at Randolph Street Gallery, through April 10

Randolph Street Gallery’s “The Graffiti Show: A Hip Hop Phenomenon,” showcases the work of artists whose primary medium is spray paint. It’s an exhibition by artists who work on walls, not canvas, and whose pictures are more frequently regarded as criminal acts than artistic expressions. To mount Chicago’s first participatory graffiti exhibit, Randolph Street staff covered the floor of the gallery’s high-ceilinged back room with plywood, supplied a scaffold, and invited Mario Gonzalez Jr. (“Zore”), Rafael Almaguer (“Rafa”), and other members of the graffiti crew Spray Brigade to make their marks. In just a few days these artists produced a series of images that show remarkable talent.

A supersize monochromatic portrait of an African American man greets viewers upon entering the project space. It sports a plastic Zulu necklace and a nonchalant but graphically powerful gaze. Another wall is filled with an ornate rendering of the word “respect,” in electric greens and blues and a manner so complex that, to undisciplined eyes, the text almost dissolves into pure abstraction. In a far corner a Puma-shod, dark-jacketed figure, towering to the full height of the wall, surveys the entire gallery space.

Getting the unwieldy cans of color to conform to such elaborate visual agendas requires both variously gauged nozzle caps and disciplined maneuvers of wrist and hand, but the resulting complex gradations of hue and line work well in the service of the aggressive, larger-than-life images. The singing color and granular texture make for an improbably beautiful cross between watercolor painting and TV.

It’s been about ten years since the art world first “discovered” graffiti. During the early 1980s, New York graffiti artists such as Futura 2000, Stefan Eins, and Joe Lewis became so famous for their unique styles that they were able to sell work in galleries. Other artists, such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, reinterpreted graffiti through the filter of more formal artistic training, creating a cross between “high” art and street art. The New York art world ate it up, heralding graffiti as the authentic iconography of the street.

But others continued to bemoan graffiti as pure vandalism. “I can’t separate it from fear, from someone pulling a knife on you and robbing you in a public place,” exclaimed one perplexed New York artist at the time. When New York City subway ridership decreased notably in the early 1980s, the transit administration embarked on an ongoing, multimillion-dollar “cleanup” program to keep trains and stations free of marks. New York critic Suzi Gablik then wrote about the cleanup in Art in America.

In Chicago people often equate graffiti with gang activity. Chicagoans find graffiti threatening enough that in 1985 the city made the sale of spray paint to minors illegal. The Park District and the CTA have both made elaborate commitments to paint over all graffiti on their properties.

Such unequivocal public response to graffiti reinforces the fundamentally subversive nature of the medium. Graffiti ignores our taken-for-granted divisions between “public” and “private”; it threatens our assumptions about who’s in charge, about the order of things.

Graffiti’s radical democracy can be intimidating. All in attendance at the Graffiti Show’s opening night were invited to add their own work to the gallery walls, and scores of exuberant mark makers filled every nook and cranny of the space. They climbed on each other’s shoulders to reach high places on the walls and crouched low to fill space near the floor. In time, with the onslaught of hundreds of hands, discrete letters and pictures and names melted together.

Two local experts, Crea! and Code 3, ninth-graders at Whitney Young, helped me decipher it all. Tagging, the signature marking of one’s own name, code letters, or initials, is generally the first task a graffiti artist masters. Experienced viewers can tell the difference between experienced artists and neophytes (called toys) solely by the appearance of their tags. Throwups are more elaborate images, often rendered in multiple colors, in which artists begin to experiment with pictures, such as faces and crowns. The most intricate work is called piecing (from masterpiece) and is considered the height of the graffitist’s art.

While graffiti writing is unlawful in most public places, various “permission walls” have been designated throughout the city by property owners who seek to contain the painterly impulses of these artists. But permission walls are few and far between, which means that most graffiti writers are outlaws by definition. Juvenile records for vandalism and paint theft are routine hazards of the medium.

Yet for hundreds of enthusiastic young Chicago graffiti writers, it’s worth the risk. Crea! and Code 3 are already well aware that making graffiti confers status on the writer, at least among other graffiti artists. Graffiti lets one create a name and write it big all over town. Fellow writers recognize individual names and styles; different graffiti crews openly compete with one another. But as an art form graffiti still fits uncomfortably at best in the world of galleries, opening nights, and newspaper reviews.

The Graffiti Show’s opening party was scheduled immediately following another opening event at Randolph Street, for a group show called “Profiles” that was set up in the front galleries. After the “Profiles” crowds cleared out, gallery staff removed much of that exhibition’s artwork from walls for safekeeping during the graffiti party.

They then posted sternly lettered signs prohibiting possession of alcohol, drugs, or weapons. Tagging was forbidden in undesignated sections of the gallery. The evening’s second round of visitors were not allowed to enter and leave the gallery at will, and many were physically searched for weapons as they purchased tickets at the door. Though the undercover cops the gallery had requested never showed up, the police did assign additional squad cars to the area for the evening, and at least two people were arrested for illegal possession of spray paint.

Few of the guests found this degree of security very surprising. Unlike any other art form, graffiti has come to embody all that Middle America fears about city life–its diversity of cultures and cultural idioms, its volatility, its potential for violence, and its rapid, unpredictable change. Those who first created graffiti and who continue to be its masters–young people, African Americans, Latinos–are typically regarded with suspicion by the rest of society. Even when we sanctify graffiti as “art,” the temptation to control it is hard to resist.

We have tacit rules about where art is allowed–in museums and galleries, in studio classes, and on permission walls, places where anything goes as long as you stay within the lines. If the organizers of the Graffiti Show capitulated to this logic of control, it is because they too are part of this order of things, and because the art they worked so hard to contain has so often refused to play by the rules.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.