Visual Black Culture


Visual Black Culture Essay, Research Paper

Discrimination against African Americans within the United States has been a recognised problem for decades. Many were forced into sub standard accommodation in areas of cities, which came to be known as ghettos during the first, half of the twentieth century. Within the ghettos the African American community became a segregated underclass. The poverty experienced by the black community was amplified by the discrimination in employment, the better jobs being reserved for white workers. More recently, during the 70s and 80s, campaigns have been set up to end the segregation of the black community. Although the majority of white community agrees with the principal of these campaigns, many still have problems with the practical implications. The result is that urban segregation in the United States is still a serious problem.

In the early 80s the United States got pretty rich, young people were getting more successful and women were making it in business more than ever before. Changes like this were obviously being picked up on by the art world. New, or ?neo? expressionism was beginning to appear and work to do with age, gender and ethnic background was becoming more and more popular. The art world imitated the financial world and started to charge huge prices for the work of big name artists. At this time not just artists were celebrities some gallery owners and dealers were getting as much praise such as Mary Boone. The most interesting thing to come out of the period was the way that work that was post-modern was becoming more recognised. That is at least from the point of view of the gallery.

It is thought that the first writer in New York, if not the first to get noticed, was TAKI 183. He was called so as he lived on 183rd street and his real name was Dimitrius, the Greek name for which Taki is a nickname. His name appeared so regularly because he had a job as a messenger and this meant that he had to ride the subway a lot. So he wrote his name or ?tag? on most of the trains and stations. This inspired a whole load of other kids to do the same and after an article in The New York Times hundreds of kids wanted their name on the subway cars as well. The effect was snowballing and tags were everywhere. Credit started to be given only to those who could tag somewhere that was hard to reach as a tag would stand alone rather than be crowded by others.

Although most graffiti was seen in the seventies and eighties it did in fact start in the late sixties. New York kids started to write their names on the walls, doors and bins and anywhere else they could. Like TAKI 183 they did not use their real names, but instead used psudonomes. This meant that only a select few would know who they were. Graffiti was also used as territorial message amongst gangs who want to claim an area as their own. It only really became an art form when people had to develop their tags to stand out from those of the masses. The vandal was becoming an artist. Tags of peoples names were becoming logos. The lettering was played around with so it would become easily recognizable to other writers. After some time colour was added and as it was the size or the paintings grew. Style became as important as the words, which continued to grow until such masterpieces filled entire walls or train carriages. The ?top to bottom whole car? is an entire carriage of a train painted from roof to wheels, including walls and doors. This is almost always the greatest achievement for a writer although some gangs or ?crews? have completed whole trains.

In the eighties graffiti swayed towards mainstream fine art but never went that far and stayed a culture rather than a genre. These days it is in every city in the world.

A great deal of people do not understand the depth of what is behind graffiti. Although graffiti is relatively young in most people?s eyes, it is really no different from cave man paintings. These were made on the walls of the caves using blood or ash. These works were of events that were relevant to their times. The Romans painted frescos on whole walls as a source of decoration. Monks in Italy left writings on walls for other monks. Calligraphy and the over usage of serifs in the script hid these secret messages. This meant that the general population if they could read at all would not understand these messages. These monks had created a beautiful, yet difficult to understand, style of writing. Words becoming art, This may sound familiar.

Wildstyle is extremely similar, in that it is rare for a non-writer, or at least somebody who is not into the scene, to be able to read a well put together piece done in wildstyle. ?The highly evolved and complex wildstyle, energetic interlocking construction of letters and arrows and other forms that signify movement and direction? . Not all writers enjoy wildstyle writing, as it can be very hard to read. Strangely enough that is the reason it is loved by others. It is like a code that only they understand, like being part of secret club.

Older artists would often take a new writer or ?toy? under their wing. The new apprentice would get to do jobs like filling in blocks of colour, or even just stand as a look out. In return they would be taught new skills and different styles of lettering. They would also get to tag below the piece, which would give them credit with fellow young writers. Some say you can not just learn wildstyle in the same way a musician must learn to read music before they can use there own improvisation. ?According to Dez, there is no easy way to learn the complicated wildstyle and no substitute for time, ?when you first start up and a writer gives you a style, it ain?t easy to do it, so it be better to start from throw ups to straight letter to semi-wildstyle to wildstyle, then you can do anything you want after that. Rather than try to make you first piece a burner and it looks wak, just work your way up the trains ain?t goin nowhere?? .

Sometimes small wars break out between writers when two or more artists will strive to be the best on a particular train line. Whoever gets his or her name up on the trains the most will win the territory. A writer who is up that much is known as a king of that train line. It is better and more respected by other artists to get your name up on train carriages all over the line and still maintain good quality and style. A true king though, must write all over a line. However good they may be in artistic skill if he only does a couple of great pieces they will be forgotten quickly if they are few in numbers. ?A king is a writer that everyone wants to write with or fight with? .

The writers don?t use their real names. They make up names that are sometimes jokes or are insults to their enemies or the law. They can also have a name handed down to them from a writer who may want to retire, and has taught them their style. That way they get a good name and the old writer gets his name to continue to ride the train lines.

To get more pieces of graffiti up writers would often unite and form crews of artists; crazy inside artists(CIA) the public artists(TPA) and the magnificent team(TMT). Although most of the members of such crews were closely linked together, many would belong to two or even more. This is why there are sometimes many initials on one piece of work. New younger writers would often write the initials of a crew that were highly respected amongst other writers on their own piece. If that crew found out that it had happened they would spray out their initials. Sometimes they would go over the whole piece, something that shows great disrespect.

After graffiti had been around for a while the fine art world started to take interest in certain artists. These critics and artists could see the value of graffiti. Its expression had been noted, along with the fact that it was starting to grow out of its urban culture. It was time for graffiti to move into a gallery.

Probably the most famous of writers to be accepted as a fine artist was Jean Michel Basquiat. He grew up in New York and got into street and subway graffiti at an early age. After high school he had no official art training, but he had a great interest in comic book, Egyptian and children?s art. By nineteen seventy-nine he had started to associate with fine artists and musicians, he also started to make paintings on canvasses. In nineteen eighty he was commissioned for a Times Square show. He painted a large wall in mixed media including spray cans. His work continued and he was loved by most of the art world. Some people said that he was primitive and at the same time genius. It was not long before the art establishment started to exploit him. This came at about the same time as his drug problems started to get dangerous. He died in nineteen eighty-eight of an overdose at the early age of twenty-seven.

Jean Michel Basquiat was a great consumer whatever he encountered. He would simply swallow and then produce work, in respect to whatever the subject was. Whether it was graffiti or children?s drawings that he used he had a talent for including strangely diverse materials into his work. Basquiat would appropriate images from various areas into his work including things like friend?s children?s drawings, pictures from chemistry textbooks and elements from the bible. He used things like this as his visual language and arranged them in an eccentric way. Through his life and career he re-edited these symbols with reference to sex, black culture and t.v. Basquiat was very poetic his use of words was incompetant and yet genius at the same time.

The issues within Basquiat?s work are based mainly around three things firstly, the conflict between life and death, secondly, the greed and stupidity of the art world and thirdly black issues concerning racism. There were times when he had lived on the streets, so it was not as though he painted about these subjects in vain. Even once he was famous, he was still treated with prejudice. Upon visiting Bloomingdale?s in New York with Andy Warhol, ?Basquiat intended to purchase a $3000 gift certificate for his mother. But when he took out his gold American express card he was asked for further identification. Even when he was with one of the world?s most famous artists, Basquiat was still treated with a mixture of racism and suspicion? . Also, living on the streets of New York made him more aware of what it means to be alive and what it feels like to be faced with death. In his final self-portrait, ?Riding with Death?, he is placed on a skeletal horse as a skeleton himself. ?its composition is strikingly similar to both a well known drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and, even more, to Julian Schnabel?s 1980 painting entitled ?Death? also portrayed as a skeletal rider on a skeletal horse?.

The writings of Samo his alter ego were similar to the themes that he used in his later work; capitalism, morality, consumerism, racism and popular culture. All through his life he kept student like sketch books these were filled with his art and his verse. Four of these books were published in nineteen ninety three, after they were left at a friends house. In the works by Basquiat that include no text he used icons as irony rather than effect. Many say his real strength was style of composition, which is almost a visual equivalent of freestyle jazz. In that it is crazy but well put together. Basquiat drew like a child not to say that he was not a great artist but that he had the freedom of a child. He would use strokes with a brush without any hesitation or doubt. He would rarely work in silence, there would often be a TV in the room or there would be music playing. Either of the above would often filter into his work. Another of his skills was to absorb random sources and make them his own through his technique.

In seventy eight he sold out exposing him and his friend Al Diez as Samo. He accepted one hundred dollars from a news paper for this but that was not the only thing he gained. His rise to fame had begun. Many of his early canvasses were similar to that of his Samo writings with some images as well. At this time Basqiat was also making small artifacts as wall as paintings, these included baseballs postcards and items of clothing adorned with his own logo ?manmade?. After a while he had enough money to by decent materials and reference books. His awareness of art expanded and his usage of his visual language became more relevant. As first his work was warfare, attacking the art establishment disrespecting its values and rules. He did this by painting on walls in public places that were easily visible to anyone that cared to pass by. He made work for the fun gallery show; this was still blatantly rejecting the white governed art world. This did not stop though, even when he became hugely popular his passion was still motivated by this conflict.

Its said that you can only be the best some of the time this was true of Basquiat. When he was working well he would over produce, leaving gaps where his work would not be as strong as it once was. Through his work there spanned a theme of found objects, often wooden things like doors, boxes or easels.

Basquiat said on a few occasions that being celebrity was more important to him than the skill and technique of his art. Though he was greatly talented his work did at times become repetitive. He could not edit himself and in a time of such consumerism no one else would do it for him. It would only mean less money for them.

His place in art history is constantly under great debate. The argument of whether or not his work was primitive genius or simply fluke will continue. But he is seen as an art hero by many of the young and that is where the future of art lies.


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