Artist or Vandal? Hip Hop Class Explores the Question…

Artist or Vandal? Hip Hop Class Explores the Question…
By ana-maria

Photo: From street artist Banksy’s October 2013 “Better Out Than In” New York Residency. Photo by Scott Lynch via Wikimedia Commons

By Spyridon “Spin” Nicon… As a very thoughtful surprise gift, my wife recently bought me a book about Banksy. I’ve been aware of Banksy for quite some time, but I was not tuned into this specific book, that was published back in 2012 (not that the year really matters— much of the musings are timeless). I’m very thankful that she picked it up. And, honestly, I haven’t been able to put it down.

Banksy, the now world-renowned street artist from Bristol, England, is constantly turning the art world on its head. Flipping the meaning of art— its placement, its value, its collectability – upside down, time and time again. He has obviously carved out his own niche in the street art game. Found his own lane, and pressed firmly on the gas. The continuum of graffiti writer/graffiti artist/street artist/just-plain-artist is a murky one, and the semantics are often subject to debate (even amongst the practitioners themselves).

Although mostly shrouded in mystery, one thing is for certain: Banksy—and his early running buddies—were inspired by that which came before them. That which took place on a different continent, during a different decade. He studied the form, he practiced the craft, he came to understand (and break) the rules. His fingers itched for the cans that would paint his fame.

Inspiration came from the original New York City graffiti writers, who were part of a burgeoning youth culture called hip hop. They painted the subway trains of the late 70s and early 80s.

In an era before images could easily be proliferated via the internet and social media, the incredibly-timed photography of Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper captured this fascinating form of ephemera. A few limited edition graffiti photo books, and the Tony Silver documentary, Style Wars, crystalized a time and place in American history, and made their way across the pond.

Banksy is often controversial. Is he an artist for the ages? Or is he a back alley vandal, descendant of graffiti writers? Similarly, the other three, ever-evolving elements of hip hop – DJs, MCs (rappers) and B-Boys (breakdancers)— are also viewed by many as controversial.

  • DJs: Talented and innovative cultural artisans? Or simply pirates of music and sound, pillaging other forms?
  • MCs: Gifted, lyrical poets of the streets, reporting on reality? Or foul-mouthed braggarts bringing blight to society?
  • B-Boys: Powerful, inspiring and dedicated dancers? Or self-absorbed, aggressive competitors, known for taunting and posturing?

We learn from stories, we learn from questions, we learn from conversations and discussions – and the fodder doesn’t get any better than hip hop.

Join me for Fall quarter’s Comprehending Hip Hop series.

Mondays, Sept 25-Oct 23, 7-9 pm.
Phinney Center Brick Building, room 36.


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