What is the difference between street art and graffiti?
That decades-old debate is already tired to the point of irrelevance in progressive communities across North America, from the colorful warehouse walls of the Wynwood Art District in Miami to the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, now an international destination for street artists from around the world.
But it is just beginning to play out in Buffalo on the walls of several buildings owned by developer Mark Goldman near the intersection of Allen and College streets. And it’s about time.
By the time Allentown’s monthly gallery walk gets going Friday afternoon, those walls will be covered with a riotous collection of new murals and wheatpasted photographs, courtesy of the newly established Allen Street Artists Collective. They range from Ian DeBeer’s wonderful and eye-popping tribute to the late comics artist Spain Rodriguez on the side of the Holly Farms convenience store to a striking image of a hulking gorilla by local artist Max Collins, directly across College Street.
The legal project, quickly organized by Goldman as a tribute to his late brother Tony, who died nearly a year ago, has changed the visual landscape of the neighborhood in an extraordinarily short time. You might think that a project as inspired and quickly executed as this would draw immediate praise from across the community, as similar projects have done in so many places where street artists have paved the way for neighborhood revivals.
You would be wrong.
Judging by the initial comments on my story about the project, you could easily come away with the impression that urban art terrorists had descended on Allentown armed with spray-paint cans and Marxist attitudes in an attempt to destroy the neighborhood and offend as many people as possible in the process.
A lot of this has to do with Buffalo’s unusually draconian treatment of graffiti and the fact that DeBeer is one of the city’s most reviled practitioners of this illegal art form. DeBeer has served time for vandalizing property in Pennsylvania and in New York, and some Buffalonians are predisposed to dislike anything he puts up legally because of his past.
There is no doubt that DeBeer deserves to be held accountable for his past crimes, which include vandalizing public and private property with a tag that has very little of the redeeming artistic value of his recent work. In addition to serving his sentence, DeBeer is now in the midst of repaying the social debt he incurred in his underground career by using it to improve a neighborhood, and he should be encouraged to do so.
The same goes for the artists who painted the mural under DeBeer’s supervision (he is not technically allowed to use or possess art-making materials under the terms of his parole), including Richard Whitefield, who is perhaps even more reviled for blanketing the city with the tag “bcuz.”
I sympathize with property owners who have had to deal with the artless scrawlings of Buffalo graffiti artists. But it’s difficult for me to accept the proposition that the visually alluring, socially relevant work on the side of Holly Farms – which relates directly to the history and culture of the neighborhood – is less valuable simply because it was produced by an ex-convict. It is actually more valuable and interesting for that very reason.
In this context, DeBeer’s mural becomes not only a story of one artist’s affinity for another. It becomes a story of redemption and a difficult emergence from the underbelly of a city’s culture into its mainstream. DeBeer’s story is an evolution rife with fascinating contradictions, such as the fact that an artist whose work was once positioned against capitalist and bourgeois norms has become an agent for the very society he once critiqued.
But the point of street art, and even plenty of graffiti on public structures, is not merely to act as a kind of middle finger to the man, but to punctuate what is often a bland and inhuman cityscape with doses of color and creativity that illustrate the creative spirit of its human occupants.
During a recent trip to Quebec City, I found practically every inch of blank public surface adorned with some kind of graffiti, from beautiful murals on retaining walls to massive paintings on the otherwise bland sides of brick buildings. Though love for graffiti is certainly not unanimous in Quebec, many of its citizens have come to embrace graffiti as a sign of their city’s vitality and of its pulsing culture.
The same phenomenon is at play in Miami, Brooklyn, Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco and many other places that have gotten over their knee-jerk reactions to graffiti and promote it, and its practitioners, as an essential part of urban culture.
Buffalo, so artistically and culturally progressive in other ways, has been far behind the ball on this. But thanks to Goldman and his new crew of gifted street artists, it may finally be starting to catch up.