The Corporatization of Graffiti

Nov 10, 2014

Credit Fletcher Powell / KMUW

I’ve spent a lot of time practicing the art of seeing graffiti. After a few years, my eye is now automatically able to seek out those sweet spots on buildings or signs where graffiti ought to be—and in the right parts of town, it usually is. I’m good, but there are still times that graffiti, or something pretending to be graffiti, will surprise me.

Most recently, it was coming across designer cans of the sparkling mineral water Perrier that featured the work of street artists. “Street art” is a funny term. On the one hand, it’s a useful distinction based on medium—basically, vandalism with spray paint is graffiti, and vandalism with anything else is street art.

Graffiti is art, it is protest, it is witty, colorful and acerbic. There are as many ways to write graffiti as there are people writing it. The one constant that binds all graffiti to all other graffiti is that at the most basic level, graffiti is vandalism.

Most street art is vandalism, too. How the term street art actually functions, however, seems to be as a distancing measure, placing space between graffiti and some kind of sentimental youthful expression with wheat paste and ironic stencils. In a sense, street art is graffiti’s nicer, commercial cousin.

Perrier capitalizes on this gentrification of language to hint at having an edge, without specifically identifying with anything. Because, of course, identifying with graffiti would be condoning actual crime. This patronizing wink at counterculture is precisely what the images on the cans embody: hinting at the presence of an actual artist, without being too much outside of any kind of focus-grouped preferences. Add a signature on the lower-half of the can, and Perrier now has a reasonable defense against the also-reasonable speculation that a computer designed the entire series.

While I certainly don’t want to begrudge artists from gaining exposure or making money through collaboration with corporations, let’s stop believing that there is anything “street” about it and call this series what it is: marketing. And not even the “authentic graffiti font” street-art label can change that.