8:00am | [Note: Neither the Long Beach Post nor the author openly endorses illegal activity.]
It was months before I saw Exit Through the Gift Shop that I got to thinking about street art in Long Beach.
For those of you unfamiliar with Banksy and the world of graffiti art, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a nice primer (as well a fantastically fun piece of cinema in its own right). But you don't have to know the film to grasp the concept. The term "graffiti art" is not an oxymoron; rather, it's the making true art by way of graffiti tactics. It is meant as artistic statement, not defacement. It is not to be confused with tagging.
The question of aesthetic value is entirely separate from the question of institutional legitimacy. The quality of a piece of (street) art is unrelated to its legality. The City of Long Beach could spend $20,000 on a piece of public art that may be judged inferior to a work the City would wish to eradicate because the latter work did not come by way of the proper channels.
The issue is framed nicely by a sanctioned street-art aspect of Belmont Shore: the "shadows" of parking meters that are painted right onto the sidewalk. Some are nothing more than verisimilitudinous shadows; other "shadows" are transmogrified into flora; others features silhouettes of what might be there but isn't (a bicycle, a cat).
Early in Exit Through the Gift Shop we get a glimpse of a graffiti artist engaging in just this practice -- but without the sanction. The question is obvious: If Craig Stone had surreptitiously created his Belmont Shore "shadows" one night, would we want the City to have spent money eradicating them?
The idea for this essay came not from Belmont Shore, but from another part of the city I decline to name, since the work I spotted there (Exhibit A) clearly is unsanctioned -- and yet I hope it is never painted over.
I don't know exactly what type of equipment is covered by these shells of fake rock, but undoubtedly the City has good reason to mask it. Nonetheless, these "rocks" are pretty bland. So in my eyes this quaint "cave drawing" -- which cleverly masquerades as one created by proto-Beachers hunting shark (instead of mastodon or sabre-tooth tiger, since we're on the ocean) -- turns this utilitarian bit of street cosmetics from drab to fun. Faux rock, faux cave drawing -- a perfect marriage. And a public service.
Faux rock; as installed by the City, and tagged
Personally, I want to live in a city that is artistically vibrant and glowing. How much do I care about the legality of the means by which this state of affairs is obtained? Honestly, I don't know.
I have included with this article numerous pieces of street art -- some obviously sanctioned, some not. What seems clear to me, from my subjective vantage point of taste, is that there is little to no relation between a work's legality and its aesthetic merit. This should hardly surprise us, considering that the best artists and artistic minds Long Beach has to offer are almost entirely absent from the decision-making crucible for these matters.
This is not necessarily a criticism of the City or any of its divisions. After all, typically artists do not attempt to involve themselves in the pertinent processes. That's politics, and they'd rather spend their time on art.
Perhaps it's the case that the City can find ways to better include artists in the process; I really don't know. We're just talking here, asking questions, kicking around ideas and perspectives.
I do know that when I see what Banksy and his ilk are up to, I can't help feeling: I want that here. (Witness, for example, what's going on in Melbourne.)
It's great that Long Beach has a graffiti hotline, because graffiti can be destructive not only on the face of it, but because if left untended graffiti -- the tagging sort, anyway -- often attracts more of the same, and before you know it you've got serious blight issues. Blight is bad.
But not all street art is blight. There are graffiti works by Banksy that were installed illegally and now are under glass, protected by the municipality that he originally "defaced" with them. That is an object lesson for Long Beach. We should welcome good art, regardless of how it arrived on the scene.
Graffiti art and tagging, side by side
Painted shadow by Craig Stone