‘The art that can’t stand still’

I have never much liked graffiti, that art form whose subcultural status locates it somewhere between 1) a considered manifestation of creative expression and 2) downright dirty rotten vandalism.

I’ve always assumed that the constraints (and appeal) of graffiti’s illegality must account for my dislike of it – the hurried application of media, its convenience as a vehicle for anonymous, negative messages, its aesthetic ties to realities of abandon and disrepair. But there is also something in the cultural code of its traditionally lurid colours, squirming typefaces, and indecipherable vocabulary – a feeling of not being the intended audience(?) – that turns me off.


I realise that this is not a very well formed/informed opinion. ‘How can one simply dislike graffiti’, I chastise myself; graffiti (singular: graffito) is only the word we’ve assigned to an age-old practice, the product of a deep-rooted, animal desire to impress ourselves upon our surroundings.

It might not come as a surprise, then, when I endeavour to suggest that (personal taste aside) graffiti’s significance is clear.

There has been much scholarship on the role of graffiti as contemporary sign-making phenomenon. A perusal of relevant internet databases will return books, studies, and journal articles devoted to the subject; their origins span a range of academic disciplines: Art Education, American Folklore, Sociology, Ethnography.

But the tension, alluded to above and ineluctably entwined with graffiti’s subcultural status, has not been dispelled by its academic appropriation. Sandrine Pereria’s book Graffiti – the first hit in a search for texts on the subject – includes on the inside cover the following disclaimer: ‘The publishers wish to make it clear that they do not condone defacing public property with graffiti.’

It is in this way that graffiti has come to be simultaneously celebrated and condemned, an illegal activity that yet serves as ‘a twilight means of communication between the anonymous man and the world’ (to quote Robert Reisner, author of Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing).

I was drawn to the paradox of graffiti culture when reading Errol Donald’s piece in this week’s Big Issue, ‘How to see the soul of graffiti’. Donald is an artist and curator of Masters of Invention, a free exhibition of work by influential graffiti artists at the Lettering Arts Centre, Suffolk. He describes ‘writing’ (graffiti art) as perhaps ‘the largest art movement of the 20th century’.

‘If the largest art movement of the 20th century is a forbidden one, what does that say of contemporary art culture?’ we might ask ourselves.


This question becomes ever more prescient in light of recent proposals by leader of the free world, President Donald Trump, to eliminate America’s National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In Blighty too, national austerity policies and reductions in local government spending have hit the arts hard. As a result, ‘local authorities will increasingly be reliant on the proceeds of economic growth and their own resources’; unsurprisingly, ‘better off areas will do better as their already strong and mature economies will generate more revenue’ while ‘areas that need more support may struggle’.*

Under these circumstances, graffiti takes on new importance as an accessible alternative to institutionalised methods of arts production. While the success in recent years of artists like Bristolian Banksy reflects a highpoint in mainstream culture’s flirtation with graffiti, the art form’s true potential as egalitarian public performance might not yet have been realised.

Graffiti is creativity ‘born entirely out of necessity’, writes Donald. Is this not the most powerful kind?

Masters of Invention – Adventures in Graffiti art and Writing culture is at The Lettering Arts Centre Gallery from 24 March – 28 May 2017.

(Title quote taken from Don DeLillo’s Underworld, p. 441.)

*Adrian Harvey, Funding Arts and Culture in a Time of Austerity.