Graffiti: Art Or Vandalism?

A new graffiti exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields is adding fuel to the debate over “aerosol art.”

An exhibition of graffiti at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields is adding fuel to the debate over whether “aerosol art” is art or vandalism. City as Canvas: New York City Graffiti from the ’70s & ’80s, which opened October 7, follows the development of graffiti from simple tags to elaborate murals, and the influence it had on the rest of the world, including Indianapolis.
In many ways, the public’s attitude toward graffiti has softened over time. The Arts Council of Indianapolis promotes public art and two legal “permission walls” on its website, showing would-be artists precisely where in town to do their thing. Last year, the Indiana State Museum held a competition pitting local writers against another graffiti crew, CISA, from Lake County for an Indiana Bicentennial event. New restaurant Broken English Taco Pub, which opens later this month on South Meridian Street, hired Chicago-based graffiti artists to paint a mural for a temporary installation in place of a window. And the fact that the IMA is doing its current graffiti exhibition, up through January 28, speaks volumes.
But the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Graffiti Abatement Unit points to the city’s complicated relationship with graffiti. The unit, formed the same year a local crew painted its 20th anniversary wall, is tasked with getting rid of graffiti, either by cleaning it off walls or painting over it. This year, it’s on pace to erase or cover 30,000 square feet of graffiti.
The birth of modern graffiti writing is thought to have sprung up in the late ’60s, when a high school student calling himself Cornbread wrote his name on a few walls, a practice that would later be known as tagging, in an effort to get a girl’s attention. What started as an attempt to woo a girl became an obsession, and he began writing all over the city—allegedly, he even tagged an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Other graffiti artists started in New York City soon afterward, and by the ’80s, the art form had arrived in Indianapolis. In NYC, they wrote on subway cars. In Indy, writers hit freight trains.
“Graffiti is a very, very different thing,” says Cents, a graffiti writer who got his start in Indianapolis in the mid-’90s. “You write your name on a train and then, to get more people to notice it and more people to appreciate it, it gets bigger and better and more colorful. The art form itself would’ve evolved differently had it not been for that particular rectangular format of a train with wheels, with windows.”

Cleveland Dietz
Solo work from Cents

But train cars couldn’t last forever.
Graffiti writers began migrating to walls in the ’90s because there weren’t enough train cars to meet the demand, and because some crews, such as Indianapolis’s Infamous With Style, wanted time to create more complex works.
“IWS is the only crew that really did a lot of inventive stuff that’s from around here,” says Cents. The group was founded by artist Dope in the mid-’90s and included, at one time or another, many of the writers that worked in the city. Cents was one of them. Only two other members—Detour and Sacred—are still doing walls.
Cents joined the crew the way most writers do: Someone recruited him. Sacred was in Cents’s art class in high school and discovered that the guy could draw characters. No one in IWS could do character work, so they taught Cents how to do walls. When they did production pieces—big, elaborate paintings—after that, the works had characters on them. “That’s a ’90s thing, too,” Cents says, “the concentration, the focus, on detailed, extravagant murals versus just elaborate lettering pieces.”
Some of Cents’s character work

The crew had to paint in secluded places to do that kind of work. They had to have time. Cents’s first piece took two weeks. Sometimes he would be there all day, sometimes just an hour. The place was so out-of-the-way, it was unlikely cops would ever show. “There, you’re talking about when your audience is only other graffiti artists, you can be as abstract or detailed as you want,” he says.
Infamous With Style disbanded in the early 2000s after Dope left to do other things, but some of its members reunited in 2004. In 2015, the remainder of IWS did a sanctioned wall for its 20th anniversary.
Part of a sanctioned IWS wall in Fountain Square

Even while the city commissions street art, not everyone is on board. Citizens have taken up the cause—Keep Indianapolis Beautiful provides paint supplies to people to help them combat what they consider eyesores in their neighborhood as part of its “Graffiti-Free Indy” initiative.
The Kurt Vonnegut mural on Mass Ave

Public art, like the Kurt Vonnegut mural on Mass Ave, is one way communities are fighting illegal graffiti. If a wall is already painted, writers are less likely to put something on it. That’s true whether the work is legal or illegal, Cents says. It’s an unspoken rule: Don’t paint over anything unless you can paint something bigger or better. The permission walls, self-policing places where people who want to paint graffiti can without repercussions, are another approach, but they’re less effective. There’s not much overlap between people who use them and people who do paint illegally. They’re not any fun for the latter.
“Murals and street art, people like that,” Cents says. “It’s very friendly, mostly it’s contained. But bombing, graffiti writing, lettering, tagging, people still hate that. Unless you’re a specific person whose tag is known, people don’t want to see any tags.”
It’s the difference between an Andrew “Zephyr” Witten, who is in the IMA exhibition, and a graffiti writer such as Miguel “Choke” Villanueva, who was arrested in Indianapolis in 2010 and pleaded guilty to criminal mischief and criminal gang activity charges.
Lettering by Zephyr on South Palmer Street

The IMA’s traveling exhibition from the Museum of the City of New York features more than 100 pieces from the Martin Wong Collection, as well as work from Indiana artists FAB Crew, Malcolm Mobutu Smith, Samuel Vasquez, Nicholas Smith, and Nathan Storm. See it at the IMA at Newfields through January 28.