I’ve always had a love-hate fascination with graffiti. With its (sometimes controversial) reclamation of public space and freedom of access for the viewer, it has a democratic nature that appeals to the idealist in me. Yet graffiti often tows a precarious line between art and vandalism.
Two works of graffiti I encountered way back, particularly stand out in my mind:
It was 1997, the last day of school, and everyone was abuzz; not because it was the last day, but because those who had come early enough, had seen these words smack in the centre of the grassy circular courtyard:
<insert school acronym>
The school authorities covered up the offending patch of grass with potted plants (resulting in a most bizarre “landscaping” design), but the damage was done, and the student population afire with speculation. Two years later, over an ICQ (remember that?) chat, a friend owned up to it, confessing that the group of them had bought weed killer, and climbed into the school compound in the dead of night to pour out four years worth of bottled-up frustration onto the innocent grass. After leaving school, the “artists”/perpetrators tended to live life on the road less travelled, and achieved some pretty remarkable things along the way. I’ve often mulled over what kind of environment would better channel and celebrate creativity and energy such as they had, instead of so systematically suppressing it, only to have it explode out in an ugly incident of vandal’s diarrhoea. Come to think of it, the story goes that Chairman Mao himself, at age 22, broke the world record for the longest piece of graffiti, a toilet piece containing 4000 characters criticising his teachers and the state of Chinese society. And look where all that school-induced angst got him.
That begets the question: what distinguishes Banksy from Michael Fay? How does graffiti become meaningful? For me, graffiti can be elevated to street art, or more specifically, post-graffiti, and become — and this is controversial — “worth the destruction caused to public property” when it fulfills its potential as a medium for social commentary; jolting viewers into rethinking the status quo (particularly if it’s relevant to the space the graffiti is set in), and affects their interaction with the space, or even is simply something that causes people to stop and reflect. Yet, even this loose definition is a weak delineation, for what’s seen as vandalism today may take on social value tomorrow. Case in point:
It was 2000, Day 20 of a 21-day community service project in Pulau Teluk Nipah, Batam. In high spirits after completing the project, we trekked out to a cave located on the other side of the island and found it covered in mariners’ graffiti carved out on the stone walls, many dating all the way back to the 1400’s; olden day versions of what might today be etched out as:
Her Majesty’s Ship Was Here
Imagine standing at that exact same spot, your mind conjuring up visions of explorers of old, chiselling away at the rock to pass you the message: psst, we’re all travellers on the same journey. And what a rich visual record of all the nations that have been trading through these waters. So I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. After all, even anthoropologists equate prehistoric rock art to modern day graffiti. Come to think of it, Banksy summed the issue up very nicely in this piece:
Since then, I’ve started collecting images of (usually politically-charged) street art off the web and using them as my desktop wallpapers – to serve as daily reminders to rethink comfortable, smug assumptions about the world we inhabit. It was only after getting a camera phone three years ago that I started documenting this fascination myself – photographing bits and pieces of street art I encountered, mostly in Singapore, and organising them into a collection on flickr. As aesthetically-pleasing as some of them were to me, I found something lacking – meaning and relevance to the space. Some of the graffiti appeared to merely seek a free, public canvas, not pushing the art form to its potential of social commentary, and that sometimes smacked of self-gratifying anarchy to me.
“You do not necessarily need to be able to draw or paint to be an artist. You only need to care about something. The biggest hurdle in creating guerilla art is not always how to say something but instead what to say.”
Fast-forward to 2009. Imagine my immense glee to discover the work of a Singapore-based guerilla artist who has something meaningful to say. Since 15 January, this anonymous artist has been creating a-guerilla art-a-day — small post-its with little messages left in public places in Singapore, archived on his blog; a virtual “to do” list of everyday wisdom such as this one from 4 February:
While post-it art is not uncommon, what distinguishes this work is that the artist imbues his post-it art with reminders that are universally relevant, and, on good days, are cleverly placed in locations that make the viewer reconsider his reading of that space.
With no profile, no rationale, and no write-ups, the artist lets his work speak for itself. His choice of post-its is clever, resulting in transient work which doesn’t pose a problem for the long-suffering workers upon whose shoulders the unenviable task of cleaning up regular graffiti usually lands on. It even invites the itchy-fingered amongst us to interact with it, since, if one physically encountered his work, one could even take it down and stick it up again somewhere else, endlessly, though perhaps subject to the post-it’s remaining sticky-factor. And since his work is so wisely licensed under Creative Commons, these little babies have gone viral, even inspiring reproductions in NYC.
It’s just lovely how this wonderful little project has captured our imagination, brought smiles to our hearts and inspired reflection. May we all remember to make meaning in the every day!