Future of Graffiti: Wanna Tag Along?
By Josefina Salomon
Who doesn’t love to leave their mark? Whether with words or images, we humans are obsessed with sharing our mind’s eye. Centuries before Twitter or Twitch, the ancient Greeks and Romans communicated by writing messages on bar walls. Get this: The word “graffiti” actually comes from the Greek “graphein.”
Now, from American teenagers artfully tagging city walls to postmodern artists banking millions from murals, graffiti remains a form of expression without equal.
But things are changing. With local governments and companies moving in on the most Insta-friendly walls and writers aching to stay true to their art, what does the future hold for these impermanent pieces?
Today’s Daily Dose takes you on a fascinating journey alongside the unsung can- and brush-wielders you need to follow, introduces the places where “wall bombing” is a matter of life and death and shows you how to become an expert graffiti snob.
the writing’s on the wall
The Anonymous God
Think graffiti, and Banksy is the first name to pop into your head, right? The superhero of today’s street art scene has gone from spraying walls in his native Bristol, England, to selling a canvas for a record-breaking $12 million. Known for his in-your-face political, antiestablishment messages, the mystery man is also credited for making street art mainstream (think the girl with a balloon and the two police officers kissing). Alas, he says he’s not in it for the fame or the cash. “All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars,” the elusive artist once told author Tristan Manco.
Rule of the Spray Can
With millions of spray paint cans brightening (or defacing) our city streets, the looming question remains: Is graffiti legal? The answer isn’t straightforward. In most cases, it depends on what the piece is and whether it’s been authorized. While some cities are waging a war against wall art in public spaces (authorities in Chicago have even removed commissioned pieces by mistake), others cannot get enough of it. Melbourne, Warsaw and Paris are encouraging artists to claim designated walls in a bid to attract tourists (for the ’gram, ya know?). Pablo Escobar’s native Medellín uses it as a way to engage marginalized youth. Fun fact: Outdoor art murals can help attract people to neighborhoods.
What Makes Good Street Art?
It manifests in many shapes and forms — spray cans, but also paper, glue and stickers. So how can you actually tell what is Banksy-hot and what is not? Australian Fintan Magee, who paints large-scale hyperreal pieces depicting humans in vulnerable situations, says it all depends on the eyes observing it. “From the artist’s perspective, it is about intention and self-awareness,” he tells OZY. “If the artist intends to express a certain idea or image and is able to pull it off, then it’s good work.” For Boneta-Marie Mabo, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait artist based in Brisbane, Australia, the key is in the message an image can convey. “Street art is supposed to be political,” she tells OZY. “It’s supposed to scream at you, to tell you something, but I feel that it has been diluted so much that now it’s just pretty pictures on the walls that make people feel nice.”
If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em
What do Gucci, Louboutin and a can of spray paint have in common? They are joining forces to sell you something. Lured by the popularity of brightly painted walls (wasn’t Instagram made for street art?), brands catering to the well-to-do are hiring street artists to paint “mural ads.” Advertising gurus say the high-end industry has come full circle; what used to be considered “underground” now gives established brands an edge in an already saturated social media space. One example is a rooftop collaboration between artist Ben Eine and lighter company Zippo in London as big as 67 tennis courts. But artists are pushing back and warning that “paint ads” have nothing to do with what they do.
the next banksy?
Living Street Art Anna Garforth
Street art can have a positive social impact to be sure, but environmentally friendly it is not. In fact, most products used to create eye-catching pieces are made from chemicals and pollutants that are not particularly good for the air, nor artists’ lungs. So in comes Anna Garforth, one of the pioneers of “green graffiti,” who mixes water, milk, sugar and yes, moss, to create a paste she uses to paint. Her pieces, usually located in darker London alleys or areas with little exposure to natural light (moss doesn’t particularly love the sun) have a life of their own and grow with the seasons. And yes, these ones you can touch.
Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. When that woman is holding a spray paint can, the potential threats multiply. But that has not stopped this 33-year-old artist. Her murals, painted on anything from bombed-out buildings to hidden alleys, tend to depict strong women happily going about daily activities such as teaching, singing or working. But look closely and you’ll see their eyes and mouths are always closed, a nod to the broader struggles women face in Afghanistan.
If Latin America’s rich street art scene was a country, Edgar Flores, better known as Saner, would be its Mexican ambassador. The artist manages to colorfully articulate and combine the splendor of his country’s modern culture with its exuberant Indigenous traditions. His art is so distinct and magnetic, it has crossed his country’s borders, and got him as far as Australia. Flores’ work features the renowned Nahuale masks, which, legend has it, can turn humans into animals. His creations also help bridge the growing gap between our day-to-day lives and the natural environment around us.
Think being a graffiti artist in the back alleys of New York and London is dangerous? Imagine what life is like for a young gay artist in Sudan. Medo Kagonka is one of the faces of the ongoing artistic boom in Africa’s third largest country since mass protests toppled Omar al-Bashir, one of the region’s longest-serving dictators, in 2019. Al-Bashir was not a fan of art and as soon as he left, artists took revenge with their paint cans. Medo’s depiction of a skeletal-looking hand, featuring a tag that reads “missing” painted on the wall of a morgue in Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum, is one of the most thought-provoking and inspiring in the city.
from caves to walls to … cash
The First-Ever Graffiti
Can a painting of a red wild pig made on the wall of an Indonesian cave more than 45,000 years ago merit comparisons to today’s guerrilla art? The image, which includes other smaller animals and human hands, could very well be an ancient form of Banksy, minus the political message. The archaeologists who discovered it this January said that to print it, these early artists would have had to put their hand on a wall and then spit pigment around it. No wonder the technique didn’t make it to our time.
‘Gaius was Here’
Graffiti as we know it today dates back several thousand years, to when ancient Greeks and then the Romans used the walls of their cities as boards to communicate. Just like an ancient form of the internet, they wrote everything from declarations of love (including some pretty raunchy ones), to tourist reviews, threats to enemies and political ads. See the evolution here? We don’t either.
Darryl McCray, popularly known as Cornbread, will go down in history as the original modern graffiti artist — and that love was the force behind his work. The story goes that he fell so hard for a girl named Cynthia that in order to impress her, McCray, who loved to print his nickname everywhere, wrote “Cornbread loves Cynthia” throughout her Philadelphia neighborhood. But he didn’t stop there. Cornbread became a household name, tagged to a plane owned by the Jackson 5 and even an elephant in the local zoo. Did he get the girl in the end? You betcha.
BB (Before Banksy)
Long before the British artist became synonymous with street art, there was the legendary Brooklyn-based Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring (remember those fuller stick figures?) and Blek le Rat, the father of stencil graffiti and Bansky’s most obvious influence. These three held the key to a politically charged era when scribbles on public walls evolved into a form of revolution. Found in dark back alleys in the 1980s, the work of these artists is today exhibited alongside well-known art legends. A piece by Basquiat, who died in 1988 at age 27, broke the record in 2017 for the highest-selling piece of any American artist at an eye-watering $110.5 million.
Power to the Can
As in the distant past, what we choose to paint on walls often serves as a mirror with which to highlight the pressing issues of the day. From George Floyd-inspired graffiti in places as diverse as Kenya and Syria, to depictions of nurses and doctors dressed as angels and superheroes, and politicians struggling to make sense of it all, it’s an essential form of political commentary. “Artwork, even street art which is not permanent, plays a part in society, in culture and in history because it can paint a picture or tell a story about a particular time and place,” says Mabo, who painted a mural in a Brisbane locale infamous for its racist history with colorful birds representing Indigenous peoples and colonizers as rabbits, a pest introduced to Australia by Europeans.
did you know?
Some Nazis Liked Wall Art
Could a mural of burning green creatures on an Ohio Air Force base be the closest the Nazis got to self-reflective supernatural allegory? A giant painting in what was the dining area of a camp for German World War II prisoners of war is one of the last remaining clues. The 160-foot-long piece, with demonic-looking characters with toothy grins, is believed to represent German culture going up in flames at the time. But no one really knows for sure.
Graffiti Can Be Lethal
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un is popular as a subject among political graffiti artists around the world, but the communist leader is not a fan of such creativity at home. In October, he had the handwriting of an entire neighborhood’s residents checked to track down the author of a rare piece found on a fence in Pyongyang. The Cinderella-style search sought the person behind “Down with party officials, who live well by exploiting the people.”
Graffiti Is Hard to Preserve
Street art is not made to last forever. Think about what would have happened to Picasso’s Guernica if it had been painted on a wall in New York City’s Times Square. But the increasing popularity of the form and its significant profitability have made scientists come up with new (and environmentally friendly) ways to protect it. Some in the Big Apple are testing trailblazing techniques that remove upper layers of paint without damaging the original pieces. Long live street art!
- Josefina Salomon, OZY Author Contact Josefina Salomon