If walls were to speak, they would have a zillion tales to tell. For, as long as there have been walls, humans have tried to scribble their souls onto them – as art. You can see it etched into the 8000-year-old caves of Edakkal in the Western Ghats of Kerala, as well as in urban concrete jungles such as London – under the bridges, on the sides of alleys and on the walls of dilapidated housing projects.
The stone age man in the Western Ghats of India, armed with stones, etched animals into the walls of caves; the modern millennial of London, armed with spray cans, follows in these footsteps – in much greater detail.
Ever since someone wrote “Clapton Is God” on the walls of the Highbury & Islington Tube station in the mid-1960s, graffiti started becoming more than a single artist’s voice. It started to sound like a collective voice, with a distinct tone – like art.
Of course, whether Clapton really was the God of the guitarist world was a question with no collective answer. His reputation in the eyes of graffiti artists did not last the many decades that have since passed, and graffiti on him now reads ‘Clapton is Good’. But when the phrase first appeared, it was everywhere. It became the graffiti world’s equivalent of what we today call an internet meme.
But today, the streets of London’s Shoreditch are a far cry from the simple memes, for they represent the mundane and the absurd, evoking love, laughter and anger – all through colour on walls. It’s the medium and the message, provoking thought while turning public landscapes into art galleries.
The stunning visual art is exceptional, a gentle reminder of art for art’s sake. It is what makes walking along Shoreditch a unique, museum-esque experience. And unlike a museum, you feel like you’re in charge of the tour – for you can walk in any direction and find something worth looking at.
It helps to have some context. The above figure with the red lips is a work by Thierry Noir – the “Godfather of Graffiti” who is said to be the first person to start tagging the iconic Berlin wall in 1984. Since then, the wall has become a platform for voices against war and disharmony.
Another ancient record of graffiti is from the walls of Pompeii, where over 11,000 samples survived nearly two millennia to reach us today. The Romans brought us ancient gems such as :
Whoever loves, let him flourish, let him perish who knows not love, let him perish twice over whoever forbids love.
Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
Bawdy themes were all too common in the world of Pompeii graffiti. Some are short and to the point – “I screwed the barmaid” – while others recognize the value in the mundane “On April 19th, I made bread”.
Love is a theme that transcends any medium. But so is war.
This is what makes modern Graffiti edgy, disturbing and entertaining – while serving its purpose as an agent of provocation.
The singer and songwriter M.I.A. (Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) started out as a graffiti artist, depicting the civil war in Sri Lanka in acid pink hues. It’s a theme of protest against an indifferent establishment, that gives her common cause with artists in Palestine and Egypt as well as with the ghetto artists in the United States.
Those who are on the receiving side of oppression often find nothing but a wall to express themselves on. As Banksy said:
Graffiti is one of those few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make somebody smile while they’re having a piss.
Banksy is arguably the most well-known graffiti artist in the world. And if the legends are true, he doesn’t profit off his pieces. Those that have been sold for millions, were cut out by others who sought a profit. And the importance of Banksy staying away from the commercialisation of graffiti has to do with the medium itself. True graffiti has to be a spontaneous act, not a marketing ploy, as George Melly wrote in the 1970s when the Rolling Stones used graffiti to advertise an album.
For some, real graffiti has to be iconoclastic, where a culturally accepted image, from science, religion or art – is ‘smashed’ by the act of ‘vandalism’.
But as the saying goes, ‘art becomes a slave when it is sold’. Banksy’s work is a point in case. Some of his earliest works by Banksy are preserved at a Night Club in London, behind protective glass. An act of provocation once considered vandalism, now needs its own security.
Is graffiti art or vandalism? It’s a common question that is often asked. But, the best way to answer that question is to ignore it. For, art is anything that has the power to provoke you – your ideas, assumptions, and constructed images of reality.
From the stone age to the information age, walls have been the mirrors to our society. When you walk through the streets of Shoreditch, you’ll find that the walls have ears, eyes and mouths. They have something to say about the world we live in. We will only learn if we listen.
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