Commercial Graffiti

exit through the gift shop

Commercial graffiti (also known as aerosol advertising or graffiti for hire) is the commercial practice of graffiti artists being paid for their work. In New York City in particular, commercial graffiti is big business and since the 1980s has manifested itself in many of the major cities of Europe such as London, Paris and Berlin.

Increasingly it has been used to promote video games and even feature prominently within them, reflecting a real life struggle between street artists and the law. Commercial graffiti has created significant controversy between those who view it as an effective medium of advertising amongst specific target audiences and those who believe that legal graffiti and advertising using it encourages illegal graffiti and crime.

Graffiti as a commercial activity dates back to Ancient Greece, when pottery makers employed artists to decorate their items with motifs and intricate designs. In the modern era, the phenomenon has been strongly associated with New York City since the late 1960s and the hip hop culture that emerged in the 1980s. The term ‘commercial graffiti’ was used in an article by Time as early as 1968 and used to describe activity in Chicago as early as 1970. In 1981, Times Square was referenced as featuring ‘commercial graffiti’ through ‘Japanization.’

The practice of commercial artistry is controversial, because many commercial establishments feel that professional graffiti art is a valuable form of advertising, while other businesses, law enforcement and others disagree. Legal and commercial graffiti is increasing and has created significant debate amongst graffiti writers and those associated with hip-hop culture. The primary concern by those who oppose graffiti is that the tolerance of professional graffiti in one space leads to more illegal graffiti in other spaces. In some areas such as sports, over advertising in sports venues and even player uniforms in soccer has sometimes been viewed negatively.

Commercial graffiti, seen as a frontier between the street world and the art world, is argued in some cases to promote a more responsible lifestyle for the graffiti artist through formal employment.

In New York City, legal graffiti and employment has become big business, appearing with owners’ permission on everything from walls to railroad boxcars. One prominent group in New York City is the ‘King of Murals’ which run a commercial graffiti business and have been employed to promote global brands such as Coke and M&M’s in advertising campaigns. Bronx-based TATS CRU has made a name for themselves doing legal advertising campaigns for companies like McDonald’s, Toyota, and MTV. Smirnoff and Microsoft have hired artists to use reverse graffiti (the use of high pressure hoses to clean dirty surfaces to leave a clean image in the surrounding dirt) to increase awareness of their product.

In Boston, Massachusetts, a company named Alt Terrain specializes in hiring graffiti writers to paint legal murals as part of public performances which are hyped as ‘brand events’ and may cost up to $12,500 for live performances. In Pittsfield, Massachusetts for example, after the death of Michael Jackson, Solomon ‘Disco’ Stewart and a team of four artists named ‘The Berkshire Graffiti Network” were paid to paint a ‘Michael Jackson Tribute’ mural on the wall of a Pittsfield market on North Street.

In the United Kingdom, Covent Garden’s Boxfresh used stencil images of a Zapatista revolutionary in the hopes that cross referencing would promote their store. Even the Israeli West Bank barrier has acted as a canvas for professional graffiti for hire teams. One Palestinian pacifist group will spray paint any message for 30 Euros, providing that it is not racist or violently motivated. The Art Crimes website is the first to be established in the field of commercial graffiti and hires some sixty artists to produce artwork.

Graffiti has become an important part of video game culture, often reflecting the oppression facing graffiti artists in public and battle for it to be seen by the establishment as a legitimate and indeed a legal art form. The Jet Set Radio series (2000–2003) tells the story of a group of teens fighting the oppression of a totalitarian police force that attempts to limit the graffiti artists’ freedom of speech,  and others such as Rakugaki Ōkoku series (2003–2005) for Sony’s PlayStation 2 revolves around an anonymous hero and his magically imbued-with-life graffiti creations as they struggle against an evil king who only allows art to be produced which can benefit him.

Graffiti has become a common stepping stone for many members of both the art and design community in North America and abroad. Within the United States, graffiti artists such as Mike Giant, Pursue, Rime, Noah and countless others have made careers in skateboard, apparel and shoe design for companies such as DC Shoes, Adidas, Rebel8 Osiris or Circa. Meanwhile there are many others such as DZINE, Daze, Blade, The Mac etc. which have developed into gallery artists and at times do not even use their initial medium (spray paint) to produce artwork.

Keith Haring, a well-known graffiti artist, contributed to bringing graffiti to the commercial mainstream. In the 1980s, Haring opened his first Pop Shop: a store that offered everyone access to his works—which until then could only be found spray-painted on city walls. Pop Shop offered commodities like bags and t-shirts. Haring explained that, ‘The Pop Shop makes my work accessible. It’s about participation on a big level, the point was that we didn’t want to produce things that would cheapen the art. In other words, this was still art as statement.’

But perhaps the greatest example of graffiti artists infiltrating mainstream pop culture is by the French crew, 123Klan. 123Klan founded as a graffiti crew in 1989 by Scien and Klor, have gradually turned their hands to illustration and design while still maintaining their graffiti practice and style. In doing so they have designed and produced, logos and illustrations, shoes, and fashion for numerous global firms.

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