This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
Graffiti art has taken on a new life in recent years, with vast murals spray painted on the side of buildings in every major city you visit. Commissioned murals and their detailed aesthetics are now deemed as a worthy presence in public spaces, referred to as “‘street art” rather than graffiti. This distinction is worth highlighting as it is often the latter that is stigmatised, resulting in criminal convictions. It is no coincidence that this spontaneous, less detailed form of artistic protest, largely deriving from deprived communities, has been treated less favourably than professionally commissioned “street art”. Historically, however, this favourable treatment has always existed.
The Berlin Wall provides an interesting example of this. One striking image is the socialist “Fraternal Kiss between Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker by Dmitri Vrubel in 1990. After being banned from painting on the east side of the Wall, the collapse of communism in 1989 enabled Vrubel to go ahead with the mural. This emphasises the new freedoms he possessed; the creation process itself a critique of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). However, in 2009 Vrubel was asked to restore the painting, detracting from the original protest element. Instead, the mural was transformed into a site of memory that the state regarded as worthy of preserving. The Wall has, therefore, become commercialised: attractive to external visitors of Berlin, and advertised as a place of interest on travel websites. It has increased in value, not only as an example of resistance, but also because of its contribution to German culture and economy.
Vrubel’s street art has been emulated recently in Bristol in 2016, depicting the “Fraternal Kiss’”, this time between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, opposing the Brexit campaign. On the surface it displays the art of resistance, but the reference to Vrubel’s original work suggests the aestheticization of street art: that in order for it to be engaging, it has to emulate similar forms of protest.
Spontaneous graffiti writing, alternatively, is used to signal that something is wrong in a community, creating fear of urban decline within elites and thus requiring legal intervention. This facilitates stereotypes about those who write graffiti, suggesting they engage with other crimes, meaning certain communities are imagined as a criminal class.
Even if the message of resistance is powerful, the process of what is and what is not allowed in public spaces shows only certain members of society are allowed to express their discontent through graffiti. We find this now, and in the past, making it clear that the art of resistance has always been gentrified to some extent.
By Sheona Mountford