A world-renowned painting hangs on the wall of a Manhattan museum; tickets are
upward of 30 dollars. Thick paint smears the side of a brick wall in the Bronx. A classic Greek
sculpture is poised in the center of a marble hall somewhere in Brooklyn. A colorful mural in a
Queens park is scratched and chipped. When people are called upon to define “art”, all types of
art forms spring to mind, from paintings to pottery to sculptures, but these art mediums share one
major commonality. They are examples of art that is typically found in a pricey museum or a
private institution — in short, art that isn’t immediately accessible.
As a result, art has been relegated to designated outings and trips to museums and cultural
venues. Museum-commissioned and privately owned art is also stereotypically associated with
certain demographics, particularly the wealthy. The High Line is a park in New York that seeks
to integrate art into people’s surroundings and daily lives and, perhaps inadvertently, also
combats stereotypes of art being for the elite. A set of abandoned train tracks, slightly elevated
over the city, has been transformed into an art haven, filled with sometimes bizarre structures
including a cleverly disguised see-saw, a xylophone meant to be played with fists instead of
mallets, and a sculpture, Giantess, shaped like bronze witch’s shoes and surrounded by bushes.
But rather than simply featuring art, the High Line also does an outstanding job of
exposing New Yorkers to the art that exists in the city. The height provides an excellent vantage
point for viewing a painting mounted on a rooftop. A dancer, painting with bold, long
brushstrokes, is captured mid-motion, in swirls of orange and yellow with her feet flying. The
frenzy of warm shades is a stark contrast with the bright blue of the background, and the figure
herself is draped interestingly across the backdrop — arrested in movement, she mostly takes up
space at the left side of the painting and the long lines of her movement stream across to the right
and trail off. It’s a moment that captures stillness, which in itself is a stark contrast to the hustle
and bustle of the High Line and New York City itself.
What’s it called? Well, it’s likely the piece doesn’t have a name. It’s not commissioned.
It has no golden plaque bearing a description and the artist’s name. It’s not kept at a certain
temperature to ensure that it is well-preserved, and it’s not regularly taken out of its glass case
for special treatment. The closest thing it has to security guards are pigeons that occasionally
land atop it.
In fact, it’s probably, well…graffiti.
Graffiti carries a stigma with it — it’s looked down upon as a nuisance, and more
severely, as a crime: vandalism. But in cities, it is nearly omnipresent, and New York is no
exception to this rule. Critics of graffiti claim that it defaces private property and is an ugly
blemish upon the city. And while graffiti can and often does appear to be carelessly done and
contributes little, artistically, to its surroundings, it is also surprisingly often a thoughtful addition
that brightens and enhances the city, inspires passersby, and interacts with its urban environment
in fresh and novel ways.
New York City contains so many examples of this — one that is easily viewable from the
High Line portrays a colorful cat painted on the side of a residential apartment building. This is
public art at its best, and perhaps vandalism at its worst. There is no fee required or ticket
necessitated to be able to view it. Yet the blue dancer painting’s lack of a designated space and
the absence of an accompanying plaque for the cat painting doesn’t detract from their artistic
merits. Whether it’s graffiti or not, it’s also a piece of art that is truly for the masses. It’s in its
natural habitat, and unexpectedly provides viewers with artistic meaning in a place where they
might not have been looking for it. It’s meant to make people stop and stare, double up, look
back — and it succeeds.
Graffiti forces us to grapple with questions of art’s definition and intended audience, as
well as issues of its availability, appeal, and message — and therein lies its value. There is
disagreement about what graffiti is — does it have to be on private property? Is it art that is in a
space intended for something else? — but the general consensus seems to be that graffiti is art
that doesn’t belong. And this is exactly what gives it its power. After all, art that belongs is
pleasant, but art that doesn’t belong is unnerving and necessary.