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Street Art Vs. Stand-Up Comedy Part 2

November 16, 2010

Welcome to part 2 of Street Art Vs. Stand-up comedy (part 1 here). Let us continue the list of 4 similarities that are shared between these disciplines.

3) Culture

Claude Fischer defines a subculture as,

“…a large set of people who share a defining trait, associate with one another, are members of institutions associated with their defining trait, adhere to a distinct set of values, share a set of cultural tools and take part in a common way of life.”

By this definition, both stand-up comedy and street art are distinct sub-cultures, including a specialized vocabulary and set of accepted behaviours.  Also, both of these sub-cultures are highly exclusionary to “outsiders.” 

For example, there is a word for newbie artists in the street art community: “toy.” If a “toy” breaks etiquette by painting over a more established artist’s work, their art will be ruined in return.  Often by scrawling this label over top.  In fact, the paste-up piece to the left I did in Melbourne was quickly defaced by the artist whose work I covered.  Simply put, you have to earn your place in the community through hard work and skill. Even the aspect of legality in street art is a point of contention.  Hardcore artists claim that if the work is commissioned, or even tolerated by the owner of the building, it is no longer street art.

I find the same attitude prevails in stand-up. If somebody shows up to an open mike once every couple of months, does a set and calls themselves a comic, you better believe they get less respect than those who are out every night in the trenches.  Rather than scrawling “toy” over a noob’s lame set, instead you might see a line up of comics at the back of the room, arms crossed, laughing sarcastically when a particularly bad joke is made. 

Likewise, for both art forms there is a strong sense of camaraderie that pervades the scene. It is always interesting to me to see 19 year old comics and 40 year old comics chatting as if there were no generation gap, on the strength of their shared experiences in comedy. And in street art, you need to trust the people in your crew. After all, they could rat you out.  Both communities seem to demand only one criteria for acceptance: are you good?

4) Misunderstood

The final similarity I see between street art and stand-up comedy is that they are often misunderstood by their intended audience. 

Recently, I was having a chat with someone from the boomer generation.  She noticed a book I was reading which taught graf art techniques (the use of letters and simple symbols in street art). She was offended that I would spend time studying “vandalism.”  When I tried to defend myself, she stated flat out that all street artists should be arrested.

My thoughts drifted to Lenny Bruce, standing trial for criticizing religion in his act.  The judge called him a pervert and labelled his work as mindless obscenity.  It’s good to know that people haven’t forgotten how to dismiss things they don’t care to understand.  

I think I see her perspective, though. A lot of street art is simply tagging (using a thick black marker to write a basic tag or signature that often looks pretty ugly). Tagging is also used to mark territory, so it has this scary functional aspect to it. Nobody likes to feel that they are living on a gang’s turf. Also, I get that someone who has worked hard to buy property will have strong feelings associated to that ownership. Someone modifying its appearance without your consent must seem like a violation.

So I get it. I see where she’s coming from. Do I agree with her that street art should be banned? Well, I think you know the answer:

For the pretty, censored, homogenized version of life, we have commercial art.  I say, let the vandals speak.  They’ve got more to say.

You can find the same judgement aimed at stand-up. Some people are disappointed when they are not given humour on their terms. It always kills me when someone says, “You shouldn’t do that joke, it’s offensive. It’s not funny.” What does one have to do with the other?  

But again, I kind of get it.  When I was a stupid kid, I used to say ignorant stuff like, “Country music sucks.”  Over time, I realized that country music must not suck, or it wouldn’t exist.  Somebody out there likes it.  So now I say, “Country music is not for me.”  Small difference in wording, big change in attitude.

Take it All

Street art and stand-up.  Two art forms that I love dearly, and I think bring warmth, wisdom and laughter to the world.   From the bandana-clad hooligan spraying his propaganda, to the loudmouth smart-ass spitting jokes, these two art forms will feed you as much truth as you can handle.  To my boomer friend who might make spray paint illegal, or throw Andrew Dice Clay in prison for misogyny, I say, if you want  visual art, take it all. If you want comedy, take it all. 

Let me shout this from the roof-tops: IF YOU WANT ART, TAKE IT ALL.  If that’s sometimes inconvenient or uncomfortable… good.  It’s the point of the thing.

A few more pieces from around Melbourne and Toronto:

All of the photos for this article were taken by me, either in Melbourne, Australia, or Toronto, Canada. I can’t credit the artists for what I’d think are obvious reasons.  If you created one of these pieces and want credit, just drop me an email or a comment and we’ll sort it out.

I’ll end off this post with a time lapse video of a complex street art piece coming together.  I suspect this particular piece was commissioned, but that doesn’t make the creation process any less interesting.

 

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