Political Graffiti in Nairobi Demands Attention

Out of Nairobi, Kenya, this politically-charged wall protests political instability, corrupt government officials, lack of reform, high unemployment, and rising prices. The wall spurred a feature cover on February 29, 2012 by NTV Kenya, the largest broadcasting station in Kenya, covering a wide region across the country.

The art lists a slew of problems affecting the country, including: land grabbing, political assassinations, tribal clashes, drug dealings, famine, tax evasion.

Perhaps the most powerful image is of a corrupt politician sitting on a throne with a box full of money chained to his seat—a symbol of how politicians use money to reel in votes. To add to the picture of corruption, the politician’s thoughts are articulated in the words, “I steal their taxes, grab land, but the idiots will still vote for me.”

One section of the wall has a bullet list of characteristics of the type of leader the people desire: visionary, patriotic, intelligent, honest, competent, courageous, and in touch with the people.

A final section of the wall recalls the corrupt and undemocratic elections that took place in December of 2007. With the words, “my voice, my vote, my future,” the artists assert that this is how the democratic voting process should be—responsive to the people.

Kenya has experienced political problems since 2007, when a crisis erupted after disputed elections. Violence erupted across many regions, particularly in the slums, and protests raged in Nairobi.

Watch NTVKenya’s coverage of the street art:

Bush Butchery Slaughters America

These two graffiti illustrations are not found together, but are in fact two separate pieces on different walls in different cities. I thought it appropriate to group them together, given the common butchery theme.

The first is designed in the spirit of a company logo with a name (Bush & Sons), a slogan (‘family butchers since 1989’) and a fitting icon (recently used butcher knife). Compared to the second piece of art, a stencil graffiti piece, it’s fairly mild in nature.

BUSH BUTCHERY - The first of these two commonly themed graffiti illustrations resembles a company logo.

Behold the not-so-mild work of art: George Bush sporting the American flag as an apron and looking all too ready to exact vengeance on his next victim. Notice the butcher knife in hand (also recently used), and if I’m not mistaken, what appears to be blood dripping from the side of his mouth. I can’t quite make out the words, but given the Jack-the-Ripper theme, I’m sure they’re not pleasantries.

BUTCHERING AMERICA - The second graffiti illustration has Bush wearing an American flag for an apron and holding a butcher knife, clearly symbolizing that he has butchered America. More accusatory than the first, it also employs a much more controversial graphic.

Obviously Bush has plenty of haters. Under his administration, a lot of controversial legislation and widely-disliked policies were enacted. Bush initiated the No Child Left Behind Act and pushed for socially conservative efforts like the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and faith-based welfare initiatives. He declared a War on Terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks and during his term, the U.S. invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq. He pushed huge tax cuts, collectively known as the ‘Bush tax cuts,’ and was also confronted with an economic recession and massive immigration problems. A number of these policies, actions, and initiatives were strongly opposed by a large portion of the public, and by the end of his second term in 2008, Bush had lost a lot of his popularity and support and suffered through scathing criticisms.

But does that warrant art like this? I don’t know. The focus of these pieces seems not so much an attack on policy or action, but on the man himself. There’s a clear message that HE butchered America (figuratively speaking, of course). But one man is not responsible for the state of America today, just as one man could never fix it.

For whatever reason, as Americans, we expect the President to fix everything. We vote based on who we think can change everything for the better. That’s naïve. The President is just another person like the rest of us, and therefore, all we can really expect of him is his best effort.

‘No Future’ Mural Is Short-Lived

Another piece of Banksy genius…

This mural, done in 2010, features a colorless and rather petulant looking child holding a red balloon which forms the ‘o’ in the phrase ‘NO FUTURE.’ It appeared on the side of a private home in an area of Southampton, England known for its lively nightlife and drinking culture. According to BBC News, the mural increased the worth of the privately owned house by 20,000 euro.

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - One of Banksy's most short-lived works, the 'No Future' mural attracted a flurry of attention before it was whitewashed over by an unknown protester hours later.

In 2010, Banksy was still entirely a mystery to the English populace, but his works of politically-charged street art were popping up all over the country. Catching the artist at work proved fruitless, but as people tried to discover the man behind the spray can, it became somewhat of a game to rush to find Banksy’s latest painting.

When this mural was found, it drew the attention of BBC News, the press, the art elite, and pedestrian passerby. Only hours after it was discovered, however, the image of the child was painted over with whitewash and the words changed to “GRAFFITI HAS NO FUTURE.” It is still unknown who censored the graffiti.

As with all of Banksy’s art, the message is quite simple, succinct, and clever while the illustration carries the true message—one of social protest.

It’s a shame, however, that the work was ruined. It only proves all too well that the argument over whether graffiti is art or crime is a potent one. Banksy’s work has on several occasions been called egotistic, with critics saying that his outspoken messages and longstanding anonymity show he has an “I-can-get-away-with-it” attitude and a “look-what-I-can-do” demeanor.

I disagree. I don’t think Banksy is trying to get away with anything. I think, as with all street artists who have social and political messages, he’s trying to let people take away something.

Banksy Documentary Takes Inside Look at Street Art

I mentioned my newfound obsession with Banksy on Saturday. Let me just say: it has grown. That same night I watched a documentary produced by and featuring Banksy called “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” Absolutely fabulous. Banksy is not only an artist; he’s a character. Having a naturally sarcastic way about him, his commentary adds wit and entertainment to the 86-minute-long look at some of the most famous images of political graffiti, protest graffiti, and street art.

Banksy produced the documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop," which takes an inside look at some of the most famous street artists in the world, along with many of their politically-charged works. Banksy is also a subject in the film.

Even more cool, viewers actually get to see three of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists—Banksy, Shephard Fairey, and Invader—at work. Given Banksy’s notoriously camera-shy reputation, the fact that he appears onscreen at all is remarkable.

The documentary begins when a Los Angeles based Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, gets the idea that he would like to film street artists in the process of creating their work. To gain access, he tells them he is making a documentary. In reality, he is only filming endless footage with no intention of making a cohesive movie. Unaware of this fact, many street artists from around the world agree to participate. As Thierry goes out with artists at night, he begins assisting them in creating their designs and even gains insider knowledge about the most sought-after locations for graffiti art.

The documentary also takes a look at Shepard Fairey's "Obey" campaign, and viewers will see him posting his graffiti in many locations.

After following Invader, Fairey, and other graffiti artists for a while, Thierry finally gains permission to tag along with Banksy, so long as he only films his hands working. In interview scenes, Banksy demands to be blacked out, and viewers never see his face. Banksy eventually convinces Thierry to use his footage to make a movie. After six months apart, Thierry returns to Banksy to show him the product of his work. At this point, Banksy realizes that Thierry is an amateur filmmaker at best, but still finds Thierry to be an interesting character—in an odd, yet appealing, way.

Banksy decides to take over the film process and uses Thierry’s footage along with additional material to make his own documentary about Thierry’s journey in this project. Since Thierry spent so much time involved in the process of street art, Banksy also suggests (rather offhandedly) that Thierry become a street artist himself. Not wanting to disappoint Banksy—whose suggestion Thierry takes very seriously—Thierry reinvents himself as street artist MBW, an acronym for “Mr. Brainwash.”

After being on the LA street art scene only a short while, Thierry throws everything into putting on a massive art show showcasing his work. However, as viewers will see, much of his ‘original’ work appears similar to other artists’. Despite the unoriginality, he gains fame and popularity, much to the other artists’ shock.

The film ends with my favorite line of the documentary, said by Banksy:

“I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.”

Watch the trailer for the documentary here: 

Banksy: The Street Art Phenomenon

I’m undergoing an obsession (likely a fleeting one) with Banksy, arguably the most well-known, albeit controversial, street artist in the world.

I’ve mentioned him several times, but to review: Banksy is a graffiti artist from Bristol, England, whose artwork has appeared throughout London and other cities around the world. Despite being wildly popular, he’s managed for the most part to hide much of his identity from the media. Nobody can even say for sure what his real name is, although many assert that it is Robert or Robin Banks. However, he sings all of his works of art with the stenciled “Banksy” logo.

On the occasion that he has agreed to be interviewed, Banksy refuses to call himself an artist, although he is obviously considered as such by other artists and by viewers of his works. His street art style is very unique and most commonly employs a distinctive stenciling technique.

Banksy’s art is often heavily controversial and almost always politically loaded. His works offer commentary on a wide range of societal problems, but tend to focus most on urban decay and subjects in urban environments. His political leanings, which many believe to be left-wing, are often not appreciated by certain members of society. Sometimes viewed in an offensive light, his art is not always received well by older members of society, but he has generated somewhat of a cult following among younger generations.

In addition to his street works, Banksy does paid work for a few organizations and sells some canvases for a steep price.

In 2006, Banksy generated an unprecedented amount of controversy when he stenciled nine images on the West Bank Barrier, the 425-mile concrete barricade separating Israel from the Palestine territories. Israel constructed the wall as a security measure against suicide bombers. Painted on the Palestinian side of the barrier, one image depicts a hole in the wall with an idyllic beach, while another shows a mountain landscape on the other side. Still another shows the head of a white horse appearing to poke through, while he also painted a ladder going over the wall.

Banksy condemned the wall, but also described it as the ultimate holiday destination for graffiti artists.

Here’s a video documenting his work on the West Bank Barrier: 

Here’s another showing a number of his works around the world:

Society May Prompt Its Own Vandalism

Another work of Banksy stenciled graffiti: I’m catching the theme that he’s popular among political street art circles. I’m also catching onto his style (totally called that this was his).

This work (on a street corner in Belgium) touches on the idea of graffiti as vandalism, a topic I’ve previously covered. The art world and the public don’t always see eye-to-eye on the role, purpose, and legality of graffiti in society. Here, Banksy offers an interesting twist to the artist’s argument

On a street corner in Belgium, this is another stenciled graffiti piece by Banksy. It offers the idea that society itself prompts works of graffiti, an act considered vandalism by much of the public.

Protest art is, more than anything, a response. Something spurs it. Artists wouldn’t draw pieces protesting war if there was no war; images of the homeless wouldn’t appear if homelessness was not a problem in society; works favoring or disagreeing with one candidate or another or one issue or another wouldn’t appear if disputes didn’t exist among sides.

In short, politically-charged works of street art tend to emerge as reactions to societal problems and issues. It’s a classic example of cause-and-effect.  Where problems arise, art follows. And the greater the problem, the more likely it is there will be a united and powerful response among the street art world.

Furthermore, works of political protest art and street graffiti are not created simply to express an individual artist’s opinion, but to call attention to what they (and generally many others) view as an injustice existing in society. This ‘vandalism’ then, as many perceive it, is precisely the fault of society: as the acting impetus, it deserves to suffer the consequences.

Street artists will continue to launch responses to societal concerns so long as society remains imperfect. As such, it is unrealistic to ever expect walls and buildings devoid of art.

Live Free or Die

I have no idea where this piece of political art exists, but when I saw it online, I thought—of all things—of Patrick Henry’s famous speech in which he closes with “give me liberty or give me death!” Same idea.  Different wording.

This work of political street art reflects a core foundation of America: the importance of freedom and the willingness to fight for it at any cost.

The words ‘live free or die’ are iconic to American political philosophy. They capture and reflect the assertive independence typically found in our nation’s politics, which tends to hold an attitude that even death is preferable to life without freedom.  Any self-respecting American can identify with the phrase in this artwork and appreciate its significance to our cultural and political history. Even the most unpatriotic citizen can surely agree that America, despite whatever problems it may have, can at least be credited for consistently standing by its thoughts on freedom.

To distract from that paragraph, which unintentionally became a soap box lecture, here’s a fun fact: “Live Free or Die” happens to be the official state motto of New Hampshire, adopted in 1945.

Apparently, the phrase comes from a toast written by General John Stark, New Hampshire’s most famous soldier of the Revolutionary War. On July 31, 1809, Stark declined an invitation to an anniversary reunion of the Battle of Bennington, but included in his note a toast for the evening which read:

Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

More than two centuries later, Americans still agree.

There Is Always Hope

A lot of sad things can happen to a child. But a balloon of love floating away? That’s brutal.

This is another work of stencil graffiti by Banksy, the UK graffiti art phenomenon. (He also did the homeless man holding a sign “Keep Your Coins, I Want Change,” the subject of an earlier posting). It appears on a wall in the South Bank of London.

At first glance, this is almost painful to witness, with the child grasping fruitlessly at the air. But notice the graffitied writing off to the side: “There is always hope.” Comforting words.

I couldn’t decide initially if this graffiti was political in its message. I considered that perhaps the child represented some sort of hope for the future. I considered that the balloon could be a symbol of everything good in society, and since it’s floating away, the message would be that “there is always hope” for improvement, progress, and change for the better.

But I don’t know. Those both feel too contrived. I’m getting the “Really? You’re getting THAT out of THIS” feeling I get when art in any of its forms is too overanalyzed.

So I’m taking this work of street art at face value and saying its simply a message about the human spirit, which despite its best intentions in times of chaos, sorrow, or turmoil, can’t help but to hope.

Graffiti: Art or Crime?

Some people become vandals because they want to make the world a better looking place.”
― BanksyWall and Piece

The vandals to whom Bansky refers are graffiti artists. Banksy himself is one of the most popular and well known graffiti artists in the world. An England native, he is also a political activist and film director.  Many of his artistic works are done in a distinct stenciling technique and offer satirical commentary on current and controversial political and social issues.

I didn’t know a thing about Banksy before today, but I like what he has to say about graffiti.

Graffiti has a remarkably paradoxical attitude about it: spontaneous (but it MUST have been a bit planned, right?), carefree and intentional, complex and simple, artistic and activist.

But the most debatable quality about graffiti is more basic: is it an art or a crime?

The criminalizing of graffiti has long been a touchy topic among graffiti artists, who view their work as a form of artistic expression. Artists across the nation demonstrate their protest with works such as this.











It’s a long-standing question that has had law enforcement and artists up in arms for ages.

There’s no doubt that “graffiti” has ‘negative connotation’ all over it. Those opposed to graffiti view it as nothing more than cold vandalism. The lamenting property owner or neighborhood councilman calls it a crime, a public nuisance, a threat to personal livelihood, or an outright attack on quality of life.

But I think that’s too harsh. Graffiti is a legitimate form of art as well as the manifestation of a rich popular culture. It’s a fundamental part of street culture on top of that. Graffiti can be a positive outlet for artistic expression as well as medium for political commentary and protest. If done tastefully, it can really brighten up a neighborhood.

But the idea that graffiti is an underappreciated art form is not well-received by society’s boys in blue. There are wide variations in punishments for graffiti as well as a range of methods for calculating damages. Punishments may include fines, jail time, or community service, but these also differ according to whether the crime is prosecuted as a misdemeanor or a felony, which in turn depends on where the case is being tried or even by whom is doing the sentencing.

Another pertinent question: how to define graffiti? Depending on who is doing the interpreting, graffiti could be a political statement, an intricate drawing, a sticker, an etching, or an unrecognizable mosaic. My home state of Texas addresses what graffiti is and when it is a crime like this:

(a) A person commits an offense if, without the effective consent of the owner, the person intentionally or knowingly makes markings, including inscriptions, slogans, drawings, or paintings, on the tangible property of the owner with:

(1)  aerosol paint;

(2)  an indelible marker;  or

(3)  an etching or engraving device.

In Texas, graffiti is a crime which ranges from a Class B misdemeanor to a first-degree felony and up to a $10,000 fine depending on location and monetary amount of loss for the owner.

Other states have their own definitions and punishments. It would appear there is no agreement on the best way to criminalize graffiti, but nobody can read that Texas definition describing what graffiti is—and what supplies are used in its making—and come to the conclusion that it’s NOT art.

Here’s another Banksy quote on graffiti:

“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. And even if you don’t come up with a picture to cure world poverty you can make someone smile while they’re having a piss.”

― BanksyBanging Your Head Against a Brick Wall

‘Can Daddy Come Home Now?’

I found this photo while browsing Panoramio, a photo-sharing website bearing some similarity to Flickr.

I know virtually nothing about the context of the photo, other than that it was taken by the screen name ‘Librarian 1975’ and that the art appeared on the wall of an old Exxon Station in Hainesport, New Jersey.

Spray painted on the wall of an old Exxon Station in Hainesport, New Jersey, this street art conveys an important political message about the disruptive effects of war on family life.

The words almost certainly referred to a father returning home from War, most likely the War in Iraq.

There’s nothing really to be said for the actual artwork. I’m no art critic, but the words were clearly spray painted, and in all honesty I think the kid could look a bit more stricken and/or torn.

There is something to be said, however, for the art’s message and the important reminder it conveys.

After seeing this image, it suddenly hit me that the War in Iraq went on for nearly NINE years. That’s longer than the Civil War and nearly as long as both World Wars combined. At the official ending of the war in mid-December 2011, CBS News reported that 4,500 Americans had died and 32,000 more were wounded over the course of the war. Additionally, more than 100,000 Iraqis were killed and approximately $800 billion was expended. Funny how all those “Two U.S. soldiers were killed today in a bombing near Baghdad” and “Twelve Iraqis died today in a shooting…” reports added up.

Even more peculiar: when the War began in 2003, everybody knew about it. All of America followed the news reports, and a majority of U.S. citizens supported Bush’s decision at the time. But as time progressed, the war became a kind of subliminal advertising—sure, we heard about it, and it was reported on, but on the whole, I think a lot of people grew numb to it…even to the point of forgetting it was happening. The War, to the average citizen, became quite commonplace.

This message reminds us that while the War was almost tiresome, even mundane, to a lot of people, it intoxicated and consumed the minds of others. And that really, it’s a shame when we forget that.