REMIXING THE PUBLIC SPHERE: STREET ART AS SOCIAL COMMENTARY
"THE SUBURBAN DOMESTIC INCUBATOR"
Many of the so-called beautiful losers cite their upbringing in suburban America as a source of anxiety that influenced their decisions to escape what Ed Templeton called "the suburban domestic incubator." Aaron Rose explains how moving from suburbia to the city gave him a surge of artistic inspiration. Whereas the suburbs were filled with identical houses, strip malls, and the pressure to conform to a certain brand of complacent consumerism, artists like Rose saw the escape from suburbia as essential to creative growth. He explains how “leaving the suburban environment and coming to the city was what [he] was looking for in life was to have a real experience cause [he] felt like [he] grew up in a fake world.” Ed Templeton echoes this statement, saying that once he left his suburban home and explored the city, where he previously lived felt like "a big fake dream.” This move from the conformity of the suburban environment to the frenetic, creative energy of the larger cities like San Francisco and New York, where the majority of these artists now work, influenced the artists' later work as the uniqueness of their art often parodies the ideals of consumer society. Mike Mills explains his relationship to mainstream society as both a source of inspiration and of frustration, saying, “The mainstream was like my first girlfriend that dumped me really hard and I’ve never forgotten her…And I think that’s why my work often relates to it, even if I’m like poking at it or fucking with it." The tension between mainstream society and underground street culture what makes the work of the beautiful losers so provocative.
THE POLITICS OF GRAFFITI
“It’s one of those ‘Quality of Life’ offenses, you can’t just take one of those ‘Quality of Life’ offenses. It's like: three card monty, and pick-pocketing, and shoplifting, and graffiti defacing our public and private walls. They’re all in the same area of destroying our lifestyle and making it difficult to enjoy life. And I think it has to be responded to.”
Geoff McFetridge cites the 1983's Style Wars, a documentary about the emergence of graffiti in New York, as a major influence of his artistic style. Further, the quote from Mayor Koch underscores what Barry McGee refers to as the antagonistic nature of graffiti art. Since the art of the beautiful losers similarly sought to antagonize mainstream society, the incorporation of graffiti and other forms of street art was a natural fit. Whereas suburban development encourages a kind of assimilation, graffiti art remixes the urban landscape, critiquing social injustice and the facelessness of mainstream urban development.
In her essay, "Art as socio-political voice: Feminist and graffiti art," Quynh Nguyen explains that graffiti's power lies in how it is interpreted, saying, "what struck the viewers of Graffiti was not essentially about artistic and aesthetic quality, save a few, but about the reality that constituted the problems, socially and politically, and even economically" (p. 372). The raw creative energy that graffiti art embodies allows it to critique everyday life in a provocative way, capturing the attention of the viewer. In Beautiful Losers, Shepard Fairey explains that this kind of art “is designed to stop you in your tracks, to get your attention, then once it’s got it’s hold on you, to deliver some sort of message.” Graffiti remixes the public sphere by challenging the norms of mainstream culture and redefining what kind of art is valued and granted a voice in society.
MAKING THE INACCESSIBLE ACCESSIBLE
The ability of graffiti and street art to "get a hold of you, to deliver some sort of message" not only allows it to effectively critique social injustices, but enables it to speak of a greater range of people. Unlike high art kept under lock and key in the fine arts museums of the world, street art speaks directly to the people.
The beautiful losers' backgrounds as graffiti artists makes their art similarly accessible. In the film, Shepard Fairey explains that “there’s ways to have the smartest guy in the room and the dumbest guy in the room digging your work, and to have it affect people on multiple levels. It’s not easy, but to aspire to that is noble.” These artists want to create art that can be appreciated by a multitude of people, and their roots in graffiti culture allow them to convey their artistic vision.