid modern cities of the “scourge” of graffiti; British prime minister Tony Blair signed a charter declaring that “Graffiti is not art; it’s crime.” And urban police forces are investing in sophisticated databases to track tags and build cases against specific offenders.
But sometime interesting started happening in the late 1970s and early 1980s: The art world – especially its downtown-Manhattan cutting edge – started noticing that graffiti could often be beautiful: a poignant and powerful reaction to tough economic times. Manny Kirchheimer’s groundbreaking, lyrical 1980 documentary Stations of the Elevated (scheduled for wide rerelease this fall) captured astonishing spray-painted artworks on New York City subway cars, set them to a Charlie Mingus score and contrasted them with the ugliness of commercial advertising. It paved the way for Charlie Ahearn’s popular Wild Style in 1983 and the PBS documentary Style Wars in 1984, which between them alerted Middle America to the existence of hip-hop culture, as manifested in rap music and breakdancing as well as graffiti art. Before too long, Keith Haring’s stencils of dancing stick-men and glowing babies were migrating from the subway tunnels to trendy art galleries and collections, and names like Basquiat and Banksy eventually became as famous as those of any other contemporary artist.
Much of the graffiti that one sees around the streets, of course, is perfunctory and ugly and can indeed be categorized as urban blight. The irony is that it’s the very illegality of the act that usually forces graffiti artists to do their work in too much of a hurry to reach the level of what the average person would call “art.” Some cities have responded to such “vandalism” in a positive way, by designating certain areas as graffiti zones, resulting in the creation of gorgeous murals. And from within the hip-hop culture itself have arisen collectives and not-for-profit organizations and business ventures dedicated to fostering public appreciation of graffiti art and establishing venues where it can unfold at the artists’ leisure, without anyone getting thrown in jail.
One of those entities was a quarterly fan magazine called Mass Appeal dedicated to “celebrating creative instigation.” First published by Patrick Elasik and Adrian Moeller in 1996, it became a popular bellwether for urban cultural trends before folding in 2008. Last year, the rapper Nas invested in the restart of the publication – primarily an online ’zine these days – and founded the Mass Appeal Records label. And now Mass Appeal is bringing some heavy-hitters of graffiti art to a city near you: On Saturday, September 13, at the Trolley Museum of New York in Kingston, the lost art of using the skin of a subway car as a canvas will be revived, as an invited crew of “insanely gifted” practitioners of the artform engages in a live graffiti exhibition and battle. It’s being billed as “The Burning of Kingston” in homage both to local history and to the use of the term “burner” to designate a truly superior work of graffiti art.
The choice of venue for this event seems brilliant. What better site than a cultural institution that still possesses an authentic MTA subway car from the late 20th century? The Trolley Museum will end up with a great new exhibit commemorating the fleeting florescence of early hip-hop painting on these kinetic canvases, while Kingston street kids with artistic aspirations get to watch masters of the form at work.
Curated by Mass Appeal’s creative director Sacha Jenkins and noted artist/historian David “Chino” Villorente, the all-day event will feature the world-renowned graffiti artists T-Kid, CES, Doves, Ribs, Dero, Bio, Doc TC-5, Revolt, Dmote, Cycle and YES 2. The eight artists participating in the competition will be split into two teams, going head-to-head to create a unique “burner” in five hours, with the winner determined by a peer panel of judges. The event will also feature local vendors, live music and a book-signing by Jenkins and Style Wars producer Henry Chalfant in support of their new book, Training Days: The Subway Artists Then and Now.
“The Burning of Kingston” graffiti art event runs from 12 noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 13, and is free and open to the public thanks to sponsorship from Red Bull. The Trolley Museum of New York is located at 89 East Strand in Kingston’s Rondout District. For more information, call (845) 331-3399 or visit https://tmny.org, www.massappeal.com or www.facebook.com/massappeal.