Graffiti: A Second Look

Stencil by Banksy on the waterline of The Thekla
Stencil by Banksy on the waterline of The Thekla Wikimedia Commons

In the exhibit "Open City," contemporary art enthusiasts celebrate graffiti, that flamboyant sign of modern times. Though subversive, graffiti can sometimes be seen as a valuable cultural artifact. Pompeii, the well-preserved ancient Roman city, still boasts Latin graffiti scratched onto its honeycombed walls. The graffiti is diverse, taking the form of jokes, political campaigns and raunchy tabloid claims. In the arena, for instance, a Bulgarian gladiator boasts of his love life: "Celadus the Thracian makes the girls sigh."

Around 2,000 years later, in New York City, graffiti artists finally began to receive rapturous reviews from art critics. Galleries adopted Jean Michel Basquiat, with his scribbled Papua New Guinea style masks and crossed-out, puzzling words, and Keith Haring, with his playful yet political street sign figures. Tragically, these adopted darlings of the elite art world died young.

"Open City" finds a new batch of graffiti artists on site. After all, the public space that hosts so much graffiti is an integral part of graffiti's aesthetics. John Tsombikos, a controversial art student in "Open City," made his mark almost entirely on the streets. The teenage scourge of Washington, D.C., Tsombikos spent years tagging the cryptic name BORF all over the city. At one time during the height of his D.C. guerrilla activity, BORF seemed to outnumber Starbucks logos. Decried as an affluent vandal from the suburbs, Tsombikos cost the city tens of thousands of dollars. Upon his arrest, he appeared at his trial with a captured guerrilla's defiance: his clothing paint-splattered, his skin scratched from scaling fences.

Are graffiti artists mere vandals? Or do some serve a purpose by humanizing otherwise corporate cityscapes? Will today's graffiti ring true far into the future, like the wall scratchings in Pompeii? "Open City" provides a rare chance for a forum and a second look at the type of graffiti you might hurry by everyday.

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