Tag Archives: graffiti

Understanding Graffiti

Some graffiti writers have some strange ideas about who can understand, speak/write, or even properly appreciate the work. The claim that it is anathema for the uninitiated to ‘understand’; that is not only are their explanations wrong but damaging. Street art tours conducted by graffiti or street artists; would you expect all art gallery tours to be conducted by contemporary artists?

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R.A.D Grant points out “to claim that a belief can be ‘understood’ only by its believers is to use the term ‘understanding’ somewhat oddly, since understanding is normally thought to follow upon explanation rather than to be precluded or destroyed by it.” (A Companion to Aesthetics, ed. David Cooper, Blackwell, 1992 p.103).

However, the English word ‘understand’ means both to comprehend and to be sympathetic. Can only the empathetic comprehend? For it is empathy and not sympathy that is expected. It is about the magic of initiation and spirit. Part of this is a need to maintain control of what is considered ‘understanding’ in order to maintain their power.

‘Understanding’ is connected to notions the person being ‘true to the spirit’ as Philip Brophy explains in “What is this thing called ‘Disco’” (Art & Text 3, Spring 1981, p.64)

“To perform jazz, blues, rockabilly, soul, power pop, Middle-of-the-Road , etc., is to evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act of performing the particular music style. There, a notion of ‘truthful’ performers and ‘false’ performers exists, establishing a productive difference between ‘artists’ and ‘charlatans’ – and, it is interesting to note that in the realm of popular culture, the institutions that we call the recording industry can profit from both the ‘artist’ and the ‘charlatan’.”

Likewise the graffiti writer is expected to ‘evoke a specific type of consciousness related to a specific set of meanings inherent to the act’ of doing graffiti.

Here is some old graffiti from Brunswick to look at.

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The City As Art

The buildings in the centre of Melbourne are both familiar and unknown, they seem to change around like something out of the movie, Dark City. Exploring the city has to be a regular activity as there are changes occurring all of the time and a once familiar area transforms.

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The city as a creation, as a great co-operative work of architecture, art and engineering stretching over a vast area and reaching into the sky, a larger concept than a medieval cathedral. The creation, curation and alteration of which is a mix of planning, adapting and neglect.

The city draws you along its streets, wanting to see what is coming around the corner. Each street creates a new scene, one block is totally different from the next.

Underneath the city, the ground level is as constructed on foundations. How deep does it go? The labyrinthine network of tunnels, the subway, the subconscious of all cities. There is a mystery beneath all cities, the mystery of  the labyrinth and at its core the Minotaur.

Too much repetition in a city reminds one that it is also a labyrinth where a Minotaur hunts for sacrificial victims. “Bloody tribute!” says Theseus after tagging the wall with an outline of his hand sprayed by mouth in red ochre, or is it bull’s blood?

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Cities are visually dense; signs and symbols compete for our attention. The accretion of images, of advertising and signs. The many shiny surfaces reflect the many lights further confusing the vision. The visual density of the city has presented a challenge to visual artists for the last two centuries.

Graffiti and street art rise to this challenge by imitating the visual intensity of the city, by being part of and by being framed by the infrastructure of the city. Graffiti tries to fit into this environment by becoming a tag, a personal logo in a world full of corporate logos. Both the graffiti writer and the street artist rectifies the urban environment by adding their designs to the layers of images, personalising the alien, impersonal architecture of the city.

The whole of Melbourne could be seen as an un-curated art gallery for graffiti and street art. Except that there are small semi-curated zones, like… roll the credits… Doyle’s Blender Alley and Lovelands, the area of Fitzroy curated by Shaun Hossack of Juddy Roller, Dean Sunshine’s factories in Brunswick. Gordon Harrison, the City of Melbourne engineer should also get some credit of street art in the CBD. I’m sorry if I have missed anyone.

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Piecing in Burnside

Way out in Melbourne’s west, in the suburb of Burnside there is an industrial park. Constructions built from reinforced concrete walls fill up half of the blocks. Lots of big concrete walls covered in graffiti facing empty blocks. It is obvious from the graffiti pieces that Kame and the Boogaloo Bros had been doing a lot of painting on the industrial estate.

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At 11am last Saturday three cars rolled into the empty block loaded with spray cans, paint, rollers, and step ladders. There were four guys piecing: Jamit, Kame and the Boogaloo Bros, Suer and Rise. Forgetting their tags, these are just four middle-aged guys in daggy old clothes; the Boogaloo Bros are wearing fluro jackets.

These middle aged guys were all painting in the eighties, the initial hiphop graffiti phase in Melbourne but this was the first time that Jamit had actually met Kame and the Boogaloo Bros. The internet has brought these guys together, it has also given a new life to Kame’s painting. Kame had lost interest in graffiti many years ago and was completely unaware of how Melbourne’s scene had developed until an old friend got in touch with him just over a year ago. They are not a crew; the idea of graffiti crew has morphed into an online network.

These are all legal walls that were being painted. The Boogaloo Bros have permission to paint from the building owners, a folder of signed documents sits in their car, just in case. So they have invited Kame and Jamit to join them for a day’s painting.

The first order of business was buffing the wall black. The black paint was watered down so that it would go on faster. Suer kissed goodbye to an old piece as they efficiently roller painted over the wall.

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Next the guys started their outlines. Jamit and Kame were working from sketches but not the Boogaloo Bros. they just start on geometric underpaintings. Suer and Rise do sketches but they just do them for their own sake. As they are out painting most weekends they have plenty of practice and confidence.

Three different styles of pieces start to emerge from the black wall: Jamit is doing a big blockbuster piece taking up two of the concrete panels, the Boogaloo Bros are working up two wildstyle pieces and Kame is doing something more character based in a rock’n’roll tattoo style.

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Jamit hasn’t painted in ages and is struggling a bit. He is running out of paint, using a tape measure to get the letters the right size and buffing out mistakes.

Kame’s curving lines are loose but well planned. He has a beautiful almost traditional sign writing calligraphy, his mother is into calligraphy. Kame has talent and it is not surprising to learn that he is off to paint in the Meeting of Styles in San Francisco in September.

The Boogaloo Bros are confidently and methodically filling in their outlines. Rise does run out of one colour and has to improvise. Suer loves his colours. “Wait till you see this Derby with Fuchia.”

It is all the guys do; apart from a couple of bottles of Pepsi, Kame documenting his painting with a camera and Rise sucking on some cancer sticks.

The wind blows across the wide western plains bring in the grey cloud fronts. It is about 10 degree Celsius out of the wind and there is nowhere out of the wind, the wind chill is freezing. You can see the rain closing in for about thirty minutes; plenty of time for Suer to stand on a small hillock and to try blow the clouds back west. Only Kame kept painting through the rain.

“This is the worst day I’ve ever painted” Kame says.

Perhaps because of this Kame is the first to finish while the others still painting. After another couple of rain fronts the others had finished their outlines and highlights. Finally they sign off with crew affiliations, tags and tributes to the people who were there on the day. Then it was time for photographs to be uploaded to Instagram.

It was just after 4:30 when the graffiti writers drive out of the industrial estate; cold, hungry but happy with their day’s painting.


Medieval Graffiti

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015)

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The justification for the study not just medieval of graffiti, but all graffiti, is the same. The need to understand the ordinary people through their mark making culture and not just the official version created by the church or civil authorities. In the medieval world this includes marks by merchants, marks by stone masons, and marks by women. Although there was graffiti on all kinds of medieval buildings it is in churches where most of the medieval graffiti can still be found, there are over 5,000 inscription in Norwich Cathedral.

The book shows that the study of graffiti started in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as various antiquarians started to study the marks on the walls of their local churches. The problem with an antiquarian examination and speculation about graffiti in their local church is there isn’t enough evidence to understand the marks, or the church itself might just be an odd example. This book is based on a very broad geographic survey, conducted by teams of volunteers, of medieval graffiti in churches around England.

Medieval graffiti in churches exists in limbo, clearly tolerated, as it was not painted over, but not official. The graffiti was cut into the paint that once covered all the interior walls of pre-Reformation English churches and would have stood out as pale lines on a coloured surface. It now survives as scratches on the stone.

Predictably for there are chapters on heraldic graffiti, pictures of knights and plagues but the medieval world is a very strange place. Along with graffiti in churches medieval Christianity had strange beliefs about demons in churches, curses, witch marks and pentangles (yes, all you neo-pagans it is a Christian symbol).

Champion doesn’t think that we can understand the medieval minds that created the graffiti and is cautious about all interpretations. With chapter headings that include “Swastika and the Virgin Mary” to entice you, the cautious approach of the author is warranted. The evidence is carefully considered. Interpretations are never certain and explanation after explanation is debunked often until none are left. Even with this approach it is still a lively read, and even as Champion debunks another theory, it expands my understanding, not just of medieval graffiti, but of the rest of medieval world.

The final chapter goes from the Reformation through to the end of graffiti in churches in the late 19th Century. It is here where something familiar to contemporary graffiti writers emerges in the form of tags and RIP pieces.

The book includes a list of “Selected Sites to Visit”, giving details on the best churches in England to see medieval graffiti.

I read this as an ebook on a Kindle, it was the first time that I have read a whole book in that format. I’m not so sure how helpful having an appendix of terms is in that format.

For more on this book see Jessica Hope “Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches in the Middle Ages”.


Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto is also known as Rush Lane or Rick Mercer’s Alley. It runs between Queen and Richmond streets and west from Spadina Avenue to Portland Street. It is an alley in every sense of the word, a single one lane access for services, parking and deliveries. There might be fashion shoots in Graffiti Alley but it still is full of rubbish and delivery vans. It is mostly low, one story with the occasional multi story building, a couple of full building commissions but mostly just piece after piece, on back wall after back fence. There are so many pieces that it goes for almost a kilometre.

I know nothing about Toronto’s graffiti and street art. I’m from Melbourne, as the subtitle of this blog indicates and I want to see something like Hosier Lane. One distinct difference is the community garden off Graffiti Alley.

It is the first place that I go in the city, it says something about me but also the attraction of graffiti for a jet lagged international traveller as it is there when you are, a twenty-four hour seven days a week spectacle. I walk to Graffiti Alley from my central hotel (my wife is attending a conference in the city). There aren’t any other tourists in the lane but I believe that there are graffiti tours of the area (I was just on the wrong day).

There were several pieces are commenting on former Toronto Mayor, occasional substance abuser, and currently deceased, Rob Ford. Ford is targeted because he promised to stamp out graffiti. Graffiti culture is frequently a reaction to its most prominent opponents.

Graffiti Alley is in a cool neighbourhood of Toronto with interesting shops, places to eat and band venues. There is the “hug me” tree on Queen Street. There are a full more murals on carpark walls around the area and a few other small concentrations of graffiti.

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Graffiti Alley is not the only place to see graffiti and street art in Toronto I saw more murals in the Kensington Market area. Lots of cool things in the Kensington Market, marijuana dispensaries and Sth American food. This is Canada in the twenty-first century and not Australia stuck in the past and aspiring to be another Singapore. Maybe I should just live in Toronto, after all I am a Canadian.


Street Art’s Institutional Phase

On some walls layers of graffiti and street art have been building up for decades. They are like layers of archeology they could be divided up into phases of work on the street. They are not perfect layers of paint, paper and glue. There are plenty of overlap, early isolated examples and the long tails of previous phases mix with subsequent phases. This leaves plenty of room for argument over when one phase started and finished, so all the dates in the next paragraph are vague.

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Hosier Lane, Meeting of Styles 2016

A short history of Melbourne’s graffiti/street art would consist of the following phases, each with their own distinct group of artists and media. Starting with the white paint and brushes of the old message, the text based graffiti and sgraffito where the art was in the literary aphorism. Followed by, and concurrent with, the muralists of the 1960s and 70s, a left wing political tradition of public art making. Then came the old school, hip hop aerosol graffiti of the 1980s from bubble letter to wild style. Then street art with peaks of stencils, and subsequent peaks in other media: paste-ups, installations and yarn bombing.

In case you hadn’t noticed, and confirmed by Dr Lachlan MacDonald, street art is now the institutional phase, the “mainstreaming of street art”. In the institutional phase there are established career path for artists, established curators, collectors, major exhibitions and civic interest in street art murals. The very fact that Dr MacDonald, Head of Centre for Cultural Partnerships, Faculty of the VCA and MCM, was talking about this at a Street Art Round Table on the 22/4/16 at Melbourne University is evidence of the institutional phase.

Not that this institutional phase is necessarily bad for the ecology of street art. The archeology of this phase will reveal a layers of better quality paint with more durable pigments as spray paint is now being manufactured to suit the needs of aerosol art. In this phase the wild street art and graffiti is not being buffed to extinction but at times, facilitated or conserved. And unlike any of the other phases, the institutional phase understands the place of street art and graffiti in the urban ecology.

The Street Art Round Table was a one day forum present by Asialink attended by students, academics, street artists, curators, collectors, creative directors, arts managers and civic administrators. It was a series of short talks about a variety of aspects about street art, including a talk about street art’s hipster brother the resurgence of sign writing. I was particularly interested in hearing about street art in Singapore presented by Jasmine Choe from Singapore Youth Arts (see my earlier posts about street art the city state of Singapore). Further proof, if it was needed, of the institutional phase of street art.

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Unknown, paste-up cans, Hosier Lane, 2016


Nost Thoughts

A couple of thoughts about Nost’s massive tag/bomb capping all the tags and bombs that had accumulated along lower section of the 30 year old Smith Street feminist  mural. I haven’t been out to see or photograph the wall, I doubt that I will ever have time for that and I trust that others already have digitised it documenting it for history.

Tagging on this massive scale becomes a kind of buffing. The amount of block colour covering the wall makes it essentially buffing. This makes Nost in this case a kind of grey ghost, the anonymous men who in response to graffiti and street art unofficially buff walls.

Towards the end of the Fitzroy Flasher’s post there is a critique of Megan Evans and Eve Glenn’s original mural. Arguing “a faded, neglected and in my humble opinion, outdated public mural” that need to be refreshed. Fitzroy Flasher’s points out that the original mural is “poorly painted”, that “the perspective is wrong, shadows not true to where they should fall” and that it was not as good as the work of Adnate or Kaffeine.

Fitzroy Flasher’s critique demonstrates the different priorities between graffiti and the Melbourne muralists of the 1980s. Clearly there differences in aesthetics, perspective, subject, politics and the work’s place in history between the muralists and graffiti writers. It would be good to examine these differences but that would mean going over the history of Mexican muralists, Union banners and I don’t have the time to go into all of that right now.

Expectations of progress on the part of the mural artists have not been fulfilled by the last 30 years of history, consider domestic violence or the gender pay gap. On the other hand graffiti writers, like Nost expect their fame to be instant and temporary rather than historical. The fresh novelty in graffiti and street art demands that the viewers, to some extent, forget the past. Popular culture, from television series to popular politics, assumes an ephemeral state of memory.


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