Graffiti As Art; Art as Graffiti




How does a guy with a doctorate in public policy analysis, an MBA, and master’s degrees in applied economics and public health wind up painting Kermit and the Duff’s beer can from The Simpsons—and winning national acclaim for his bold, textural canvases?


David Ruggeri was a sweet Catholic boy scared of disappointing his mom, so he only tagged a few times as a kid. He knows exactly where and is relieved that the graffiti is long since gone. Time forgot to erase the guilt—but it is mixed with the old rush of appreciation for anybody who paints that freely.

“Graffiti artists just want to paint,” he explains. “They have no intention of selling their work; it’s on the side of a building! Anyone can do it, and everyone will see it.”

I love the raw talent of graffiti; I have yet to see it poorly executed or sloppy. Which seems a miracle, like the high, clear, perfectly pitched voices that must be a secret prerequisite to become a nun. Ruggeri nods: “I don’t know if it’s just a selection bias, and we happen to notice only the good ones? In a lot of cases I think it’s just practice. The ten thousand hours.”

Hard to get ten thousand, though, when you have to work faster than light to avoid getting busted. And the medium is hardly a forgiving one: giant sweeping curves with spray cans whose nozzles can confound you, battles with sudden gusts of wind or rain….

Ruggeri took the safer route, studying art at Maryville University. The art world was so Serious, though, self-conscious and snobbish, insisting that every piece have a grand message. Unsure what his would even be, he quit after three years and hitchhiked to Alaska, having read enough Kerouac and Jack London to want adventure. By working on a fishing boat and in a cannery, he made enough money to travel in Europe. In a train station in London, he asked for the cheapest ticket to a big city, and when Paris and Amsterdam tied, he chose the less predictable Amsterdam.

He was realizing how simultaneously big and small the world was. “Being in a place where you are an outsider—I think that’s a good thing,” he says, remembering how it felt to walk up to a departures board that was not in English. “The world revolves without you.”

Freeing as the travel was, he came home to “starving artist” scare stories and switched to business. Then an MBA, which he used to open a honky-tonk bar just outside Nashville. It did so well, he had to choose between opening another one and going back for his doctorate.

Again playing it safe, he chose public policy because he “would rather be one of the deciders than have policy thrust upon me.” Along the way, he added two more master’s degrees, figuring each would increase his opportunities. But in his spare time, he kept drawing. When his wife urged him to try showing his work, he signed up for non-juried shows and sold drawings for $25. “It had been twenty years since I picked up a paintbrush,” he says, “so I really had to knock the rust off.”

His first paintings “looked like they could hang in a hotel,” he says with a grimace. “People liked them, but I’d say, ‘I don’t want you to buy that, because I don’t feel like that’s really me.’” Finally he earned enough confidence to paint something that would seize the viewer’s attention and not let go, something unlike any other work out there. It’s good, he thought with satisfaction. Then he picked up a spray can and “started graffiti-ing it up.”

I wince, envisioning disaster, but he assures me that “it got looser, more layered and textured, with more movement.” He began working that way, finding his style. “Graffiti is so commonplace,” he remarks, “yet it’s interpreted vastly differently, from vandalism to fine art. From ‘This person should be arrested!’ to “I want to buy that for $15 million.’”

Ruggeri still thinks about ethics: when is graffiti crime, and when is it art? “I think if there’s an intent to add something aesthetic, it starts to lean more toward art,” he says. “If it is somewhat arbitrary and malicious in nature, it leans the other direction.” What if it is defiant self-expression, aesthetics be damned? “The intent is there to evoke some kind of emotion, so that can be art, too. There’s some courage there. Even when what’s expressed is malicious anger, if that emotion can be focused into self-awareness—what am I trying to say, and why?—instead of just lashing out—it can broaden the discussion.” He smiles sadly. “The real harm when it’s malicious is that what they’re trying to say could be overlooked.”

Driving around St. Louis with his wife, Ruggeri is always looking for graffiti, his mind always pinging with ideas. “My wife’ll say, ‘Oh, look! They need to paint over that.’ And I say, ‘No! They need to protect that.”

His current show, at the Angad Arts Hotel, uses nostalgia as its currency. “Art fulfills a lot of different roles, from the very meaningful to the whimsical,” he remarks. “If I can make somebody think about their time watching Saturday morning cartoons….” So he brings us Time for Timer, homage to the one-minute government-sponsored cartoon character who used to urge kids to eat healthy snacks, “hanker for a hunk of cheese” instead of candy. Other paintings superimpose, on a graffiti-like background, the London Underground sign, the Duff’s beer can, Pac-Man, and the pair of Air Jordans he used to cut the grass in, not knowing they would be worth $25,000 someday. Animal, from The Muppets, took a long time to lay out, he says: “I just kept making him bigger and bigger. He’s got to be in your face, jumping off the canvas.”

Every painting bears a stenciled “signature”: the phrase “NO GRAFFITI.” “I find it ironic that a city would send a worker out to paint ‘NO GRAFFITI’ on a wall, telling people not to paint on that wall,” he says, flashing a grin. “It’s almost a beacon—hey! Paint here!”

Graffiti is about breaking rules. It ignores convention, shuns commerce, craves freedom. Once Ruggeri had lived long enough, gathered enough perspective from travel and textbooks, and running a bar where souls spilled, he figured out how to channel that energy. The raw exhilaration of graffiti unlocked his art.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.