Friday, September 12, 2008

Spray My Name

I came across this news item while browsing the web, a couple of days ago: my home state of New South Wales will become the first in Australia to ban the sale of paint in spray cans under proposed anti-graffiti reforms being considered by the State Government.
Only one American city, Chicago, has done the same and an analysis one year after the ban was enforced showed "a modest reduction in spray paint graffiti, with an offsetting increase in glass etching and marker (pen) graffiti". Glass etching is achieved by using hydrofluoric acid solution to burn through and permanently mark windows with a milky white stain. Unlike paint, it can never be removed – the whole glass pane must be replaced.
Almost everywhere else in the world, graffiti is becoming recognised for its cultural significance. Unfortunately, that recognition is linked to its increasing financial value. London Council has invested in the restoration of once illegal stencils by Banksy. The lifespan of a graffiti piece used to be determined by how much other writers respected the work – if they didn't respect it, it was covered with tags or painted over. In protecting Banksy's work for cultural reasons,
London Council demonstrates its ignorance of the culture from which it sprang.
In 2007, graffiti from the late '70s and early '80s were discovered in a New York building that was undergoing renovation. The haphazard and adolescent tags, throw-ups, burners, and scribbles, were created by old school writers Fab 5 Freddy, Futura 2000, Nesto, Ramellzee – and Jean Michel Basquiat. At the time, these would have been considered vandalism and outlawed. Now, each of these people are considered essential cultural contributors. The mural is being removed by an archivist, and will join a major museum collection. Graffiti by Keith Haring was found in a cupboard of another building that was formerly his art school. It was too delicate to be removed so now it's being sold as an 'added feature' of the apartment – a $US100,000 premium has been attached to the value of the property.
I like all graffiti, especially non-stencilled, spray-can graff. I don't care who does it. I don't care whether they're artists or vandals. I don't care if they're critically acclaimed one day and their work ends up selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don't care if they're never 'officially' recognised. I admire them for making a place that disregards them their own, no matter how briefly
Graffiti is about recognition. Names are reproduced over and over in areas of high traffic (which means greater audience). Each reproduction proves an existence. Even if it the result is unwanted, it can't be ignored. It proclaims identity. The labour intensive process of removal is another form of recognition. Graffiti is a way of making the world ones own, and making the world acknowledge, even for a split second, that the creator exists.
No matter what materials are banned, graffiti will never die out. Whether it's considered an art form or not, it carries too much atavistic, tribal-like significance to be given up without a hell of a fight.
The are spaces for graffiti everywhere in the grim urban sprawls where the culture thrives. I often wonder what bothers everyone so much about graffiti punctuating the blank expanses of a cityscape – its walls, freeway pylons, bridges and commuter trains. The best graffiti writers create pieces that are skillful and aesthetically pleasing – and as much as graffiti is about recognition, it is also about respect for the writers' skills and daring. I suspect the comfortable and well-heeled want to suppress the voices of those they'd prefer to pretend don't exist – indeed, to erase any trace of them.
The only time graffiti is not vilified is when it's taken out of context, when it's sanitised and sequestered in a safe, controlled environment – like a gallery or museum. There, it can be stripped of identity and meaning and seen only during opening hours. More importantly, it can be commoditized and sold, reduced to just another consumer object (with Banksy the leading brand). I hate street art in galleries. I find it soulless, a depressing, pointless compromise.
I created my early enamel paintings using the same process as graffiti writers' pieces . I was directly inspired by friends of mine who 'vandalised' the city where I lived. They went on graffiti tours along the east coast of Australia – and even to foreign cities – sleeping rough in the day and painting at night. They painted walls, billboards and trains in urbanised, developed countries, and walls and army tanks in the war-torn second- and third-world. No surface was sacred. Each writer was from a different background but they all shared a common trait – they had no other voice. No-one gave a shit about who they were and even less about what they had to say.
I also have a very personal affection for the power of graffiti. An age ago, when I was still a teenager, I ran away from Australia to Japan and London. When I returned, my brother, Thomas, wrote my name on the the wall of the local train station at Wynnum, in Brisbane (pictured above). I would see it every day when I caught the train. It made me feel loved and special. It made me feel like i wasn't invisible, like I wasn't just another forgettable kid.


artcanyell said...

I love graffiti and enjoy seeing it each morning during my 20 minute train ride to work in the moments when I'm not reading. That was awesome of your brother to spray your name a precursor to your fame.

Anonymous said...

i love it too. when will people realise that when something is banned, it becomes much more valuable and sought after?

Annie Paul said...

I love this post. Never thought of graffiti that way, i was admiring the one at the top of the post, it's so sinuous and sexy, and then it turned out be your name by your bro! ultra cool.

We have a character here in Kingston, L.A. Lewis who's spray painted his name all over the city... he inserts himself into photos with celebrities and calls himself an image-ologist...he's a great poser, i admire his guts, tho people here often make fun of him.

check out this great article on him: