Stowers says he wants graffiti to enter a kind of post-rival stage, in which artists don’t bully one another. Galleries are a great place to do that. But even he recognizes that something is lost in the process.
“When you come up on a fresh piece of graffiti in a random cut space or even just walking down the street, the impact that it has on you versus how you see it on a canvas or in an installation is greatly reduced,” he says.
The ranks of D.C.’s muralists may be full of graffiti writers, but the resulting projects are hardly spontaneous. Nonprofit leader Mutafa meets in advance with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, property owners, and neighborhood associations to develop themes and find the right space. Artists submit work based on these concepts. They await a green light. It’s a bit like getting a liquor license. “It’s hard to build a groundswell,” says Mutafa, and see the walls “as part of the larger city.” Attendance at meetings can be low; for the Edgewood mural, only two community members attended a first meeting.
The result of that meeting is a bright, cartoonlike depiction of the Anacostia. Colors and content divide the river into three parts: past, present, and future. “Starting from the right, the first section is an undisturbed, idyllic river with happy animals and healthy plants,” says Liverman. “The middle panel shows a polluted mess with trash and debris clogging the river….As you move from right to left in the third panel you see people cleaning up the river and then the animals are all happy and the sun’s out and prominently placed in the top left. It’s a pretty literal interpretation of the community input, but I think the way it’s depicted makes it a little more open to viewers’ interpretations.”
A few weeks later, six people, including artist Eric B. Ricks, met to discuss a mural that would adorn the exterior of U Street’s beloved Ben’s Chili Bowl. Mutafa had residents pair up to consider two themes: community and the environment. Ideas that the groups shared included ideas like family, diversity, the Sankofa bird, a Ghanaian word that means “go back and take,” Zipcars, and stories of the Ali family, the owners of Ben’s.
Tim Conlon, a graffiti artist who now mostly shows work in art galleries and works full-time for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, designed a mural two summers ago through MuralsDC. He says most projects have nearly no relation to graffiti, except in their use of paint and execution by graffiti artists. He hopes that as the program develops, the murals become edgier, and that it will put more trust in the artists’ visions and designs.
Stowers agrees. “While I love participating in MuralsDC and I love participating in these large-scale public works, I do know that it is the vision of the lead artist through the lens of the arts commission and the community, so it’s not necessarily the artists’ vision and definitely not the young artists’ [vision] that are participating…They are working with the artists on something that the adults have all agreed is good art.”
Which is the kind of sentiment that might prompt even non-artistic kids to tag the nearest wall in sight.
This year, Gastman co-curated the first major exhibition of graffiti art in the U.S., at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. In 2008, the National Portrait Gallery hosted “Recognize!” to examine contemporary portraiture in hip-hop and featured commissions by a pair of graffiti artists (including Conlon). It was the first time the Smithsonian has ever shown graffiti inside its doors. The Corcoran has pieces by Cool “Disco” Dan, donated by Gastman, in its permanent collection.
Locally, the biggest annual showcase for graffiti and street art is G40, a massive, Artomatic-scale exhibition organized by the National Harbor-based gallery Art Whino. This year, G40 took place in a former office building on 14th Street NW and shared four floors with scenester megasite Brightest Young Things. The space, open for one month, was funded by vitaminwater as part of their national series of “uncapped LIVE” pop-up venues.
The G40 site contained just about every variation of street art imaginable: graffiti on canvases, graffiti on miniature train cars, grafitti on skateboards, graffiti and wheatpastes on the walls. LivingSocial and vitaminwater logos were stamped around the space. Fifty thousand people attended, according to Art Whino owner Shane Pomajambo. Art Whino sold 200 pieces.