Renegade Graffitist – Dialogue or Monologue? (Eileen Doughty)

Mother - James De La Vega Brick Madonna - James De La Vega

Mother and Brick Madonna by James De La Vega courtesy Ray Kass

A special issue of Smithsonian Magazine recently profiled 37 American innovators (in arts and sciences) under the age of 36. One person featured is James De La Vega, who makes his art in Manhattan, both inside his storefront gallery and outside all over the city. Outside, he makes his mark with paint, chalk, or tape, on sidewalks, benches, walls. Inside, he sells fine art paintings and also t-shirts of his designs.

The New York Times described De La Vega as “a hybrid between a street kid and an Ivy League-educated guerrilla performance artist.” (He graduated from Cornell University.) He has been arrested more than once for vandalism, but Christie’s has sold his art for thousands of dollars. The terms the Smithsonian article used to describe him are street muralist, performance artist, guerrilla artist, renegade graffitist; vandal is perhaps implied. The keywords on his own website are “Graffiti Artist, Painter, Photographer, Educator, Activist, Thinker”.

The magazine quotes him saying, “I like the idea of the artist going out in the world and creating a dialogue. So I try to write something I think people need to hear, or rehear. Something to make them think, to be in that moment… For some people, its a confrontation. But I think for most, it reassures them — it gives them something to reflect on. Art is interacting with people.” In a 2005 interview, he says, “I like doing permanent works sometimes. But I’ve found that my message is more effective in its impermanence.”

Justice - James De La VegaJustice - James De La Vega

image by James De La Vega of Justice courtesy www.pixelpixie.net/vega/

In the same interview, when asked about his artistic influences he responded, “Picasso teaches us freedom. Keith Herring and Andy Warhol, that’s marketing and promotion. Salvador Dali was into that too, Paul Klee, the line drawings in The New Yorker.” When asked the same by the Smithsonian writer, De La Vega added Norman Rockwell, because he likes artists “who speak to people, who can get through to a lot of people.” He also enjoys John Wayne films for the colorful cinematography. Here is a guy who isn’t easy to pigeonhole.

St Sebastian - James De La Vega

image by James De La Vega of St Sebastian courtesy www.pixelpixie.net/vega/

Some of his adages that appear as part of his art:

  • Fate is moving you toward your destiny.
  • The rich control the destiny of the poor, but an intelligent man controls his own.
  • Be mindful even if your mind is full.
  • Become your dream.
  • Remember, The Devil Was Once A Beautiful Angel.

I don’t find anything much more profound than can be found in a fortune cookie in the list.

My questions:

  • What effect does the venue have on the art? For example, would the work made with tape about “justice” cause a different reaction if hung as a painting inside a gallery? Does the shock value graffiti gets by its placement in public enhance any artistic qualities that might otherwise be perceived as lacking — such as the text De La Vega often places with his drawings?
  • Should respect for the venue be something the artist considers; is graffiti above the law because it is art?
  • Is De La Vega successful in his aim to create a dialog with those who view his art? Or is it a monologue, or even a diatribe? For it to be a dialog, how would the viewer be able to respond to him? If he considers art to be interacting with people, does graffiti cause a negative interaction despite the best intentions of the artist? (His intention seems to be to inspire positive reactions in his viewers’ lives and thoughts.)

Be Free - James De La Vega

image by James De La Vega courtesy Ray Kass

Muerte - James De La Vega

image by James De La Vega of Muerte courtesy www.pixelpixie.net/vega/
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3 Responses to “Renegade Graffitist – Dialogue or Monologue? (Eileen Doughty)”


  1. 1 Lee November 7, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    I have never been clear on the legality of graffiti. I can certainly see that some of the practitioners put a great deal of effort into it, and some of it is genuinely lovely. At base though, there seems to be a repetitive advertising quality to it that negates the artistic qualities.

    I had not thought of Goldsworthy or Christo and Jeanne-Claude as a graffitists but instead as environmental artists. Their work explicitly addresses the location of the work, and is defined by it. I love that the art made by these people appears and is appreciated or excortiated, and then it -vanishes!- leaving the scene pristine.

    I had seen Banksy’s work on the ‘net but not in person. He definitely counts as a graffiti artist. The fact that he makes me stop and think, or laugh, or both, helps me get past the graffiti aspect of it and into the art part.

  2. 2 eileen doughty November 6, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks for your comments. I especially appreciated seeing Banksy’s website – some of his graffiti, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry at what he is depicting. Perhaps that is a more effective way of making a point – “pointed humor”.

  3. 3 Olga November 5, 2007 at 1:42 am

    This guy sounds like a US version of the UK artists like Banksy http://www.banksy.co.uk/ and Adam Neate http://www.elmslesters.co.uk/exhibitions/exhs15.html

    Aesthetically I must declare a preference for the two UK guys. I think that their content has more than just soundbites, and genuinely brings the viewer up short when first encountered. I agree with the cookie fortune-ness not only of De La Vega’s list but also his ‘art’.

    1. The venue should make a difference. Banksy’s graffiti on the Israeli ‘fence’ makes its meaning, and any ‘conventional’ gallery art would not have the same impact. However, the art has to be good, no matter what the venue. Just because it is in the street does not make it good street art – just as a painting in a frame in a gallery is not necessarily a good painting. In fact when Mark Wallinger brought State Britain, Brian Haw’s protest against the Iraq war into Tate Britain http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/wallinger/, I thought that he diminished the powerful message considerably, and did not necessarily make it art. I’m not sure that it is art anyway, but it sure had a powerful message.

    2. Respect for the venue is a moveable feast. Street art should be temporary as its message is of the moment anyway, so good street art should be regarded as fugitive as that of Christo or Andy Goldsworthy, and captured permanently only in photograph etc.

    3. The dialogue with street art can be immediate in inspiration, or in destruction, or it is more valid in a longterm response of the viewer’s relationship with authority, their daily life, dealings with other people, etc. Like any art really. A negative interaction is I believe just as valid as a positive one, and over time, who is to say which is more beneficial to the viewer?

    I certainly don’t think that he is an innovator.


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