Photography

Photography

I Am Here. Am I Alone?

Loitering With Intent

This article is an amalgam of my thoughts posted to blipfoto in recent days and an answer to a question posed by Micah Purnell drawing on my observations from photographing graffiti in London over the last 10 years. So if in reading this you get the feeling it’s a re-spray job to disguise two insurance write offs welded together and lifting the bonnet will reveal that the serial number has been filed off, it’s because it is and it has.

It is also punctuation in the story of my life. A life I enjoy all the more for what I have come to see in graffiti.

To the ‘Drive By’ Art Critics

Let’s start with claims that Graffiti isn’t really art. I’m not going to tell you it is or it isn’t but what I am going to do is discourage prejudice and encourage informed judgement.

All art is life lived out through a variety of mediums; it is therefore about humanity and the human experience. Those who recognise this enjoy looking for the statements and questions raised by artists in their work. No-one who claims to be genuinely interested in art is satisfied with viewing a single piece. Even exposure to an artist’s full catalogue of work isn’t evidence of real engagement. The desire to connect with the personal journey of the artist is what separates those who appreciate art from those who are looking for expensive home decor or sound financial investment.

Now a lot of people judge the graf they see on its complexity, discriminating against less elaborate and colourful styles. I just don’t get that at all and graf writers certainly don’t make this distinction, they don’t think their stuff is only valid if it’s big and pretty. As a graf writer recently commented on one of my blips:

“There isn’t a single graffiti artist who didn’t start out with tagging; it’s a vital part of the process of learning to write. Nothing beats a good tag!”

 – delete

(I hinted at my stance on tagging in the article ‘Signature Analysis’ so I won’t touch on that here)

My point is this: if you don’t make any effort to understand where the artist is coming from can you say you’re a fair judge of the art?

Stop and Search – Getting Graffiti To Turn Out Its Pockets

So it’s in trying to look more deeply into all the various forms of graffiti that I have come to realise some quite startling ‘givens’ shared by those who practice the various disciplines. To illustrate my thoughts I want to address the question: what is graffiti about and what can we discern from it which sets the real protagonists apart from casual vandals? I’ll begin with a rather basic and clinical observation:

It seems to me that authentic graffiti is about the core human need to be known. It is comprised of the two component needs for a secure positive identity and permanent intimate relationships. The messages contained in true graffiti in their simplest irreducible forms are:

1) ‘I am here’

2) ‘Am I alone?’

The subject matter of graffiti also communicates both the aspirations of the artist in relation to these two needs and sometimes the reality of their success or failure to achieve them.

1) I am here and my identity is secure/positive – insecure/negative

2) I am alone/not alone

These messages are far easier to discern in (what is referred to as) street art as opposed to the more traditional form of graffiti which first flourished in the 1970’s but they are present in both. It’s easier to discern in street art because there are significantly fewer conventions or rules giving the artist greater latitude to communicate. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the deliberate discarding of the requirement to broadcast a complete and confident message allowing the artists to be more honest and sometimes vulnerable. Although both disciplines can be cryptic ‘traditional’ graffiti rarely (if ever) indulges in concepts like self doubt or disillusionment.

All graffiti that conforms to this understanding I find inspirational.

That may sound a bit over academic but in truth it’s this basic understanding (conscious or unconscious) that enables anyone to spot Trojan horses; things that mimic graffiti forms but actually conceal aggressive commercial, political or religious (in an enslaving sense) agendas.

This doesn’t preclude commentary on commerce, politics or religion from an ‘I am here and this is my identity’ approach but it’s this understanding that makes it easy to separate graffiti messages rooted in genuine personal conviction from those trying to dupe the gullible or influence the naive.

Strip Search – A Deliberately Invasive Examination

I originally got turned on to the newer forms of graf back in 2002 when I saw a piece by The London Police just east of the city. I was so gob smacked by its freshness that I immediately went in search of a disposable camera and I’ve never looked back.

The London Police with D*Face – Clerkenwell 2002

For a long time I preferred the newer forms epitomised by the likes of Invader, Sheppard Fairey, D*Face and Banksy, dismissing trad styles as old hat, reactionary and rather boring. But it was only the process of looking into those older pioneering styles that precipitated my present day appreciation and respect for the artists themselves.

What I have seen in graffiti and those who dedicate themselves to it has inspired me to a deeper commitment to my own creative practice. And this in no small part due to how accessible graffiti is in contrast to many other art forms.

So what is there to admire in graffiti and graffiti artists? What are the startling ‘givens’ shared by those who practice the various disciplines?

The standard virtues of any creative discipline apply, for example the craft demands dedication and artists spend years developing and evolving their technique. Does this one look a bit plain to you? Look closer, it’s plain because it’s familiar and it’s classic but it hasn’t been borrowed of the front of a global brand cereal box or candy wrapper. Any font freak will tell you how influential this field of creative expression has been on modern type face. Then there’s the adept use of the can, those lines are as crisp as fresh frost, no gaps, no overspray. And then there’s the overall proportion, it’s pristine, most of us couldn’t even draw this free hand on A4 but these guys work outside the physical limits of their field of vision as standard.

But there are things Graffiti accomplishes that no other art form either does or does as well: it invites curiosity and provokes questions on the street. It’s not the only form of creative expression that seeks to give poignant emphasis to the socially crippling effect of some aspects of modern culture. But it’s the only one that does it in the open air, for free. The combination of accessibility and lack of commercial agenda gives graffiti the power to connect passersby with their everyday environment. Often in direct contrast to all the other street signs that say ‘buy this crap’ or ‘don’t do that’.

The cost of this accomplishment is higher than most of us would be prepared to pay. There is the standard cost of time, thought and materials (there’s no chance of lottery funding here) but over and above that; the risk to many aspects of personal liberty. For their efforts the artists are classed as law breakers, displaying work publicly risks prosecution, prison and a criminal record.

There are only two ways to go with that:

One – write off a relatively small but by no means insignificant subculture of society as irresponsible fools for whom we need to bring back National Service.

Two – try and understand what motivates them. The fact that they do what they do without wanting help or permission from anyone is evidence of strong belief in something. Especially when in contrast the people tasked with removing all such images never put in quite the same effort yet in many cases they represent authority, draw a wage and are protected by the law.

Are they really criminals? Time for my favourite quote (again):

“When explaining yourself to the Police it’s worth being as reasonable as possible. Graffiti writers are not real villains. Real villains consider the idea of breaking in some place, not stealing anything and then leaving behind a painting of your name in four foot high letters the most retarded thing they ever heard of.”

– Banksy

I Only Stole His Shoes So I Could Walk A Mile In Them Officer.

Earlier I stated that there is a difference between the real protagonists and the casual vandals. Whilst my focus is on the former I feel it is important to comment on what could be construed as destructive examples of graffiti. There is such a thing as mindless vandalism but there is also such a thing as social inequality.

There is an open challenge to consider that a tagger brought up in a fractured community with little in terms of wealth, education and prospects scratching his name on the side of your BMW or spray painting it down the side of your suburban semi, is more than an act of mindless destruction. From another perspective it’s protest from someone who knows considerably more about social inequality first hand. My guess is we’re not supposed to like it. The choice then is the same, take the offence that’s offered or choose humility and look for understanding. I’m not saying don’t judge, I’m saying pursue right judgement.

Our emphasis on the right to individual freedom has cost us dearly in terms of functioning community. Individual freedom is important but there is no community where the counter-balancing necessity of interdependence is neither acknowledged nor cultivated. The proof that this need is being ignored en mass is when the complicit ‘haves’ pretend innocence while jealously destructive acts are done by the ‘have nots’. Instead of community we have a disparate proximity of people who have to forcibly take because nothing is freely given, conduct which is identical at both ends of the economic scale. As philosophy professor Jason Read famously pointed out recently:

“People who dismiss the unemployed and dependent as ‘parasites’ fail to understand economics and parasitism. A successful parasite is one that is not recognized by its host, one that can make its host work for it without appearing as a burden. Such is the ruling class in a capitalist society.”

Some of the most monstrous and large scale acts of vandalism in the world are being conducted by those who have more money than anyone could even use in one lifetime, people who are protected by the law.

But anyone making the mistake of thinking I’m entirely pro won’t find anything in this article saying I think graf is right or wrong, good or bad. I’m trying to understand it from the foundation of belief in common humanity and what I have understood about it that is positive has had a fantastically positive effect on me personally.

Release Without Charge

Is my house vandalised on a weekly basis? No. Do I live in a ‘deprived’ neighbourhood? No. Am I a graffiti artist? No. I’m sure plenty of people will think me unqualified to talk about all this so why risk criticisms I cannot possibly defend myself against to discuss it openly? Because I’ve been wandering London (amongst other places) for the last decade and the graffiti I have encountered has lead me on a long and enormously beneficial exploration of the inside of my own heart and head; a fantastically positive effect.

The most surface benefit to me has simply been its accessibility; that it exists at all. One of the most persistent insecurities I suffer from relates to my own creativity and it’s this ever present metamorphosing gallery of the streets that ultimately put me on the path to conquering it. Whilst I had a creative habit for years I was petrified of producing my own work. After a few years of gathering graffiti as source material the river simply burst its banks.

The Creative Process – illustrated in conversation by Ann Piker circa 1996

On the few occasions I’ve had actual contact within the world of graf I’ve often been impacted by the kindness of those I’ve met. Flying Fortress brushed aside my marker pen and took time out from preparing an exhibition (Visual Rock Stars at the old Stolen Space venue near Edgeware Road back in 2006) to hand paint his tag on my Jim Philips ‘Flying Hand Remix’ hoody.

Flying Fortress’ remix of the Jim Phillips ‘Screaming Hand’

The Black Rat Press (a pioneering gallery in Shoreditch championing ‘Interventionist Art’) ran a family day in 2011 where my own kids (and me) got to produce work under the tutelage of Matt Small and Best Ever.

Black Rat Press Family Day 2011

Then there are the guys I’ve met under the Westway doing big pieces. They always stop and chat even though I’m always unavoidably sucked into a slight hero worship vortex and probably sound like a total freak.

And these are just a few in a list of growing examples. Even the older graffiti crews who like to paint themselves as bad boys of the scene seem very happy to run creative workshops with kids with the goal of inspiring both strong positive identity and building good relationships.

Then there’s the practical side because there’s a curious parallel in their world and mine. We both seem to have very small windows of time in which to work; for them it’s because of the legality, for me it’s because I’m raising a young family. The borrowing of techniques used by graffiti artists is what has enabled me to be as productive as I have.

But ultimately its best influence has gone beyond creative inspiration and challenge, it has been instrumental in changing my own prejudicial attitudes. If this article isn’t illustration enough this aspect of my journey is more fully elucidated in the aforementioned discussion ‘Signature Analysis’.

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Signature Analysis

This article is going to talk about Banksy and tagging but it’s not about either of those things.  It’s about the root motives that nourish the tree of my values whose fruit attracts the birds of opinion into its branches.  It’s not about changing the world, it’s about allowing a shift in my world view. That changes the little bit of the world occupied by me.

Tagger Scum – by Jez Green

A Wooden Analogy

Let me spend a moment on the tree metaphor so you don’t dismiss me out of hand as a demented hippy.

There is a relationship between my motives and the opinions I form.  If I find my own motives difficult to discern at times (and I do), then they will be just as hard to detect by others.  They are far reaching as well as hidden, just like the roots of a tree.

by Rory Clark

My values are easier to divine much like a tree because I live them out or at the very least talk about them.  However I’ve discovered that I will sometimes dress up a poor motive with reasonable-sounding values, consciously or otherwise. My values may be the application of my motives but reverse engineering them isn’t so straightforward.

My motives do reach out through my values though, just like the roots feed the fruit.  Our world is full of ideas and the ones I like tend to match my motives like birds coming to rest in a tree attracted by what grows there. Those ideas form opinions in conjunction with my values.

Banksy

One way I can discern the motive behind a value is to reverse engineer my opinions.  In this way it is possible to discern the source of a value and it isn’t always good.  The artist Banksy has been key in helping me figure all this out. I’m not going to say I relate to all of his work but my reactions to his art fell into a cycle of behaviour.  After two or three times around the block (ok, four or five times, I’m a doofus) I realised something important: sometimes the motives which feed the opinions I form really suck.

Banksy – Clerkenwell Circa 2004

The pattern of events was this: Banksy would produce a new idea and for a time I would be in complete awe of his creative genius.  I’m not using the word in a watered down sense, he is a genius.  Subsequent pieces of work would be on a similar level though and I would gradually reach a point where I felt he had nothing new to offer and my attention would roam elsewhere.

I dressed up my attitude with value statements like ‘it’s important to keep looking for input that challenges and stimulates’ which is impossible to critique from a value perspective but the opinions I formed were superior and arrogant. I wasn’t just moving on because my interests had changed innocently;  the popular notions I gravitated to (children of that old familiar accusation ‘sell out’) revealed to me my motives.  My desire was to understand in order to dismiss him, to no longer feel dwarfed by the brilliance of his ideas, to rid myself of insecure feelings when faced with another man’s unique quality.  To rubbish someone else in order to blot out the disquieting feelings of inadequacy. My motive was to deny another man’s value because I was afraid I had none of my own.  Man did I suck.

Banksy – Holborn circa 2006

Of course I was confident, eloquent and convincing in how I expressed my values so without deeper examination I probably looked clever and genuine enough to casual observers.  The tree looked pretty good but the roots feed the fruit and the opinions I assumed were akin to that bitter fruit.

Banksy – Paddington 2005

Mercifully Banksy would often come back with an idea so astonishing to me in it’s simplicity and clarity that I would be jerked back to that place of awe and after a few revolutions I could no longer ignore my shabby attitudes.  He said one or two things that helped ease the pain too:

“Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.” – Banksy

(Blek Le Rat – seminal French graf writer/artist).

A little more about those birds.

by Rory Clark

Why have I used birds as a metaphor for opinions as if they have a life of their own?  The answer is in the question.  Some opinions are like jokes, not because they’re funny (far from it sometimes) but because their origin is unknown and they simply get repeated by everyone, passed around because they sound good. There might be a little embellishment here and there but the original thought may often go unchallenged.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; we all do it to cope with the onslaught of stimuli in modern life.  No one is capable of responding to everything around them with real consideration and on a vast range of subjects this is of no consequence.

However I know from experience that I don’t always clock when it’s important to work out my own conclusions rather than simply accept someone else’s and I’m quite sure this isn’t a problem that’s unique to me.  Let me give an example that has recently come to my notice.

Tagger Scum

Ever since the discovery arising from my Banksy experience I have started to systematically seek out useless or marginalised things.  I look and I look until I am able to see through my accumulated opinions and start to form my own conception of what is in front of me.

Sometimes they are trivial like weeds (called thugs by gardeners with very fertile imaginations) or discarded wood which I use in my own art practice but sometimes they have had a little more import.  I spend a lot of time walking around London’s Westway, photographing to help me develop this way of seeing the world, and I found that tagging started to feature in the images I gather.

Detail of ‘Tagger Scum’ by Jez Green

Many times as I have reviewed the resulting images different people have looked over my shoulder and recited almost identical words:

“I like graffiti if it’s artistic but I don’t see the point in tagging”

Consider this to be an expression of value if you will – I value this, I don’t value that.  Impossible to draw any suspect conclusions but some people add the following phrase, again identical each time:

“I bet you wouldn’t like it if they came round and did it to your house”

There’s more than just a value here, it’s an accusation and an unjust one. It has been assumed that because I took the photograph I’m in favour of tagging.

Further more I’m accused of hypocrisy because my attitude would change in a second if my own home was vandalised.  I’m happy for it to happen elsewhere but in reality I’m a NIMBY.

Let’s not forget that there’s a section of society being thrown away here too: tagger scum.  A destructive criminal fraternity with which I’m accused of having a naïve sympathy.

Would you say all those who took footage of the 9/11 atrocity are in favour of terrorism?  Clearly the above saying is learned rather than a thoughtful conclusion.  One more conclusive piece of evidence: the last person to say this to me happens to be a work colleague and friend who wasn’t intending to accuse or offend me.  Ironic considering the statement clearly is both accusatory and offensive.

by Micah Purnell

So apart from encouraging myself and others to pay a little more attention to what’s nesting in our branches I would like to take the opportunity to gently challenge this learned saying that’s being passed around like flu on the London underground at Christmas, to make an example of it.

It’s in the admission of our common humanity that society’s problems will be healed;  taggers are not uniformly scum and if some of them are they’re just signing their names.  Their real names?  No but who has a problem with Mark Twain, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe or Engelbert Humperdinck?  OK so Engelbert Humperdinck is a bad example but you do get my point.  Taggers assume pseudonyms for the same vain reasons and their signatures display the same flourishes and flair as yours or mine.

You have to be afraid to begin with before a simple signature can scare you.  How much of what we think is our own opinion actually started on some grubby page of that fear-monger the Daily Mail?

by Micah Purnell

These days there are a different set of birds attracted to the fruit of my motives, and in consequence a better time is being had by all.  My enjoyment of creativity is increased considerably as is the effectiveness of my encouragement to others. You may even have been on the receiving end of such encouragement so you may know very well what I mean.  How did that happen?  How did I come to recognise and believe in my own unique value? Simple I looked to the one who made me, his reasons for doing so, how he has demonstrated his regard for me.  I listen for those things in the words people say to me.  Not only do I suck considerably less, so does my life.

Epilogue

Forget for a minute that these signatures are on a wall instead of a birthday card or a cheque and take a look at the slide show >here<

Images used by kind permission