A Picture of Illusion

Greeting passerby crossing at the Giris Checkpoint in Nicosia from the Republic of Cyprus to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is a striking example of political graffiti.

BORDER ART – These words greet citizens crossing from the Republic of Cyprus to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus at the Giris Checkpoint in Nicosia, Cyprus.

The piece, impossible to miss, covers a slab of metal tin situated in the UN Buffer Zone between the two regions, an area forbidden to citizen entry past certain hours.

Referring to the Cyprus Division, an issue which has plagued the small island nation since 1974, the writing expresses sentiments common to many Cypriots. While the majority of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots are willing to reunite as one country, the opposing governments have different aims. The government of Turkey in particular, which controls the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, refuses to acknowledge any talk of reunification. Having relocated thousands of their own citizens to the island, the Turkish government is unwilling to give up both the acquired land and the strategic position in the Mediterranean granted to them with occupation of the island.

The sign then suggests that the supposed hatred between the two ethnicity’s–Turkish and Greek–is invented, an illusion constructed by the governments which prevents two nations who “want to live together” from the freedom to do so.

 

Remembered: Martin Luther King Honored Through Political Art

This was supposed to be a post about just one piece of work. I came across this image of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the quote, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and I thought the literary aspect added a nice touch—multiple layers and all. The work doesn’t have quite the same significance if the viewer doesn’t understand the origin of the words.

UPLIFTING - This quote from Martin Luther King Jr. was written in the letter he wrote to a priest from Birmingham jail.

This quote is an excerpt from King’s famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail, written on April 16, 1963 in response to a letter he had received from a priest. King was arrested on April 12, 1963 after he violated a court injunction prohibiting the civil rights marches that were taking place in Birmingham, Alabama. When King still continued to lead peaceful marches, he was incarcerated and placed in solitary confinement for eight days. He used toilet paper and the edges of newspaper to write his letter, which was later published as an essay.

In refusing to follow the court order and consequently landing himself in jail, King demonstrated the truth of a principle he lived by: equality comes with struggle. Always.

This is where the post should be ending.

But then, out of curiosity (or maybe some perverse desire to make all my posts exceptionally long this week), I googled “Martin Luther King graffiti” and hit the motherload of political graffiti searches.

Forty-four years following his assassination on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. is still in the public eye—thanks in large part to the art world. Dr. King has been positively memorialized on the street through numerous graffiti works and murals which honor his memory and mission.

Here’s one in East Harlem: a headshot of King with the word “DREAM” flowing from his brain, recalling the famous “I Have A Dream” speech. 

Another in Chicago shows King alongside President Obama, with the implication that King’s life work and dedication to civil rights for African Americans helped make possible the election of Obama, the United States’ first African American president. 

And this one is my favorite: King releasing the word “DREAM” to be caught by the spirits and minds of two African American children. It’s reminiscent of the classic blow-me-a-kiss game, only this time it’s not kisses being set free, but hopes and aspirations. There’s something very liberating about this piece, seeing the children lit up in this way—like they are feeling the freedom of being unshackled.  

A video of Walter Cronkite announcing Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to the public: 

Literary Graffiti Tells A Story

Who knew there was an entire world of what is called ‘literary graffiti?’ I’ve just discovered it, and I’m fascinated.

Look at the story behind these pieces:

Written on a sidewalk in a London park is the ending to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by; and that has made all the difference.” 

Literary graffiti often features bust-like paintings of prominent and admired literary figures, like this one of Sylvia Plath. Known as a ‘confessional poet’ who wrote about taboo subjects such as suicide, postpartum depression, and death, Plath is probably most remembered for her own suicide, flamboyant as it was–she stuck her head in her oven and gassed herself. 

In a France subway station, this remark from French philosopher Voltaire: “Love is of all passions the strongest because it attacks the head, heart and body.” 

Walt Whitman, who aspired to be “the American bard,” is most remembered for being a poet of the people. 

In New York, Shakespeare in shades. 

In Paris, Edgar Allan Poe in some sort of hat monstrosity. 

Most appropriately, this portrait of Dickens is found in London. Dickens used novels as a force for social criticism and created one of the most memorable characters of all-time: Ebenezer Scrooge. 

A montage of lines from literary works, including one by Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, E.E. Cummings, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Jan Zwicky. 

An Alice in Wonderland scene. Creepy.

The man is Albert Einstein but the quote, which reads, “A wise man is astonished by everything,” was said by Nobel laureate Andre Gide. Quite a thought provoking combination. 

The letters are bit eerie, but they read “John Steinbeck.” Somehow graffiti, coupled with the dripping letters, seems a fitting portrayal for a man who spent most of his life protesting government authority. 

Perhaps the most famous, and most thematic, line from The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

And my favorite! This is allegedly the entire first chapter of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone scripted on a bathroom stall. Gotta admire that dedication.

 

Bomb It Follows Graffiti Around the World

From the graffiti capital of the country, New York City, to the streets of Berlin, where graffiti is called ‘spraying,’ from the slums of Capetown to the sewers of Sao Paulo, Bomb Itsplices together images of graffiti around the world to create a world mural of the art.

BOMB IT - Jon Reiss' documentary explores graffiti around the world in all of its different forms, specifically looking at its use as a political medium.

A documentary produced by Jon Reiss, Bomb It follows political graffiti everywhere it flourishes.

The film opens with a night scene of graffiti writers sneaking around a train yard in New York City, whose graffiti scene has surpassed Philadelphia’s, the former graffiti capital of the country. The man attributed with starting the movement in New York, Corn Bread, comments in voiceover that “art is a weapon,” a sentiment reiterated by one artist seen scribbling “voice of the people” on a New York subway map. In places like the Bronx, a labyrinth of run-down areas that at best resemble cities in the aftermath of World War II, graffiti murals are thought to brighten up an otherwise dismal environment.

The camera then turns its attention to a series of European cities, beginning with France, where the artist Blek “focuses on the misery and poverty of the poor in Paris.” A proponent of the school that believes “art must serve a political and social cause,” one of his most touching pieces is of a homeless man sitting on a street corner. Blek began his career drawing rats along the bottoms of the walls, symbolizing the misery and filth the poor endure.

A PICTURE OF POVERTY - French graffiti artist draws the poor and homeless.

RAT CITY - Blek began his artistic career drawing rats around the walls of France, symbolizing the filth of the cities.

In Amsterdam, a teacher by day turns graffiti writer by night. Her work always includes a pair of watchful eyes in an I-see-everything-you-do Big Brother fashion. In London, a soldier having returned from Iraq turned to the streets to express his frustration with the war. One of his political works displays picket-like signs exclaiming, “Stop the War,” “No War,” and “Fuck Party Politics” with the underlining question “Still think you’ve got a say?” Not strictly a political writer, he also did a lovely interpretation of the woman from Lord Byron’s poem, “She Walks In Beauty,” on a busy street corner.

WAR! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? - Having returned from fighting in the Middle East, one graffiti artist in London turned to the streets to express his frustration through art.

LITERARY GRAFFITI - Not purely political in his work, the same London artist draws an interpretation of the woman in the famous Lord Byron poem.

Back in the U.S., the talk turns to the fads of train and subway graffiti. Described as “museums on wheels,” trains and subways are top-notch spots for graffiti writers because their work is ensured a high degree of visibility. One New York artist sticks to the subway tunnels, writing angry (and less than artistic) messages on the walls: “NYC is my toilet bowl,” “The poor bail out the rich,” and “death feels like an old friend.” The same artist regularly writes “F You” on NYC police cars.

SLIGHTLY LESS ARTISTIC - One New York graffiti writer confines his work to messages and words lacking color or design.

In Berlin, where graffiti writing is called “spraying,” an artist says he was inspired to take up the art because “the current social situation is fucked up.” His reason is seconded by a Tokyo artist who says that although Japan is a well-controlled country, there is still resistance to the government: “If there was no rebellion, we’d be stagnant.” Such resistance is often reflected in graffiti messages and murals.

A man in Barcelona ensures his resistance to the government will be permanently felt by chiseling his work into walls so that it cannot be painted over. In Cape Town, graffiti was a powerful tool during the apartheid regime.

PEACE - One example of graffiti calling for peace during the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Artists who wanted to “help toward something” began what they called artistic guerilla warfare by spray painting political demands by the dozen: “Africa: Freedom in Our Lifetime,” “Free South Africa,” “Free Our Leaders,” “Free Mandela,” “Peace,” and “From Pieces to Peace.” One artist attests that his artistic efforts made him “more socially and politically aware.”

DEMANDS - An art piece along a highway advocates for Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

A CRY FOR HELP - Another Cape Town image demands freedom.

In Sao Paulo, another artist seeks to raise awareness about urban deterioration and poverty by painting in the most deteriorated places in the city—landfills and polluted tunnels underneath the city, home to many of the city’s homeless.

The documentary wraps up in Los Angeles by featuring Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant/OBEY campaign, an effort to remind the public not to exercise blind obedience to government.

 

OBEDIENCE AWARENESS - Shepard Fairey's OBEY campaign is intended to make the public less likely to practice blind obedience to government.

Freight Train Graffiti Gets Political

Riding the rails: this three-part series of freight-car graffiti murals sees a lot of landscape—and spreads a message everywhere it travels.

BAILOUT - The first in a series of three boxcars with graffiti, this one expresses anger over the economy with the all-caps "Bailout" and the words "consolidating power" to the side.

The all-caps pieces spell out “BAILOUT,” “IMPEACH,” and “POVERTY,” but are accompanied by some instances of smaller type reading: “Secret Prisons,” “Liars, Killas, Cronies,” and “Consolidating Power.” The cartoon character Scrooge McDuck appears at the end of the “POVERTY” mural with bags of money at his feet, at once adding contrast and irony to the mural itself.

POVERTY - The boxcar with the word "poverty" on it features an ironic Scrooge McDuck with bags of money at his feet.

According to the Minnesota Independent, a small newspaper having run an article on the graffiti, the murals were done in 2009 and express outrage over the state of the economy. They were drawn by the Abe Lincoln Brigade, a politically-motivated crew of graffiti writers who target trains as mediums on which to express their protest over various current events.

IMPEACH - The final boxcar reads "Impeach," perhaps a solution toward improving the nation's economy, as viewed by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

In fact, die-hard graffiti artists consider freight cars the ultimate canvas, right next to high-flying billboards, overpasses, and the sides of bridges. Trains provide a moving, never-ending art exhibition of talent and effort that never gets old and is impossible to equate with more traditional graffiti avenues. Unlike stationary works on buildings and walls, train murals are not familiar—they’re new to someone different every day. Furthermore, so long as artists are careful not to paint over railroad identification numbers or the name of the rail line, their art is likely to be left on the boxcar. Graffiti is expensive to remove, and rail companies simply can’t afford to have a boxcar out of service for any period of time.

But the best part of writing graffiti on freight trains? What you create always comes back.

Back In 1984

George Orwell would be proud. There are still people yearning after 1984.

In his futuristic book, 1984, written in the 1940’s following World War II, Orwell predicted a world overrun by probing governments and intrusive surveillance technology by the year 1984. Twenty-eight years following the passing of his magic year, there are still those hopefuls waiting for his prophecy to come to fruition.

Like whoever painted this lovely piece: “Feliz 1984” accompanied by a pair of binoculars. Talk about irony. For anyone who has read 1984, it’s not a happy picture. For starters, the novel is categorized as a dystopian novel (not to be confused with utopian) about a society in a state of perpetual warfare in which the people undergo incessant public surveillance and unrelenting mind control. In this society heavily influenced by technology and overwhelming propaganda, individuality and reason are crushed in favor of unwavering obedience to government, industry, and country.

BACK IN THE GOOD OLE DAYS - This artist advocates for a society similar to the one in George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984.

Big Brother, the cult personality of The Party regime in this otherworldly society, instills fear in citizens with the slogan “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” Hence the addition of binoculars to this piece of art. Perhaps the most depressing element of Orwell’s society, however, is the complete lack of citizen awareness. The government blatantly manipulates, and the people blindly follow—unknowingly entrenching themselves deeper into a web of brainwash. And those select few who do suspect foul play are either too frightened to act or suffer the consequences of speaking up.

In short, 1984 is anything but “feliz.” Nothing could be less happy, or farther from reality today.

Dreams Slashed, Dashed in Banksy Stencil

Banksy is probably one of the most obscure famous people in the world: very few know him, but thousands know “of him.” It’s remarkable, really, given the nature and popularity of his art.

This London piece is another powerful example of Banksy’s identity as an artist. Staying true to his characteristic themes—which often include greed, poverty, hypocrisy, despair, and alienation—Banksy depicts a freshly painted “Follow Your Dreams” inspirational message that is promptly crossed out with a big, fat, red “CANCELLED” sign. Reminiscent of “No Smoking” signs, Banksy’s stencil says it all: dreams not allowed. And the poor painter, looking rather stunned to be standing next to his altered art, is subjected to a harsh reality.

NO DREAMS ALLOWED - Another Banksy stencil graffiti, this one dashes the hopes of Brits without a worry in the world.

Imagine if dreams really could be dashed this easily. Like a class, flight, or CW television show, cancelled with the quick slash of a decision made by someone who cares not. Thankfully, in our world of ideals derived from the ever-inspiring American Dream, such a hope-shattering outlook is unlikely.

A British graffiti artist, political activist and painter, Banksy introduced himself to the art scene in the late 1980’s and has since progressed into a prominent artist, political activist, self-published author, and film director. His politically-charged works typically evoke an array of political and social themes, including anti-War, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, and nihilism.

Considered a common vandal by some and a closet genius by others, he is no doubt a talented artist. Despite his oftentimes controversial opinions and political views, Banksy produces overwhelmingly creative pieces and deserves to be recognized for the contributions he has made to both the political art and graffiti genres.

Conservative Con Men

Bubbly letters always look so innocent. They’re Comic-Sans-esque: reserved for cheesy party invitations and middle school notebook scribbles of “I heart Joey.”

But in this instance, the bubbly’s are carrying a lot more weight—much like what you see from Arial Bold or Impact.  The capitol “CON” and “MEN” are really packing the punch, but the masqueraded “S” is pulling its weight as well. Despite their rounded edges and soft lines, the letters in this piece are expressing a pointed message.

PLAY ON LETTERS - This New York political graffiti piece criticizes conservative government by playing up some letters and using symbols for others.

This cloud of judgment is hanging low over the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in New York City. Having attracted a lot of attention over the years, photos of the image are plastered all over Flickr, some of which date back to 2004 and others of which are as recent as 2011. That’s astonishing long for a piece of graffiti to remain untouched, especially in a city where the art runs rampant.

Evidently, no one has objected strongly enough to the art’s message to want to paint over it. The notion that conservative government is composed of a lot of lying con men whose primary concern is money is apparently well received in this neck of the woods. And while there may be some truth to the fiscally-conscious stereotype attributed to conservatives, the idea of republicans as a bunch of con men looking to dupe people over issues concerning money is obviously over-the-top.

But no matter the message, if nothing else, this piece is a great play on letters. It’s not often that they speak louder than words.

Infamy: A Graffiti Documentary

Aside from my passion for political art and propaganda, I have a keen interest in documentaries. Combine the two, and I’m in heaven.

Lately, my interest has been piqued by documentaries about graffiti, whether or not the art shown and discussed is politically themed. Because so many of the political art pieces I discuss are works of graffiti, I decided it makes sense to learn more about the art form itself.

Hence, last night: I watched the documentary Infamy, which catalogues the lives and minds of six of America’s most prolific and political graffiti artists. Viewers are introduced to the world of street legends Saber, Toomer, Jase, Claw, Earsnot, and Enem. Interesting characters—all of them. Saber’s designs are mathematically complex; Toomer is part of a graffiti gang; Jase has a fetish for slamming trains with graffiti in particular, but the fumes from countless paint cans are beginning to threaten his health; Claw is perhaps the only notorious girl graffiti artist; Earsnot is breaking stereotypes as a gay, African American graffiti artist in the hardened streets of the Bronx; and Enem is devising a revolutionary new graffiti style in Philadelphia.

With tell-all honesty, these artists reveal why they are so willing to risk everything to spray paint their cities with graffiti images. From the streets of the Bronx to a San Francisco tunnel, from high atop a Hollywood city billboard to the walls of Philadelphia, from the Mexican border to a Cleveland train yard, Infamy analyzes and glorifies graffiti through a simulated viewing experience.

EXPLORING GRAFFITI LEGENDS - Infamy, a documentary on six of the most legendary American graffiti artists, explores the reasons behind why writers risk it all to get their art on the street.

Adding depth to the documentary, the conflict between graffiti artists and local law enforcement is explored as both sides seek to answer the question: is graffiti art or crime? The audience also meets Joe “The Graffiti Guerrilla” Connolly, a notorious and well-known “buffer” who clearly views graffiti as the latter. With a vengeance matched only by the artists who produced them, Joe paints over graffiti murals and markings in his neighborhood, determined to keep the area free from vandalism. He even warns potential vandals to take their dealings elsewhere with a sign reading, “Graffiti no longer accepted here. Find a day job please!”

Watching the documentary, I had no idea that graffiti was such a territorial art. For an artist to be taken seriously, he must claim entire sections of a neighborhood by spraying and tagging his designs on every available surface—walls, buildings, lampposts, post office boxes, doors, road and traffic signs, etc. Furthermore, he must maintain his designs by repeatedly coming back and checking that no one has painted over them or drawn something on top of them—a major offense in the graffiti world.

While such offenses among artists competing for fame are common, offenses and run-ins with the law are almost just as frequent. Every one of the six legends has faced either criminal charges or repeated warnings from law enforcement. Yet, despite potential ramifications and repercussions, they all continue to create their art illegally, often sneaking out at all hours of the night or lying to cops outright in the middle of the day about permission to paint a particular area. When asked why they risk it, they all give different answers, ranging from “graffiti is like an addiction” to “the kids like it” to “it’s personal.” But my favorite answer was Toomer’s: “It’s like the people who carved Mount Rushmore. They wanted to leave a mark, and that’s all we’re doing. It’s the same thing.”

Just make sure you brush up on your graffiti vocabulary beforehand. For a relative graffiti novice like me, prior knowledge of the following lingo would have been most helpful:

Bomb: to paint many surfaces in an area.

Heavens: pieces that are painted in hard-to-reach places such as rooftops and freeway signs, thus making them hard to remove. Such pieces often pose dangerous challenges to execute, but may increase an artist’s notoriety.

Piece: a large and labor-intensive graffiti painting (short for masterpiece). They often incorporate 3-D effects, arrows, and many colors and are considered the full and most beautiful work of graffiti. A piece requires more time to paint than a throw-up. If placed in a difficult location and well executed it will earn the writer more respect (also called murals).

Racking: shoplifting or robbing, not limited to but including paint, markers, inks, caps, and clothes.

Tags: a stylized signature, normally done in one color. The simplest and most prevalent type of graffiti, a tag is often done in a color that contrasts sharply with its background. Tag can also be used as a verb meaning “to sign.” Writers often tag on or beside their pieces, following the practice of traditional artists who sign their artwork.

Throw-up: a throw-up or “throwie” sits between a tag and a piece in terms of complexity and time investment. It generally consists of a one-color outline and one layer of fill-color. Easy-to-paint bubble shapes often form the letters. A throw-up is designed for quick execution, to avoid attracting attention to the writer. Throw-ups are often utilized by writers who wish to achieve a large number of tags while competing with rival artists. Most artists have both a tag and a throw-up that are essentially fixed compared to pieces. This way, they have a recognizable logo for others to identify them and a mark that characterizes their own individual styles.

Writer: a graffiti artist.

‘Cain’t’ Take My Eyes Off You

Presidential elections are optimum hunting grounds for political artists. With candidates tripping up daily, opponents slandering one another, and important policy questions being answered in all the wrong ways, material for mockery and criticism abounds.

Republican Senator John McCain (Arizona) didn’t miss out on his fair share of abuse back in the 2008 presidential election against Barack Obama. Calling home Austin, Texas, this work of wall graffiti features three smiling “McCain’ts” in a fashion which reflects a flag wavering in the breeze.

"MCCAIN'T" COULDN'T - John McCain received his fair share of mockery in the 2008 presidential election, including being tagged with the nickname "McCain't".

With his outdated ideas—much like his years—McCain was not the young and fresh-faced chap the Republicans needed. Support for policies similar to those of Bush didn’t throw much favor his way either.

In the race against Obama, “McCain’t”, despite the clever new campaign slogan, had no hope of being anything other than the little engine that couldn’t.