Yes, it’s true, folks! An illegal wheat-paste street artwork on a utility box in Venice Beach, Los Angeles has been defaced by a big black blotch of spray paint, ruining an artist’s creation. As Yoda might say: Shocked, we are.
Though, really, we shouldn’t be and really we’re more a teeny bit surprised and amused, as opposed to shocked. This is nothing new, But it seems rarer and rarer these days to see one street artist’s work defaced like this. There’s an unofficial code of street art etiquette that has been a fixture of the street-art scene for years and years, if not decades.
An artist’s work is a sacred cow. Philosophically, aesthetically, and financially, a lot usually has been invested in a most pieces of artwork you see in a museum or gallery. The work is protected. There are viewing hours, social mores, receptionists, docents, gallerists and security cameras and guards to prevent an artwork from being defaced or damaged. Instances of somebody attacking artwork in such settings is rare. Not so in most cases with street art.
Street art is for the most part illicit and often in the unprotected public sphere. It’s an easy targets for anybody who might want to deface or cover up the work. This is not new. Way way way back in the day, graffiti writers and creative taggers had a code of respect, but it wasn’t universally followed. In the pre-modern street art and pre-graffiti-as-art eras, gang-related tagging was about marking territory between rivals who would constantly be writing over each other’s tags to reinforcement claims on their turf.
Vandalism upon street art — itself usually vandalism in terms of the law — is not new and it’s a bit of the snake eating its own tail. Haters gonna hate, and haters with spray paint will paint over or write a tag over a commissioned mural or street artwork either to deface or simply to put up their own artwork over another artists in an established, popular street art neighborhood or wall, what we call a “street gallery.”
There’s something akin to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi when you see old, tattered or faded street art work peeling away or chipped and washed out, and then see the various overlapping layers of artwork, paper, stencils, spraypaint and affixed detritus. It’s its own collective, cumulative un-designed aesthetic that is constantly in flux, constantly changing and taking years to build. It’s beautiful.
For artists, all space is a coveted resource, so there will always be artwork — in the legal sense — vandalizing other artwork as one piece of art replaces or edges out another. It’s an ongoing aesthetic dialog where one artwork complements another. Street art is ephemeral and the fact that most of it will eventually disappear, knowing that it will someday be gone forever, makes good, clever, beautiful artwork even more precious.
Then there’s just somebody damaging an artwork for the sake of doing so, like the black splotch spray painted on the wheat-paste pictured above. But note, even that defaced wheat-paste itself is covering up a pre-existing artwork by another artist on that utility box. And that’s just the way it is. Street art will eat itself.