When the new book by Sabrina DeTurk plonked through the letter box and I saw the title I admit I wasn’t too enthused. Firstly street art ain’t particularly my cup-of-tea and secondly the topic of Street Art in the Middle East isn’t exactly uncovered ground since the Arab Spring. I hold some vague theory that the street art that accompanied the uprisings was seized on by Western spectators as an easy visualisation of events in an otherwise politically alien landscape. It was perhaps proof this ‘backward’ region was yearning for Western values and culture. The attention on street art was another simplification of events that fed into, what David Wearing calls, “a deeply ingrained set of basically racist assumptions that frame many people’s understanding of our relationship with this part of the world.”
I recently got sent a copy of Scribbling Through History which was released just last year and is one of a whole slew of academic books on graffiti that have been published recently. The cover promises the long view on graffiti stretching back from antiquity to the present. Predictably enough, of twelve chapters, the two that cover modernity focus on the Middle-East and the internet. The rest of the content delves deeper into history where the modern idea of what constitutes graffiti becomes blurred with a greater variety of interpretation.
Delete Elite by Ben Brohanszky is my new favourite book! Published just last year the title, taken from off the street, is intended as a statement. The book is pitched as a study of ‘conceptual graffiti’ and contains the stuff that doesn’t neatly fit within the street-art/graffiti binary. Instead it is an esoteric meander that takes the reader from the earliest roots of modern graffiti to its contemporary manifestations. From the Provo movement through to Néma this is a tour of wall writing on the boundaries of the conventional graffiti movement. The whole book is meticulously referenced, and footnoted throughout, but also has a casual style which includes line drawings done by the author with his eyes closed.
When I first picked up Graffiti Grrlz I thought the book might contain an argument along the lines of how women are excluded from the masculine graffiti subculture. Actually the book’s author, Jessica Pabón-Colón, has written a positive account of female involvement in graffiti. That’s not to say the book paints a completely rosy picture but that it concentrates on how women practice and contribute to graffiti in an empowering way. Pabón-Colón wants her book to weave the “individual stories (of female participation) into a narrative about how they navigate their experiences as a collective within the subculture”. Through this narrative Graffiti Grrlz provides new and original insights into graffiti. The book explores the activities of female writers, based on interviews with the author, and how they ‘perform’ feminism through the graffiti subculture. From Africa to South America, graffiti jams to graffiti collectives, digital social networks and the internet archive there’s a broad range of experiences covered.
Before I begin this review I have to admit to being the type of ‘non-specialised sceptic’ who Andrea Baldini criticises in the recent Un(Authorized)//Commissioned book. The publication he writes in can be regarded as a curators guide to exhibiting graffiti. This is not a topic that would usually appeal to me so, not being a particular expert nor a lover of art-galleries, I approached the book with mild cynicism. However the book brings up some interesting ideas that are worth discussing and has changed my opinion to some extent.
As an Englishman my ability to speak any language except my own is severely limited. So when I first picked up Graffiti Brassaï: Le Langage Du Mur I was a bit puzzled how graffiti could be the language of the sea? I quickly realised my mistake! In fact this is the first serious art-historical study of Brassaï’s Graffiti photography series. Researched by the curator Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska the book sheds light on the artist Brassaï and graffiti as his subject.
Advertising Shits in Your Head is a new handy pocket guide to modern advertising and, more importantly, how it can be subverted. Published by Dog Section Press just last year it has already run into a second edition. The book’s title was originally used in an article by a certain Bill Posters where he attacks advertisers who surreptitiously “shit in your head”. Expanding on this Advertising Shits in Your Head discusses why advertising should be regarded as such a problem and how it can be tackled effectively. The publishers tell me the book is “intended as a call to arms against the outdoor advertising industry particularly, and capitalism generally. It’s also an exploration of the origins of the modern day, international subvertising movement, and a guide to some of the theory and practice underpinning it.”
At first glance RTS vs. ŁKS looks like some sort of coffee table-book of hooligan graffiti. The album comprises walls photographed in the Polish city of Łódź. Located slap-bang in the middle of the country the place is home to one of its nation’s most vicious football rivalries.
In her introduction to the book Monika Łukowska describes it as an area where the fans are more active in their support and loyalty than are their teams own players. Although the description of a ‘fierce rivalry’ is so over-used it’s almost a cliché fans of the two Łódź teams, ŁKS and RTS Widzew, are pretty extreme. Whilst violently defending their housing estates they play out their confrontation on the walls of the city. The form this graffiti takes is often antisemitic. Here the word ‘Żyd’ (Jew) is used by the fans of both teams as an insult to the other. Łukowska writes that all sorts of ‘Jews’ adorn the walls, so in the area of Chojny can be found “ŁKS Żyd”, whereas in Retkinia can be seen “Jude RTS”.
However the publication actually has a more satirical take on the hooligan graffiti of Łódź. The slogans recorded on the pages of this book are really the work of a writer who goes by the name of ‘Jan(usz) III Waza’. Bored with the violent insults sprayed all over the place Jan Waza began using up the dregs of his mates paint to respond to the city’s hooligans. The result was an ever increasing series of amusing and bizarre ripostes in the vein of the surreal graffiti of the Situationists. The initial response by residents to these childish slogans was that they originated with the hooligans themselves. Pictures of the newly painted walls soon began circulating on social media.
Conceptually this is a brilliant idea. To read on a wall that “ŁKS fans cook rice in a kettle” or that “RTS fans hallucinate on field mushrooms” is an entertaining joke. While in all fairness “ŁKS fans think House & Home is a magazine for thieves” could be said about Liverpool’s fans as well. Meanwhile the farcical “ŁKS fans make horseradish sauce out of apples” appears to be a completely ridiculous insult to write. Lots of the graffiti works because its absurdity is as impenetrable, as much of the hooligan graffiti is, to the outsider who views it. For instance “ŁKS have gas fridges” seems to reference some of the more antisemitic hooligan graffiti but it contains as little logic for the reader.
A lot of the content of the graffiti takes aim at the supposed stupidity of the football fans. They “don’t read books” or they “go to university in the suburbs” etc. While being satirical the subtext here is one that dismisses the football fans out of hand. This is an unfortunate fault of the book which can’t hide its condescending attitude toward this subculture. While it is both violent and hateful the football graffiti of Łódź reflects the ignored or unofficial identities of the city’s inhabitants. The book attempts no exploration of why this graffiti occurs; although in all fairness an in-depth analysis of the phenomenon would be a lot to expect from this small album.
In his 2016 exhibition, “(nie)widzialne / (in)visible”, the photographer Wojciech Wilczyk highlighted the occurrence of antisemitism on the streets of Poland. On display was a recording of people casually strolling past some violently antisemitic graffiti on a wall in Cracow. The point was to show just how mundane this type of prejudice on Poland’s walls has become. It’s not clear that the work of Jan Waza directly tackles this issue but it is inferred. Overall the RTS vs. ŁKS book is a nice collection of photographs that focuses on the content of the tagging rather than the aesthetic. By subverting football graffiti Jan Waza has created some great surrealist work.
This month marks a hundred years since the artist Marcel Duchamp submitted his now famous artwork, Fountain, to an international exhibition in New York. Influenced by Dadaism his submission was simply a urinal he’d bought in a local shop. Duchamp’s surrealist questioning of institutional definitions of art has had a defining impact on modern art. Continue Reading