Paint the Town: Beyond the Facade of Graffiti

On the city of Boston's government website, a page devoted to "Graffiti Busters" proudly declares, "If you see it, report it, and we'll wipe it clean!" In an age that emphasizes the importance of free speech and individualism, this cheerful attitude toward artistic repression is startling and frankly discouraging. As a much-debated topic throughout the ages, graffiti and street art have evolved into an important expression of ideas the world over, from political statements to simply stunning works of art.

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London, Engalnd. Victoria Fisher / Gavel Media

From the mid-19th century Italian word 'graffio,' literally meaning "a scratch, " graffiti has made its appearance from the earliest times and ignited communities ever since. Controversial from the get-go, the first known form of modern graffiti in the Greek city of Esphesus was a subtle advertisement for prostitution, and its tag still exists in modern-day Turkey.

With the invention of aerosol paint in 1949, contemporary graffiti exploded on walls throughout the world, encouraged greatly by the spread of hip hop culture in the United States in the late 1970s and 1980s.

 

Photo courtesy of Tessa Peoples

Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Tessa Peoples

During the Cold War, the west side of the Berlin wall became the largest canvas in the world for artists and citizens of the world to express their thoughts and opinions during this tense and incendiary period, with colorful pieces contrasting the coldly blank facade of the eastern side.

The works on the wall have since been immortalized in museums and galleries around the world as a slice of history that so closely reflects the attitudes of the people more than any newspaper article or history textbook could.

Similarly, the Lennon Wall in Prague, Czech Republic has served as a platform for murals, markings, and often-Beatles-inspired art since the 1980s.  On November 17, 2014 the wall was painted over in white by a group of students with the simple phrase, "The wall is over."

Within days, tourists and artists alike flocked to the wall, immediately filling the space with works of art that symbolize both the modern era and harken back to the wall's past histories in an ever-changing representation of human imagination.

Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

Berlin, Germany. Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

Filmmakers Gates Bradley and Jonny Robson have taken to the streets of Buenos Aires to make their mark. In "White Walls Say Nothing," the two directors explore the history of street art in Argentina and its important role in the community as a form of public protest and expression.

Photo courtesy of Katy Mooney / Facebook

Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Katy Mooney / Facebook

Set to finish production later in 2015, the documentary upholds the importance of graffiti and street art as an outlet for a population whose voices are suppressed in so many others arenas.

The trailer proclaims, "Art became a language and the walls became its voice." With a complicated history of political corruption and oppression, street art in Argentina sits near and dear to the city's heart as a release of emotion, activism and artistic beauty.  A woman interviewed relates, "As long as people have things to say, the walls will be there to help them."

Alongside the cheerfully sterile "Graffiti Busters," Boston too has had a complicated relationship with graffiti.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Photo courtesy of Tim Sackton / Flickr

In 2012, famous Brazilian street art team of Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo, or Os Gemeos (literally "the twins" in Portuguese), created a massive untitled mural in Dewey Square between Summer and Congress streets of a young boy with clothing wrapped around his head.

The piece was inflammatory, loved by some and evoking racially-sparked outrage among others.  It was controversially taken down in 2013, and since been replaced with other murals sponsored by the Rose Fitzergerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, the nonprofit organization in charge of providing public artwork in the square.

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Berlin, Germany. Megan Flynn / Gavia Media

The story of this untitled Os Gemeos work is perfect example of the role of graffiti in modern communities: it sparks conversations and evokes critical thought. It is art in everyday life, and while it is transient, it offers a more permanent form of expression at a time when the average American's most common form of political declaration involves a hastily and angrily written Facebook post.

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London, England. Victoria Fisher / Gavel Media

 

In a world of ethereal, constantly-changing news feeds, there's a permanence and catharsis that comes from making one's mark on a literal--not Facebook--wall  and creating something real that will be there long after you log out.  Terrance Lindall, director of the Williamsburg Art and Historic Center, home to an exibition of graffiti work, relates, "Graffiti is revolutionary, in my opinion, and any revolution might be considered a crime. People who are opposed or suppressed need an outlet, so they write on walls--it's free."
Yet beyond the examples of graffiti as a form of public protest and political activism, street art functions just as often as simply works of art.  In cities around the globe from London to Berlin to Boston, graffiti murals grace walls with masterpieces that undoubtedly better the aesthetic quality of the space.

Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Photo courtesy of Katy Mooney / Facebook

Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo courtesy of Katy Mooney / Facebook

Graffiti serves as the most accessible format to appreciate the arts, bringing the community together through artistic expression without any sense of pretentiousness or elitism and providing a unique character that sets a neighborhood apart from anywhere else in the world.

And yet while graffiti remains staunchly rubbed out, painted over and erased by the merry band of graffiti fighters, the vibrant personality of the community becomes erased too.  Indeed, while communities in the United States attempt to stamp out street art in favor of an unimaginable, uniform suburbia, few are willing to put the time and effort into creating a detailed masterpiece--like those seen in South American, Australian and Asian communities--if it would be taken down in a week's time.  Instead, by and large graffiti in the United States consists of quick tags and sporadic markings that many would agree are less aesthetically pleasing than they could be if the community embraced street expression.  America is a land of vividly unique cities with dynamic personalities--for God's sake we live in Boston--and yet its white walls truly do say nothing when it could, and should, be wearing its heart on its sleeve.

Boston.  Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

Boston. Megan Flynn / Gavel Media

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Shari Dryden