L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is currently holding an exhibition (running through August 8) called Art in the Streets, which is the first major U.S. museum show devoted to the history of graffiti and street art. It traces the evolution of tagging and street art from the nascent hip-hop culture of the '70s to the global movement we see today. The exhibition features installations by fifty representative artists, including man/myth/legend Banksy, Fab 5 Freddy, and Shepard Fairey of Obama Hope-poster fame.
But now L.A. police are accusing the museum of attracting petty criminals to the Little Tokyo neighborhood near the Geffen Contemporary Gallery where the artists are being celebrated. Several artists featured in the exhibition have moved beyond the gallery confines and marked up walls and urban furniture in surrounding streets with their trusty spray-paint cans, and even posted videos online showing them tagging a wall in Hollywood. The police are accusing the gallery of glorifying vandalism, and forcing them to remove graffiti from the streets. One art blogger noted, "These artists are good enough for the city to put their work in one of its major cultural institutions. But if they do it on the streets, where the art is meant to be seen, the city will have them arrested."
It's kind of a weird situation that these guerrilla artists are skulking around, avoiding the po-po, while simultaneously being lauded for their efforts and celebrated with these mainstream shows. It would totally run counter to their ethic of defacing property if they were to sell out and stick to the hassle-free safety of a canvas. The documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop gave us an interesting glimpse into what the lifestyle entails, and propagating the cartoon image of Andre the Giant's face throughout various cities would strike some as borderline-insanity. But if every artist had the wit, skills, and humility of a Banksy, having art forced on you in a public venue probably wouldn't be as much of an issue. The problem is the unskilled imitators who gum up the landscape with half-baked doodling. It will remain a gray area, though illegal is illegal. But those deeply embedded in the culture will always take a forty over a flute of champagne.