A few weeks ago, my boss told me to find a rough and artsy place to stage our next photo shoot. I work at Girls’ Life Magazine, a publication geared toward 10-15 year olds, so I was a little bit confused as to how a rough and artsy place I might find in Baltimore would provide a suitable back drop to the extremely girly holiday fashion spread we were shooting. But my editor is the boss so I set out on the Internet to find anything with an edge that would contrast the silk, tulle, and feathery ensembles the model would don. I came across Load of Fun art studio, a live-in studio right on North Avenue, about 10 minutes from my apartment at Loyola. It has an outdoor graffiti studio in the alley behind the studio that was perfect for the shoot.
Without any pictures of the actual graffiti on display I worried that the walls of the alley would be sloppy messes of tag names and gang signs, which was the only graffiti I had ever been introduced to. When I contacted one of the live-in artists, David, he told me they have graffiti parties every Saturday afternoon followed by a party where you can invite friends and family to view your work and the work of your friends. I was never able to attend one of these parties but when the day of the shoot came, I was eager to see the art created by these people who were shunned by law enforcement and ‘normal’ society for marking up buildings, bridges, and sides of highways. I wanted to see what they could do in an environment where they were encouraged to create their art, and I was also interested to see if what they did could impress me as so many classical and modern artworks have in museum visits and trips abroad.
I was blown away when I reached North Avenue – I truly could not have been more shocked at the beauty and perfection of the pieces displayed on the concrete walls. There were words, human figures, abstract shapes, and city outlines, all accompanied by small and vibrant tag names so the artist could be praised and respected for their masterpiece. I never thought that spray paint could be used in such a way that would shock and astound me so much. David told me that was often people’s reaction and that he feels privileged to be able to create his art in a place protected from the ignorant masses that look at him as someone who vandalizes their neighborhood.
Much like the tattoo, graffiti is a form of travel that tells a story and like a human body, the alley behind Load of Fun can only take so much paint on its walls before it’s filled up. After a time, the owners will paint over graffiti pieces to start anew for fresh artists with fresh perspectives on the art. And even though someone’s art might get painted over, the common theme in the graffiti artists I saw is their dedication to perfection. They are not hoodlums looking to mark their territory with rushed scrawl; they are artists who are always working to perfect their art to set themselves apart from artists before them.
The tattoos of James O’Connell were a lot like the graffiti in the alley: accepted and respected in their own culture but shunned and demonized in the outside world. The women who tattooed O’Connell demanded “perfection in the pelipel they created” (4) much like the taggers I saw at work, David and Andre, who worked relentlessly to shape and reshape and add new color until their pieces were exactly right. These women were revered in their own communities because of their special talents and yet the people of the world outside of the South Pacific couldn’t grasp their importance because it did not match up with the proprieties of their own culture. And as tattoos have been accepted in many places around the world today, hopefully graffiti can be accepted as the beautiful and fascinating art form it is.