Graffiti: Art in the Wild

This Week’s Bit of String: A beloved chicken farmer

In a small New Hampshire town during the 80s, graffiti appeared on a slab of roadside rock: ‘CHICKEN FARMER, I LOVE YOU.’ Legend has it, the message was directed at a girl living on the small chicken farm across the street, from a shy boy perhaps in her class.

About twenty years later, a revised message, similarly handpainted, appeared: ‘CHICKEN FARMER, I STILL LOVE YOU.’chicken-farmer

Awww, you know? Awww. The story appears here in Atlas Obscura, and the entry describes the message as ‘a less personal but more public way of reaching out…’

The paradox of personal and public is an intriguing aspect of graffiti and street art. And that paradox affects us as writers too, essentially in reverse. Street artists preserve their anonymity but bring their work right in front of everyone; as authors we (assuming we don’t use a pen name) give up our anonymity but depend on readers’ choice as to whether our work gets seen or not.

So what can writers learn from street art and graffiti?

Resourcefulness

Some of my favourite examples of street art select a feature of the urban landscape and create a whole work around it. A couple pieces from Bristol:

Smiley Windows, Bristol
Simple, but fun…

 

Girl with the Pearl Earring painted around an alarm box on a building in Bristol
This street artist saw an alarm box on a wall and apparently thought it would make a great pearl earring in a big, monochromatic version of the famous Vermeer.

It’s sort of an artist’s form of gathering bits of string, you might say, and I’m a big fan.

What a Difference a Letter Makes

In high school in the late 90s, I was tickled by a revised carving on a classroom desk. Someone had cut ‘MANSON FOREVER’ onto the surface, but someone else had mocked it by transforming it with a simple scratch into ‘HANSON FOREVER.’ Doesn’t sound quite so badass does it?

As a TA, I found some similarly misguided graffiti scratched on a table in a Science classroom: ‘Praise Satin.’

Typical of the devil’s insidiousness that his name would be easily conflated with a luxurious fabric.

Now, these entries aren’t art, according to any definitions discussed in earlier blog posts. But I do find them entertaining, and as writers we appreciate the importance of words—these silly ones remind us how essential each letter actually is.

Community Engagement
Street art on Bristol high rise
More street art from Bristol. If these figures could talk…

In Detroit, as in more and more cities around the world, there’s an annual Street Art Festival during which many different artists are given their own wall, each, to work on. Some use it to commemorate important figures of the area, to express the pain of the Black Lives Matter movement, or to remind citizens of vanished neighbourhoods. In this Huffington Post piece, Festival director Roula David describes their aims: to be ‘significant for the community as opposed to just putting pretty things on pretty buildings.’

In Belfast, murals honour many of the victims killed there during the Troubles. I learned about this thanks to a great post on Sandy Bennett-Haber’s blog. She refers to street art as a conversation between artist and environment, and also ‘a broad conglomeration of stories about and on the streets.’ Of course, I like this reminder that there are stories behind each work and its artist.

Even the kid carving ‘Praise Satin’ into a table has a story, possibly a rather interesting or disturbing one.

Breaking the Rules

Street art and graffiti give people who might otherwise feel ignored—young people, sometimes minorities, possibly lower socioeconomic status—a voice in their community. Using that voice is often an act of rebellion, of courage, and as writers we can emulate that.

Even while there are more and more street art festivals, many artists feel the best, most striking work is done unsupervised and perhaps illegally. Perhaps that’s because the most important things are worth fighting for. Especially these days, when the spectre of censorship looms, we writers should take heart at that.

For more stories about the role graffiti and street art play around the world, check out this feature on The Nature of Cities. Are there any special works of unconventional art near you? What’s the story behind them?

Why We Write

This Week’s Bits of String: An unknown 14-year-old’s thoughts on street art

Having established that both art and the empathy it enables can be excruciating processes, the next question is: What do we get out of it? This question reminds me of Dulcinea begging Don Quixote to explain himself in The Man of La Mancha. And the analogy makes sense. Writers and artists tilt at windmills when we try to draw beauty and order from the sticky marrow of reality. It’s a difficult job. Why do we insist on dreaming this impossible dream?

A Noble Reason: Resounding Into the Chaos
Spotted in Stroud: Lamppost stump repainted as Crayola crayon
Transforming blank space in Stratford Park, Stroud: this stump of a lamppost becomes a giant crayon.

Julia Bell, in a piece for The Guardian about the ability of books to change the world, quotes Salmon Rushdie: “If literature is not an argument with the world then it is nothing.”

Arguments aren’t pretty things. But sometimes, making art or writing literature doesn’t mean inserting beauty onto a blank page or canvas. Instead, it can mean creating depth, and to accomplish this, we must guide readers through dark places, and alert them to some ugly monsters.

Working as a teaching assistant, I once found a scrap of paper in an Art classroom. It was a copy of a questionnaire assignment Year 9s devised on the ethics of street art. One of the questions was: ‘Do you think Banksy is doing the right thing?’ and the anonymous respondent had scrawled, ‘Absolutely not! But neither is anyone else!’

These kids are on to us.

In other words, even with the edgiest art forms, we aim to project intent into a seemingly cruel, random world. Sometimes the intent, as with post-modern authors like Kafka, is to expose the chaos by reflecting it. Other writers, from Charles Dickens to Alice Walker, reminded society to uplift those being trampled in the disorder. The current ‘Own Voices’ books campaign continues this quest today, as more people seek out stories from LGBTQ authors, ethnic and racial minorities, and people with disabilities. Support this exciting movement by checking out this list on Goodreads and choosing a few books for your Christmas list.

A Possibly Less Noble Reason: Grabbing Attention
Puddle full of colourful leaves
We write because we are like leaves cast too soon from the tree, left with no choice but to brighten puddles instead.

We also do it because we want to be heard, even those of us with the privilege not to be in a minority or disenfranchised group. Stories may be fictionalised, often wildly, but the emotions they draw on are real, and perhaps, in our humble opinions, heretofore neglected. I love Esther’s thought in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel. That would fix a lot of people.”

We tell ourselves that our acts of creation will at least avenge, at most remedy, the ways in which the world tries to destroy our spirit.

One of my favourite motivations for writing is to resuscitate memories of people and places I no longer get to see. Putting versions of them in stories allows me to keep hold of what time snatches away. As the protagonist, Helen, exhorts her students in my novel Artefacts:

‘Let’s write, and mine the glimmers inside that might turn out to be gems. Whether it’s people we love, or the feeling of playing a sport really well, or a place we visit that makes us feel free, let’s use those to defend ourselves.’

Art is All Around

This week’s bit of string: Thoughts and images from artists who’ve passed this way already

We’re approaching that time of year when Bill Nighy’s ‘Christ-MAS is all around us’ from Love Actually gets stuck in our heads. Come now, it isn’t just me. But I won’t bother you about Christmas yet, nor even, indeed, about love. Let’s talk about art instead. Art is all around us!

Bristol street art: Colourful twist ties in old city wall window
Bristol’s old city wall, brightened with hundreds of colourful twisty ties.

As someone who left the ability to drive when I emigrated twelve years ago, I do a lot of walking, and I don’t mind it. Even when I’m walking the same route to and from work every day, I enjoy taking pictures from my journey and reflecting on it later, scribbling details in one of my handy-dandy notebooks.

I’ve been motivated in this by a hashtag project my sister Nicole St. James started two years ago. #Everythingyoucanwalkto encourages us to get outside and take pictures. We use our phone lenses to frame what we see, and make it into art. Have a look, here.

What qualifies these photos as art? They just feature things found in nature, or random bits of graffiti like a sticker on a lamppost. How do we identify what art is?

Art Derives from Nature

On her Brainpickings website, Maria Popova posted a nice compilation of quotes defining art. She references Frank Lloyd Wright, who observed that art develops the ‘elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms’ for people to use.

Roses laced with frost
A rose is a rose, but it’s art too.

I agree that the relationship between nature and art is key. Being out in the fresh air, in the colour and grandeur of the landscape, opens our minds more to appreciate art and beauty. So when I’m walking along, provided I’m not stressing too much about something stupid, I am more liable to look around and interpret what I see as beautiful, and capable of use in art.

Art Creates the Unexpected

The other thing that opens my mind to art as I’m out walking is finding something unexpected. A painting on the side of a building, or a baby’s shoe hung in a tree. These give me pause, make me think, question: what’s the story here?

In remarks detailed by a New York Public Library article in the Huffington Post, Leon Botstein called art necessary to ‘discover the imagination.’ He also noted its ‘powerful protection against boredom.’ In order to do so, of course art has to surprise you a little. As for defining it, he said: ‘If it seems to evoke, even inadvertently… it can be a piece of art.’

Yes, those weird pieces of street art, even the most obscure or minimalistic modern art—if they cause emotion, even frustration or confusion, they are art! After all, it’s a frustrating and confusing world. We have to expect art to reflect that, at least occasionally. Look at Kafka, or Beckett, or Joyce. The bizarre, somewhat disjointed narratives they created qualify as literature partly because they awaken us to the same qualities in the real world.

The Unbearable Inconvenience of Feeling

My personal definition of art, plain and simple: It makes you think, and it makes you feel. That includes literature. As writers, we definitely have the power to do those things, if people let us.

Paris graffiti: 'Love me' sticker on a drainpipe
Encountered this ‘Love me’ sticker in Paris. Ceci une pipe? Or a poignant plea from a wayward artist?

Admittedly, thinking and feeling aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. In a passage from my novel Artefacts, a teacher confronts the rather challenging seventh grader, Luke, after Luke covers the toilet conveniences in paper mache and uses the excuse that he’s made art.
‘You can’t use art just to inconvenience people,’ Mr. Tamworth said. ‘Or even solely to shock people, I would argue.’
‘They say it’s supposed to make people feel,’ Luke snapped. ‘That’s pretty damn inconvenient.’

And it is, it is inconvenient, sometimes excruciating, especially when art or literature places another human being’s pain-stricken soul in front of us. Art is all around us, bursting before our eyes, blooming in our minds, and the beauty of it can ache. But we use it to create our own work.

So we cry at movies (including Love Actually. You know it isn’t just me!) as we are forced to contemplate what we might do in a similar situation. We feel as if we can fly when listening to music like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ and new imagery and ideas seep through our veins. We look at an art installation in the street and start thinking about who put it there, and why. And eventually, these feelings and thoughts, these what ifs and bits of string, help us formulate new stories, and put new art into the world.