Just because this paper is the pinnacle of my academic career, and because the world needs to take another glance at the power of street art and the voice of the underdog, I share with you: this. E-n-j-o-y.
Originally introduced as an expression of identity via ‘tagging’ and establishment of gang territory, graffiti has transformed from what was once – and still is, in some cases – considered vandalism to what is now a new access to social awareness. As a graphic mode of communication, the ‘neo-graffiti’ movement – a new form of activism – is accessible, engaging and public, allowing conventional Western culture a new approach to understanding local, national, and international issues. Contemporary graffiti, such as notable pieces done by pseudonymous street artist, Banksy, invites audiences to exercise their own interpretation of his paradoxical art. Within the past decades, ‘post-graffiti’ has become a new medium for sharing social and political awareness and for inviting mainstream Western culture to investigate global issues.
Prior to the contemporary political voice of what has come to be called the ‘neo-graffiti’ movement, traditional street art practices revolved around ‘tagging’, where the use of symbols or personalized markings establish territory. Although this was first introduced in the 1960s in Philadelphia and New York, graffiti became internationally recognized in the 1970s through media depicting subway art in the Bronx; and later in the 1980s through the hip-hop scene, which started to use elements of graffiti (Dickens 472). With these themes being the primary foundation of street art, the classic purposes of graffiti – marking gang territory; vandalism and rebellion against society; and an expression of racial and gender dominance – contrast with what this form of art generally does today. Graffiti has transitioned to more meaningful trends that allowed this expressive form of art not only to be adopted by Western culture, but internationally recognized as well. The early themes in street art are what art critic, Blake Gopnik, says to be “perfectly positioned to be co-opted by consumerist culture”, providing an established base for graffiti’s new place in communication (92).
Although street art has been revolutionized in becoming far more than just ‘wall scratchings’, the argument of whether graffiti is a form of art or mere vandalism is a debate that still flourishes. Definitely there are pieces that clearly exhibit damage due to their crude content with no apparent artistic merit. However, because of the nature of street art, is it correct for us to observe the elaborate, socially conscious forms of graffiti in a negative light? What our culture as the audience to this mode of expression needs to reflect on, is what we interpret as art and what we interpret as destruction. A recent event reported by Toronto Star journalist, Alex Ballingall that reflects the general uncertainty of labelling graffiti as art or as vandalism is the case of 67-year-old Agnes Hanna, the landlady of a Toronto building that has been a target area for graffiti activity. Hanna’s initial aversion is understandable considering she was responsible for the hourly fees to scrub down the taggings. However, after the city requested that she remove one of the most recent markings, Ballingal reports Hanna describing the latest addition as “nice, artistic, not-scribbled art” and “sort of pretty” (para. 4). From this case and others, we can infer that it depends on both the content of the work and a subjective interpretation when drawing a line between which pieces have artistic value and which pieces are created simply for the sake of vandalism. Graffiti comes in a variety of forms with a wide selection of content – evaluating it, like many other art forms, is not a simple either/or decision.
The expression ‘graffiti’ generally has a negative connotation. However, we can begin to observe the evolution of street art by drawing a parallel to the now-classic artistic traditions of impressionism, fauvism and cubism, which “all started out as pejorative terms“ (Gastman and Neelon 5). The developing acceptance of graffiti is further demonstrated through the national political conventions in the United States. When hosting the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1996 in Chicago, and 2000 in Philadelphia respectively, the city merely erased decades of graffiti by painting over it. However, by 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, this attitude had changed: “Attendees could look up … and see … [graffiti] looming from rooftops across the street” (Gastman and Neelon 396). Additionally, the public art gallery and socially provoking images of neo-graffiti can be found all around New York City’s Williamsburg and Lower East Side; Los Angeles’s Hollywood and Silver Lake; and San Francisco’s Mission District – all cities that stand as the United States’ best real estate selling points. In contrast – despite the states’ removal of graffiti – troubled areas in the United States such as North Philadelphia; West Chicago; and Trenton, New Jersey, remain as rough as they were during the first introduction of street art in the 1980s (Gastman and Neelon 397).
Post-graffiti’s invitation to learning about socio-political issues can be further examined by exploring its movement in Palestine. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a dispute that most youth of the Western world could not formerly identify, has become more accessible and relevant worldwide through street art activity in Palestine. Within recent years, Bethlehem’s Manger Square, the supposed birthplace of Jesus and now part of the impoverished Palestinian territory, has become a core site for graffiti, which not only has a politically stimulating effect on the general Western audience, but also to the new generation of contemporary Western artists. One of the illustrators behind this new form of social activism, English artist Paul Insect, expresses how his street art experience in Manger Square allows him and fellow artists to “feel the oppression and struggle, the want of freedom” (Parry 58). From Insect’s reflection, it is clear that the artist can become intensely immersed into the subject. With this, we can infer that graffiti as a mode of broadcasting is a reliable source of information with increased validity.
Not only does street art done by notable artists in Palestine – both Western and Middle Eastern – deliver a socio-political message to the Western world, but it also gives a voice to the otherwise voiceless Palestinians. Indeed, the thousands of Western tourists who flock to Bethlehem at Christmas are greeted by the simple yet powerful piece of graffiti created by residents: “Merry Christmas World – From Bethlehem Ghetto”, poignantly expressing the reality of oppressed Palestinians (“Merry Christmas World – From Bethlehem Ghetto“). This illustrates that graffiti is a tool that can be used by anyone – especially those living in the reality of political powerlessness – to convey their message to the outside world.
Undercover graffiti artist, Banksy, stands as one of the most iconic figures in the neo-graffiti world. Labelled the “art-terrorist” by the British press, key themes in his activism have made him and his pieces distinguishable worldwide, especially to those in the Western hemisphere (Dickens 475). The recurring style in Banksy’s politically-based art revolves around his use of the stencil, which provides his audiences with a clean image and obvious message. In addition to his distinct artistic method, Banksy utilizes paradoxes, irony, and humour in his art, initiating curiosity and inviting our culture to form our own interpretations of socio-political issues both locally and around the world. Furthermore, his tactical mode of delivery can be observed through site-specificity. For example, Banksy plays with paradoxical elements in his famous piece of a rioter during the Romanian Revolution, contrasting the violent nature of the revolutionary with the peaceful image of the flowers (see fig. 1). Alternatively, he employs irony not by the image constructed, but where he chooses to situate his canvas, as seen in his work on the Israeli West Bank barrier (see fig. 2). Just from observation of these two pieces, it becomes evident why his work is effective. Because graffiti is a graphic form of expression, it is inviting to Western society as a visually stimulated culture.
Although Banksy’s use of the stencil has made it the tool of choice in the neo-graffiti movement, the political history behind this technique in street art dates back to the 1970s, when artists utilized this method in their activism. In Nicaragua, anti-colonial revolutionaries – the Sandinistas – who resisted the Somoza dictatorship, would stencil images of revolutionary hero, Augusto Sandino (MacPhee 13). However, rather than solely spray-painting Sandino’s portrait, an image of his hat became a symbol for the struggle and resistance of this time. The same method was used during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s. Blank walls became what stencil artist and writer, Josh MacPhee describes as “a place to communicate the news of the day” (14). Besides the clear, symbolic images stencilling provides, it also introduces a system that allows artists to share their socially conscious message with the world – because graffiti is legal in only a few cities and still largely recognized as a crime worldwide, the law challenges artists in sharing politically aware pieces with their audiences. Not only is the stencil a tool for artistic functions, but its also becomes an instrument which allows the artist to quickly create their message and rapidly flee from the scene, minimizing the odds of encountering issues with the authorities, even to the danger of torture and death in dictatorships.
Considering that the nature of our culture subconsciously relies on and is affected largely by pictorial elements, graffiti becomes the ideal outlet for politically conscious artists to share their messages. In North America especially, we are bombarded with billboards in the city, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and commercials on television – in other words, media has its own accessible and public subculture in Western society. Bearing this in mind, there are also forms of sharing global issues that are not as appealing or accessible to our visually-oriented culture, such as conferences, news, or protests. Factors that make these sources of socio-political awareness inaccessible or unappealing include expense, personal safety, or even the dull and tedious content. What the neo-graffiti movement offers is a free, engaging, and visually stimulating form of expression that invites us to investigate and form our own interpretation. If the work speaks to lesser-known matters, it can also instigate curiosity to further explore these issues.
Through key themes and trends, a change of attitude, and local, national and international movements, graffiti’s makeover from what was initially perceived as unpleasant and menacing pieces of the marginalized, has now become a valuable tool of artistic expression. Because street art is a public, inviting and visual form of communication, it allows us as an audience to develop our own understanding and initiate our own investigation. As noted by ‘guerrilla’ street artist, Banksy:
Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than in museums. Graffiti has more chance of meaning something or changing stuff than anything indoors. Graffiti has been used to start revolutions, stop wars, and generally is the voice of people who aren’t listened to. Graffiti is one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make somebody smile…. (Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall 1)
Banksy’s reflection confirms that, within the past decades, artists have found ways to apply this form of art as an instrument for expanding contemporary society’s knowledge of, interest in, and curiosity towards socio-political issues.
Ballingall, Alex. “City’s Graffiti Panel to Decide Whether Graffiti is Street Art or Vandalism.” thestar.com. Toronto Star, 28 Oct. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
Banksy. Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, London: Banksy, 2001. Print.
Banksy. Wall and Piece. London: Banksy, 2005. Print.
Dickens, Luke. “Placing Post Graffiti: The Journey of the Peckham Rock.” Cultural Geographies. 15 (2008): 471-496. Print.
Gastman, Roger and Caleb Neelon. The History of American Graffiti. New York: Harper Design, 2010. Print.
Gopnik, Blake. “Revolution In a Can.” Foreign Policy. November 2011: 92-93. Print.
MacPhee, Josh. Stencil Pirates. Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2004. Print.
“Merry Christmas World – From Bethlehem Ghetto.” Wall Art 4 Piece. WordPress, 17 Nov. 2012. Web.
Parry, Bill. “Every Picture Tells A Story….” Middle East 388 (2008): 56-59. Web. 9 Nov. 2012
(Amira Loosemore, 28 Nov. 2012)