In the world of public art, there’s this persistent debate that seeks to categorize art into two neat little, mutually exclusive, boxes: graffiti or street art. And artists working in public spaces are often called upon to define themselves: graffiti writer or street artist, choose a side, make a choice, fill out a commitment form, and sign it.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Generally graffiti is thought of as illegal, name-centric, often subversive communication that features letters, numbers and symbols. Street art, well, that’s generally thought of as work that is closer to fine art, but that is sanctioned and displayed on the streets.
But what about someone like Banksy? His sublime stencil work is certainly museum-worthy fine art, but it’s also illegal when done on the street and contains anti-establishment messages about war, commercialism and inequality. Or what about the many artists who started off as graffiti writers, leaving their tags on subway cars and walls before evolving their practices to create more painterly works like Futura’s whole subway car murals, or Lee Quiñones’ historic 25-by-30-foot Howard the Duck mural.
So are you a street artist, or are you a graffiti writer?
Martin Whatson, the Norwegian artist, has an answer: Both. In case you don’t know Whatson’s work, it consists of lovely black-and-white Banksy-inspired stencil pieces that he augments with colorful graffiti tags, words, shapes and designs. The result is an organic, though polished and organized, look that gives both artforms their due.
Whatson’s work is often compared with that of Mr. Brainwash, who was catapulted to fame through Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. But while MBW says his work is “influenced” by graffiti and street art, Whatson’s work benefits from the years he spent working in the street, a practice that continues even as his work has found its way in galleries. His latest show, Concrete Echoes, runs through September at Harman Projects, 210 Rivington Street, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Just the other day, in fact, he was down in the East Village with his stencils and spray paint, placing images of endangered sea turtles on the wall of the Moxy Hotel. This was sanctioned work, but at the same time it carried a message about the consequences of environmental degradation. He took time later that day to explain his artistic aims and trace his background as a public artist and, now, a fine artist.
“For years I was doing graffiti, drawing, taking pictures, making websites.” – Whatson
“I was 14 or 15 taking the subway in Oslo and I was constantly seeing the change in the graffiti. For years I was doing graffiti, drawing, taking pictures, making websites. I got to know the culture and a lot of the people and I really enjoyed the whole thing around it,” he said.
“Then, in the early 2000s, I discovered Banksy and a few Norwegian people doing street art with stencils and I said ‘yeah, this is something I can do and it kind of has a graffiti aesthetic’” he added.
It was not long after that that he began to develop his signature style of adding graffiti tags and symbols to his stencil works. Some of his best known work involves the inclusion of people interacting with the graffiti components, like the kid pulling back a curtain to reveal a tagged wall he did at Miami’s Wynwood Walls, or works that include stenciled images of workers appearing to paint over or power wash the graffiti work.
“This is the conversation between the graffiti artist, the street artist and the person who power washes or paints the wall.” – Whatson
“After three or four years of doing only stencils outside and having people tag them, I thought: ‘Why do I want to do this when I can just tag my own stuff and make it my own. This is the conversation between the graffiti artist, the street artist and the person who power washes or paints the wall. I like mixing in the clean-up workers and making it about a competition between them and the graffiti people,’” he said.
Like pretty much all graffiti writers and street artists around the world, Whatson said he has drawn inspiration from New York artists, past and current.
“I try to get inspiration from all my experiences, but especially New York, one of the cradles of graffiti and tagging culture. If you look out the windows of this hotel, you’ll see all the roofs have graffiti tags on them. That kind of aesthetic is something that is really fantastic,” Whatson said.
“In New York a show like we’re having (at Harman Project) works extra well because you can go outside and you’ll see the same kind of aesthetic as the work that I have in the gallery,” he added.
Graffiti/street artist Sinclair the Vandal noted that both he and Whatson incorporate bright colors, a diverse set of fonts, and a broad mix of words, lettering and symbols into their work. But Sinclair’s work is more gritty and chaotic, while Whatson’s is more clean and organized. “I’m this grimey dude: his stuff is kind of proper compared to mine,” he said
“I do like what he does because while he is from Europe he pays homage to the graffiti world and especially New York where it all started.” – Sinclair the Vandal
“I do like what he does because while he is from Europe he pays homage to the graffiti world and especially New York where it all started. Sometimes that graffiti aspect can be a little too much, but for the most part I think he does a good job of mixing street art and graffiti together,” he said.
Whatson comes from a Norwegian street art scene that is heavily influenced by European stencil artists like Banksy, Blek le Rat, Above and others. In addition to Whatson, Norway has yielded a small, but influential, group of street artists including Dolk, Pøbel and DOT DOT DOT.
Whatson said street art in Oslo tends toward smaller works that can be completed quickly, as opposed to the murals and other more ambitious works that are more common in other parts of the world.
“Norway is cold and dark half the year, so we’re always looking for ways to do it quicker.” – Whatson
“Oslo is a very small city compared to New York, so keeping track of it and cleaning graffiti off the wall has been quite easy. It’s tough getting legal walls and that has resulted in graffiti and stencil artists doing smaller and quicker pieces that you can get away with. Norway is cold and dark half the year, so we’re always looking for ways to do it quicker,” he said.
His experience working in the street and his study of the work of early New York graffiti writers give Whatson a solid understanding of graffiti art and culture and an appreciation of the debt today’s street artists owe to their graffiti forbearers. Others, he said, are creating street art style work, without experience in the street.
“I think a lot of people now are doing street art style work, but they never went through that period of graffiti and being interested in graffiti or knowing anything about it. They never painted outside, just on canvas,” he said.
Mariah Fox, associate professor of media arts at New Mexico Highlands University who has studied and written about graffiti art and culture, said Whatson’s work is interesting and fun, and the stencils are particularly well executed. She said she found the addition of the graffiti elements to be a bit predictable.
“The stencils are quite well done, technically they are the best part of the work.” – Mariah Fox
“The stencils are quite well done, technically they are the best part of the work. The addition of the decorative graffiti in combination with the figures strives to captivate — but my eye wants to stay on the stencil. The form of these pieces presents as well planned rather than spontaneous,” she said.
Planned and organized, perhaps, but Whatson says that part of his message is that graffiti and street art are not mutually exclusive practices and that one can serve to beautify, rather than degrade, the other.
“Graffiti should never be a negative. In my work I don’t add it in any negative way, it should always be the thing that you play with, the thing that changes something. I always try to find a way to do that,” Whatson said.