My name in lights - on the impact of American graffiti on Europe

by Johannes Stahl *     

Zur deutschen Textfassung


An unforgettable image: starting at Virginia City, a small fire spreads rapidly over the whole map. When the flames die down, we see the Bonanza Family riding picturesquely over the screen. The simple, convincing image tells the story of a development that started with a powerful band of people and ended up enthralling the whole world. If only artistic effects could be like that ... The graffiti on the New York subways didn't quite make it. Wherever they came, they affected the map in very different ways: ranging from the fire-endangered steppes of youth-culture with its susceptibility to new impulses 1, to the art scene which is quite willing to warm its hands at such a fire but would like to have some irons in it too.

"They have the power, but we have the night." Würzburg-Veitshöchheim. Foto J. Stahl, 1990.

A world culture

Graffiti's international career on walls which were up for grabs was fast and unstoppable. Youngsters all over the world seized on the impulses from the metropolitan suburbs, copying the tags, technigue and ideas of their New York models as best they could 2, but with increasing perfection. They got together, they wore their peaked caps back-to-front; they were with it - closely observed by the commercial strategists of youth fashion. These observations generated a mixture of fashion, social education, creative high spirits and self-determination generally typical of the presentation of youth culture.

Before long there were graffiti shower curtains and even a graffiti competition organized by - wait for it - a building society: the young competitors were asked to devise a motto for a model house so as to foster a feeling for their home ground and perhaps win a trip to New York 3. Personal contacts were largely responsible for the impact of US sprayers on European youth culture: Bando or the Brühl King Pin were in touch with their New York colleagues quite early on; in Amsterdam, where gallery-owner Yaki Kornblit had been exhibiting New York sprayers since 1983, there was soon an indigenous sprayer scene with a New York idiom 4. The scene has since proliferated: these days hardly a weekend goes by without a spray workshop being held somewhere. Today many city councils fund the graffiti they formerly affacked. Classics and new blood give cities a brighter look, each action swelling the fan-clubs. Official laurels have even been heaped on sprayer's heads: Quik's piece commands respect in downtown Heidelberg, left intact by the municipal cleaners who go into action every is ffiinutes to keep the romantic old centre tidy. Rammellzee's projects adorn locations with a high public profile Utrecht church or Frankfurt Airport. KOOR's works, finally, were no less than a major contribution to the official start of events organized in Brussels, Europe's 1991 cultural capital. There's no stopping the sprayers, it seems. Even the police are more polite nowadays when asking to see written permission for grafriti, adding almost apologetically; we have to check all the phone-calls, but we do see that it's art ...


Go ahead! Be an artist! 5

Things are more complicated in the case of the development of graffiti in art exhibitions. When New York sprayers embarked on their conquest of the galleries and museums of Europe in the early eighties, a public with traditionally well-trained eye for public walls waiting for them, a public which at first was extremely sceptical about whether there was a place for graffiti on the walls of art institutions. The history of 20th-century art forms the backdrop for such considerations. The source, whether political graffiti like Heinrich Zille's, formal characteristics like George Grosz' and Antoni Tapies' or even attitudes like Gaston Chaissac's, aimed at storming the walls, had exercised a considerable influence on artists. True, the walls, their signs and their impact are only a vital humus on which artists cultivate their otherwise original works. A similar effect was tacitly expected from the New York sprayers.

The sprayer of Europe

Harald Naegeli: Graffito in Düsseldorf. Foto J. Stahl 1985

More important was the pest history of graffiti which already had a tradition in Europe. The crystallization figure for such an affitude is the sprayer of Zürich, Harald Naegeli. His US colleagues ware measured by the expectations and notions of the ideal "sprayer" that reigned supreme in the titles of a few book in tha early eighties.

The turbulent student period of the' late sixties, a study of psychology and several years of draughtsmanship behind him, Naegeli discovered the spraycan as his means of artistic expression in the mid-seventies. His mysterious, nocturnal, anonymous activity and the creatures he drew on the walls of the proverbially immaculata Zürich made a phantom hero of him. The European public willingly succumbed to his aesthetically and morally superior inventive spirit and graphic charm. In texts which he published himself he moreover staked the conceptual and political claim or his work:

"We must learn to understand Picasso's words >painting was not invented to decorate dwellings: it is a weapon of affack and defence against the enemy<, to understand them better than the master." 6 He firmly refused to sell his graffiti. Today many of those who commission sprayed art expect it to cost no more than the material and the sprayer's idealism, which a good dinner ought to stimulate. Harald Naegeli's sprayed drawings referred explicitly to architecture, planning and politics. Accustomed to this pattern, people anticipated the same sort of thing from New York sprayers: the best place for their work was the street; they were expected to refer to everyday reality and it was perfectly all right for them to be political.

In 1981 this conrrontation prompted Walter Grasskamp to draw the following characteristic comparison in Cologne: "... at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, another sprayer called Fred (Fred Brathwaite, J.S.) operated alongside the exhibition of photographs from the Zürich sprayer's Totentanz series; the contrast between these two graffiti cultures was evident - also, unfortunately, in the failure of the New York sprayer is works to reflect his artistic standards." 7

Jambon beurre: graffiti francophones

BLEK: Pochoir, Paris. Foto: J.Stahl, 1985

Jambon beurre: graffiti francophones

American graffiti encountered a special climate in France, where for years official attempts have been made to keep colloquial French free of Americanisms. The use of the word "weekend" for example, is deplored; a language commission recommends "fin de semaine". Besides this, notably in France the preoccupation with and practice of graffiti has a strong tradition in which boasts the names of important 20th-century artists. Universities were occupied in the late sixties, the demands for freedom of thought and speech went hand in hand with the "Storming of walls with words". It pleased theorists like Frank Popper and Jean Baudrillard to place New York graffiti in the same context of ideas 8. The language barrier was not the only problem in France. Blek le Rat, backed by his extensive study of art, could never have countenanced the mere adoption of the New York idiom. The change of his first name Xavier into "Zephyr" is significant: not a tribute to the eponymous New York sprayer but the phonetic conversion into American 9.

After unsatisfactory experiments Blek turned to customary forms of political graffiti, developing on the basis of his graphic skills an ingenious stencil technique. This had the advantage of enabling him to work fast, effectively but elegantly in well policed areas. Perhaps it is a consequence of language barriers and the concomitant distribution of books that stencilled graffiti were particularly prevalent in the francophone region, with offshoots in Canada and Switzerland.

The French were fairly reserved towards the New York sprayers: they held no big exhibitions and tended to mock such exuberant treatment of walls "Jean Bombeur", who as a matter of fact also employed the stencil technique, became the homophous "Jambon beure" - Jean the wall-bomber rendered into ham butter.

Unfortunately the sprayers often encouraged such misunderstandings. Not only did they ignore the frequently discussed political components of the public images or dismiss them with comments such as "it's fun", but the behavior of the writers themselves played into the hands of European prejudice.

With a few exceptions, spray artists presented themselves as a group and - with rap and boogie - as a socio-cultural phenomenon of the bustling metropolis rather than as serious artists. Compared with American or European artists previously in the limelight, spray artists orten worked hastily and may sometimes have really forgotten that their paintings would be exposed to scrutiny in private collections or museums for years to come. It was certainly asking too much of the art public to get used overnight to these artists' totally different sense of self, which was governed by neither spiritual, historical nor emotional standards.

Career models for notions of art: POP Art and Fluxus

Quik: GO AHEAD, BE AN ARTIST! Spray on Canvas, 1990

Art reception makes heavy going of the commonplace - the very opposite of what is expected of art 10. For American art's career from the street into the museum, this century offers two comparable models: Pop Art and Fluxus. Today both are classical epochs whose works have become expensive and rare; both had their first big successes in Europe.

A classic example was the highly successful iconoclasm of gallerist Sidney Janis, whose POP Art stable made a powerful and lasting impact in an amazingly short space of time: Today, names like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg are realized as having been programmatic, and it is hard to find a European museum without their work. Indeed,many Americans come to europe for the express purpose of viewing large groups or works which they will seek in vain in the cradle of Pop Art (a rate conversely suffered by, for example, Renaissance drawings). Intellectual capital, at least, can be gained from this circumstance. No wonder that the Dutch collector Henk Pijnenburg drew a parallel in an opening speech, comparing the sixties and eighties: "While America looks on suspiciously, the art robbery of the 20th century is taking place before it's very eyes ..."11 There are limits to the parallel, even if some paintings by Quik, Seen or Crash have common roots with famous POP works, and even if Fab Five Freddy highlighted the reference with his subway version of Warhols "Campbell Soup Cans", it was the POP artists, declared intention and strategy to infect art with the inherent banality of commonplace objects. This could only happen in previously demarcated art spacesa Commonplace objects would otherwise not have had their alienating effect on the art framework of the museum or gallery.

The New York sprayers, on the other hand, had longbeen established as a high-profile secret society by the time the art rnarket pounced on their work and induced the "writers" to spray on canvas. The true fascination therefore did not come from the pictures and the objects they depicted, but from the lifestyle of the sprayers. Their illegal status, their roots in the slums, their music, were interesting. Although their paintings were the visual expression of urban high folk art, they were not regarded as "work" - some of them were even hung up under gallery ceilings. It was a kind of colonialism: raw materials were traded for social superstructure. Traditional artists frequent collaborations with sprayers did nothing to basically change this mechanism.. .Jenny Holzer with Lady Pink; John Fekner with Crash/Daze, Keith Haring with everybody: many of these joint projects were shortlived and confronted the traditional artists' theoretical standards with the ambivalent, trivial imagery of the sprayers. Whereas Pop artists had deliberately exploited this reciprocal effect to their own advantage, graffiti artists are still struggling to pay off their mortgages.

A less evident comparison illustrating what Europeans expected of the sprayers is Fluxus. A remarkable number of artists connected with this "movement" evinced an interest in graffiti: Al Hansen, for instance, documented New York graffiti, at the 7th documenta Kassel in 1982 Joseph Beuys acted on behalf of the South Bronx gallery Fashion Moda, Henry Flint recently exhibited his photographs of graffiti by Samo '(Jean-Michel Basquiat). One expects the diverse Fluxus theories to boil down to an art whose place is clearly outside the usual venues; one expects artists either to expand these venues in a revolutionary fashion or react to attempts to tame them with the heaps of ashes often featured in museums as important Fluxus works: relics of past actions, blurred documentary photographs, a programmatic absence of gestalt 12.

The discrepancy between this expectation and the sprayers' works is manifest. Strict rules of perfect craftsmanship applied to the subway pieces, and even more so to the works on canvas. The conceptual considerations envisaged by Fluxus artists, such as the creative friction of content and form, were way out of the sprayers' league, what they wanted was to produce convincing images like those of the advertizing world.

Quik in front of his piece at the wall of the Wiesbaden-Erbenheim church, 1989. Foto: J. Stahl

There is little to justify parallels between the sprayers and Fluxus except for the movement itself. A classic example is the fate of a church in Wiesbaden-Erbenheim, whose dignified facade was sprayed in 1982 on the occasion of an exhibition of assembled Fluxus artists. This chaotic treatment elicited vehement protest, albeit to no avail: the facade was private property and the legal situation thus exactly the opposit, of the customary procedure of spraying someone else's belongings. In 1989 the owner of the church, the Wiesbaden collector Michael Berger, declared the facade free for fresh treatment, which was duly rendered by local and international sprayer. Quik, whose brightly coloured tag featured prominently on the wall, commented on the art-historical component of the event: "It's a great feeling going over Joseph Beuys." 13

In 1991 the wall was taken over by Wiesbaden sprayers. Fluxus had finally reached its goal of being permanently open to change.


The chief obstacle to the sprayers' progress in Europe was the lack of a theoretical superstructure. As a maffer of fact the 20th century had never known a movement in art as devoid of theory as graffiti. As a consequence, it was constantly regaled with external theories. To Jean Baudrillard, graffiti exemplified the "revolution of the signs" 14. He equated the revolutionary aspect with the inability of the visitor from Europe to grasp their meaning fully. Admittedly, he lays himself open to the reproach of being contented with this theoretically highly consistent result - indeed, he does not even try to understand the message. One wonders whether it was this kindred spirit that inspired Rammellzee to spout a bombastic jumble of theories and isms 15. With the ambivalent image of himself that the multimedial artist thus forms, he becomes - deliberately - more and more like the design in which the european theorist would have us see the writers as unconsciously revolutionary.

Paul Gavarni: "Fire, my goodness, is an element of our existence." - "Thanks a lot."
Lithograph, 1836 with an conversation between art bohemien and street working boy.

Black men creating Art History 16

Art historiography finds it hard to cope with sprayers. In the first place there are so many of them that even the market has trouble making a selection 17. In the second place they are not confined to the museum and gallery context, but operate simultaneosly in many places and on many levels. And thirdly, their development is much more uneven than that of artists with an academic career, which is why their future as artists often looks uncertain. Selections must therefore constantly revise their own criteria of what good art of the "New Yoork Graffiti" brand should look like. Significantly, A.A. Arnason makes only passing mention of the stars among, the 10000 "graffitists" going on to single out the very artists who have approached subway pieces via art school 18.

True, not all sprayers feel happy with art historical derivarions: "Words like "Graffiti" and "Graffito" only minimalize, direct and controll an art of tremendous magnitude, endless direction and unpredictable aspects. A toad is not a frog nor a larve a fly yet such is not the case of this inner city phenomenon ... Titles have admittedly been used to satisfy an unreceptive "public" unprepared to deal with the internal reality of this art and its existance." 19



The only thing for a public accustomed to its own criteria to do is to closely examine sprayers, their history and their world of ideas 20. Like all backgrounds in art, their's, too, need explaining. Without a lot of time and a bit of information about the backgrounds, little can be obtained from the host or details in the pictures. Works like NOC's "Style wars" show that "graffiti" pieces do not need European art history because they have their own fascinating story. This story is well worth listening to: it is full of' personal experiences, the constant compulsion to make the grade in American society. Over and over again, it is the USA's latent or overt racism that thwarts the sprayers. So does a form of art politics that is becoming increasingly hostile to fringe groups 21, persecuting certain forms of artistic expression with inquisitional vigour. However: "Americans will have to come to terms with the black man's assertion of his rights as a real person and artist..." 22 After all, sprayers possess a potential on which they have always drawn and which is by no means yet depleted: their history, their observation and their imagination. Blade, for instance, speaks of thousands of pictures which are in his head and waiting to be painted, all prompted by subway pieces. 23

That is why the former subway artists do not deem it necessary to seek on canvas the fresh artistic start that is so offen called for. It would be more meaningful for criticism of such works to make a fresh start, the only prospect of expanding its own horizon 24. The paintings, whether sprayed on trains, walls or canvases, would then acquire a life which would relativate the issue of theory, thereby enriching an overly strict system of values.

It may take a long time: decades elapsed between the first signs of enthusiasm in Europe for jazz or blues and their acknowledgement as an equally ranking culture. It depends on the beholder whether the path of spray painting leads back into the tunnel - museum storerooms, too, are often subterranean- or whether the sprayers' names will one day shine out in the art-sky, as Chuck Berry dreamed of for his Johnny B. Goode: My name in lights .....

* This Text was - slightly altered - published in:
Coming from the subways. New York Graffiti. Exh. Cat. Groningen (Groninger Museum),1992 p. 26-31.

1A comprehensive culture-historical survey in: Schock und Schöpfung. Exhib. cat. Stuttgart (Württembergischer Kunstverein) 1986.

2Henry Chalrant/James Prigoff: Spraycan art. London 1987.

3Competition, set by the Landesbausparkassen in 1987;. "Sprüche und Graffiti für eine bessere Umwelt".

4Amsterdamned Graffiti. Exhib. cat. Amsterdam (Goethe-Institut) 1983, p. 7: "Even the names are assuming larger dimensions and becoming more like American graffiti (SHOE, SHIRT, QUICK). 2 of the latter's paintings are cited (33, 55), which on closer inspection however turn out to be Tag and Piece by Quik (New York).

5Title of painting by QUIK;. 1990.

6Mein revoltieren mein Sprayen. Zürich 1979.

7Walter Grasskamp: Graffiti-Scene New York. In: Kunstforum international 50, 4/1982, p. 58.

8Frank Popper: Deux formes d'Art non-elitistes aux Etats-Unis: les graffiti et la Peinture murale. "Ethique". In: L'art de masses n'existe pas. Revue d'Estétique Nr.3/4, Paris 1974, S. 251-279. Jean Baudrillard: KOOL KILLER oder die Revolution der Zeichen. Berlin 1978.

9Johannes Stahl (ed.): An der Wand. Graffiti zwischen Anarchie und Galerie. Cologne 1989, pp, 161-169. Interview with Blek le Rat.

10Stefan Germer's contribution is illuminating: Das Museum, die hohe und die niedrige Kunst. In: Texte zur Kunst 1,1990:- PP. 28-37.

11Henk Pijnenburg's speak at the opening of "New York Graffiti", Leopold Hoesch Museum, Düren, 9.3.1986.

12On the peculiar discrepancy or Fluxus and museum presentation see Thomas Kellein: FLUXUS - eine Internationale des künstlerischen Mißlingens, In: Europa/Amerika Die Geschichte einer künstlerischen Faszination seit 1940. Exhib. cat. Cologne (Ludwig Museum) 1986, pp. 325-336.

13Quik during a spray' action on 28.4.1989.

14Jean Baudrillard: KOOL KILLER oder die Revolution der Zeichen. Berlin 1978.

15Edit de Ak; Train as book;. Letter as tank, Character as dimension. In: Artforum, May 1983, pp. 88-96.

16Title by Quik

17See corresponding statements from gallerists in: Stahl, Johannes, Graffiti zwischen Alltag und Ästhetik. Munich 1990" pp. 134-142.

18A.A. Arnason: History of modern art. New York, 3rd edition 1986, p. 653 ff: Graffitists and Cartoonists.

19Phase in a letter to the author dated 9.4.1989.

20To a certain extent this happened. European examples: Andrea Nelli, Graffiti a New York. Cosenza 1978; Edit de Ak in: Graffiti. Exhib. Cat. Rotterdam (Boymans-van Beuningen Museum) 1983; Francesca Alinovi in: Arte di Frontiera. Milano 1984.

21See, f. example: Michael Köhler: Kulturkampf. Hintergründe des Falls Serrano/Mapplethorpe. In Kunstforum Bd. 113, Mai 1991, p. 392-396.

22Henk Pijnenburg in the afore mentioned opening speech.

23Conversation with Blade on 29 Oct,1986.

24An exception is Lee Quinones, who reacted most appropriately to the situation at gallery exhibitions. See: Der Zug ist ein Teil von mir. Der New Yorker Sprayer Lee Quinones im Gespräch mit Johannes Stahl. In: Kunstforum international Nr. 91, Okt. 1987, S. 284-287.