Life in the Sewers

Inelegant tagging in Irvine

Photo by Jack GouldIt's been weeks since two graffiti artists were arrested at a New York gallery showing their work. Apparently, New York's finest—high on their "broken window," "standard of living," "actually not let people smoke joints on the street" policing—had been looking for the vandals for quite a while. D'oh!

People—most especially Herr Rudolph Giuliani—get really bent about taggers. Their foreheads get quite terrifyingly veiny when they scream and holler about the baggy-pantsed (the better to hide cans of spray paint) youths scrawling their names illegibly across any number of dry-cleaners' establishments.

I fuckin' love graffiti. Though it's easiest to love the big, purty murals, I even love the squalling baby that is tagging at its most inelegant. When most people don't even see the Latino busboys who are refilling their water glasses, it's a way of screaming to the world that you're here. It's the same reason so many poor people are willing to go on Jenny Jones. TrèsKant, I think.

So what is more "street" than Irvine? Nothing this side of Mayberry. And that's part of the reason a drainage ditch near UC Irvine holds a stash box of fly b-boy portraits, done as freestyle as only aerosol can deliver. As punk rock belonged to the squalid ghettos of London before FedExing itself to Costa Mesa, tagging belonged to Pittsburgh and the Bronx. And now, record-spinning multiethnic college students in Adidas warm-ups cross the street from their parent-subsidized day jobs and paint up—nicely —the inside of a storm drain, where no one will be offended. Isn't that courteous? And aren't the colors pretty? Bright blue, pink, sunshine yellow. It makes me feel like I'm in a B-movie featuring guys like Turbo and Ozone at Radiotron. Let's have a dance-off, everybody! Bring a flashlight.

I've seen better graffiti art. The art wall at Koo's Art Cafe in Santa Ana often hosts artists with amazing skill and as much control of their flimsy medium as Michael Flatley has of his legs, except they're not embarrassing or lame. And to see graffiti in its proper context, you really have to drive out on the 60 freeway, where the poor people are.

The disempowered find power in passive ways. The less power a person has in society, the more slowly they walk in front of your car through the crosswalk and the more likely they are to take three minutes to pull out of a parking space. But they're also more likely, in the dead of night, to put a beautiful painting on the side of your retaining wall.

In the storm drain, there is random illegible tagging (our eyes can no longer differentiate Gothic letters from one another) and random philosophy. "Love turn[s] the world," one person declared. "$ turns the world," someone corrected. There are scary eagles in flight and cartoon totems.

It's the totems that are most interesting. All of them have skin the color of tea and big, pouty, kissy lips that either mean they're half-black or have a wad of chaw stuffed between their cheeks. They're as beautiful as the fantasy people that skinny heavy metal boys spend hundreds of hours drafting in high school—the world they hope to live in, where men are strong and women possess Breasts of Wonder atop an 8-year-old's hips, vinyl thigh boots and a leather leotard. In the storm drain, everyone is the color of the future—caramel—and their power comes from their street authenticity, instead of bulging muscles or helium-filled mammaries. One orange-haired alterna-girl—very Good Times opening credits—had a washboard stomach that made the other murals jealous. But the best part about her was her nipples, added later by some wag with a fetish: they're as lopsided as a Buchanan rally, one seemingly four feet higher than the other. They're sprightly!

A sweet-looking pink-haired black boy, his lower lip jutted out and his eyes downcast, is less straightforward. His features are more stereotypical, almost out of Aunt Jemima. He could be a friend on a 21st-century kids' cartoon, but while he was definitely painted with love, I'm not sure he was painted by a black person. He seems more like an all-inclusive marketing aid than someone's artistic familiar.

The usually spastic, sometimes graceful lines of graffiti shouldn't ever be put in a gallery—for that reason alone, probably, the New York graffiti artists got nicked by the fuzz. Basquiat showed the dangers of that decades ago: give rich white people access to urban cool, and they'll make a star of even the most boring, sloppiest artist—that is, if he's good-looking and can give them street cred. What's next? Adopt your own maquiladora worker?

Graffiti is art for art's sake at its most essential and least intellectualized. It doesn't belong in the sanitizing confines of a gallery. Despite the trend toward examining pop culture in a museum format—a format that was pioneered by our own Huntington Beach Art Center and Tyler Stallings to much better effect than the Guggenheim's shocktastic takes on Harleys or LACMA's Times-panned musings on orange-crate labels in good ol' sunny SoCal—Duchamps' dictum still stands. Gallery walls confer sanctity—and with graffiti, that isn't just unnecessary and presumptuous (along the lines of white missionaries saving the heathens of Africa), it's a death knell.

Correction: In a recent art column, I misspelled artist Susan Choi's name. I apologize. The rest of my remarks, which I shall repeat here for those who missed them the first time around—"Alternately showering and wearing nipple tassels, her mouth alluringly open for cock, is Susan Choi. Is she commenting on the objectification of Asian women as little more than meek three-holed fuck dolls? The porn industry, in which so many Asian women are slicked down with so many scrotums' worth of splooge? Or is she just showing off that she has a really hot bod? She'd probably say one of the first two"—stand.

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