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Graffiti and MOCA's 'Art in the Streets': A $36.52 review

Banksy Graffiti: Is it art or vandalism?

Heather Mac Donald, in her Sunday Op-Ed "Tagging MOCA," left little doubt how she feels. In a scathing attack on the Museum of Contemporary Art's "Art in the Streets" show at the Geffen Contemporary, she writes:

The exhibition honors such alleged high points in graffiti history as the first cholo tag on the Arroyo Seco parkway and the defacement of L.A.'s freeway signs, without the slightest hint that graffiti is a crime, that it appropriates and damages property without permission and that it destroys urban vitality.

But I'm the kind of person who likes to make up my own mind. So I went. And though I'm not an art critic, I'm often critical -– in a kind of old-fogey, I-remember-when, don't-get-me-started and, I'm-not too-modest-to-say, totally-endearing way.

Right off, though, I'm a little ticked, because you have to pay $6.50 to park. I hate to pay for parking. I mean, I visited Monet's house in Giverny last summer, and parking was free -– and that was France, for heaven's sake; plus Monet is way more famous than Saber or Fab 5 Freddy.

But my sour mood is somewhat lifted by the really funny painting on a steamroller out front of Yogi Bear being squished. I've always loved Yogi, and Boo-Boo too -- though there's no Boo-Boo; there is, however, a lot of red paint on the ground, so maybe that's supposed to be Boo-Boo. 

I digress. You have to wait outside in the hot sun to be called in before you can pay. It's 30 bucks for the four of us; my sour mood returns.

Once inside, there is -- no surprise -- graffiti everywhere. There are also -- somewhat surprisingly -- guards everywhere, as if these were Picassos on the walls and not glorified gang tags and the like. One child actually -– gasp -- touches a graffiti-covered Cadillac. And -– seriously -– his mother quickly issues a "Honey, don't touch!" warning.

OK, now for what really matters: My favorite "works." 

First is the 1963 Buick Special; the graffiti is inane, but I drove a car just like it in high school, though mine was blue with lots of rust. 

Second is the very large, well, how can I put this -- it's a collection of lost-pet fliers that people put up over the years, collected by the artist and made into a wall hanging. I like it because it's practical: If it were somehow "damaged," it could be easily "repaired."

Finally, there's a movie. Or should I say many movies that chronicle individual street artists. 

In one, a French guy is interviewed. The filmmaker asks him: Why do you paint on public buildings and the like?

Good question, he says. "I’ll have to think about that."

A lack of introspection, it turns out, is not uncommon among some street artists. Another film shows a German guy who started by simply tagging -– writing his name on buildings and the like. He says he came to realize the limitations of this style. And that epiphany came after only ... 12 years.

So now he goes out at night and paints trains.  He uses paint cans and rollers and lots of masking tape.  When he's finished, he leaves all that strewn about.  Later, he's shown standing by the tracks, admiring his work as the painted train roars by.

He's an artist, not a tree-hugger.

There's plenty of other stuff, but those were the highlights for me. 

We leave, and I get lost trying to find the freeway, and pretty soon we're driving down side streets. Just about every building has street art on it. Some of it's really great.

And you know what I'm thinking?  I'm thinking I just spent $36.50 to go to an art museum, and I could've seen the same or better stuff for free just driving around downtown L.A.

And I'm thinking that Heather Mac Donald is wrong, and right.

She wrote:

It might have been possible to mount a show that acknowledged the occasionally compelling graphic elements of urban art without legitimizing a crime. Such an exhibit wouldn't include glamorizing photos of freeway, subway or L.A. River vandalism -- and would unequivocally condemn appropriating someone else's property without permission. "Art in the Streets" does not come close to that standard.

Here's my two cents (actually, make that $36.50 plus two cents):

I say that if it hangs in a museum, or is put up on a building with permission, it can be art. 

But if it's put up on my garage, it's vandalism.


Tagging MOCA

How graffiti artist Smear built his brand

Banksy redefines the Oscar campaign

Photos: MOCA's 'Art in the Streets' show

Ted Rall Cartoon: Is MOCA to blame for a new wave of graffiti?

Testing the 1st Amendment and the definitions of "art" and "vandalism"

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: "Stained Window," a collaboration between street artist Banksy and the students of City of Angels public school, is on display at the "Art in the Streets" exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Credit: Robyn Beck / Getty Images


Comments () | Archives (8)

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Misinformed, unfunny and annoying. Grafitti in it's most glorified form speaks of a generation that has hustled to be heard- combining creativity with risk, ingenuity and desire to be great-not for money or accolades from so called critics like yourself but to truly make a mark on social-political issues that few mainstream outlets ever truly comment on. Its art in it's truest and most contemporary form-pure, lawless and provocative. Stuff Picasso, Van Gogh and Warhol dreamed of.


This article is pathetic and not fit to be in a major newspaper. While Mr. Whitefield was kind enough to put on his finest pair of dockers and tucked in izod shirt and drive in from the burbs to give this grafiti thing a fair shot, its clear from the start that he has a limited view of art, a view that graffiti and street artists have tried their hardest to open up and question. yes, there is artless graffiti just as there are artless video games, artless spoken word. but individual works do not invalidate an entire means of expression. does thomas kinkade make all contemporary painters irrelevant?

whats exciting about the graffiti and street art movements is that they allow people that normally cannot or would not connect or even interact to engage one another in the public realm without certain filters. its direct and it reminds us why cities are most vital and invigorating when they are built bottom-up and one day at a time.

if moca isn't able to pull this energy in to a gallery setting, then present a thoughtful critique about that. if i wanted an off the cuff condescending generalization i'll go ask my 80 yr old uncle.


If they think "Street Art" is so great, why does MOCA clean it off the side of their building?


Wow, what a spiteful, annoying, and frankly lazy "opinion." Half of it requotes McDonald's rather more reasoned opinion. Shouldn't the role of cultural journalists be to inform and educate their readers? Did the writer go on a tour or read didactic text? The writer doesn't even seem to have tried. What a disappointment. $36 for four people? That costs way less than 90 minutes in a movie, with parking. You're not paying for the exhibit - you're paying for MOCA to *exist* and continue to make exhibitions for Los Angeles. Some you'll like, some you won't, but the crowds of people waiting to get in would probably be the former. This sounds like a shopping review. Sorry you didn't feel like you got what you paid for. When you put art and museums in such a framework, you'll never be happy.


"A lack of introspection, it turns out, is not uncommon among some street artists". Having seen the exhibit, which I thought was tremendous, I would still agree with this generalization. The Banksy Gift Shop movie isnt exactly a movie of thoughtful artists either

I would add that a lack of instrospetion isnt uncommon on Paul Whitefield either. What an op-ed about nothing. As if he. . . tagged my computer screen with one-dimensional, un-introspective street art". If the sum of your visit is a curmudgeonly complaint about ticket prices, go see Jersey Boys where you belong you lazy nob. You're supporting a museum, not buying tickets to see hackneyed musical theater with your mother

Big props to MOCA on this exhibit. I went in with the same reservations as Heather MacDonald, I hate seeing tags and graffitti in my city. But I was absolutely blown away by a very different, mega extravaganza of exhibits that has nothing to do with gangbanging and street tagging. Interesting to see the history of tag gangs, but ho hum, whatever. The other 95% of the exhibit is one of the best exhibits ive seen in years -- a phantasmagoria dedicated to crazy signage, wild and whimsical art (not grafitti) on walls, the stunning Gemio brothers wall and room after room of really fun pimped up ice cream trucks, subway trains and all kinds of bizarre creative stuff. My 5 year old had a blast, great for kids. Far more creative than yawn, yet another tired Monet (wasnt impressionism declared an abomination by society as well at first?).

Art lover

Yes dear. And I know you don't get those Basquiat paintings either. Is it art if it's in a cave and done a long time ago?

This is a stupid article.


Congratulations Los Angeles Times,

You found your text equivalent of Andy Rooney.


The author will probably be a little peeved to find out the exhibit is FREE every Thursday...my friends and I didn't pay a dime to get in and we had a wonderful time seeing everything. Funny how reading something for 15 seconds ends up being worth more than 36 bucks sometimes!



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