Urban relief

Graffiti: eyesore vandalism or the creative lifeblood of our cities? Tania Ahsan investigates

Walking up London’s South Bank to Leake Street, you’d be forgiven for feeling uneasy among the forbidding concrete and hooded individuals milling around. But this is, in fact, one of the few legal graffiti walls in London. Everything – including the lights – is covered in colourful paint.

Each year the walls are ‘buffed’ (painted over) to create canvases for the Battle of Waterloo – a graffiti competition sponsored by spray paint manufacturer, Chrome & Black. By the afternoon of the day of the competition, several stunning pieces had been completed, others were almost finished and the ‘hoodies’ had revealed themselves to be urban artists – men and women, young and old.

Those who created iconography in centuries past were said to ‘write’ the icons rather than paint them, as these were religious stories for the illiterate who would understand the established symbols in the work. Graffiti, similarly, is written rather than painted and it also has a rich history of meaning.

In the 1960s, graffiti tags (nicknames or symbols of the writers) were often territorial and even gang-related, but by the 1970s a form of graffiti was taking hold in New York that was to change the way the art form was viewed forever. In 1971, Taki 183, the tag name of a youth living in Manhattan, used his job as a messenger to take his tag all over the city on the inside and outside of trains.

This was the start of ‘getting over’ – the desire to have your work visible and moving throughout the city, often through writing in the most inaccessible of places. In the UK, King Robbo painted his first train in 1985, breaking into a train yard at night to achieve his goal.

This counterculture element of taking risks and breaking rules continues today, as street artist Sweet Toof reveals: “To me it’s about getting over, no matter what it takes.”

Using the term ‘street artist’ is rife with contradictions. Who decides who is a street artist and who is a vandal? At the heart of this distinction is that perennial question: what is art? While Banksy has been lauded as the darling of the auction room, other artists are arrested and their works painted over.

“The ‘hoodies’ had revealed themselves to be urban artists – men and women, young and old”

Given that the worth of art is determined by the commercial dealers in the industry, it appears that graffiti may finally be getting the recognition it deserves, as a spate of recent exhibitions shows. In 2012, The Red Gallery in London’s trendy Shoreditch hosted a show for Team Robbo, the collective of writers affiliated with the now tragically comatose King Robbo. Last summer, Bristol hosted a street art festival, inviting artists from around the world to create huge murals for the exhibition.

However, from political graffiti in Bogota to the murals of Los Angeles, it has not been possible for the art establishment to ‘tame’ street art entirely. The very nature of it is counterculture and subversive, which is why Sweet Toof says he feels very “uncomfortable” when he sees a piece made for big brand names.

The best street art of all lifts the spirits and adds colour and joy to often very poor neighbourhoods, but many local councils and landlords do not see it that way. Yet, whenever parts of the urban landscape are officially given over to graffiti walls, frequently the end result is not intimidating, but joyously exuberant – even if not all of it is of equal artistic merit.

When Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant wrote their iconic book Subway Art in 1984 about the New York graffiti scene, they found that graffiti crews had a strong sense of community and worked in collaboration to achieve their creative goals. In short, they exhibited values that we would all want more of in the urban jungle.