As 2020 continues to dive further into the abyss of despair with Covid-19, rising poverty, systemic racism and Brexit all making life harder for those without a voice, our streets continue to provide the canvas for a new revolution with a riot of colour…
“Graffiti is beautiful; like a brick in the face of a cop,” according to Hunter S. Thompson in one of his characteristically shambolic interviews. This quote has never felt more prescient than it does in the summer of 2020 where the streets have once again become canvas, courtroom and crucible for repressed voices worldwide. With its rich history of subversive slogans and revolution rendered on… well, render and mortar I suppose – graffiti and street art have returned to reclaim the streets and proclaim progressive ideas across the world.
The 80s was most people’s first experience of graffiti, whether it’s in the classic hip hop film Wild Style, Blondie’s music video for Rapture which featured prominent NYC artists of the time Fab Five Freddy and Jean Michel Basquiat, or seen in all it’s political glory adorning the Berlin Wall as David Hasselhoff crooned along to ‘Looking for Freedom’. However graffiti can be found as far back as Ancient Rome, derived from the Italian ‘graffiato’ meaning ‘scratched’ where slogans were scratched into walls including political statements, poems, adverts and greetings. Street art occurs throughout history whether as a simple tag, a way of commenting on the ills of the time or as a declaration of love, defiance and even revolution.
Protest has been at the core of street art in our societies for centuries. Fab Five Freddy’s fantastic BBC documentary, A Fresh Guide To
“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”
Florence, educates generations of art students about African people’s place in the Renaissance and redefines Michelangelo as a ‘street artist’ after finding wall drawings by the Italian master in a Medici tomb. Similarly in recent years, graffiti or street art has been used as a tool of rebellion during World War II, profoundly pictured as part of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and as a major player in America’s ongoing civil rights movement across the last 70 years.
In 2020, with social, economic and environmental issues all reaching a boiling point (some quite literally) it’s no surprise that street art’s political properties have come into prominence again. Graffiti is literally shouting from the walls and the rooftops of inhabited spaces all over the globe resisting everything from racism, misogyny and poverty to gentrification, closed Hippodromes and the spread of coronavirus. In the UK and US, pieces criticising Trump and Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid-19 are commonplace from Florida to Frome or Detroit to Dorking. Simultaneously, artists have also played a huge part in supporting public safety adorning statues or works of art with PPE masks, throwing up slogans to Stay Home and of course celebrating the NHS, key workers and people lost to the virus.
Banksy once wrote, “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.” This universal, all-inclusive language of graffiti as a means of protest, progress and empowerment is clear in its use across every country in the world and in terms of disenfranchised people using it to amplify their voice, nowhere is this more evident than in the current Black Lives Matter movement.
“Graffiti in its essence, is anti establishment. An action that reclaims public space to share an uncensored message of the people. It sparks debate and conversation”
Although not alone, graffiti’s most prominent right wing creator is LA-based Sabo who became a household name in the US following his inflammatory works during the 2016 Presidential election. The artist believes ‘leftism is a mental disorder’ and views Republicans as the new punk, with many of his works supporting pro-life abortion views, and most explicitly a billboard emblazoned with the slogan, ‘Black Lives Are Just Matter’. As with the myriad liberal graff artists, Sabo firmly considers his work to be delivering a voice for the voiceless stating he “caters to the street urchins” and is proud of his place as the sole right wing voice of guerilla art.
The war on both sides of the political spectrum is being waged in the voting booths, on the news and now on the facades of our architecture. In recent weeks protestors at Black Lives Matter protests have used graffiti to admonish historical figures like Churchill and Columbus in light of their racist views or ties to slavery. In response, members of far right groups are also taking to the streets with racist messages springing up across the States and the breadth of the United Kingdom. It’s clear graffiti’s power as an engine of change for those not in power is as strong as ever.
Graffiti’s ability to disseminate the words of the suppressed only holds power if we can see it. Too often with our busy schedules and mobile phones we live our lives in a bubble, especially outside. Our communities, our children and our artists are telling us new things everyday whether it’s a tag for a new movement, a graff piece cementing your view on politics or some street art telling you to be kind to people. Read the streets, engage with your environment and you never know, it might just engage with you!