Alleyways to galleries

Take a walk down any city street or back alley in London and you are more than likely to be confronted with spray-can art, better known as graffiti. The letters entwined together, creating an ivy of words, abbreviated to aesthetically please the reader. Graffiti is now becoming increasingly recognised as true art.

Graffiti has been used as a way to express political unrest, social views and emotions. The myriad of international styles that cities host on their walls is a compelling argument to the power of this art and its beliefs.

Political techniques

In recent history the use of graffiti in France during the student protests and general strike
of May 1968 only confirms this. Paris was splashed in revolutionary, anarchist slogans
such as “l’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire” translated to “boredom is counter-revolutionary.”

The strike brought this advanced industrial country’s economy to a standstill. The painted graffiti, poster art, and stencil art were seen in papers and on televisions around the world and through the use of graffiti the message of the people was heard.

In the US the words ‘Free Huey’ were briefly scrawled in the streets, protesting the arrest of Black Panther Huey Newton. In 1967 London Islington underground station featured the writing ‘Clapton is God,’ in reference to the band Cream’s front man, Eric Clapton. 

“It comes down to what you value. If you’re not just going after the money, we’ll continue to respect and support you.”

Today, for some, graffiti is a way of life. It is a subculture. After dark artists spend nights ‘bombing’, a term which describes the creation of a tag, and days creating their next pieces of work.

These nocturnal authors of spray-can art do not conform to modern society’s ideas of a true artist. The idea of showman art, self-plaudit gallery showcasing and Sotheby auctions are all signs of a sell out. They have allowed society to take control of their own pieces of work, and taken away the true meaning and art of graffiti.

Moner, a graffiti artist from Camden, north London has been bombing for eight years: “Sellout was a term thrown about from the ‘90s. As for that, I’d say it’s about integrity. Some of the big US names, Craola and Giant, have made a name for themselves in the commercial world, but they stay true to their roots and I wouldn’t say they’ve sold out.

“Even some of our London heads, ATG for example, have used their crew’s reputation to push their own interests in both art and music. It comes down to what you value. If you’re not just going after the money, we’ll continue to respect and support you.”

Behind the art

Respect is something that graffiti is built on. Areas are prized: “In graffiti there is a difference between postcode wars and battles for wall space. A sought-after spot eclipses its location. I’d fight over a risky space in south London, maybe a rooftop, as hard as I’d fight over a wall at the end of my road,” Moner explains.

Compared with the gun crime and gang wars that London possesses, the idea of turf war being fought with spray cans and marker pens seems quite passive, but Moner disagrees: “Lives have been lost over wall space. It’s ridiculous! How can the value of life be compared with a pile of bricks? This is what graffiti is. It’s possessive.”

Last year saw the well commercialised battle between Banksy and King Robbo on Channel 4’s Graffiti Wars. A public ‘graf war’ brought King Robbo out of retirement and cemented the fact that defacing another artist’s work is a cardinal sin among sprayers.

“If you cover another artist’s work, expect some sort of repercussions,” explains Neva, a sprayer for the SLB graffiticrew. “Not only will your work be destroyed but a personal hit will be taken out on you and your crew.

“I can remember in the early days of my graffiti, tagging over a piece of work from another artist. The next week it had been covered. I quickly realised the connotations of spray wars and didn’t make the same mistake again.”

Although some wars between artists are well publicised, there is still a huge amount of respect between fellow bombers. “There are a number of crews we [SLB] don’t see eye to eye with, but we respect one another. Art is art. I doubt Picasso would have defaced da Vinci, Freud ruined Bacon, so the same connotations apply. The walls are our canvas and the streets our galleries.”

The idea of graffiti being classed as street art is still a social taboo. People who
participate in graffiti see it as an expression of  thought, a lifestyle. They see it as art.

“Those who buy graffiti see it as fashion, something to show friends and brag about. Something to hang in their front room and discuss over dinner parties or cocktails.

“When I produce a piece, the aim is to get a message across to the people. Failing that it’s to produce work that other graffiti artists will appreciate and respect.

“Art is often seen as objective. To some people it may be seen as art, to others it is just criminal vandalism. To me all graffiti is art. It has a creator and has taken some type of thought process to create,” protests Neva.

With graffiti becoming an ever-present vocal point in today’s art world, cities and local councils have set up areas in public where artists are permitted to spray paint.

graffiti artist at work.Graffiti is becoming ever more prominent in expressing a point of view towards subjects such as politics. [Amy O’Brien]

Beyond the streets

In particular, the city of Toronto, Canada, put together a Graffiti Management Plan. Throughout the plan they state: “The city’s new, proactive Graffiti Management Plan balances the need to eliminate graffiti vandalism that has a detrimental impact on property owners, neighbourhoods and city image, while supporting graffiti art and other street art that adds vibrancy and artistic delight to our streets.”

After work by Banksy, thought to be valued around £200,000, was removed accidentally by council workers in 2005. Bristol City Council has now placed an embargo on the removal of all the artists’ work around the city.

Gary Hopkins
“People want us to keep up the war against the ‘taggers’ so we have had to work out a way to differentiate between the ‘taggers’ and the artists.”

In conjunction with this, February 9, 2012 saw  them announce that they would “put it to a public vote”, as to whether street art around the city should be kept to help promote street artists such as Banksy, or be removed.

Their plan states that: ‘’Where people tell us that murals or artworks make a positive contribution to the local environment and where the property owner has raised no objection the council will not remove the graffiti.”

Councillor Gary Hopkins, cabinet member for Environment and Community Safety in Bristol, said: “We have said informally that if it is street art that people like we will keep it but we want to formalise it into a policy.

“People want us to keep up the war against the ‘taggers’ so we have had to work out a way to differentiate between the ‘taggers’ and the artists.

“Tagging is still removed but if it is art that people say they want to see they can take a photo and upload it on to our consultation website and we will ask people what they think.’’

Creative criminality

Not all countries or cities warmed to this attitude. In 1995, New York city Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani stated in his ‘broken window’ theory that: “Graffiti showed signs of decay” and would “encourage congregation of lawless individuals, who see the physical deterioration as a sign that their shady activities will go unnoticed.”

He set up his Anti-Graffiti Task Force, which went about clearing the subways and streets of New York of all graffiti, believing that: “Too many people felt harassed and victimised by gangs of troublemakers and criminals, and intimidated and demoralized by the proliferation of graffiti vandalism.”

Some would feel this would be a huge drain on the taxpayer’s pocket. The estimated cost of cleaning graffiti from across London is thought to be around £100 million a year.

The same could be said about imprisoning these artists. In Britain last year a jury convicted the graffiti artist TOX, whose tag is his name followed by the year, after deciding that his style of graffiti was “no Banksy” and that “he didn’t have any artistic skills, so he had to get his tag up as much as possible.”

The police stated that he was responsible for thousands of pounds worth of damage and he faced years behind bars.But this raised the question: Does the defacing of private or public property warrant the same sentence as a bank robber or drug dealer?

Those that live in more affluent areas would tend to think so, whereas those based in more trendy places may feel differently.

Paul Gilligan, who lives in Kensel Rise, west London believes tourists come to places like Brick Lane and Notting Hill and expect to see graffiti.

“It’s great. I love walking down Ladbroke Grove and taking in some of the art on the walls. It brightens up the place and some of the pieces are amazing. You often see people stopping and taking photos of the walls. It’s part of our community and part of the attraction.”

However Catherine Lawler from north London said that she feels: “The only way tagging may be described as an art form would be if it was done on an authorised piece of material.

“The majority of tagging in London is done on private and public property at the expense of the local councils and taxpayers. I have lost count of the number of times that the wall outside my son’s nursery has been repainted by our local council only to be covered the next day with new ‘tags’, foul language and jokes about repainting the walls. This is an environmental crime and should be treated as such.”

Both of these attitudes toward graffiti have valid points, and can be taken into consideration with street art in places all around the globe. But surely programmes like the one in Bristol would slowly eradicate the criminal or undesirable forms of graffiti that we currently see on our trains and buses.

The scribbling of school children will be cleaned up and the work of true artists left behind will inspire those to work on projects or pieces rather than claiming valuable wall space with nicknames or misspelt tags.

According to Banksy: “Graffiti ultimately wins over proper art because it becomes part of your city, it’s a tool. ‘I’ll meet you in that pub, you know, the one opposite that wall with
a picture of a monkey holding a chainsaw.’ I mean, how much more useful can a painting be than that?”