“Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him…”
You don’t have to be a blasphemous Babylonian king to have strong views about spontaneous alterations to the urban fabric. Everybody loves a beautiful city, right?
While we weren’t looking, the NSW Parliament passed legislation specifically excluding “graffiti” offences from the list of crimes that police can issue a caution for, so that young people who graffiti must go to court. The laws respond to a widespread and popular feeling against graffiti (even if they don’t conform to the Government’s own commitments to keeping children out of the juvenile justice system), because of all urban blights, graffiti can be the ugliest.
In Sydney, Cityrail maintains a database of tags, and prosecutes the graffitists on its files when they can, quite apart from the large amounts of money they spend on cleaning rolling stock and stations. And fair enough. Nobody wants to sit on a painted or knife-sliced seat, or look out through glass scratched up with a coin—and perceived dirty carriages and stations do affect perceived safety and real patronage levels. Worst of all are the eternal racist, homophobic, sexist and generally offensive slogans that afflict walls and hard surfaces everywhere. We’re all agreed, it’s wrong and harmful to do things to other people’s property, aren’t we?
Of course we aren’t. Even train pieces have fans and documentarists. If you’re someone like Banksy or Keith Haring, you can even wind up with people mourning the destruction of your laneway rat stencil, or a full-blown Conservation Management Plan. It’s trite to say that there’s a conflict of interpretation around popular and spontaneous public art. If you live in the bohemian parts of any urban centre you’ve probably seen, for example, yarn-bombing. It’s the covering of bits of urban furniture with wool; a favourite of Tumblrists and recently caustically condemned by comedian Corinne Grant:
There are two worlds and one of them needs to be covered up so the other one can get on with the business of gentrification.
But hold on. Slow down. Of course there’s a class element. Obviously there’s a gendered element as well: criminal damage to trees, which is what yarn-bombing can amount to, isn’t seen the same way as the solvent-smelling ‘bombing’ of the young men’s world of hip hop culture. Knitting is a women’s activity; it’s what peaceful creative types do who want only positive effects for the urban environment. It’s commodified into a market in a way that aerosol graffiti is trying to achieve (with paint in record shops, and pieces in expensive coffee table books).
Yarn is fluffy and warm, spray painting is smelly and ugly. But what’s the difference, really? And why do the knitters try to take on tags like “guerrilla knitters”, if they’re so benign?
It’s very noticeable that the language of urban DIY is the language of crime and war. It hits you, in fact, at every descriptive stage. Even on the ‘legit’ side of illicit urbanism, practitioners take violent phraseology and make it their own, from yarn-bombing to seed-bombing (throwing plant seeds into disused lots to germinate), to the Guerrilla Gardeners (which Channel 10 shamelessly expropriated), to the more prosaic terms like “tactical urbanism”, “urban actions” and “urban interventions”—bits of euphemism Tony Blair and the disgraceful Euston Manifestists would be proud of.
And on one level, fair enough. Urban “interventions” in the form of art are a staple in the toolkit of every state- and non-state violent actor, from the IRA and UVF murallists in Belfast, to the gang signs of North American inner cities, to the pulling-down of dictators’ statues that goes on whenever there’s a regime change. Easy-E himself lives on in stencil form, Fucking The Police all the way from Compton to the Kandahar air base in Afghanistan. And even Madame Defarge, under the tumbrils, clacked her needles together as one of the original yarn-bombers. So if you could ask one, what would a real guerrilla say about the matter?
The urban guerrilla’s best ally is the terrain, and because this is so he must know it like the palm of his hand. To have the terrain as an ally means to know how to use with intelligence its unevenness, its high and low points, its turns, its irregularities, its fixed and secret passages, its abandoned areas, its thickets, etc., taking maximum advantage of all of this for the success of armed actions, escapes, retreats, covers, and hiding places.
Marighella, author of the original Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, was a terrorist, red in tooth and claw. He lived on the run, theorised about kidnapping and assassination, and died in a shootout with police. He wasn’t as good looking as his beret-wearing Argentinian peer, so he’s not on t-shirts or posters. But his point remains. You can try to wage war (or, uh, ‘urban humanitarian interventionism’, if you’re a Blairite yarnbombing warm fuzzy type) but it all starts with your own familiarity and embeddedness in your urban environment.
And a lot of this individualistic activity is memetic: it’s a deliberate imitation and continual self-referencing artistic activity. If tags, throw-ups and pieces can cross oceans from their origins in the African American neighbourhoods of the USA, so can crocheted bits of fabric, tedious googly eyes, recycled jokes and cut-and-pasted stencils, from hipster Brooklyn to Newtown and Fitzroy and the Valley. When one city finds an art placemaking activity that suggests a cheap and cheerful solution, and gets good media, other cities start writing the same things into their official plans and bring the artists and stakeholders inside the tent of urban legitimacy. It’s a cycle that is, on one level, pop eating itself:
Despite the rhetoric of a cultural quarter bringing vibrancy and a creative ‘milieu’ to a city, the more they are replicated, the less vibrant and ‘different’ they become…
It also, as Corinne Grant suggested, suggests to a cynical and deliberate attempt to get away from the difficult and arduous questions of urbanism, that we are going to need to solve together. Placemaking and urban spontaneity by individuals bring amusing and sometimes trivially easy social gains, but they’re the cheap calories of an unhealthy urban diet.
We have an unresolved hypocrisy about urban art and intervention, and always will. At one level this is unavoidable and the effect of art being subjective—whatever you can get away with, as McLuhan might have said through a hoodie, on the chase from Cityrail guards. But when we’re taking our spray-painting children to court to satisfy an electoral demand for punishment, while putting pictures of knitted trees on Tumblr and embedding improvised performances of kitsch into official strategies, we need to think about the consequences of our double standards.
Get the children out of court, I say. Take their aerosols away and have them compulsorily attend local government committees. You know it makes sense.
Image by Twilight Taggers via Creative Commons Licence