English graffiti artist Banksy wrote a thought-provoking article on the implications that the whitewashing of Melbourne has for graffiti. He writes that Melbourne is Australia’s social hotpot due to a variety of reasons (read the article in the Guardian here), but because of the Commonwealth Games, the city has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the wall art and wiped out the social heritage that the artists had achieved over a number of years, despite other, more viable suggestions such as “graffiti zones”, or incorporating the artists into state projects and putting them on the payroll; something that has been tried in Cape Town, but which many purists still consider “selling out”.
Graffiti in my view as average Joe Blog (excuse the pun) on the street, is that it has long evolved from it’s hip-hop background movement started in New York in the 70s, with rapping being the spoken word, breakdancing the word in action and graffiti being the written word. Like the music genre, it has changed into a more global, hybrid social commentary whilst still maintaining its locality and commenting on issues which are important to the people of the area where it is practised. Graffiti has also moved onto the internet –thus, long after it is destroyed/painted over, it will live on online, but this is just a bad replication of the original, as with any painting or artwork. In this sense it is no different to many other “effects” (a very tangent and subjective word at best) of globalisation e.g. glocalisation in line with Thomas Friedman’s “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”, but that, my friends is a story for another time.
What I’m trying to get at is that the authorities, be they the national government or local municipality don’t always (hardly ever) seem to grasp the fact that graffiti is a social reflection as I mentioned, at times aesthetically astute and, at worst a reminder of the baseness of humankind. It must be noted that when I write about graffiti, I don’t mean tagging, which in my books is like coming over to your house and, in thick permanent marker, scribbling my name all over your walls, i.e. selfish and vile narcissism. I have slowly grown to be appreciative of stencilling, although it cuts down the chances of a run-in with the authorities because you can just “stencil and get out”, it has its merits.
But now I’m beating around the bush. In Banksy’s words, “Modern street art is the product of a generation tired of growing up with a relentless barrage of logos and images being thrown at their head every day, and much of it is an attempt to pick up these visual rocks and throw them back.” Just whitewashing over these artworks, through the eyes of this generation who, one cannot forget, are the future, is like bulldozing national heritage sites to make way for a new McDonalds. Authorities tend to want to give the impression that they are acting for the good of society, but as always, it seems as though big money and conservative thinking still rules the roost.
I wonder what would happen if one were to stencil Pepsi, or Nike or Burger King stencils all over town. Social regeneration from the city planning side, as it stands, is in two-minds as to what it really wants to achieve and whom it serves. With the Olympics set for London, a virtual Louvre of the graffiti world, the Melbourne result seems inevitable. I hope by the time the World Cup hits South Africa in 2010 and Cape Town or Joburg (two other cornucopia’s of the graf world), authorities have taken their blinkers off and emptied their bulging, corrupted pockets, otherwise, and once again inevitably, it seem the writing is on the wall.