When many people hear the term “tagging” or “graffiti” the first thing that pops into their heads is illegal gang activity. While graffiti does have its origins with gangs marking their turf, it has evolved into a full-fledged art form within the last 10 years.
While graffiti is still illegal on both the Christopher Newport University campus and in Virginia, some CNU students have incorporated it’s fundamentals into their artwork. Junior Ryan Gunderlach creates screen-printed stencils on t-shirts, much like the work of famous artist Banksy, just on a much smaller scale.
While Gunderlach incorporates the visual aspects of graffiti into his artwork, he said that “it’s more of a side project because of the legal implications on campus.”
In professor Kristen Skees’ new genres art class, students are asked to push the boundaries of what they think art is. This often has students incorporating street art, which includes sculpture, graffiti or stenciling in public places for the purpose of art instead of vandalism.
Kristen Skees explained that she and her husband, CNU professor Alan Skees, are “much more interested in the boundaries of art and what art can be. We’re interested in the boundaries of art and taking the little baby steps to getting us a little bit more excited about art on campus.”
For the new genres class Gunderlach made a free wall much like the Candy Chang “Before I Die” piece, in which students were told they could write anything on the wall without fear of legal ramifications. The wall did not generate the kind of rebellious feedback that Gunderlach hoped it would, but just pushing the boundaries of what can be done at CNU was seen as a step forward.
Another example is Alan Skees’ exhibit that was in the Falk Gallery of Art earlier this year. Alan Skees work, “The Post Apocalypse Studies: Wrecks,” is a look into a post-apocalyptic world through the use of abandoned and destroyed cars.
“The art’s not happy, but I try and do it in a whimsical manner with the line work,” said Alan Skees.
There are 11 smaller prints and three larger ones, including an apocalyptic school bus that takes up one entire wall. Are these paintings, sculptures or drawings? Nope, they’re giant stickers.
The 11 smaller images are prints, but the three large images are vinyl stickers that Alan Skees made himself by scanning and cutting the stickers. It took 15 hours to put the stickers up on the walls of the Falk Gallery alone.
While the pieces themselves are not street art, it is obvious to see its influences. He classifies his exhibit as the “fine art level of street art, playing towards the gallery.” Graffiti isn’t usually seen in an art gallery but Alan Skees said that “if you have the skills to do that out on the street then there is a gallery that will take your work in and can help you expand it.”
Growing up around graffiti
Both Alan and Kristen Skees attended the University of Alabama Birhimingham for their undergraduate degrees, a place where they were introduced to the graffiti culture. Because Birmingham is a major train hub, the graffiti culture is prominent with people tagging on the trains.
Senior Jasmine Walker grew up in Danville, a city southwest of Richmond. Walker saw the effects of graffiti on her city, and it influences her documentary photo series on tattoos. Walker originally came to CNU to study pre-med, but she switched her major as she figured that she might as well “do something that you’re going to love.”
She categorizes her artwork as “urban style” and says that street art, but graffiti especially, was important in her art education.
“A lot of people think it’s not an art form, but it’s really more than vandalism.”
The line between art and crime
While graffiti is illegal, there are some pieces that many would still consider art. It’s very hard to tell when that line has been crossed between helping or hurting the community with their art.
“Even though they’re doing something illegal, they’re doing something interesting in the community and [they] really care about the community,” said Kristen Skees. She goes on to say that graffiti can become street art when they’re “is a purpose behind the art, and it’s not just vandalism.”
A CNU student who wished to remain anonymous once participated in graffiti in their hometown.
“It was at night, and it was actually pretty scary. There’s always the threat that the cops will show up and get you in trouble,” they explained. “It took about 30 minutes and I just threw up a quick tag.”
Even if the student had been making a community building piece of art, the state of Virginia does not see it that way. According to the juvenile law handbook of Virginia, “anyone who destroys or defaces property not on his own shall be guilty of a class 1 Misdemeanor if the damage to the property is less than $1,000 or a Class 6 Felony if the value of or damage is $1,000 or more.”
What can CNU do?
Obviously because graffiti is illegal in the state of Virginia, it is also illegal at CNU. While there obviously cannot be graffiti on the walls of the DSU or Trible Library, some believe that the university could take steps to bring out the artistic side in its students.
Kristen Skees explained that “there’s something they’ve done in a few cities where they have designated graffiti walls.” Graffiti artists can practice their craft here, without fear that they’re going to get caught breaking the law.
“I’m not saying we should have a free wall on every building, but we should give them a space and say if you want to be creative, do it here,” said Gunderlach. “If we have the teachers and we have the space for it, we should try and facilitate it.”
While these kind of free walls won’t stop the people who are simply looking to break the law, it would give artists another way to explore their creative side and show their talents to the public. The Candy Chang piece was a great first step, but there is always more CNU can do to help facilitate the creativity of the students.