Graffiti with Purpose

This is a paper I wrote quite a long time ago on graffiti with purpose, but I have never published it. Enjoy!

Design is all around us, even where we least expect it. Almost everything in our environment is designed in some way, shape or form – whether it is billboards and buildings, or even garden layouts and graffiti. Contrary to popular opinion, graffiti is its own art form. Although graffiti is often done in illegal places (such as laneways, train lines, walls of buildings), much thought is put into the design of detailed work.

A misunderstood form of art and design, “graffiti” is derived from the Italian graffio – meaning “to scratch/scribble on a surface”. Graffiti is a colourful art form, promoting the artist’s beliefs, opinions, and interests to their sub-culture peers and the public.

However, graffiti isn’t always illegal, and can be used to help the surrounds. Walls are often commissioned to graffiti artists to put their talent to accepted use within a community. When a high-quality graffiti artwork has been produced for the public to see, other graffiti artists will often respect the work and not paint over it. And because it is a clean and related mural, the surrounding environment isn’t degraded from poor graffiti that lowers the value of the suburb or city.

But not all graffiti is done as a “pretty picture”. Some graffiti is highly political, such as the message “No jobs on a dead planet” boldly painted onto an industrial chimney in West Melbourne. The Greens Party were the instigators of this large-scale message, specifically painted onto the chimney, relating it to the pollution the chimney once emitted – giving the message immediate meaning and recognition. However, it is also placed on that particular chimney, as it is in a prime position for many people to see it.

The message is painted in white, to contrast against the brown chimney for optimum exposure. If the message was printed in black, or even another colour such as blue or green, it would not be as visible as it is in white. However, white is also the colour of peace, implying the message is an appeal to the community, an advertisement for awareness. This is further reiterated with the use of the peace symbol at the end of the message.

And then there is stereotype graffiti, typically found in laneways and along train lines – places that aren’t policed 24-7. Stereotypical graffiti is often colourful, done in spray paint, and is a name or a word in an extremely freeform style of typography, presenting the public with an artwork made up of letters more than letters made into an artwork. This piece is painted onto a roller-door of a shop in the tiny Degraves St – a shop that isn’t even open on a Sunday, clearly being susceptible to graffiti. An interesting choice of location, however, as the outer edge of the shop “frames” the work, as if it was a painting in an art gallery. However, the tin would have been an issue to paint on, with the curves affecting the angles of lines and paint coverage.

This piece holds some “fashionable” aspects of graffiti from the present, being the use of clouds and sparkles behind the typography. It gives a dreamy feeling, assisted by the highlights with white and the use of the colour blue. The word used in the graffiti could be the artist’s alias, a word of meaning, or a bunch of letters meaning nothing (but look nice when put together). According to the publication Spraycan Art, Australian graffiti artists are known for using random, useless words in their works – whereas overseas in places such as New York, the words used in their graffiti are often the artists’ names, trying to outdo each other with the most well-constructed and artistic piece possible.

But when you look a little further into the graffiti of Melbourne, specifically into the laneway Centre Place – famous for its unique and sophisticated graffiti – quotes scatter the walls in obscure but deliberate places. They are specifically there for others to read and gain knowledge from, such as “before one acts, one should ask one self, ‘what would happen if all others were doing as I am doing?’” (pictured). This is placed on the dumpster near some crates – the access point to climb to do graffiti on the highest sections of the laneway. This means their intended audience would see the message on their way to doing graffiti in the laneway, and as it is in a place where a person would have to stop to climb, chances are they would stop and read the philosophy of graffiti. A quick scribble in permanent marker turns into a timely thought-provoking philosophy for everyone who sees it.

Then in the same laneway, part of the back wall is commissioned art space: the “Citylights” project. Created in 1996, the four illuminated light boxes have been host to many street artists, giving them a new medium to work with, and a new space of “legal” wall to display their work on. Some of the art presented has been rather political, and has been well-known for causing controversy – such as Regan Smith’s Citylights display “Crime Walls”. This edginess is typical of graffiti artists, publicizing the tougher side of life that many of the public tend to ignore. This piece was of the Melbourne underworld figures George Williams, Mario Condello and Dominic Gatto – including one panel which had the “I ♥ NY” logo with “Melbourne” replacing the scribbled-out NY.

Many people in Melbourne walk through Degraves St daily, and directly go past Central Place and see the Citylights project. It stands out in the darkened (but short) laneway, being lit all day and night. The boxes are made of metal and glass, so they are durable to the weather and aren’t too complicated to change the artwork in. They are high up enough to avoid most vandalism, and have lighting only strong enough to draw attention to them in the laneway, keeping maintenance costs down.

Graffiti artists are always finding new ways to present their art in public, whether it’s legal (like emerging projects such as Citylights), or illegal – like the sweeping craze of sticker art. Sticker art is cheaper than spray paint and quicker to place on a wall, rather than a large and complex mural-style masterpiece that can take days to complete. The stickers are made of paper with a print on them – typically white paper with black print – the cheapest print possible. The present trend is to use cartoon-style characters, part-whimsical, part-Japanese anime style.

They can range from tiny stickers to large-scale (up to 1 metre or more), and are plastered onto any surface that will let them adhere – walls, ceilings, doors, fences, and even glass. The fact they can be stuck onto many more surfaces than spray paint opens up new ideas of composition and location of art for the graffiti artists. For instance, this example (Cnr Elizabeth St and Flinders Lane) is positioned so it feels as if the character is walking across the windowsill, giving it new depth and life that spray paint cannot achieve. Sticker art has also begun its rapid rise due to the lower charges if the artist is caught pasting on a sticker, rather than the much higher fines given out for painting on property. This is because stickers are temporary and can be removed easier than paint, which is so permanent it could last for months to years depending on the weather conditions of the area, and the quality of the spray paint.

Graffiti is everywhere around us, whether we choose to notice it, or ignore it. It holds important messages and beautiful artwork, just like the professional design of billboards and shop fronts, although most of the public despise it as the majority of graffiti is deemed illegal. An art movement that is comprised of simple materials as spray paint, stickers, a free space and a little bravery, with the locations and colours being very important aspects of this often misunderstood movement.