Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Brighton Street Art

Above is an example of what I intend to discuss and illustrate. But let's first digress into ordinary graffiti.

As you approach any large town by rail, especially in south-east England, you will see a certain type of graffiti on any available flat surface, sometimes on the sides of carriages themselves, but more usually on walls and bridges. Some of these locations are so dangerous that you wonder how the artists managed to clamber up there in the dark. It would require daring. Or did they do it in daylight? But if so, how? Surely it would be impossible without the connivance of railway staff? Is it in fact done by railway staff?

One imagines teams of hooded artists trespassing onto railway property at the dead of night, well-organised, with lookouts in case of interruption by security guards, conscious of their illegality, and ready to cut and run if seen. I fancy that they are called 'crews', but I may be wrong. They work fast and secretly with spray cans, writing these deliberately incomprehensible messages.

This type of graffiti is not pictorial. Not in the manner of Banksy's stuff - a picture, something witty. Nor does it employ simple slogans like 'Free Palestine!', or 'Free London from Boris!'.

It's word-based. At any rate, a stark collection of what seem to be words. They rarely spell out a definite message. The artists have used heavily stylised lettering that so warps and deforms the words, if words they are, that they are hardly readable. It all has the untidy, wayward, ugly feel of vandalism, but it's clearly not mindless nor random. It has an animal vitality, and arresting visual impact. It is very distinctive, and done in a very particular way, with lots of repetition. Gang territory markings, perhaps? Or a design, a logo, someone's trademark, saying 'I was here, and this is my mark'? Some of these words do look like someone's name. Or perhaps there really is an obscure message for the travelling public to see, almost a riddle, something that if they have the wit they can read, and having done so take in an urban truth.

One thing that does strike me quite unmistakably is that these are all subversive messages, two fingers jabbed at the powers that be, a big 'up yours' to all authority. By whom? By those who feel disadvantaged and despised? By those who have no jobs, no privileges, and want to jolt the comfortable middle-class commuting public into recognising that they, the subversives, and their subculture, do exist and can't be ignored. And not only that, they can threaten and fight back.

But why are the messages so incomprehensible? That must be intentional. I have theorised that the message is left obscure so that if a perpetrator is caught only minor charges of trespass and defacement can be brought against him. If the message itself cannot be read or interpreted, it can't exacerbate the sentence passed.

Alternatively, the message might be obscure because behind it all is a system of subcultural references, and we are shown just the major symbols of it. I am being obscure myself. I mean that instead of (say) writing 'let's have complete global nuclear disarmament' on a wall, the street artist gives us instead instead the old CND 'ban the bomb' symbol:

This is a perfectly comprehensible symbol if you were ever a member of CND or in sympathy with their protests. If all that passed you by, the symbol remains powerful but its meaning is hard to guess.

Let's leave graffiti as such and move on to something similar but rather more developed. It's still a defacement, and no doubt deplored by local residents and officialdom, but there is considerably more 'art' involved. Brighton has many good examples of what I mean.

You have to distinguish it sharply from the murals painted on shops, specially commissioned and intended to call attention to the shop. Here is an example of a straightforward shopfront painting in Brighton's North Laine:

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. And that's the name of the shop. The shot dates from 2007. It's since been repainted, and to my mind, the repaint is not as good as the original. The original had impact, didn't it? Well, these other wall paintings - not far away, and shot by me within the last few days - also have impact. But what they refer to, and what they say, is beyond guessing unless you can interpret them:

I find them slightly menacing but impressive. Certainly worth a series of shots. Certainly worth discussion here. Outlandish and grotesque distortions of faces and bodies are a feature of this genre. Skulls are popular. So are machine-beings, reminiscent of Darth Vader or Transformers. I noticed that a couple of the machine-beings had the number '23' painted next to them, or on them - what might that signify? Strange writing in the usual station-approach style intrudes: it’s hard to decide whether it's an integral part of the painting - a signature of some kind, say - or the vandalism of the painting by a rival.

The bottommost painting, with the skull that is almost a ravaged face, and the burning city in the background, suggests the aftermath of some man-made disaster. But the easily-read words say YOU GIVE THEM POWER WHEN YOU COWER. That's clear and succinct. It's a warning surely that you must stand up against the madmen at the top of the pile who will bring holocaust on us all. Don't cower. Don't be afraid. Face them. Fight them. Defeat them. Well, maybe. It may be referring to something quite different. I certainly think it's great street art. But why is it anonymous? You can understand why it might not be signed by an individual, but who is the group making this back-lane statement? Who are these freedom fighters? I don't understand why they stay incognito.

The other paintings shown above are of variable quality but more obscure, and the messages - if they are messages - are mostly rendered unreadable from way too much stylisation. But even so, skilfully painted, eye-catching, and defiant.

I'm really quite a fan of street art. It has punch. It's never bland.

Let me contrast it with these 2007 examples of obviously-commissioned wall art that I saw in New Zealand. They're admirably done, but not painted by an underdog making a protest. A mining scene at Westport in South Island; a newspsaper-office mural at Greymouth, also in South Island; and a painting on the side of a building at Opunake in the west of North Island, where dairying is predominant:

Worthy. But I prefer the subversive back-lane stuff in Brighton!

Mind you, if I'm ever in Northern Ireland I will make a point of doing a taxi-tour to see the murals painted in connection with the Troubles. Though whether it will be safe to get out and grab a shot is another matter. In Brighton, you can have a jolly good look at street paintings without anyone asking you why.


  1. I love the art but not where it is being displayed when for me anyway it becomes vandalism

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I think your last paragraph displays a lack of awareness in regards to the Peace Process taking place in N.Ireland, you would be perfectly safe & no questions would asked.
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  3. Thank you, Heron. I would ideally wish to wander about unaccompanied, photographing whatever caught my eye, as I can do in Sussex. Despite your assurances, I do see a need to be circumspect in a place that seems quite foreign. I don't really fear violence, but I would expect to encounter suspicion from the locals, and face the usual exasperation shown to tourists who seem to be going too far, or not showing the right kind of respect. As a complete outsider, I could easily make many mistakes.



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