Morley is the wrong type of street artist

If ever there was a confirmation about street art’s simultaneous power and ephemeral pointlessness it would have to be the self-described “graffiti artist” known as Morley.

I can only unpack his work as a pseudo-anti-corporate appropriation of a raw medium known as street graffiti. In other words I am unable to believe he is sincere in his attempts at graffiti art. I am not convinced of his discipline with the medium of public spaces.

His poster designs almost always frame him as a designer/artist promoting himself by displaying large depictions of himself engaged in signing/writing his own poster. The nature of his work doesn’t use his large signatures as irony. I’m referring to the potential irony of signing graffiti in order to present it in a fine arts tradition. No. That is not an irony I believe Morley employs like Basquiat may have. I think Morley wants credit. He wants you to know he made those posters and their benign messages.

So what’s wrong with that?

In a sense there is nothing wrong. Except for one thing. We should demand more from street artists because the public space is our space. It is political territory. It is complex. The summation of Morley’s “work” sets a strange, patronizing, naive tone. Something tells me that Morley doesn’t actually understand intensely urban areas where he proclaims his loud messages.

Is he able to reflect the cultural context of the locations where his work exists? Does he scope out the demographics of the area in order to understand the impact of his “messages” in that setting?

If he were just an artist I would mumble my comments to myself. Sure. Let him make his posters and paintings with his messages. Sell them on sidewalks in Venice beach. Anywhere. Whatever. However Morley positions himself as a street artist and seems wholly unaware of the complexity of that role.

Street art requires a duty to one specific issue: an artist is attempting to reclaim a space. The questions that come after that are: Why? Why are you reclaiming this location? What do you understand of this location? What do you intend to say? Why should a person accept your message at the risk of impugning the private property of another?

It is an anthropological exercise as well. Sure, that’s now how most graffiti artists handle it but those who get it at least implicitly are better artists.

Street art is political.

It acknowledges a deep truth about society. The streets may be slightly aligned in a social contract of property ownership and shared spaces for now. However at any moment the public may decline that social contract. The graffiti artist, at their best, is an act of protest against humdrum complicity with zoning, concepts of property, advertising, etc. It will always provoke and should always represent a challenge to our understanding of the space around us.

Graffiti is also about the culture it derives from and reflects. Gang graffiti can speak deeply and profoundly about a community. The public should always have a tense relationship with graffiti. It needs to be problematic. It should ask us to reflect on whether we approve of the message at the risk of legitimizing defaced property. We should at times embrace it. We should at times offer caution.

So where is Morley in all this?

Occasionally you’ll see his Hallmark card message on down and dirty street corners.

“In heaven we all get a soundtrack.”
Is that intended for the 58 year old El Salvadoran immigrant carrying her groceries?

“Actions speak louder than status updates”
The homeless youth leaving a shelter nearby must’ve been moved by this one on Western Ave.

Give Get Up”
I don’t even want to know where this one may have been placed. Hope no one was sleeping on the sidewalk nearby.

The act of defacement/reclaiming is a loud act. You are shouting on the walls. You are reminding the public that something exists here that is not necessarily an advert. The act means something. It should represent evidence of a regular citizen declaring that there is something to be said and can be said on this property.

Because this act is aggressive, the artist needs to take this into account. The artist should pick their message carefully OR recognize that you risk offending.

I’m willing to accept the notion that Morley knows he’s obnoxious and his messages are patronizing and insulting and only appeal to a narrow demographic. I am willing to accept that outcome. But guess what. I don’t think he sees it that way.

The presentation of Morley’s work comes with a thick layer of “I’m here to help you”. It’s always messages of hope through a cultural narrowness. Are his slogans about Instagram intended for people without smartphones? Does he care? Again, when you take the initiative to shout on walls and street corners you open yourself up to complicated dynamics.

A post shared by Morley (@official_morley) on

Oh look, someone is suffering! “In my eyes you’re already a movie star!” That should help.

Who is Morley truly speaking to? Does that matter to him?

Morley’s work exists within a small prism. It’s english only in some streets where that’s rather useless. It’s politeness belies that poverty and pain of the context it is sometimes presented within. However my protest against him is actually against this strain of graffiti work. There are many others who deserve scrutiny for their naive messaging disguised as a helpful gesture: Wordsmith, Mr Brainwash, others.

I’d like to make a very open statement that Morley should go on sabbatical. Live in the communities where you want to engage in public art (Yeah. I’m assuming he doesn’t live the corner of Western and Santa Monica). Learn about the people you are poorly speaking to. Talk to them. Then reflect on the nature of your messaging. Come back in a year or two.

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