Tuesday, February 08, 2005

A Walls As Good As It Gets

My Drunken ScrawlIn the past year, Dublin walls have become increasingly stamped over with stencil graffiti, some like the ‘these are dangerous times’ series evoked the anti-war sentiment that blistered last year. Others advertised events like Reclaim the Streets, one even distorted the Coke font into Killer Cola, with an unambiguous message about their crimes in Colombia. Apparently, so the rumour goes, once spotted Coke had hired cleaners out straight away, such is the force of street art.

Perhaps that's why some multinational corporations, such as Nike, have been chasing famous stencil artists such as British artist Banksy to design their latest advertising logos. Banksy is perhaps the world's best-known stenciler, having recently designed the Think Tank album cover for British pop band Blur.

That there are similarities between stencil graffiti and corporate logos is no surprise. Logos have become the world as we understand it, stencil graphics work on the same level, subverting them with information compressed into single images that are instantly recognisable, and repeatable. Stencils use the aesthetic principles of advertising to suggest an alternative. Stencil graffiti is a backlash against boring surroundings, advertisements are everywhere there to find you, the messages of stencilled imagery and slogans ambushes in the same style. Unexpected because we have become so accustomed to seeing our cities walls decorated with the sell.

Wholly subversive, Banksy’s stencils erode authority figures; police men with smiley faces, monkeys bearing weapons of mass destruction and ‘laugh now but one day we’ll be in charge’ on sandwich boards. If stencil art is unexpected walking down the street, then so can the message perturb and cut across the expectations that stem from mainstream dialogues. Among Banksy’s best pieces is a masked anti-capitalist flinging a bunch of flowers. Another huge piece featured stampeding stock exchange types throwing their cheque books at police; in red letters ’cheque book vandalism’ got the point across. Like all great art, he doesn’t keep stump on the galleries either, infamous for stencilling ‘mind the crap’ on the steps leading into the Tate the night before the Turner prize was given to an unfolded bed. Traditional landmarks have been signed with ‘this is not a photo opportunity’, while blank white walls have been left with tags like "By Order National Highways Agency This Wall Is A Designated Graffiti Area", skip to a few days later and people will have obediently replied. For six months after 9-11, he moved temporarily away from imagery finding it easier to convey meaning in text based stencils like ’wrong war’ and ’bury the dead, not the truth.’

Banksy’s most famous series is the teams of tooled up rats dismantling the city’s artefacts. Representing all the powerless misrepresented losers coming back, after a rethink, grouped together. Three such rats gather across the Thames from Westminster, one on look out, and two aiming a mortar at parliament. It doesn’t matter if their trajectory is off, the point hits. At a recent London solo exhibition called Turf War, Banksy stencilled two cows from top to bottom with pictures of arrows and Anglo-Saxon faces, with the note: "the average African receives less in subsidies per head than an EU cow". Many have begun to question to question his credibility after his Turf War exhibitions, criticising him for doing too much day work and not enough nights. But for an stenciler that sprayed ‘designated riot zone’ on the steps of Trafalgar Square the night before Mayday; outdoing his own wit has become an increasingly arduous challenge, not to say risky.

As his website intro states ‘this revolution is for display purposes only.’ Introduced to Britain by anarcho-punks Crass at Thatcher’s height, outbursts of stencilling are always linked to political rebellion. Like adbusting (where the corporate message of a billboard is distorted to a political statement and movements like reclaim the streets, Banksy’s art is not his. It is instinctively public, and meant for participation. It is about the reclamation of our daily environment, and the creation of a public system of signs and meanings which lie outside the advertisements which stain every wall you care to look at. It’s using the tactics of mass consumerism against it, for an entirely different end. Plenty of people moan that graffiti is ugly, but as Banksy says ‘it's a product of society so it's bound to be pretty ugly.’ So arm yourself (card board is free and spray comes at €8), this is an art revolution we can all take part in. See you on the streets, hoodies up.

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Soundtracksforthem specialises in iconoclastic takes on culture, politics, and more shite from the underbelly of your keyboard. A still-born group blog with a recent surge of different contributers but mainly maintained by James R. Big up all the contributers and posse regardless of churn out rate: Kyle Browne, Reeuq, Cogsy, Chief, X-ie phader/Krossie, Howard Devoto, Dara, Ronan and Mark Furlong. Send your wishes and aspirations to antropheatgmail.com

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