Monday, June 20, 2011

street art - book - 2002 - Stencil Graffiti

Stencil Graffiti
Tristan Manco
Thames and Hudson
2002
112 pages




Hello friends in the Cybertubes!  I borrowed Stencil Graffiti by Tristan Manco from the Toronto Public Library.

Tristan Manco is a graphic designer based in Bristol, UK.  He is possibly best known as designer of the art for many Real World Records releases.  Manco has also written and edited a number of books on graffiti and street art, with this as his first.  Stencil Graffiti is primarily a collection of images (405 in total, with 400 colour images) of stencil based street art, although it also includes representations of some non-stencil art by some of the best known of the Stencil artists.  The images of the book comprise a survey of street art produced with stencils, and some insights into why some street artists choose stencils to produce their art.

Manco’s book is good for displaying the creative potential of the stencil as a tool in the production of street art, but it contains many of the same issues as other street art books, such as Graffiti NYC.  It’s images are mostly decontextualized from their street street and represented in the same way images are represented in a catalogue raisonn√©.  With street art, a work’s urban context is intrinsically relevant to the work, and I would like to see graffiti books better represent that aspect somehow.  Like many street art books, Stencil Graffiti attempts to make an argument for its subject matter to be elevated to a similar status as gallery art, and perhaps it is part of a strategy for achieving such an ascension that almost all of the the book’s images are closely cropped and could just as easily be imagined on a gallery wall.  

While the book adopts the mode of representation used most often in books displaying gallery art, a form of display which effaces the works of their original ‘street’ placement.  Stencil Graffiti still relies on a notion of the street, as a site of everyday life, to invest the images with vitality.  The book contains a tension that is, perhaps, irreconcilable.  The representation of stencil pieces used by Marco flattens out their vitality derived from their original context, but still Marco tries to maintain a referent to the original context it as a means of discerning what, exactly, is unique about these images.

Manco’s book contains many images, and its primary value is in displaying the array of possibilities for the stencil on city walls.   Most of the book is divided into a number of sections based on image content.  There is a literary section, for example, displays a stenciled wall piece of William S Burroughs, while a music section displays a number of musicians.  The conundrum with many of these graffiti books is that their readers probably already live in urban settings where these works of art are an ever present part of their daily environment. These books, in essence,  condense an aspect of the reader’s daily life and reflect it back to them after emptying it of most of its meaning.  Stencil Graffiti makes no effort to propose a history of stencil art, discuss the legitimate uses of stencils on walls to which the art may be contrasted, why the stencil pieces are primarily pop culture references, etc.  As a basic overview of the potential and possibilities of stencil graffiti, Manco’s book is adequate.  Manco may simply be trying to find some examples of a form of art that he can present to other designers.  For any deeper research needs, however, other books should be sought.  I would suggest a careful observation of city walls in a downtown core during a walk would be just as fruitful, if not moreso, than reading a book like this.  

In the final section of Stencil Graffiti, Manco profiles a handful of well-known stencil artists.  This section of the book is interesting as it denotes an effort to form of a canon for the medium.  Blek le Rat, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and others are profiled, without Manco creating a clear sense of why these artists are superior to the anonymous who invented this art form.  Such profiles lead me to hope for a book that examines the relationships between street art and the gallery/art market systems in a rigorous manner. 

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