Review: Street Art panel at RESFEST-SF

September 27, 2005 on 10:41 pm | In reviews | 3 Comments

Saturday’s panel at RESFEST, “Street Art or Not”, was sparsely attended, which is a shame, because a lot of interesting things were said. I hope the organizers will podcast this one like they did last week’s one in New York. I took a few notes though, so if you can’t wait for the podcast, read on…

Medu Netjer

Medu netjer. That’s the term Refa 1 used to describe the writing system of ancient Egypt (or as he might say, Kemet). Hieroglyphics, you see, is a Greek word imposed by chisel-wielding outsiders. Similarly, when we talk about graffiti, it’s not that Latinate slur we should be using, but the term indigenous to the culture itself: writing.

Refa, an old-school writer and art educator, completely dominated Saturday’s RESFEST panel with his own style of articulate, hard-edged cultural criticism. His stance was that of a culture defender: protecting the roots of hip hop from the degrading influence of hordes of style-copying wannabes who haven’t paid their dues, and capitalists out to exploit it for a quick buck.

The theme of marketing, advertising, and exploitation wove through much of the talk. It started with moderator Jeff Chang asking a simple question, what is “street art”? John Trippe of Fecal Face called it a marketing buzzword, and said he would never use it to describe an art show in one of his galleries. (After all, if it’s in a gallery, it’s not in the street, is it?) He also drew a line around Shepard Fairey’s work, saying it was less about art than marketing (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Refa One took pains to distinguish the cultural tradition of writing from the larger category of street art and graffiti: any kid with some paint can do art in the street, he said, but to be a writer means adhering to the rules and traditions of that culture. But he supported the idea of writers making money off their work, as long as they consider the impact they’re making on the world around them.

The other theme that struck me was the inside/outside duality of writing, graffiti, whatever you want to call it, or any other subculture for that matter. Refa’s choice of words brought that point home: for him, the insider terms are the real ones, and if outsiders don’t understand them, that may even be preferable. John Trippey later pointed out that the white skater-punk suburbanites that Refa might consider outsiders probably don’t see themselves that way. They too grew up painting on walls. Is their culture any less real because of their different socioeconomic situation? Maybe no less real, but definitely a thing apart. Refa also pointed out that the original punk movement had a lot of core principles in common with hip hop, and it’s those principles that should concern us more than any surface details. (Or as a writer named Pues recently put it, Hip Hop Is Punk Rock.)

Refa’s fervor pulled the panel so far over to the writers’ bench that it left little room for discussion of the younger forms of street art like stencils, stickers, paste-ups and installations. Neither Trippe nor Doug Pray could present that side of things with the kind of drive that Refa had, but they were honest and respectful, and they did their best. (Doug Pray did say some very interesting things, but since they relate to his film, Infamy, I’ll save them for that review.)

If the panel reached any consensus, it was that all subcultures evolve, and if some get mainstreamed and commercialized, there’s not a lot one can do to stop it. But just because something gets commercial doesn’t mean it has to stop being real for the people who started it. They just keep doing what they always did. So the rabble may get their hieroglyphics, but the high priests will always have their medu netjer.


  1. Fresh

    Comment by keusta — September 27, 2005 #

  2. we must fight the power !

    Comment by keusta — September 27, 2005 #

  3. Not a bad reveiw…Thanx
    …It only seemed like I dominated the panel because
    the other positions weren’t as strong(supported). I would say that the truth was most dominant but the lies and suburban folklore were limp. I came to bring truth.

    FYI…it’s “Metu Neter”(Divine Speech/Sacred Text)

    Comment by Refa1 — April 25, 2006 #

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