Adam Stoneman Considers why Ireland Needs Graffiti Art With a Message.
The question of whether graffiti counts as art or vandalism – or both, still divides the opinion of the average person on the graffiti covered street. However, the Irish cultural establishment has been less equivocal in embracing this countercultural practice. These days it is not uncommon for an ‘urban art’ event to be sponsored by a local council or business, and there are now legal walls designated for graffiti in many major Irish towns. It has also entered the galleries and museums; this February BaqsR and Crap have displayed their work in the Galway City Museum and stencil artist ADW held an exhibition at the Back Loft Gallery, Dublin in April. This follows recent major retrospective graffiti exhibitions at the Tate in London (2008) and the Foundation Cartier in Paris (2009). Graffiti is currently a hot commodity. Two Banksy prints recently stolen from a gallery in central London were worth £16,000. The increasing popularisation of this pursuit has meant that Irish graffiti artists are receiving international attention. Last December, Dublin based Maser took part in the Europe-wide Vodafone 360 Heroes Challenge. Certainly there are benefits from the increased exposure: sponsorship for events and materials and perhaps more opportunities to make a living. However, a question is worth asking – is something lost in the institutionalisation of graffiti?
A recent move to the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca made this question more pertinent for me. The difference was on the walls. Here the street acts as a democratic message board. Personal declarations of love are scrawled next to slogans calling for proletarian revolution. Complex graffiti characters sit next to simple painted messages informing passers by of the time and date of the next trade union meeting. If there is one thing that unites all these disparate markings, it is a spirit of resistance and rebellion that is both poetic and political; the image of a clenched black fist over a red heart – “Todo el poder al pueblo (All power to the people)” above, “Todo el amor al pueblo (All love to the people)” below; a stencil of a child, mouth bound with a gag marked ‘ABC’, reads “Justice not just tests”.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that graffiti here is more political. After all this is a country with a long tradition of socially conscious public art. The Marxist muralists of the 1930s – Riviera, Orozco and Siqueiros are considered national heroes, their murals decorate important state buildings like the National Palace and the National Museum of History. Southern Mexican states like Oaxaca and Chiapas, where a substantial section of the population face an everyday struggle to feed and clothe their children, have long histories of radical uprisings. Because the graffiti is more overtly political, corporations and the state apparatus will sponsor nothing but its removal.
Graffiti was even part of the political struggle here in 2006, when an annual teachers strike was violently suppressed by state police resulting in the deaths of at least 17 people, including Indymedia journalist Brad Will. In reaction citizens launched a fierce graffiti campaign, which saturated the city. The visual impact was compelling; every inch of available space was targeted – messages were often impulsive and hastily sprayed, signalling a giddy optimism: “¡Abre los ojos! Oaxaca ya despertó’ (Open your eyes! Oaxaca has awoken)”. Stencils depicted the Governor Ulises dressed up in fascist uniform, or as a pig, rat or dog.
Despite international condemnation of the deaths, a long march to Mexico City and a hunger strike, the structures of power held firm and, supported by the President, Felipe Calderon and 3,500 Federal Police, Governor Ulises stayed in power. Although graffiti alone can never manage to topple repressive and corrupt governments, it can establish an atmosphere of solidarity and support, which in this case helped sustain the opposition’s resolve for seven long months of conflict.
This is the power of graffiti as a political intervention in times of social turmoil, its potency as a form of visual resistance; Republican murals in Northern Ireland, writing on the Berlin Wall, Situationist slogans in Paris during May ’68 and more recently graffiti on the Israeli West Bank barrier – as with protest songs in folk music, graffiti occurs spontaneously as a cultural response to subjugation and tyranny.
But just as 60’s protest music is redeployed to sell Land Rovers and Jeeps, street culture too is easily emptied of social content and appropriated for commercial capital; the youth and energy of the graffiti style, free from any overt meanings or signification, is ideal for lending ‘urban cool’ to marketing campaigns and trendy products. Like the iconic Che Guevara image, the vague associations of romantic rebellion and youthful opposition are now provided for consumption by graffiti culture. Indeed, no form of art is capable of resisting recuperation and being absorbed by commodity culture.
But does this co-opting of urban culture affect the content of the work? The kind of graffiti that receives institutional support tends to be flashy, highly stylised and message-free. Often well achieved on a technical basis, it rarely addresses the social world it exists within. Value is more often placed on energy, line and colour rather than subject matter. And while writing one’s name with a tag inscribes a presence, it does not go beyond the limitations of individual signature.
Ireland’s own political situation is obviously the other side of the world from that of Mexico, yet we have no reason to be politically complacent. We are still facing a different version of the same severe economic crisis, one caused largely by the aggressive greed of both local banking systems and global financial markets. The last 20 years has seen an increasing gap between the surplus wealth of the top strata and the subsistence economy of lower income groups. The current inertia in western politics has led to lower levels of popular participation (especially amongst young people). Irish artists cannot afford to turn away from the economic and ecological crises. There is an urgent need for art and culture in Ireland to engage and contend with the deep social problems we face.
Street art represents the ideal medium for an engaged practice. It operates within a public space and therefore lends itself to open, direct democratic speech. It is not so easy to give voice to a political critique in Ireland if you happen to be identified as a ‘member of the travelling community’. A can of paint, like a wooden box on a street corner, is the ability to stand up and speak publicly; an image or message on a wall enters the public domain in an instant; everyone walks down the same streets and so it transcends the social strata. Stencils provide another effective way to counteract the ideologically charged images we encounter every day; easy to achieve, they are high contrast and high impact.
It can also be an invaluable tool for campaigns that do not have traditional access to mainstream media. The ongoing conflict between Royal Dutch Shell and the Shell to Sea campaign underscores this. While protestors may write angry letters to the editor, Shell can afford to undertake a highly-publicised campaign in every national and regional newspaper; a grassroots group simply does not have the resources to match this. Intelligent, visual incisions made in the public arena however, can foster a decisive atmosphere of support. Although some stencils opposing Shell’s actions in Rossport did appear in my hometown of Galway in 2008, they tended to be more well-intentioned than visually compelling. Too often, political stencils here pale in comparison with the technical skill and aesthetic effect of non-political graffiti pieces. Unfortunately it seems that Ireland’s burgeoning graffiti scene will not become a critical force as long as it maintains its double-edged relationship with the corporate sector. Until artists start making work that challenges the status quo, graffiti will be condemned to the status of a trendy marketing gimmick, and any radical charge it might have had will have been neutralised.
In Oaxaca I discovered the potential of street art. Whether it counts as art or vandalism or both, what is inspiring is that it is a sign of a people resisting ‘the way things are’. From the beautifully noisy walls of Oaxaca we should take something back home; the possibility for rejuvenating our own stagnant political situation through imaginatively charged democratic street art. Our grey streets could be injected with colour and ideas – words and images to wake people out of a catatonic state of political complacency. Paint is cheap, and ideas cost nothing. Find a wall and make it speak.