Graffiti: Is It Art?

Graffiti as an Art Form

Adam Brown with one of his creations.

Photo by Stacy Milbouer

Graffiti. It’s the underground art form that just won’t go away, to the consternation of many and the delight of others. While graffiti reached its peak in the 1980s, it’s back again and is as much urban street art as it is scrawled screams of outraged youth.

Graffiti served as the backdrop of this year’s Independent Spirit Awards. There are dozens of graffiti apps available for smartphones and graffiti exhibits are making their ways to museums across the country, even in New Hampshire. 

“It is very artistic with unlimited possibilities,” says Adam Brown, the proprietor of StreetWise Graffiti, Bike & Skate in Nashua. “It goes far beyond vandalism.”

Two years ago the Portsmouth Museum of Art held an exhibit of 10 graffiti artists. The exhibit sparked controversy among a group of residents who, in a signed petition sent to city officials, called the installations “graffiti-like abominations” which were a threat to the city’s beautification efforts.

But historically, controversy and graffiti are no strange bedfellows and the Portsmouth exhibit drew record crowds to the museum.

Brown, 26, is a self-taught artist. He started painting graffiti on rocks, walls, benches and bridges when he was younger but now does private commissions, including the depiction of a chicken blasting its way through a wall to escape a fryer on the wall of the Chicken ‘n’ Chips restaurant on West Hollis Street in Nashua. Brown said all “writers” — his name for graffiti artists — have tag names. His is BASH for no other reason, he says, than “it looks good when you paint it.”

He’s also making a film of graffiti throughout New England and is an expert on the form.

"It is very artistic with unlimited possibilities. It goes far beyond vandalism."

So what exactly is graffiti?  “Graffiti can be anything from scratching or painting on the wall, political stuff or vandalism, whatever. Basically, just writing on a wall is graffiti, but when you organize guys who take it seriously and love it, and the mission is to do something really good, it becomes art.”

The term graffiti comes from the Italian word for scratched (graffiato) and dates back to messages scratched on ancient ruins. Brown says there are now two genres of graffiti: “throw ups,” or “tags” that are little more than names or sayings; and more intricate projects called “piecings,” which usually have a higher profile and sometimes take days to complete.

In his inner-city store, Brown sells European spray paints that are thicker and less pressurized than the American product and the 8 x 64 foot outdoor wall of his shop on Temple Street is emblazoned with a number of boldly colored tags. He also sells graffiti T-shirts that he designed as well as skateboards and bikes. And on the walls are photographs showing colorful examples from the best graffiti “writers,” many of them in New Hampshire.

He says while he opened his store in Nashua because he was raised here and hopes the city will be more prominent in the graffiti world, “Manch” has more graffiti than anyplace else in the state, he says. “There are 10 graffiti artists there for every one in Nashua. It has more industrial areas and ‘all-day spots,’ where you are out of sight and can work all day; with enough time you can take a place that looks ugly and make it look good.”

“For graffiti the words come first. The words are the most important thing. They’re everything. After the words, you might fill in with designs in the background, but it always starts with the word.”  Or as graffiti guru Banksy wrote, “Speak softly, but carry a big can of paint.” 

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