I think most people can agree that graffiti is a messy topic when it comes to really defining it. It’s so diverse that some people would call it art, vandalism, propaganda, gang-related territorial markings, and so on depending on your background and point of view. I personally love the grey-area concept of street art, it makes it a great topic of controversy (not to mention I myself am a novice yarn-bomber). Argue as much as you want concerning it’s artistic merit or its legality issues, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that graffiti is one of the major forms of cultural/counter-cultural free speech. I mean think about it, images and pictures either positively or negatively depicting a social issue or such is probably an opinion by the creator of the piece.
Modern graffiti as we have today really took off in the 1960s where instead of images and pictures, graffiti writers were concerned with “the Name”. To them, the Name was like a logo, telling the world who you were and that you existed. From the 1970s graffiti wars of New York to today, graffiti has evolved to the strange dilemma of being treasured and also hated. Graffiti culture has lost its edge in a way actually. Where before it was supposed to piss people off and be rebellious, now in some places walls are being torn down to preserve and auction off works by Banksy or Shepard Fairey. In America, graffiti has become a part of the culture, influencing the styles of clothes we wear, commercials, spiral notebook covers, shoes, etc.
Now I’m not saying that all graffiti has been reduced to what may be called “kitsch”. To be quite honest, I always think the religious icons are some of the most interesting sub-genres within the graffiti culture. Images of the Virgin Mary or the Dalai Llama are always some of the most interesting I think, especially if they’re controversial.
Okay…….so maybe Surfing Madonna isn’t the best example of controversy, but you should understand what I mean. So anyway, people have used these religious icons as a part of their intention to say something. Could this be a suggestion for more moral behavior in interaction with others? Religious images on public walls, like most other kinds of graffiti, demand the attention of the public as they pass by. There has been one group that has taken advantage of this concept and that is the Gospel Graffiti Crew. This is a Christian Based group that spreads the word and love of Jesus Christ by tagging moral messages on….legally allowed areas. I’m sure graffiti purists at this point may be clutching their computer screens or tablets screaming, “NO! IT DOES NOT COUNT AS GRAFFITI IF IT’S ON LEGAL WALLS!!” But if looks like graffiti and is on walls like graffiti, the public will just assume it’s graffiti regardless of the ramifications. But a part of me wonders, at what point does this become propaganda?
I mean, street art also makes an impact in other countries in looking for change in their government. Look no further than the Berlin Wall, where most of the graffiti was on the western side describing the need for freedom in East Berlin from the U.S.S.R. Graffiti has become a very common form of protesting against authority, especially in the Middle East. In Egypt, the large youth-driven populace began to protest against the ruling military regime that ran the country, mainly by tagging city walls. This enabled citizens to be aware of political ideologies within the country. In Tehran, graffiti has been attributed to the youth underground that has to hide itself. Under the rule of Ahmadinejad, the religious police have been under strict control to rid the city of youth rebellion. In all of these cases, it seems with the right words, any piece of graffiti can instantly become a piece of propaganda to influence the minds and hearts of the people.
So say what you will about street art. It’s a medium that is utterly confusing to understand yet makes complete sense to those that make it. Try as you might though, it will never be suppressed for very long; Mayor Lindsay tried, Ahmadinejad tried, governments all over the world tried but every time they fail to destroy the graffiti movement. It is the voice of the people in times of change. It may embody what we fear to give actual voice to. Whether we like it or not, graffiti will never go away completely, not as long as something need to be said.