Sometime in your day you will inevitably see words or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly in a public place. The defining part of the art of graffiti is that it is always done clandestinely.
In the Jurassic era of the Seventies I spent a year as a student in the USA. To get there I flew on the cheapest airline available, Loftleidir Icelandic, which was also known as The Hippy Express and Graffiti Air because of all the student scratches and scribbles on the back of its aircraft seats.
In the airport of Luxemburg, where I waited for my flight to New York via Iceland, I discovered these words on a toilet wall: Sometimes the wolves are quiet and the moon howls.
To this day I still do not really know what it meant but it was melancholically beautiful. Maybe vandals sometimes feel lonely. Or do the lonely become vandals? Are unknown graffiti writers searching for success and recognition? Like the one who wrote: I’m worried I’m a failure. Or are they philosophers like this one: If a book on failure doesn’t sell is it a success?
The master of satirical graffiti art is Banksy and his identity is an issue of speculation.
Regarding secrecy, Banksy said: “Commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist.”
But then Banksy, who adds overnight colour and food for thought to grey buildings, is actually financially very successful. In 2008 already his painting of housemaid sweeping dirt in under a wall’s polka dot wallpaper sold at Sotheby’s for $1.87 million.
In October 2018 he stunned the world when around half of Girl With Balloon, one his most famous stencil drawings, was reduced to strips of paper by a shredder built into the frame after the hammer went down at Sotheby’s. Banksy then posted an image of the shredding on Instagram captioned in graffiti style as: Going, going, gone…
The absence of identity adds allure to illicit public messages as in the case of the anonymous student who once left me this deep philosophy on a men’s toilet door which I read just before going into the university examination hall: Maths is like a fart in the dark. You hear it but you don’t have a clue what’s going on.
And then there was the notice on a wall stating “Bill Posters will be Prosecuted”. An alert wall comedian then wrote underneath: Bill Posters is Innocent! That thought is so deep I almost want to shout out with another anonymous scratching I once saw: Support your local vandal.
Not everyone can write a novel but anyone who can string two words together can write good graffiti.
Graffiti challenges the world. I saw a photograph of a notice on a wall stating: “Do not deface.” Someone then drew a line through it and scribbled: Challenge accepted.
Good graffiti is done with satirical compassion as in the person who sprayed these huge words on a wall: Sorry about your wall. It is also done with firm conviction as in the case of a roadside billboard advising men to have regular medical tests. The billboard stated: “This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness”. Then someone sprayed underneath the message: No we won’t.
Good graffiti has humour as in the case of a sign on a door stating: This door is alarmed. A brainy scribbler added underneath: What startled it? Or just this graffiti wisdom: I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous.
I never studied graffitology but to my mind early rock paintings were probably done by known tribe members and therefore not graffiti. It has to be covert and illicit to be graffiti.
It was all over the empires of antiquity.
Graffiti by the undisclosed was the advertising method of choice for prostitution in Ancient Greece and Rome. The Alexamenos graffito (known as the blasphemous graffito – graffito is the singular of graffiti) is now in a Rome museum. It dates back to around the year 200 and is said to be the earliest known pictorial representation of the Crucifixion of Jesus.
In today’s digital world graffiti has moved on to your smartphone. Anyone can now make an instant blotch mark by photographing something and sending it on with a message. You can Whatsapp, WeChat, Facebook or Instagram yourself to instant fame or just leave it as unknown graffiti to be shared over and over again with no link to you, the eventual clandestine creator.
But I believe nowadays the most clandestine modern form of graffiti is fake news. Spy agencies and certain politicians have become top graffiti artists flooding the public illicitly with hoaxes, propaganda and disinformation to influence the world.
In South Africa, political hijackers and a public relations agency made up the racist fake story of something called white monopoly capital. It is still propagated and widely believed. After all, it is in writing. However, any first-year economics student will tell you a monopoly relates to a firm’s control over a market or product and that capital cannot be a monopoly because capital is an item used in production, just like labour and natural resources. White monopoly capital is about as idiotic as white or black monopoly labour.
It might be fake news itself but it is said that Russian intelligence operatives spread stories about Hillary Clinton being involved in a pizza restaurant and a child sex ring. When Richard Branson was photographed with blood on his face after a bicycle accident the world was overrun by fake digital stories that he had died.
I find fake news as a form of secret graffiti irritating.
On the positive side I find the philosophical form of howling moon graffiti enjoyably enlightening. Comments such as: I have gone to find myself. If I should return before I get back, tell me to wait till I get here.
And in this graffiti I see a great story: Close the eyes. Enjoy the mind.
The world gets lit up by those types of silent words and images of wisdom in the mould of Simon and Garfunkel who proclaimed:
And the sign said
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence.
Rhynie Greeff has a doctorate in commerce and a background in international business related to diplomacy, chemicals, minerals and telecommunications.
Remember to come back every second week for Jet-Letter by Rhynie Greeff, exclusive to TheSouthAfrican.com.
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