Growing up in the “golden age of hip-hop” Adrian Duran, Assistant Professor of Art History at University of Nebraska-Omaha, developed a love for hip-hop culture at a young age– a love that included graffiti.
“Graffiti is part of the same cultural movement that gave us hip-hop,” said Duran. “It spread like hip-hop. That’s [graffiti’s] roots, its core.”
After growing up in New Jersey, Duran went on to college at Notre Dame. He originally intended to study anthropology, but by chance took an art history course. It made sense to him and he continued to study art history, without looking back. A semester abroad studying art in Rome really sealed the deal for Duran.
Most of the time, when a person thinks of graffiti they envision it in the modern sense—as in graffiti that started in the 1970s in New York City. However, Duran traces graffiti’s origins back to ancient Egypt. It started out as social commentary, daily anecdotes and toilet humor. A revealing example of this is the graffiti preserved in Pompeii, where words like “Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!” are scratched on the walls of bars.
Modern day graffiti still keeps its historical roots. It tries to convey a message and get people out of their comfort zones, just like in ancient times. Duran said that most graffiti starts off in an ego-centric way, like a graffiti “writer” wanting to get their name well known. This perpetuates into bad graffiti. Duran heavily criticizes people that just go out and tag their names, especially if it is not well done or thought out. This includes bad letters, bad proportions or no color sense. There is an alpha-male mentality in graffiti sometimes, where writers try to get their name out so much they tag wherever and as much they can, including other artists’ artwork.
Much like the interview with Drifty, Duran is a supporter of graffiti, but only if it is done well. He said that what good graffiti artist should try to do is murals, not just tagging around the area.
“Maybe that makes me an elitist, but bad art is bad. When it’s done well, it has so much power.”
Duran had much to say in regards to the illegality of graffiti. He classifies it as an “illegal art”—art that has been made illegal. Duran likens graffiti artists who paint murals to artists from the Renaissance. If a person was rich in the Renaissance, it was common to have the front of their palace painted with murals. Duran saw no difference between the artists of the past and present day graffiti artists. One can go into a studio and spray paint a canvas, but take that out into the streets and it is illegal. The context is what makes graffiti illegal.
“Maybe graffiti isn’t about where you do it, but the ideal behind it.”
Bias against graffiti as a form of art is another issue facing the artists. Duran said that the many of painting professors “would not encourage graffiti as painting.” When speaking about professional painting, graffiti is not usually included. This seems very limiting, considering graffiti is a legitimate art form and many well-known artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Shepherd Fairey and Banksy started off in graffiti. Graffiti is all over the world, it serves as inspiration for young minds. It can be a mode of empowerment and enlightenment. Duran summed it up the best during the interview.
“Art is about ideas; it’s not about being right or wrong.”