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Book Review: Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art by Carlo McCormick, et al

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Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art is a huge, beautiful, provocative book that upholds the tradition of excellence espoused by the Taschen publishing house. Hundreds of images that call into question all you know about reality fill its pages, yet it only takes flipping to the first page to understand why uncommissioned urban art is so important.

The first image is a full-spread photo of Bansky’s black and white painting of a woman hanging laundry to dry next to a zebra on the side of a dilapidated mud brick building in Mali. I had heard Bansky’s name thrown around in bookstores, but I had no idea his work would be so poignant: beautiful, sweet, calm, reminding us that the constant quest for shiny, new things is not the primary purpose of life; that sometimes frozen moments of simplicity can have as much meaning as the frenzied pace of modernity.

In fact, Bansky is brilliant. His words are the first in the book, and they jumpstart the process of looking at graffiti in a whole new way. He writes, “To some people breaking into property and painting it might seem a little inconsiderate, but in reality the 30 square centimeters of your brain are trespassed upon every day by teams of marketing experts. Graffiti is a perfectly proportionate response to being sold unattainable goals by a society obsessed with status and infamy. Graffiti is the sight of an unregulated free market getting the kind of art is deserves.”

The primary goal of Trespass is to prove definitively that street art is not an act of vandalism defacing otherwise pristine, glimmering buildings, a destructive blotch on our society’s gleaming pillars of optimism. Rather, graffiti is itself the symbol of hope, bringing beauty and creativity, the best of what America can offer, to the run-down areas and vapid billboards that represent the ugly underbelly of American capitalism.

It is evident that the works in Trespass have been meticulously thought out; the image of a graffiti artist as vandal, running around with a spray paint can tagging any surface in sight does not hold true. This is a book about art, and I use that term with no equivocation. I was surprised, when looking through the book with my father, to hear him say that the work these graffiti artists are doing is more significant and has more to say than the books and articles of social critic writers. He may well be right, and I do believe that the intelligence, courage, and often wit shown by the uncommissioned artists in Trespass is a call to all artists and social critics of every vein to step up their work and to not be afraid to seek out the most difficult truths of our society and to speak that truth to power in an assertive voice.

The art in Trespass is at times cryptic and not easily accessible. I will look, think, read the title, look, think, and still not always understand what some of the works are saying. But, unlike, unfortunately, some works of contemporary art of which the same can be said yet the solution seems to be that they are in fact not saying anything, I am convinced that these artists have an important message, even if it is not immediately apparent, and I am intrigued enough to vow to check back again later, maybe next year, to see if life has taught me enough by then to crack the code of comprehension.

The more explicit works challenge society, especially gentrification and the vast economic disparity of America. Although simple, Graffiti Research Lab’s juxtaposition of the words “New Yorker” scrawled on a torn-down wall in the slums of “Hell’s Kitchen” next to “New Yorker” in glimmering light off buildings symbolic of wealth in the distance remind us that, although we may live in close proximity, rich and poor America are worlds apart in actuality. Again, simple but poignant, Filippo Minelli has stenciled the socially-significant American words “Facebook,” “Myspace,” and “Flickr” on the walls and grounds of places technology has literally left in its dust in Cambodia and Mali. A sign mimicking those of the London Tube remind passersby to “Mind the Income Gap.” Silkscreened image of black fingerprints on a pole in the city offers a small human presence in a mechanized, dehumanized urban world, as does JR’s mesmerizing 28 Millimeters, Women are Heroes: eyes painted all over the sides of shanty houses on a hill in Rio de Janeiro. Graffiti grew out of people writing so-and-so “was here” on walls, reminding us that some person, who cares who, stood in this place and wanted his human presence to be felt.

Some of the most enjoyable works are simply clever and cheeky, such as electrical plugs added to the ends of double yellow lines on the street, which become electrical cords in the artist’s mind, or legs painted over the edge of the white space in a “Do Not Enter” sign, as if a man is disobeying this command in the most literal sense. There are even Christy Rupp’s hilarious and disturbing rats painted on the sides of cardboard boxes dumped into trash piles on the street. The range of urban art is astonishing, reminding us that, while confronting the injustices of an arbitrary world is necessary, when faced with the absurdities of life, humor and playfulness are equally valuable responses. A chapter on “Magical Thinking” really plays, quite literally, with the idea of an alternate reality in the streets, with miniature boats floating on puddles or inflatable bears blown up by the air from street grates.

Trespass challenges the reader to expand his concept of what uncommissioned art is to include such acts as Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to an outdoor wall, or Phillipe Petit illegally and beautifully performing a ballet of balance on a tightrope strung across the Twin Towers, or Duke Riley’s inability to play around in a one-man submarine in an over-secure, over-fearful, post-9/11 America, or Tehching Hsieh living for an entire year in New York City without ever going inside a building. Graffiti can be completely different than what you expect from pop culture; just consider Adams & Itso’s perfect white capitalized font on the sides of Danish trains explaining how their illicit, rent-free home, a secret haven near the train track, was discovered and destroyed. Paul Harfleet plants pansies in urban areas in the spots where he was verbally attacked for being homosexual — proof that there is much less conformity and more inventiveness among uncommissioned urban artists than among many mainstream contemporary artists, and that meaningful social commentary and aesthetic value have a place together in the streets in a way that is sometimes not true in the galleries.

The chapter “Environmental Reclamations” showcases the instances of urban artists trying to recapture open, green space within urban sprawl, whether with pastoral paintings on concrete walls or by sticking actual moss to the sides of a New York subway train. The text notes that Frances Zaunmiller “defined wilderness as the psychological expanse where ‘a man can walk and he is not trespassing,’” but when these areas become harder to find, “the intervention of some Arcadian sublime into the mundane” becomes “the consequential embrace of the rapturous against reason.” David Hammons, a performance artist who “brought an unprecedented level of poetic metaphor to political art,” stands thoughtfully while proffering snowballs, priced according to size, as though he is just like other street venders, although in actuality, he is the only one who understand the absurdity of all marketing and consumption.

Though the text is somewhat sparse, considering the size of the tome, it is incredibly well-written and adds infinitely to the reader’s understanding of uncommissioned art. The text, in its insightfulness, calls out to be quoted. Cultural critic Carlo McCormick in his introduction states, “Society, as the collective condition that strives for order in a vain effort to defy the entropy of being, is a construction of boundaries.” Street art is that which presses past these borders of acceptable thought and forces us to question reality and how much we are willing to let norms dictate our actions and ideas. The book explains the concepts and teaches the history of graffiti, bringing to mind all sorts of questions, such as the significance of graffiti artist finding success in the commercial world when that is the very world they set out to criticize; whether it is necessary for them to stay outside the mainstream in order to remind society of the folly of its consumerist ways.

The last act of uncommissioned art explored in Trespass is that of The Yes Men, a group who, among other stunts, in 2008 created and distributed one million fake copies of The New York Times that proclaimed in bold print “Iraq War Ends” and “Nation Sets Its Sight on Building Sane Economy.” The Yes Men remind us that sometimes the most optimistic and empathetic among us can only find their place at the fringes of our society. What a sad state of affairs when the best of a culture is pushed to the extremities and the values of the pessimists and those who expect the worst from humanity have become those of the mainstream.

The book ends with a somewhat incongruous chapter on the laws forbidding graffiti, and why graffiti should instead be protected as symbolic speech under the First Amendment. I say that this chapter is out of context because, after delving into 300 plus pages of street art, you forget that there is any question about legality or punishment. All that matters is the art, and the reader looks to these works for beauty and meaning, taking their legitimacy as a given precisely because they do provide these artistic attributes. At the end of a book filled with the symbols of a thinking minority riling a selfish elite by questioning their dictates with only a can of paint, does it even make sense anymore to discuss the laws of the powerful as if the reader might accept them without question?

“Urban artists activate public space as a place for beauty, bold actions, and wonder,” and Trespass does the same for the realm of public discourse. Just as prankster artists enliven a city with “provocation, humor, and even a healthy measure of perversity,” so too does the art contained herein make the reader feel alive in ways that are often muted by the banalities of daily life in an industrialized society. Trespass succeeds in accomplishing what only the best art books can: it engages, probes, thrills, and, ultimately, enlightens.

Art is one of the most fundamental human traits because, unlike war or shopping, it is one that actually makes us more, not less, human, in the noblest sense of the word. I often wonder about the state of art today, because it does not seem to be saying as much of value and substance as it used to, when artists still criticized the most important aspects of life through their art, rather than presenting the merely sensational. But, having delved into the oft-overlooked world of uncommissioned urban art, I realize that this may well be where the deepest messages of today’s artists are being said. If nothing else, the existence of graffiti is a reminder for all of us to live with our eyes wide open, because you never know in what seedy environment you might stumble upon something of extraordinary beauty or profundity, something that makes you question all you know about the world in which you live. And wouldn’t it be a shame to miss a chance to actually feel alive and capable of thought in this too often stultifying world?

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About Kerri Shadid

  • Per

    Those words by Bansky are truly moving. Yeah, blame it on ideals where everything must be buy, BUY and then buy some more! It is all about acquiring things we don’t even need when billions of other people suffer in poverty. It is a sad world.