Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Comic Book Roots of Street Art

Engraving of Kilroy on the
WWII Memorial in Washington DC.
In Episode #06 of Pod Sequentialism with Matt Kennedy, the subject is the connection between graffiti art and comic books. Once again, our producer and engineer, Mason Booker, joins Matt in the discussion which draws an historical line back to World War II in an effort to present the changing role of street art. Seen much more as vandalism for most of the twentieth century than as decorative, public art, this episode explores how the modern perception and even basic definition of "graffiti" has changed.

Was Kilroy from
One of the most recognizable examples of modern graffiti is the figure of Kilroy, a bald man with an extended nose and hands the grip the top of a ledge with the inscription, "Kilroy was here" next to it. It became a symbol for the U.S. armed forces during World War Two, as versions of the figure appeared virtually everywhere American soldiers traversed. The origin is disputed, but in the years following the war, news services ran a story about a soldier from Everett, MA who had scrawled the slogan on a bulletin board at a Florida airbase, which inspired other soldiers to do the same all over Europe during the course of their deployment against the Axis powers. Similar figures had been drawn by British and Australian soldiers in World War One, but the proliferation of Kilroy by American servicemen in the 1940s really captured the public imagination as photographs appeared in newspapers, magazines and news reels from the era.

As Matt mentions in this week's podcast, the Allies were by no means the only ones using publicly exhibited slogans. Project Werwolf (German for "werewolf") was a Nazi resistance force that operated behind enemy lines as Allied forces swept through Bavaria. Steven Soderberg's 1991 film Kafka recreates some of that graffiti, and in a very strange case of life imitating art, criminal neo-nazi groups in the Netherlands have since co-opted the name in a modern, racist campaign against migrants. There is a long association of graffiti with hate crime that predates the modern era, and just in case it wasn't evident enough in the podcast: these are NOT the good guys.

This book inspired generations
While some historians point out that mankind has been drawing on walls for millennia, the widespread act of vandalizing public spaces with aerosol acrylic paint is most widely associated with the New York City subway system of the 1970s. Railway cars in and out of Providence, RI are among the earliest photographed examples of outsider art to utilize spray cans, and quickly spread to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and even up into Canada in Montreal and Toronto before reaching other cities like Detroit and Chicago. Railway cars (especially freight and cargo wagons) frequently swapped tracks rather than occupy a single line, reaching more destinations and making them the primary target of graffiti artists until more brazen individuals realized that passenger cars in major cities allowed them a showcase in their own neighborhoods, elevating their street cred and local fame.

That switch from political to social messaging is where comic book art had its biggest influence on the emerging art form. Comic books in the 1970s were consumed by almost all youth regardless of social or ethnic background, so spray-painted versions of Marvel superheroes were frequently included in the unsolicited murals of acrylic vandals in NYC and elsewhere. The bold lines and graphic impact of comic book art was the perfect muse, and much easier to mimic than the oil paintings in museums, and the preponderance of cartooning in modern street art is a testament to the lasting value of sequential art as an influence.

We covered a lot of ground in only 42 minutes, so here's a list of other things worth researching deeper that we merely touched upon:

Olek, the Polish Yarn Bomber.
LA based street artists, Retna, Risk, and Nathan Ota (aka Cooz).
Aaron Rose's documentary Beautiful Losers (mistakenly referred to as Beautiful Dreamers).
Tony Sliver's seminal documentary on graffiti, Style Wars.
Martha Cooper & Henry Chalfant's 1984 book Subway Art.
Norman Mailer's 1974 book Faith of Graffiti.
The Art in the Streets Exhibition at LACMA.
Art schools as diploma mills.
SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

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1 comment:

  1. Love that book by Henry Chalfant (sp?) Definitely a great document of some lost classic NYC graffiti pieces