Graffiti that is not graffiti: urban regeneration, legal loopholes and the rise of “fair vandalism”

Originally presented at Detours III conference, Torres Vedras, October 2007.
Subsequently Published at Pinheiro, G.V. (ed.) Relational Spaces. Porto: FBAUP, 2012.
Text and images: H. Alvelos


Acknowledging the role of subcultures and counter-cultures as key protagonists of the emergence of notions of public space from the late twentieth century onwards, this paper is an analysis of recent developments in functional definitions of subculture and counter-culture, as well as their impact on similarly unfolding concepts and contexts of public space and social dynamics.


We may begin by acknowledging that the outsider perception that dominated subcultural and counter-cultural activity in public consciousness throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century is accurately portrayed in Stanley Cohen’s mythology of “Folk Devils”. Subcultures were supposed to be about eccentricity, about breaking the norm, and they were essentially thought to be about causing damage, be it material, social or moral. Youth involved in subcultural activity were regarded as a threat to social stability in varying degrees, and the public image of a given subculture (be it mod, goth, rave, hip-hop or any other) was essentially fuelled by media constructions that developed a narrative of conflict, despite the fact that often a subculture is simply made up of a series of symbolic constructions of signs of “being cool” by a youth community in a given social and cultural context, an allegory of their particular way of abiding by the very rules of said context.

A considerable amount of the output originating from Birmingham´s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was precisely concerned with an interdisciplinary analysis of subcultural activity. A less dramatic (and seemingly less acknowledged) interpretation of subculture posited that it was essentially an urban Western replacement for the traditional rite of passage into adulthood. Vandalism, for example, was thus regarded not so much as the will to destroy, as much as a testing of individual bravery, and, ironically, maturity.


Counter-culture, on the other hand, has always been a different animal. Unlike its subcultural counterpart, with which it often gets bundled, counter-culture has always been marked by ideology and a recognisable aspiration to change the social fabric in one way or another. Thus social change was proclaimed by the hippie movement, just as new marxists, right-wingers and environmentalists have proclaimed the need for social change, be it symbolic, utopian, or action-based. Whereas in public consciousness, subcultures and counter-cultures often blend into a generic idea of resistance and rebelliousness, in insider counter-cultural contexts the purpose has been to overtly challenge the so-called “establishment” and its manifestations, proposing, sometimes aggressively but always explicitly, new ways of living, new notions of ownership and solidarity, and an often genuine aspiration at a better environment, be it social, mental, aesthetic or territorial.

“Baffler” editor Thomas Frank, however, has proposed a very different analysis of counter-culture, leading to a radically new concept of its historical and social significance. Frank has supported and substantiated a link between sixties counter-culture and the rise of the advertising industry, positing that the hippie phenomenon was essentially a non-operative utopia derived from the affluence of Western society, obliquely yet ultimately subscribing to it. Frank’s thesis regards counter-culture as dependent from mainstream culture from its very inception, and makes for a strategic reading of the dynamics of the two poles that is still valid to this very day, observable in environmental contexts, gender issues and anti-globalisation demonstrations.

If anything, these dynamics of interdependence have gradually become more explicit and observable. A good example of this inter-dependence is the “charity” work of Bono, the lead singer of pop band U2, who has been leading various movements throughout the current decade, proposing the erasing of third world debt through rock concerts, solidarity by shopping, and saving the world through singing.

This third proposal, saving the world through singing, is passable, as it signals an age-old social ritual of healing and transcendence, something that has been mutating among the digital haze. But the other two ideas border on the inconceivable:

Erasing world debt through rock and roll concerts. If, back in 1985, The Live Aid concerts were one of the earliest manifestations of the possibility of solidarity on a global scale, whereby a global audience was invited to donate towards the well-being of others, 2005’s Live 8 suggested no donations whatsoever – it was a purely symbolic act, a gigantic collective act of wishful thinking devoid of measurable impact. Baudrillard would certainly read it in this manner, as yet another reaffirmation of the hyper-real model. But if one starts considering that quite a few people among the audience at Live 8 could otherwise be demonstrating against the concurrent G8 summit, one begins to wonder if the ultimate purpose of Live 8 was to divert protesters into an entertainment ground. Hey, the world may be falling apart, but at least Pink Floyd have hugged each other for the first time in twenty-five years.

Solidarity by shopping. In 2006, Bono announced the creation of the Red Card, an American Express credit card that donates to charities in Africa every time one buys at Gap or Armani shops. Bono called the whole enterprise “sexy”, but the Red Card has also been denounced as a system that simply reinforces inequality and whose outstanding profits still go to the big brands, while liberating the shopper from the proverbial (and much celebrated in itself) shopper’s guilt. Sexy indeed. What Bono has cleverly understood is subcultures and counter-cultures are essentially trends – and always have been.

Frank’s observation of the dependence of hippie culture on consumer culture was ultimately about ambiguity. And if Bono’s campaigns explore ambiguity at the highest and possibly most cynical level, there are expressions of counter-cultural and subcultural dissent which, although usually much more low-key and discreet, paint a rather more optimistic picture when it comes to the use of ambiguous semantics, regulations and actions in favour of social regeneration. What follows are three cases that, although very different in their formal outcomes, can be analysed as healthier manifestations of the social and cultural ambiguity discussed earlier.


banksy graff wall

Bristol and London-based graffiti artist Banksy has been steadily constructing a mythology of his own since the last decade. Banksy has produced humorous graffiti vignettes featuring policemen, rats, Mona Lisas and monkeys, he has placed fake art on the walls of Tate Britain and re-worked Paris Hilton CDs at HMV music stores. Despite his work fetching thousands at auctions and actually courting mainstream status, one of his earlier pieces was solely responsible for the opening of a significant gap of semantic ambiguity, and can easily be considered among his most inspired and inspiring statements.

Banksy stencilled a fake official sign authorising the act of inscribing of graffiti on various pristine walls located in particularly wealthy areas around London – and people scribbled accordingly. Banksy’s work has always been about challenging authority and denouncing the need for autonomous thought and action, even as the afterlife of his pieces has courted an establishment he has so overtly placed himself against. But never in his subsequent work has one found such an effective example of the potential of the dynamics between formal and functional social dimensions.



The second example of an exploitation of legal ambiguity comes from artist Paul Curtis, whose graffiti work makes use of no paint of any kind, instead requiring cleaning products in order to open up clean areas on over-saturated walls or surfaces. Thus images and words are revealed in negative space, through the cleaning of sections of other people’s interventions. Signing his pieces as Moose, Curtis has raised a remarkable wealth of issues, making up for a unique body of work whose constant can only be the term “contemporary”.

It is contemporary because it uses the language of hip-hop culture. It is contemporary because it shows, albeit ambiguously, concern with the environment. It is contemporary because it is based on a “pun”, a defining factor of our cultural and artistic milieu, the driving force of advertising. It is contemporary because Curtis has been hired to produce ads for Smirnoff and X-Box, among others, using his reverse graffiti technique. And it is contemporary because it is ambivalent, exploring a legal loophole whereby Curtis is actually technically cleaning the surfaces where he inscribes his graffiti marks. It is difficult to imagine his actions being taken to court, although, at first sight, his work may be almost indistinguishable from “regular” graffiti interventions.


Closely linked with particular sectors of the environmentalist and anti-globalisation movement, guerilla gardening consists of growing a multitude of plants in public spaces, usually through the organisation of a discreet collective gardening or seeding session. Occasionally, the actions are not quite so discreet, as on May 1st, 2000 in London, when a mass of guerrilla gardeners occupied Parliament Square in London, planting vegetables and flowers, hanging banners reading ‘Resistance is Fertile’, ‘Let London Sprout’, and ‘The Earth is a Common Treasury for All’.

May Day 2000 in London was marred by violent demonstrations, which included the destruction of a McDonald’s restaurant – and one of the most shining examples of a media-fuelled moral panic (Cohen again) ensued. Guerilla gardening, however, was left to its own discreet interventions for the greater part, outshined by the McDonald’s restaurant incident and the vandalisation of the statue of Sir Winston Churchill.

Months later, the gardens of Parliament Square sprouted freely available illegal substances.

Lately, Guerilla gardening has taken a step back from the limelight, but has remained active as an online-based network, structurally similar to the Flash Mob and Reclaim the Streets movements, sending out open invitations for public intervention, and documenting them for online reference, as maps of urban regeneration. There is environmental concern in their actions, but Guerilla gardening essentially concerns a symbolic and aesthetic rebirth of public space, and above all means to expose one’s moral responsibility towards one’s daily narrative.

The main difference between these three examples and Bono’s credit card is not so much on the level of impact. All are in essence operating in the symbolic realm, instilling a willingness for change on the citizen, rather than providing him/her with actual strategies on how that change is meant to occur. The main difference resides in the fact that, in contrast with Bono’s shopping card, the examples of the designated graffiti area, reverse graffiti and guerilla gardening recapture the idea of the local and resubmit it as the primal realm of operation for the individual as citizen to project its ideals for social change.

Just as large fuel companies use environmentalist imagery and semantics in order to serve a narrative that often seems to be the opposite of their actual ethics, what can be described as “fair vandalism” effectively exploits the seductive aspects of contemporary – and fashionable – concerns for the environment as ways of reinventing the original paradigms of subcultural ritual and the moral authority of the counter-culture.

As environmentalist issues finally come of age and become a powerful marketing tool, so reverse graffiti and guerilla gardening bring yet another layer of ambiguity to the conundrum of a public space dominated by viral corporate discourse and the randomness of excessive subcultural intervention: the time has come when the act of cleaning an over-saturated public space may foster the loudest voice of them all, exposing the collapse of social ruling replaced by corporate interest, and reinvesting in the possibility of a personal contribution to social change, lost in a hall of semantic mirrors as we may all be.


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