“Street art”, graffiti’s more formal cousin, which is often commissioned and sanctioned, has a firmer place in communities, but can still be an important form of “outsider” expression.
Interest in these art forms as social expression is broad, and the work itself takes many shapes—from simple tags of identity, to scrawled expressions of protest and politics, to complex and beautiful scenes that virtually everyone would say are “art”, despite their sometimes rough locations. Can they be nurtured without undermining their essentially outsider qualities?
In many cities, graffiti is associated with decay, with communities out of control, and so it is outlawed.
In some cities, it is legal, within limits, and valued as a form of social expression.
When a city provides graffiti walls for its citizens, isn’t it simply extending its hegemony?
When I found stencilled graffiti in my neighbourhood and discovered that it was disguised corporate advertising, I dismissed it as worthless.Unemployed and sporadically employed “youth” in their teens and thirties may find inspiration in a spray can, a wall on a deserted street, a few yards of material, an empty carton transformed into a curio box, a bag, or even a pair of old shoes.The surface potential appears vast, particularly since the tools required for the craft are more accessible and cheaper than those needed for charcoal drawings or works produced on canvas.Starting in 1932, by 1967 Arthur Stace had chalked out his one-word message half a million times and entered the realm of legend. “Worthless” graffiti can become a commodity, its value transformed by a simple shift in view.Graffiti highlights one of society’s contradictions when protest is transmuted into product and neutered. Capitalism’s ability to assimilate ideas that threaten it is unsurpassed.Inks, inexpensive household paint, paint brushes, paper towels, makeup sponges, pieces of fabric, fingers—all are great blending tools that may be used to create larger-than-life tags, bubble letters, arrows, crowns, 3-D shapes in black and white and full colour, exclamation marks, boldly defined lines, and various other symbols of an enlarged, politicized, moral imagination and critical capacity.This moral imagination and critical capacity challenges what may be viewed as a technically trained, warped, market-determined political agenda that feeds a market-driven docility.But institutions also love it, and Drew, like Banksy, has been exhibited in galleries.Street art that is sanctioned as a way to ameliorate dull façades is effectively assimilated as city property; it can no longer be about the conflict of ownership. Adelaide’s previous Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, saw street art as a game-changer for the 21st century city, consigning blank walls to the past.“Buying off” trouble is less disruptive than opposing it.Graffiti that is sanctioned by authority loses its outlaw power to disturb and challenge.