Embraced by the Middle East, Is Graffiti Urban Blight or Art?

Alexa Mena

AFP photo: Anwar Amro

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting, “Cabra,” is currently on view at Louvre Abu Dhabi. If you don’t already know, Basquiat today is synonymous with the genre of fine art named graffiti art. But in that very sentence lie two ideas that sit awkwardly together. Graffiti, arguably the most anti-establishment form of street art, has survived multiple campaigns to eradicate it from cityscapes and is now exhibited in galleries. Indeed, the journey from authenticity to mimicry is perfectly illustrated by the trajectory of graffiti to graffiti art. But more than anywhere else in the world, its increasing popularity in the Middle East raises questions.

From the £1 million price that Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” (retitled “Love Is in the Bin”) fetched at auction to streetwear dominating almost every major designer’s collection, street culture is enjoying its moment of fame – or possibly infamy. Even Tiffany, the luxury jewelry retailer known for its classic elegance, went “street” for its 2018 #Tiffanyblue campaign, “vandalizing” its storefronts with “graffiti.

City fathers around the world are also taking note of the street art phenomenon. Dubai recently made funding available for street art projects as part of plans to transform the city into an “open-air museum.” It seems that graffiti, once considered an eyesore and a blight on the urban tapestry, is now a highly desirable addition to a city’s street cred.

But how can commissioned street art, created to draw tourists and add visual interest to an area, be reconciled with its rebel origin? In fact, the shift from lowbrow vandalism to commercial acceptance isn’t so strange. Art critic René Ricard was prescient back in 1981 in recognizing the commercial possibilities of graffiti, describing the most recognizable graffiti form, known as “bomb,” as “a perfect auto-logo, not [of] the artists’ names but [of] their trademark.”

The newer stenciled images, such as Banksy’s, are even easier for consumers to identify with and therefore for artists to commodify. People actually travel to see Banksy’s work. Seventeen museums around the globe have displayed unauthorized copies of Banksy graffiti to capitalize on his appeal. New York, Bogota, London, Berlin and Melbourne have become so notable for their street art that they offer tours devoted to the genre.

The relationship between graffiti and the establishment has always been an odd one. In its basest form, graffiti is of course vandalism; it involves defacing or damaging property. Making graffiti is a crime in most countries. But in its highest form, graffiti art, as an act of rebellion and a form of commentary, sits comfortably within the definition of contemporary art. Intellectually, there is no conflict between graffiti as vandalism and as contemporary art; it is both. The problem arises when graffiti is shorn of its essence, when it exists as neither visceral street anger nor angry commentary. The moment graffiti is considered “acceptable” art – or perhaps more correctly, when it is deemed acceptable to bourgeois taste – it ceases to be graffiti. It is then neither vandalism nor fine art: it is decorative.

The place of each piece in the spectrum between the two extremes is defined by context. Graffiti, the original rebellious form, still thrives, particularly in areas under conflict, such as in Palestine. On the other hand, that which is made in comfort and safety under the sponsorship of a patron isn’t graffiti. And if its purpose is decorative, it isn’t fine art.

The works found on the streets of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and elsewhere in the region are closer to the pseudo-vandalized Tiffany storefronts. And in the Middle East, a region that prizes social accord and conformity far above dissent and which is deeply suspicious of protest, does the spread of “approved” graffiti eventually emasculate the power of original graffiti and even graffiti as fine art?

It’s gratifying that cities are embracing street art, giving the genre the recognition it deserves. But artists commissioned to paint sanctioned “graffiti” do not do so as part of a politically subversive, gritty subculture. Basquiat, who “tagged” New York City walls under the name SAMO, would not call “Cabra” graffiti, though the work clearly was influenced by the style. He had to run from the police when he tagged walls as SAMO, but he had gallery representation when he tagged a canvas as Basquiat. Today’s street artists get their cans of spray paint paid for by town councils. Graffiti appears to have gone full circle.

Alexa Mena is a social media specialist and writes on the arts and for the online health and fitness magazine, livehealthy.ae.