Last week, I witnessed an art event I thought would possibly never occur: the Museum of Modern Art made a serious step forward in recognizing the cultural importance of graffiti writing and hip hop at their fascinating panel discussion, “Writers and Writers: Narrative on the Page and in the Street.”
Even though MoMA briefly introduced graffiti and hip hop into their hallowed galleries during the small and by no means, comprehensive exhibition Looking at Music 3.0 in their media gallery, the panel marks MoMA’s first detailed and in-depth look into graffiti and hip hop culture and possibly the first institutional program to refer to these individuals as “writers.”
Part of MoMA’s PopRally events, the “Writers and Writers” panel was not connected to any particular exhibition, although a MoMA staff writer introduced the panel as being in part related to their forthcoming Jean Dubuffet retrospective since the French artist was inspired by the graffiti in post-war Paris.
Moderated by radio host Jay Smooth, founder of WBAI’s Underground Railroad, New York’s longest running hip hop radio program, the panel featured a variety of types of writers, including hip hop lyricist and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan GZA , graffiti writer, historian and 12oz prophet blogger Alan KET Maridueña, author Adam Mansbach, of Go the F*ck to Sleep and the recently published graffiti novel, Rage is Back, and artist José Parlá, who is most known for his newly unveiled mural Diary of Brooklyn at the Barclay’s Center.
Like Ket who is a high-profile graffiti writer and a self-proclaimed vandal, Parlá grew up writing graffiti in Miami and continues to paint on the street, including a recent collaboration with French street artist JR in Cuba.
In addition to the two actual graffiti writers, Adam Mansbach and GZA both defined graffiti as an unquestionable influence on their writing.
Recognizing a connection between the manner he used words and the importance of lettering in graffiti writing, Mansbach loved the way that a graffiti writer’s entire career was based on a word, their own name.
The panelist that I was most curious to hear from and his connection to graffiti writing was GZA since I have always respected his skillful lyrics and, I have even been known to shout Wu-Tang Clan lyrics at the ripe age of eleven. Always struck by graffiti on the walls, GZA admitted that he tried to write graffiti but realized he didn’t have a steady enough hand. Instead, GZA took inspiration directly from graffiti he observed on the street and transferred a similar energy to his songs. He explained that he once saw a Christmas piece by a graffiti writer that featured a verse from Twas the Night Before Christmas and he began writing his song “Cold World,” which appeared on his album Liquid Swords.
As GZA described at the panel:
“When I look at graffiti, I see struggle, pain, happiness.”
Throughout the 90-minute discussion, the panelists covered a wide range of topics from whether graffiti is inherently oppositional to authority to the over-commercialization of contemporary hip hop to the co-opting of graffiti tactics by advertisers such as ads on the outside of subway cars.
Perhaps the most striking part of the panel, particularly given its MoMA setting, was when the discussion turned toward the importance of preserving the history of graffiti, a typically ephemeral art form and its placement in art institutions.
The graffiti historian on the panel KET, who published a large number of books on graffiti including Hall of Fame: New York and Graffiti Planet: The Best Graffiti from Around the World, asserted that most of the lack of graffiti in museums was mostly due to an institutional ignorance about graffiti. “The museums don’t have the knowledge to decipher what’s real and there’s fear among the institutions that they are getting duped,” KET said.
In order to combat this lack of knowledge on graffiti, KET strives to write biographies and books on figures in the graffiti world so art historians can be better informed of this history and the major figures in graffiti writing.
As Ket revealed:
“There is an importance in capturing and writing our stories so people aren’t forgotten.”
Through Ket’s observations about graffiti and institutions, the “Writers and Writers” panel at MoMA seems like a significant moment in the acceptance of graffiti writing and hip hop into art institutions.
Even though the panel was a huge step forward for MoMA, there were still some notable exclusions in the organization of the panel, namely the lack of a woman panelist. Even though both graffiti and hip hop are heavily dominated by men, and MoMA isn’t exactly known for their equal treatment of women artists, there have been many women who have played a large role in the history of both of these fields.
Hopefully this is just the first of many more panels and, fingers crossed, exhibitions on graffiti writing and hip hop that can build on the issues and topics raised at MoMA last week.
“Writers and Writers: Narrative on the Page and in the Street” took place at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on Tuesday, January 8 at 8pm.