There are classes of voice: levels of authenticity and volume. From formal, highly produced, vetted, authorised, famous, sanctioned and pervasive through to the suppressed, denied, desperate rants scratched in wood and walls. The voices that shout beside railway tracks, festoon bridges, colonise underpasses and flit between the body panels of trains as they lie rotting in neglected sidings. There is beauty, threat and desperation. Everywhere, there is graffiti.
But there’s graffiti as expressed by spray paint and stencil, poster and pen, and there’s the notion of graffiti, the spirit of vandalism, the intent, that may carry beyond the physical into virtual spaces.
Then there is the art of graffiti, hung in galleries, sold in frames and adorning middle class walls throughout the West.
Finally, there is act of graffiti, of taking one’s voice and using it, unimpeded by strictures of authority and control.
Graffiti, we celebrate and condone, despise and decry.
But what sits underneath, what lies behind the expression? Graffiti as the voice of the voiceless, the democratised right to write, to shout and be heard, to broadcast. The voice that cannot be silenced. The voice that cannot be taken away.
The sound of graffiti maybe: Radio Caroline and the other pirate radio stations, hidden on the airwaves, beyond the power of advertising, beyond the control of the law, bobbing about in the channel. CB radio: an unlicensed voice, free from sanction and censure. In normal conversation and communication, we restrain ourselves: the sight of audience self limits our emotions. But remove the feedback, move to a purely blind broadcast, and the limits are lifted. Which is why people say things online they would never say to your face: the graffiti of communication liberates, although sometimes without remorse.
I travel widely, and everywhere i go, i find graffiti. Sometimes expansive and welcome, sometimes illegal and hidden, but always there. In Bergen, a thirty foot high seagull swoops over the harbour, whilst in Singapore it’s letters in Chinese scraped on the concrete pillars of an underpass. In London it’s officially placed on a wall, whilst in Brighton the graffiti, by Banksy, was worth so much it was removed and replaced by replica graffiti as some kind of community memory. A parody of graffiti: the illegal sold legally and replaced by legalised artwork. In San Francisco it was on the side of a van whilst in Bangkok it stared out at me from across a rubbish filled river, painted on boarded up windows.
Tagging is an act of territory: like dogs pissing on a lamppost. You are in my space. Hostility: animalistic. Crude: instinctive. Impulsive. Raw. As i ride the train i see serried rows of fence panels lining the track, each one tagged the same, each one claimed. Rubbish piled alongside as the urban artwork in unknown font stretches away into the distance, blurred by motion and grime.
But this is no anarchy: there are rules. The shrine to Robbo lies untouched, to desecrate it would invoke the wrath of the community. There are rules and consequences. Indeed, i’m often surprised how long certain works remain as i revisit them month after month, fading, ever more grubby, but untouched. A respect of sorts.
And when they are painted over: a stratification of meaning. A subversion of the subverted. Archaeology is the peeling away of layers: this is the anti-archaeology, the slow burial by layers of paint and paper. Sedimentary art: laminated, deposited, forgotten. Like ghost signs of shops long gone.
In Bristol i found graffiti etched out of the black pollutants left from two centuries of industrialisation. A reduction artwork where the images were pristine, carved out of the black. Like lino cuts, stencilled in history.
Tagging is exclusive in that it excludes: it’s hostile, a claim to a space by a gang or tribe. By inference, we own this space: you are not welcome. You are watched, as the grainy cctv watches as they claim the space. Hoodies conceal faces, at least in media stereotypes.
The graffiti artists i talk to are usually more concerned that i ‘like’ their Facebook page. But maybe that’s because i only walk the streets that house the safer art: not for me the descent into tunnels and disused metro lines to see the hardcore imagery, the subterranean gallery, the midnight art.
Beyond tagging, we see art: the rise of graffiti artist as media personality. But what of illegality: when does graffiti just become art in the style of graffiti? When it’s paid for? When it’s no longer illegal?
We find graffiti as gift: one of my favourite artists, MyDogSighs creates beautiful art that he leaves lying around to be claimed as a prize. Indeed, he uses social media to leave clues to where it is. Graffiti to make you smile. I even have a T shirt of one of his designs. Authentic? Well, it’s still illegal if posted without permission, or indeed litter if left lying about, but painting that makes you smile? Isn’t art meant to be provocative? Does provocation warrant illegality if the end result is a smile?
Bortusk creates fantastical creatures that roam the side streets of London and Amsterdam: i must have cycled dozens of miles to find his latest creations, returning often to view their beauty, their decline, their rain soaked demise.
Graffiti as politics: the day had barely passed before an assault rifle dedicated to Charlie Hebdo appeared in Shoreditch. Political comment, on all sides of the debate. Played out in public.
It’s anonymous, before Anonymous became a movement. It’s a right: the right to speak your mind, whether you have permission or not. Art is internal, inherently democratic in that it’s indivisible unit is one. Yourself. You and a paint can.
The illegality of graffiti isn’t the end result: it’s the delicious reward. It’s the titillation that makes the hard work worthwhile. It’s the vindication that someone cares, even if only to condemn. But ultimately, it’s the hope that the action will provoke a reaction, that my speaking will do more than make you listen: that my speaking will cause, permit or provoke you to speak too. Art provoking art. Art as impetus. No longer just a blind act of creation but rather a co-creative activity where we never see our fellow artists.
Then there is graffiti as history: that which today we scrub, scrape, gouge and dissolve as serious men in white overalls disapprove and frown, overseeing young offenders remorselessly working to clear the letterings, tomorrow we will treasure as history incarnate. History in carving. The letters carved in stone: visit historic churches and you can see, hidden away, on doorposts and stairwells, messages from the past. Old, older, oldest. We scurry and hide, searching the graveyard for the oldest legible remains.
Medieval, Saxon, Roman, it’s all there. The urge to leave our mark is not new.
What do we learn from graffiti? Or should i call it ‘street art’, or ‘urban art’, both terms reflecting the new found love of polite, sanitised, media savvy images.
We should learn that communication is a right, not a privilege. That blogs are only the latest incarnation of the need to rant, the desire to shout, the permission to dispute. We should recognise that it wasn’t technology that democratised communication, rather it was desire. A desire to steal it back, to take control, to pick up the pen, not the sword, the spray can, not the gun and leave our mark, make our words known, make them permanent, shout them out irrespective of whether they are ever seen.
Of course, i hate it in my back yard: i was affronted the other day when a sign in my village was tagged. How dare they! There’s a world of difference between the politically astute and artistically divergent artwork on display in Shoreditch and the scrawl at the end of my road, but they are more closely related than i care to admit.
Both freely expressed, both claiming a space, both impermanent, both illegal.
It’s like free speech: it’s only free if you welcome the messages you don’t want to hear. If we sanction rights, we sanction subversion. Without the art in the dark, we cannot value the art in the light.
But for me, it’s an unknown treat: this is my graffiti. I’ve never picked up a can, never furtively walked down quiet alleyways. Why? Maybe because nobody ever took my voice away, because i’ve never lacked the permission to speak. Maybe subversive art is created through oppression, not ignorance. Perhaps we can only know the mindset of graffiti if we have felt the mindset of denial: dismissive and punitive.
Maybe we can learn from graffiti: perhaps creating spaces that are consequence free, places to share, places to shout out. Maybe we already have them: the freedoms of the internet that governments quake at, maybe those are the new walls, the new democratised spaces to fight over. Just as books have transcended the paper realm to a digital state, become an idea more than a thing, maybe graffiti, too, will ascend. Something stumbled across and dismissed as we click. Or metamorphosed into blogs and Tweets. Or music.
It’s the technology that democratises us now: gives permission and power to speak, to curate, to create, to share. It’s technology that lets us shout and scream without sight or consequence.
Maybe as the pant cans run empty, as the streaks dry down the side, as the weeds obscure the words and the images crack and fade in the decade sun, maybe the intent of graffiti will evolve. Maybe the voice for the voiceless will be emboldened and enlivened by the freedoms afforded online.
Although maybe there will still be space for the odd image that makes you smile, makes you frown, connects you in some way to that person, who stood where you once stood and screamed in art.
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