Public signs Part I: Street Art

photo taken on Saturday, September 5, 2020 at Hackney Wick canal path East London.  Artist unknown.

I regret leaving my spray cans in The Netherlands. I was never part of a “street art” scene, but I (did) appropriate some of its features. I am working on cut-outs and stencils on cardboard right now. Some days ago, the online Dutch art magazine Mister Motley published an article written by artist Tom van Veen (the Netherlands, b. 1995) titled; Graffiti geeft tenminste nog het idee dat de publieke ruimte voor iedereen is (Graffiti still gives the idea that public space is for everyone).

My relation to public space changed a bit the last couple of months as I found myself walking up and down the canal paths in East London. Tom talks about his experience in Athens. Mount Lykavittos, a tourist location of Byzantine and Greek stories to be exact. Graffiti covers the marble walls. Southern European cities are known for their lively and present graffiti in the street scene, Tom van Veen writes in conversation with Jasper van Es, co-founder of the creative agency PAPERJAM. “Italy has a bigger understanding about what art can be.”1 says Jasper, as he’s located there at the time of writing.

But graffiti (/ street art) doesn’t have the same value all around the world. There’s some impressiveness about the skills some graffiti artists have; thin and thick lines and many different application techniques, a.o. depending on the amount of pressure and endurance painters apply to the nozzle of the can. I don’t know much about it to be honest. Spray paint has its own aesthetic, which is very different from a brushstroke. These are skills that I don’t own, things that you don’t learn in an art school. Some pieces are graphic, illustrative, like graphic-designer-word-art-text, some activistic and political, where I would describe other artists as plain commercial.. or vandals. It is difficult to explain something that you don’t quite understand. 

“You have activists picking up the spray cans and you have aerosol users picking up activism.”2 says Jasper. Graffiti and Street Art are different things. Street Art is often more political, and political messages can, at the same time, be used to create a character, an image, or alter ego. ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) can just be an ego play. 

After the death of George Floyd -and many others, among them Belly Mujinga from London-, Black Lives Matter pieces appeared on lots of city walls. “Graffiti is a way to reclaim public space for discussion”3 (Nicholas Mirzoeff, 2016) It connects people but, at the same time, is a form of self-representation. It is a game and the ‘rules’ are not fixed. Some are part of ‘the movement’, others (want to) look ‘bad’. Not so different from the art system; street art is a culture of  “me, me, me”. A culture of egos and alter egos.

You can’t stop unless you want to be forgotten. Maybe, it is not so much about fame or exposure, but about the name. The persona that the artist invented in their (art) world, for that to be famous. Tags are much like dogs piss, the people placing them seem to be very territorial.. marking it like dogs. They want to piss everywhere. “Every piece came from tagging like a piece is nothing more than a fat tag with outline and designs.”4

“Where I come from, it’s very frowned upon to go out into the street and write your name. It’s just not cool. If you’re gonna go ahead and take a risk, put yourself in danger, and then you end up writing your name, seriously that’s what you had to tell the world?”5 said Mohamed Fahmy, a.k.a. Ganzeer (an Egyptian artist from Cairo who created work in the street both during and after the Arab Spring revolution 2010-12) during an interview in 2015. He’s located in America right now, where protests that have enclosed the cities, and people are with police violence and tear gas. History repeats itself, but Egypt is not Tunisia. Greece is not Italy. London is not America, which isn’t Egypt either. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat (American artist, 1960-1988) painted Defacement after fellow artist Michael Stewart was beaten to death by New York City police in September 1983, America. It was originally painted on the wall of Keith Haring’s studio in the days after Stewart’s death, but Keith had it cut out of the wall and framed. The painting is now privately owned and seldom displayed in public. Basquiat is, as a character, incredibly famous. People know, and enjoy the myth of him; the paint-splattered Armani suits, his friendship with Andy Warhol while dating Madonna. He and his actual work were incredibly political and critical of the art scene, but most people tend to forget about that.

April 8, 2010, street artist and vandal KATSU posted a video online, he allegedly tagged over Picasso’s “Girl before a mirror” at the museum of modern art in New York City. Only a few did believe those videos were real, but a statement formed while trashing the art (system) and criticizing the internet as a profit generator at the cost of the general public. 

Street artists and artists inspired by graffiti started exhibiting in galleries and art institutions during the 1970s and ’80s. Still, given street art origins -illegal, political actions- the relationship between the art world is, in general, a bit awkward. Have you ever been to the street art museum in Amsterdam? It seems like every bigger city has its own street art museum now. Why take it from the streets and put it into a gallery? 

“The city’s the best gallery I could imagine.”

JR  (French artist, b. 1983)

June 1 2020, 5art Gallery was looted in LA. The gallery represents international pop, urban street artists like Banksy, KAWS, Invader, Takashi Murakami, and Jeff Koons. They are known to sell to international art collectors and celebrities. At the same time, a lot of graffiti was sprayed on walls and statues. “To some people, graffiti is destruction; evidence of criminality that goes hand-in-hand with looting and property damage. But in truth, graffiti is an artful form of communication that’s been an important part of the grand tradition of American dissent.”6 read an article in the Observer three days later. Spray paint can be washed away – even when difficult-, but human lives can’t be revived once lost. Their graffiti became glossy. Are they aware of the contradiction of self-promotion and blue-chip representatives? Is it as easily ethically to go commercial? And the bigger question is really, does your art lose meaning once you start selling what you’re doing?

Artlords (established in 2014) is a group of artists and volunteers painted almost 2,000 murals in Afghanistan. Some of their work is commissioned by UN agencies to highlight political messages. Their independent pieces are painted for a political debate, with messages of peace and social justice, targeting government corruption. Other groups want to evoke happiness and fun. Expressing oneself is the most important reason.

“To me it’s about inclusion and social justice. My intention is trying to be as educated as possible, but also being fearless about expressing myself.”7 said Shepard Fairey (American street artist and graphic designer, who’s most famous for his brand Obey and Barack Obama “Hope” posters) in an interview with the Guardian in 2017. Even though his statements and values are very inauthentic and mainstream; “racism is wrong, we should take better care of the environment, women deserve equal rights”, it’s the packaging -design- that matters.

In the pictures from the Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say (1992-93) series taken by  English conceptual artist Gillian Wearing (1963-) strangers photographed holding a self-written sign. These signs are honest and personal. We don’t know the strangers’ names. Their anonymity is perhaps the reason Egyptian artist Ganzeer said that conceptual art is useless for the – Egyptian – revolution.8 The Occupy Wall Street signs, on the other hand, were personal and received honks from passing cars, likes and reblogs from the WeAreThe99% Tumblr even when the author stayed anonymous and when they weren’t shared in any Art spaces. Occupy Wall Street is years ago, today there is COVID-19-, Black Lives Matter-, Anti-racism- Defunding Police-, other days it is Extinction Rebellion; people eventually get tired of protesting. We have to pay rent, buy food, sell out… most people go home and things return to normal. Cardboard signs are thrown away and Street Art is overpainted. But they resonate within the public space.

The London Mural Festival started this September. There’s no topic or theme but is meant to brighten up the city’s streets. It is privately funded and showcases work from artists including 1UP, Camille Walala, Dale Grimshaw, Marija Tiurina, Gary Stranger, Mr. Cenz, Mad C Pref, Zabou and Seb Lester.

1 Tom van Veen, Graffiti geeft tenminste nog het idee dat de publieke ruimte voor iedereen is, Mister Motley September, 2, 2020

2 ibid

3 Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, an introduction to images, from self-portraits to selfies, maps to movies, and more (UK: Penguin Random House, 2016) Chapter 7: The Changing World

4 Kings And Toys, a SKINY film / docu, U.K’s Channel 4 – 1999, accessed through 4 September 2020

5 Bucky Turco & Aymann Ismail, The BANKSY of Egypt: Ganzeer goes “all American”, Animal New York January 29, 2015

6 Helen Holmes, Graffiti Is Important to the Tradition of American Dissent, the Observer June 4, 2020

7 Janelle Zara, Shepard Fairey: ‘I’m not going to be intimidated by identity politics’ November 14, 2017

8 Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, an introduction to images, from self-portraits to selfies, maps to movies, and more (UK: Penguin Random House, 2016) Chapter 7: The Changing World p. 161