Given the discussion generated by my previous post, Why I love graffiti, I thought I’d follow up with a few points about ‘street art’ versus what some readers have referred to as ‘malicious graffiti’ or ‘ugly black tagging’.
A couple of years ago, the Melbourne Museum hosted the exhibition A Day in Pompeii, and one of the things I remember most clearly was the graffiti found on the site. There’s no mistaking these examples for street art (“Atimetus got me pregnant”, “Satura was here on September 3rd”), but malicious or not, they preserve the personalities of those who perished in the volcanic eruption almost 2,000 years ago and provide insight into how ordinary people lived. (My personal favourite: “If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girl friend”).
Who’s to say that the ‘ugly black tagging’ by the contemporary equivalent of Pompeii’s graffiti-scratchers (the term ‘graffiti’ comes from the Italian for ‘little scratches’) won’t one day be accorded the same historical significance?
I admit that I dislike seeing street art defaced by tags — see above before and after shots for example. I know people have a similar reaction to the defacement of historical monuments and private property. Even so, for me tagging is still part of what transforms ‘waste space’ into something lively, even if it’s something to take umbrage at, get angry at or excited about. This was the point I was trying to make in my previous post: street art is not just about aesthetics; it’s about energy.
These kinds of questions are considered at the National Gallery of Victoria’s brilliant Melbourne Now exhibition, currently showing. In addition to incorporating city laneways into the exhibition space — in ALLYOURWALLS — the gallery exhibits include graffiti inspired works, including paintings by Stieg Persson and an installation by tagger Lush, aptly titled, Graffiti doesn’t belong in a gallery?
Lush’s work is intentionally provocative, questioning ‘acceptable’ notions of street art and challenging the divide between art and tagging (check out his take on real and not real graffiti). Love or hate what he does, you have to admire his integrity.
Speaking of love and hate, what to do about graffiti that is malicious, homophobic, racist or sexist? While I don’t like to see such values writ large, I recognise the perennial problem that occurs if we start talking about restricting freedom of speech: Who gets to call the shots? What I might want to see banned will rarely square with what the powers that be will want to see banned. An example of this is provided by my friend Yee Khim Chong:
In Johor Baru, Malaysia, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic drew on the wall a girl carrying a Chanel handbag. Around the corner, he painted a man with a knife lying in wait for her. Outraged by the insinuation the southern city is full of muggers, the Johor Baru City Council immediately painted over Zacharevic’s mural.
Furthermore, retorts against sexism, racism, homophobia are only possible when such attitudes are writ large. I remember last summer when ‘Aussie Pride’ slogans appeared in Melbourne’s northern suburbs in the build-up to 26 January*, only to be edited to read ‘F— Aussie Pride’, then edited again to read ‘F— Mussie Pide’ (an attempt to disparage the Muslim community). Hardly a high point in political graffiti, but an important gauge of community sentiment nonetheless.
Love it or hate it, there’s no mistaking the power of street art and graffiti to make us feel alive.
For local readers, I encourage you to check out the Melbourne Now exhibition if you haven’t already done so and feel free to leave a comment when you do.
You might also like to read SD Thorpe’s novel, getting Up, to appreciate what graffiti means to those who make it.