In recent years it has become increasingly common for contemporary artists to work closely with commercial companies. This relationship is largely an uncomfortable one, and nowhere is it perceived as more awkward or pronounced than with graffiti culture and street art. Art and commerce have always had a relationship, so why is the relationship between street-based art forms and commercial interests so frowned upon?
The conditions of late capitalism have made it possible for street and graffiti artists to work seamlessly with the corporate interests they have traditionally been in opposition to. Late capitalism absorbs all forms of resistance and dissent. Not-for-profit organisations run on for-profit models, ‘lifestyles’ are things to buy, morality is expressed through spending habits, relationships are measured and imagined in terms of ‘social capital’ and global inequalities and environmental catastrophes can be solved by purchasing the right products. British cultural critic Mark Fisher defines this current moment of capitalism as “capitalist realism” which he says is defined by the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” It is in this context that the idea of branding becomes increasingly important for corporate, not-for-profit organisations and artists alike.
In her book Authentic: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture, Sarah Banet-Weiser describes branding as essentially a cultural activity through which authentic relationships and identities are created. She writes: “Far more than an economic strategy of capitalism, brands are the cultural spaces in which individuals feel safe, secure, relevant, and authentic.” The role branding plays in late capitalism then is to create authentic identities that speak of something beyond the coldness of capital. The contradiction in all of this is that authenticity continues to be thought of and defined by its non-commercial nature. This attitude is mirrored in the traditional and lasting understanding of art as an authentic and sublime antidote to the overbearing rationality of commerce. Banet-Weiser suggests: “Even when history bears out the fallacy of this binary, as it inevitably does, individuals continue to invest in the notion that authentic spaces exist - the space of the self, of creativity, of spirituality.” A simple ‘art is good: capitalism is bad’ argument is unhelpful then for understanding the complex power relations currently at play. Instead by examining the desire for authenticity we can better understand why graffiti has such appeal to commercial interests and why this artform paints such a clear picture of these contradictions.
An awareness of the history of graffiti and its origins in hip-hop culture is key to understanding the current relationship between these urban art practices and branding. Graffiti culture continues to draw on the aesthetic history and attitudes of hip-hop. Originating in poor Black and Latino inner city urban centres in the United States in the 1970s, hip-hop has grown out of those ghettos into arguably the biggest globally recognised youth culture. Hip-hop depicts an uncompromising reality of institutionalised racism, police brutality, gun violence, and economic inequalities. In short hip-hop deals with hard realities rather than fantasies of brighter futures. It is real, it is authentic.
Graffiti is typically understood as a racially and politically motivated action taken by dispossessed youths looking for ways to make their identity visible – to themselves, their peers, and wider society. The streetscapes where these identity politics play out are shared with the signs, billboards, and screens of brand culture. In this way graffiti has not only been about identity politics but also a direct critique of the powerful and sanctified brand culture it simultaneously vandalises and positions itself within.
Graffiti artists ‘advertise’ themselves by repeatedly writing their names or ‘tags’ to mark territory and it is not a far stretch to see this as an act of self-branding. Tags function as logos in both their appearance, as stylised abbreviated names and in function, working in repetition in as many locations as possible. On a deeper level – like advertising – the strength of tags is the extent to which they embed themselves in the memory of the viewer.
The growth of graffiti culture in the 1970’s and 80’s was met with disdain by public officials and widespread anti-graffiti laws were brought into play that criminalised graffiti writers. Anti-graffiti taskforces were employed to regularly clean or buff graffiti and the legacy of both these measures remains in many cities around the world. City officials created a new kind of antihero by legitimising the graffiti writer as outlaw. While many governments continue to maintain a hard line against graffiti and street art, commercial interest and support in these urban artists has never been stronger. Partnerships between private building owners, corporations, not-for-profits and artists have created more opportunities than ever for artists to work within sanctified parameters and gain exposure in ways never possible before.
Corporate interests seem to like the authentic ‘edge’ given by graffiti, without taking any of the illegal risks themselves. Further to this the methodologies and styles of graffiti are used in advertising campaigns without the involvement of these artists. Nowhere is this more perverse than in guerrilla advertising where large profitable ventures take on the costume of the street to appeal to younger urban audiences. This is most common in faux illegal stencil campaigns where slogans and logos are spray painted in spaces where we would typically see graffiti.
Can we blame the artists for becoming involved in these ventures? Without support, graffiti artists, as the form has developed, have had to look for patronage. Museums and galleries have something to answer for here as they have struggled against public opinion to validate graffiti as an artform. Indeed museums themselves struggle with notions of branding and authenticity, caught between their role in defining culture and the pressures of running for-profit business models.
The perceived illegality of graffiti culture means that we see the relationship between street art cultures and the branding of corporate interests as the most contradictory. Graffiti’s status as an authentic culture gives it value in a complex capitalist environment desperate for meaning and belief. Historically graffiti artists can be seen as challenging corporate culture, we must now ask what role artists – not only graffiti artists – have in continuing to present individual voices while claiming to be resisting capitalism?
Sebastian Moody is the Digital Communications Officer at The University of Queensland Art Museum where he curated the exhibition New Psychedelia in 2011. He is a practicing artist best known for his large scale public text works.