Freelance teaching by Javier Abarca
Javier Abarca has designed this series of twenty-two classes covering theory, history and critique about the whole field of graffiti, street art and related topics. The classes are the product of ten years of experience teaching these topics at the university. Custom-made courses can be programmed to fit the needs of the interested institution.
Abarca is a renowned specialist in the international graffiti and street art scene. A leading figure from the first generation of Spanish graffiti, he now works regularly for European conferences and festivals teaching courses and workshops. He is founder and director of the Unlock Book Fair and the Tag Conference. More info here.
Sharing this knowledge for so many years with hundreds of students of every age and background has allowed the teacher to design lectures which reach the core of the key questions, while at the same time being enjoyable, dynamic and accessible for people without prior knowledge.
1. Graffiti in history
Historical antecedents of graffiti are surprisingly abundant, and show how informal wall writing has been part of everyday normality in every strata of society, in most times and places. From the classical era to the Middle Ages, romanticism and the 20th century.
2. The subway graffiti of New York
The most important form of graffiti is undoubtedly the one which appeared in New York in the seventies, and which has conquered the world since the eighties. This class studies the genesis and history of the movement in its original environment of the New York subway. Starting with the first tags at the end of the sixties, on to the spectacular letterings the size of a subway car from the seventies and eighties, and to the eventual disappearance of the phenomena in 1989.
3. The graffiti diaspora
Expelled from the subway, graffiti sought new environments, and evolved in order to adapt to very different kinds of surfaces. The phenomena was exported worldwide. During the nineties, the European scene turned into a laboratory that generated new codes in the game: photography as vehicle for the pieces, international travel as a basic goal, and the introduction of specialised paint. The latest changes have to do with the adoption of new, ever more radical tools.
4. Graffiti, from experience to spectacle
The practice of graffiti consists mostly in the exploration and reinvention of the environment. With the introduction of specialised media (magazines, videos, internet) and of the specialised market (aerosols, etc), a great part of that experience has turned into a mere act of consumption of images and products. Video has consolidated as one of the main tools in graffiti. This class studies these topics, and shows some of the videos that have been milestones in this evolution.
5. Styles from Europe
The game of graffiti was redefined in Europe in the nineties, in particular regarding graphic styles. This class studies two graphic tendencies, both characteristically European, but diametrically opposed to each other. On the one hand, “3D style”, one of the highest moments in the evolution towards slick gimmickry. On the other, the so-called “anti-style”, a form of ironic, deliberately ugly graffiti which reinterprets the innocence and spontaneity of the kids who created the art form in the seventies. Through the analysis of these two currents graffiti is studied as a device for the graphic expression of emotions and attitudes.
6. Cholo graffiti and boxcar art
With its international expansion, the New York tradition of graffiti has caused the disappearance of most other graffiti cultures. Nevertheless, traditions of incalculable richness have existed, and still exist. This class studies two of them. It first addresses LA gang graffiti, or cholo graffiti. Then it looks into boxcar art, the unknown culture of graffiti on freight trains – small anagrams drawn with paintsticks – created by the hobos, train-hopping vagabonds, and practised intensely in North America since the late 19th century.
7. Punk graffiti, pixação and flechero graffiti
Informal wall writing has been a part of punk culture since its inception. Punk and heavy metal were the breeding ground for several graffiti cultures in different parts of the globe in the seventies and eighties. This class studies the most important ones. First it looks into the extraordinary pixação from Brazil. It then studies the invaluable but unknown flechero graffiti, the indigenous Madrilenian movement led by visionary artist Muelle in the eighties.
8. Graffiti and psychogeography I
For the practitioner of graffiti, the graphic element is only one part of his or her activity. Just as important, or even more so, are the aspects of exploration and reinterpretation of the environment. Graffiti is actually more closely related to skateboarding, parkour or urban exploration than to painting. This class makes use of situationist theory to shed light on this topic.
9. Graffiti and psychogeography II
This class studies the work of Swedish artists Adam and Akay, and the German duo Wermke Leinkauf, all of them raised as graffiti writers. Their very significant but relatively unknown pieces are perfect illustrations of the concepts studied in the previous class.
10. The city as playground
In class number eight, situationist ideas were used to understand how graffiti is actually a game of exploration and a way to avoid urban alienation. In the past decades, many other cultures have appeared with similar methodologies and goals. Studying them allows a better understanding of graffiti. These cultures range from the tactical (letterboxing, geocaching, urban scavenger hunts, alternate reality games), to the physical (parkour, buildering, trainsurfing, skateboarding, BMX street or BASE jumping), to the exploratory (urbex, trainhopping, prositu tours such as those by Stalker or Conflux), to the social (flashmobs, urban playground movement).
11. Street art, from the sixties to the eighties
In the sixties, tactics such as performance or land art allowed artists to break away from conventional art practices. This same impulse also generated many other experiments we would now call street art. Approaches and tactics believed to be crucial findings of the present generation were actually tested in depth in the sixties and seventies by isolated artists. The first wave of street art appeared in the eighties from the confluence of contemporary art with outdoor advertising, graffiti and punk.
12. Street art in the nineties
The popularity of street art ended abruptly with the eighties. The nineties saw very little activity, with the exception of a few scattered artists. The most significant of them were North Americans Revs and Shepard Fairey, who through that decade developed an extremely intense and visionary work which came to comprise a good part of the framework of the street art scene of the 2000s.
13. Street art since 2000
In the first years of the 21st century, the proliferation of broadband connections enabled the reappearance of street art, now a global, closely connected scene. This class studies the evolution of the scene and looks into some of its most significant artists. It uses their work to analyse the inner workings characteristic of street art, and the dimensions of the experience of its viewer.
14. Working with the context
Most art in the street art scene is mainly graphic, and takes the form of series of pieces with which artists propagate their visual identity. Beyond this, a minority of artists do away with identity and seriality, and focus on producing site-specific pieces, anonymous and independent from each other. The emphasis placed on idea and analysis situates these practices close to contemporary art.
15. Art brut in public space
The terms art brut and outsider art refer to art produced by people unrelated to art conventions, often residents of sanitariums. The work of outsider artist tends to be bizarre and visionary, suggesting new, revealing ways of conceiving art. This class studies some artists of this kind who work or have worked in public space. For example, Tsang Tsou Choi, Alain Rault or Athur Stace. All of them oblivious to the art world as well as to the street art scene, and capable of coming up with radically new approaches in the interaction with public space.
16. Grey walls, depoliticised space
Often, the ban on graffiti is made effective by covering it with a new layer of paint, culturally different to the first, but equivalent in practical terms. This arbitrarity is even more visible when the wall is not repainted in its entirety, but is instead gradually patched-up with successive shades of grey, in compositions so prominent they have generated a whole culture around their aesthetic appreciation. Artists and activists take advantage of this equivocal terrain using tactics such as strategically applying grey paint, or selectively cleaning dirt from walls.
Artivism, creative activism and culture jamming are some of the terms used in trying to identify a group of very diverse forms of activism, appearing since the seventies, all of them sharing a creative approach and the use of satire. The goal of these tactics is often the reclamation of public space and the denouncement of its progressive privatisation. This class studies some currents and collectives representative of the field, with a special focus on anti-advertising.
18. Street art, advertising and politics
Street art stands on an equivocal and uncomfortable position between the opposed poles of anti-advertising activism and guerrilla marketing. This class studies these three elements, and their relation to each other. It also studies some cases of street art with political content, way more minoritary and superficial than is often assumed. It ends by looking into the case of pioneering artist Shepard Fairey, whose work blatantly exploits the very causes it allegedly supports.
19. Social assimilation of graffiti and street art
Progressively assimilated into society, graffiti and street art cease to be dissonant elements and become gears in the system. This assimilation takes place along different fronts. The entertainment industry exploits these currents, advertising makes use of their aesthetics and tactics, and street works become tourist attractions or are sold to collectors. In addition, the artists themselves become workers for galleries, corporations or governments in an often criticised but common transition.
20. Graffiti, street art, murals and gentrification
Graffiti, street art and murals have different effects on gentrification and related population flows. If the presence of artists traditionally cleaned the image of an area and made it attractive for the middle class, the presence of street art goes beyond that, because it conjures up graffiti and the urban realness associated to it. Governments and companies interested in the gentrification of an area will often induce this changes by promoting street-art-related mural festivals. This class analyses the contradictory and often difficult roles played by these art forms in this sociocultural setting.
21. From the street to the market
Producing art in the street involves very different processes, skills and sensibilities than doing it in an exhibition space. Many graffiti and street artists have taken the leap into the art market, following different tactics. This class studies these models of transition and their levels of success, both artistic and commercial. It also looks into the diverse markets different to the art market for which graffiti and street artists often work.
22. From street art to murals, what have we lost?
The big, institutional murals that have become common in the last five years are often referred to as street art. This use of the term creates confusion, since there are clear and fundamental differences between these murals and the smaller, unsanctioned works we used to call street art in the past decade. This class identifies the differences between these two practices, and is at the same time a detailed account of the qualities that make street art unique.