Had you asked me two months ago to pick an American city with a thriving arts community, I never would have picked Indianapolis.
In fact, if you’d asked me for my general impressions of Indiana I would have said “Midwest, corn… something about cars?” Maybe also sports??? The Pacers ring a bell. Art would never have crossed my mind, but that’s why the company CityWay exists —to change our minds about what Indianapolis has to offer.
Much like WALL/THERAPY in Rochester, NY, CityWay in Indianapolis uses art and charity to bring diverse communities together. Once a year it hosts IndyDoDay, a day where they to encourage the people of Indianapolis to get out and get involved in a project in their neighborhood so they can “get to know their neighbors, take ownership of their neighborhoods, and take care of one another.” They also partner with the Indianapolis Museum of Art, commissioning artists and bringing art to public spaces.
CityWay worked with The Alexander, a hotel in downtown Indianapolis, to curate the hotel’s art collection. They filled the hotel with the kind of edgy-but-tasteful contemporary art pieces that edgy-but-tasteful people adore and put together a gorgeous lobby bar designed by Jorge Pardo.
All of the hotel art was well received but then they invited the British artist Nick Walker to tag the hotel’s parking garage. For some reason, this was a bridge too far.
Now admittedly, it’s unusual to pay an artist lots of money to intentionally create a space that looks graffitied.
However, this is what Nick Walker does. He came up in the same British graffiti movement as Banksy, the most (in)famous graffiti artist there ever was. Walker has the same irreverent approach with his stencils, although his work is much less political than Banksy.
Walker’s main character is a formally dressed bowler hat-wearing character called Vandal. And most of Walker’s murals focus around the act of creating art.
Here’s the Vandal with his paint can
And his paint dusting plane
And this chica with her spray paint missiles
And I love it. I love the artwork, the themes, the color scheme, and that it’s in a parking garage next to a high end hotel. It’s an unusual place to put commissioned artwork and moreover, it’s a clever way to put the gallery artist crowd and the street art appreciators in proximity and give them exposure to each other’s art.
Except not everyone agrees with me. I found the public response puzzling, to say the least.
In an article I can only describe as snarky, Katherine Brooks, the senior arts & culture editor for the Huffington Post, described Walker as “Banksy-esque,” which no one would argue considering they were influenced by the same graffiti school. Despite that connection, somehow she makes it sound like Walker is simply an imitator. And then Brooks calls Walker’s work “lowbrow basement art.”
This article in the Indy alternative newspaper NUVO is generally more positive, but also notes the irony of an highly-paid street artist whose main character is a Vandal “co-opting [the] graffiti culture.”
And that seems more to the point, doesn’t it?
However, Walker isn’t coopting the graffiti culture, he is a graffiti artist. Back in the 80’s he painted buildings illegally, just like all the other graffiti artists of that era. Walker’s work still references street art politics and vandalism and he still paints on public buildings but now he’s also a big deal art guy selling prints and paintings for thousands of dollars and he gets invited to tag up shi-shi hotel parking garages. Apparently that’s not ok? Apparently he’s only allowed to be an illegal vandalizing graffiti artist wherein he can paint whatever he wants or he’s allowed to be a big deal gallery artist but then he has to change his style and subject matter to suit the venue.
Walker is clearly aware that his artwork gets people’s knickers in a twist. He says:
“At the end of the day, ‘vandal’ is a taboo word…It’s a word everyone associates with graffiti. Everyone says if you paint graffiti it’s vandalism, or they used to before it became more of an acceptable art form.”
Therein lies the crux of the dilemma, right?
Graffiti used to be considered vandalism. It was cool because it was an art form created by outsiders and rebels and revolutionaries who flouted the law.
Graffiti artists were braver and crazier than the rest of us and their work was even more precious and fleeting because of the government’s power to eradicate it immediately and jail the artist. Anyone who believed in their art form strongly enough to risk imprisonment was inspiring.
But now… it’s different. Today street artists are invited to paint. They’re paid and often paid well, and their work is coveted by private collectors. Formerly repudiated artists now show their work in posh galleries and museums and their work is chiseled off of public walls and sold at auction for a zillion dollars.
So where does that leave us?
Is street art still a form of rebellious expression?
Is graffiti still outsider art if it’s supported by big companies and museums?
And more importantly, if street art no longer is outsider art, does it lose its impact?
I don’t have answers for these questions. Yet.
However, hear this: Nick Walker worked long and hard to get here and he outlasted thousands of other graffiti artists in the process. Moreover, his artwork is badass and if people pay him a zillion dollars for it, then good on him.
We should all be so lucky.