Art dealers maintain a monopoly over the public’s consumption of the visual arts in a way that is true of no other cultural medium. Where music, film and literature are all cheaply and widely available, originality is everything in the art market. One copy of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ is worth as much as the next but an imitation masterpiece is not worth the canvas it’s painted on.
The first graffiti is crude sexual scribbling no more impressive than the exhortations to ‘CALL 4 A GOOD TIME’ scrawled over the bus-stops, toilet doors, and playgrounds of England today. A penis carved on the wall in Pompeii is labelled ‘handle with care’. Though not art in any real sense of the word, it is a historical and cultural document, providing a rare example of written history set down not by senators but the barely literate man on the street.
In the 20th century, graffiti became a medium for dissent. In daubing slogans on the walls, would-be revolutionaries are able to force the public into a response, even if it is delivered in the form of a bucket of whitewash. Painting over a political graffito has the same viscerally totemic impact as the burning of a book. ‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary’ read one slogan reproduced across Paris during the 1968 student protests. Graffiti demands engagement, taking back public space for the public.
Alongside MCing, breakdancing and DJing, graffiti is one of the ‘four pillars’ of hip-hop culture. Hip-hop fermented in the crucible of the Bronx, but soon burst out of this ghettoised community to become arguably the defining cultural movement of the late 20th century. Though their inspiration came from Philadelphia, the early pioneers of the art form were New York citizens who ‘bombed’ their vibrant work all over subway trains, sending it rattling across the five boroughs. The dream for young artists was to see their work go ‘all-city’, to develop a name outside of the block they grew up on.
Yet soon even New York proved too small to contain the ascension of graffiti culture. The modern centre of the art form is São Paulo, another enormous city with a young and disenfranchised population. Belfast and Los Angeles, two cities riven by war, are covered in murals that are a potent distillation of frustration and grief. Like the Berlin Wall before it, the Israeli West Bank barrier is a concrete postingboard for the anger of people who feel that their voices are going unheard. Graffiti has gone all-world.
“Graffiti is revolutionary”, according to the director of an exhibition in Williamsburg presenting graffiti as fine art. “And any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are oppressed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls — it’s free.” His argument is persuasive, but the act of hanging the art in a sanitised indoor space neuters the art and decontextualises it, robbing it of much of its potency. Graffiti is a forceful act of engagement with the community. It is guerilla street art. Regardless of whether or not it contains a political message, it is a statement in itself, an assertion of our right to free artistic expression on the streets where we live. Graffiti’s place is on the walls of our cities, not choked by the noose of a frame.