STENCILS OF URBAN DIS PLACEMENT
Presented on a panel with Andy Mac (founder of Citylights and Until Never, Melbourne) and artist James Dodd (Adelaide), marking the start of a stencil and street art collection for the NGA. Read a review in Artlink Magazine.
There are so many examples of this ephemeral thing we call graffiti – ancient and contemporary, political and satirical, decorative and artistic – that when you scratch the surface of history, so to speak, you discover a world repeatedly layered in symbolic marks.
While the practice of graffiti is more often that not deemed institutionally undesirable, it is nonetheless a vital engagement with the political and social fabric of urban space. From messages of social dissent scrawled on toilet doors, to wall size political murals, to spray can writing on subway trains, graffiti as both a means of expression and of artistic mark making is very much entrenched in global culture.
Historical Context of Graffiti
The word graffiti has its roots in the ancient Greek graphos or graphien, meaning to write. In Italian the closest variant scraffito, meaning scratching or drawing on a flat surface, relates to the marks found on architecture preserved in places like the catacombs under Rome or the walls of ancient Pompeii.
Other examples of ancient graffiti have been found in the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, where the working crews scrawled their gang or 'za' tags on the inner ceilings during construction. Centuries later, Medieval Christians scratched their own graffiti of Coptic crosses over the Egyptian hieroglyphs in a fearful attempt to overpower the antediluvian iconography.
Stencil art is just one branch of contemporary graffiti. While closely related to printing techniques and spray can art, stencilling can be considered as one of the oldest forms of graffiti and Australia has a wealthy cultural history of this art form.
Along with sacred sites such as the Cave of Hands at Gariwerd in central western Victoria, a prime example of indigenous stencilling can be seen in Carnarvon Gorge in southeast Queensland. In and around the gorge, there are extensive rock art galleries made by the ancestors of the Bidjara people. The mouth-blown ochre stencils of hands, weapons, animals and other symbols have recently been carbon dated to be between 3,500 and 18,000 years old.
From these ancient graffiti forms, the stencil has evolved through various world cultures: on the walls of Buddhist temples in the Himalayas; recorded in block-stencilled codices of Mesoamerican peoples; and in decorative leaf stencils on fabrics from the Fijian and other Pacific Islands.
Illuminated manuscripts dating from the 11th century employed stencils for page motifs and patterning. One of the earliest decks of playing cards dating to 1440 was designed with a stencil. Also known as 'enlivening', the stencil was extensively used by the print industries for bookplate illustration and ornamentation.
In the 17th century, Jean Papillon pioneered the wallpaper industry in France with his domino stencil paper. From the 18th century onwards, the Japanese influence of fabric printing with stencils spread throughout the world.
Art Nouveau and Deco styles also relied heavily on the easy reproduction of decorative motifs using stencil sheets, a technique known as pochior in French. But the dawn of mass reproduction techniques developed in the early 20th century saw a move away from handmade stencil work and, with the introduction of photochemical and automated sheet metal printing, the art of stencilling became watered down in a market slowly drowned in mass commercial printing.
It is easy now to see the enormous legacy of Duchamp and Warhol as it concerns reproduction and the precarious role the printed image plays in cultural capital. The continued practice of ideas championed by the Dada and Pop artists is exemplified in modern graffiti with its author anonymity, ongoing reappropriation of popular culture, and constant redefinition of meaning in image.
Following on from Braque and Picasso's cubist compositions that incorporated newspaper print and disassembled typography, Pop artists (especially Warhol, Rauchenberg, Rivers, Johns, Rosenquist and De Buffet) used stencils that left an enduring aesthetic mark. Their use of iconography, incorporated advertising, and repetitive media-based imagery, all made room for a more open and streetwise artistic environment in the late 20th century.
It was invention and commercial availability the humble spray can, however, that had the biggest impact on the emergence of modern graffiti. From the 1960s onwards, cities such as Philadelphia and New York became the urban canvas for a number of tagging graffiti writers such as Taki and Cornbread, who began to lay claim to the urban industrial wastelands surrounding their homes. Entire subcultures were born from the work of these pioneering writers. They chose to call themselves writers as opposed to artists as early modern graffiti is more closely related to poetry, rhyme, calligraphy and typography in composition and form.
By the mid 1980s, commercial galleries had begun to see the popular trend toward the new dynamism of street culture. Curators and agents keen associate with emerging street art began to use the term 'graffiti artist' to help popularise the work of Scharf, Basquiat and Haring. But while street-based graffiti writers argued at the time over the authenticity of their work being recontextualised in a gallery environment, the growing hip-hop scene crept in the back door and laid claim to the wildstyles emerging from the underground.
The 80s graffiti movement was largely lost to the art world and instead found itself entangled with hip-hop, which was originally concerned with racial identity and poverty but has since connected with street fashion, skateboarding, and the lucrative music industry.
Throughout the 90s, graffiti writing continued the New York traditions but many old school writers were forced to watch their original pieces being scrawled over by a new generation of admiring but highly unskilled novices. The lack of technical training available, and especially the one-up-man-ship inherent within many graffiti scenes, may keep the work fresh but graffiti often turns on itself – destroying its own history.
Social and Political Aspects of Graffiti
At this point, it may be helpful to distinguish between some of the more established forms of graffiti. Contemporary street art, which includes stencilling, spray can writing, tagging, postering, tiling, debris mounting, and many other forms of practice, has evolved incredibly rapidly in the last few years. The most controversial of these are often tags that are made with a marker or a spray can and often consist of calligraphic names. They are often used by new graffiti writers and operate as a way of marking personal space where the individual may have no public role or voice. Tagging is often associated with youth culture and the formulation of social identity.
Susan Phillips defines graffiti as phenomena that "personalize depersonalized space, construct landscapes of identity, (and) make public space into private space." Similarly, Sarah Giller notes that graffiti operates by "transgressing dominant notions of aesthetics, commodity and property (and) becomes a successful ahegemonic strategy used by the marginalized to establish a voice".
For many young people, identity is becoming increasingly perilous in our society that endorses the power of the brand and the dominating corporate advertising, while marketing campaigns are targeted specifically to manipulate the weaknesses of self-identity and the desire to belong. In many ways, art no longer deals with these problems and instead opts out by being purely aesthetic and self-referential. Contemporary graffiti has taken up some of the cultural imperatives that modern art first started.
Meanwhile, governments and community groups continue to view tagging purely as vandalism, often lumping all other street arts into the same bin. In this regard, our social institutions are seriously failing to address the infiltration of commercial interests in youth subculture and the rationale behind taggers trying to establish a space for themselves by marking their own surroundings.
The Rise of Stencil Graffiti
Stencil graffiti often subverts the meaning of an image, icon or brand, then places it back into the same public space as the original source, creating an opposition, an interruption and more importantly and opportunity for people to question the meaning of image and the use of space.
David Robinson in his book SoHo Walls writes: "Stencils are modern pictographs dealing with issues of contemporary urban life... They are subtle in their expression, often full of irony and humor. The fact that they give the viewer a puzzle to solve makes them even more provocative... In recent years, stencil art has begun to seem more overtly political and referring to art issues."
It comes as no surprise then that a majority of stencil artists working in a city such as Melbourne are trained. The ability to reduce an image down to a few basic elements, perform colour separations, cut out fine line work and spray the finished stencil on wall to ensure proper registration are all skills of someone trained. Resources are also now more readily available through books, magazines and websites, enabling a new generation of street artists to experiment as part of a known community.
Placement is perhaps one of the most vital aspects of successful stencil graffiti. In stark contrast to the full-colour billboards that leer over public space, the stencil artist will seek the obscure but highly visible location to place a work. It is the surprise of finding a hidden artwork that gives stencils their popular twist.
As Tristan Manco notes in his recent book Street Logos: "Generally the artists have an affinity with the place they choose, they know its aspect and have considered its qualities of colour, shape, and surface."
The illegibility of much traditional graffiti is a deliberate attempt to avoid popularity. The cryptic codification of graffiti letterforms is a key element to its subcultural success. If graffiti writing were legible to anyone it would lose its inherent linguistic meaning for the individuals and crews that have marked the work and site as their own.
Stencil art is decidedly different from graffiti writing. It is openly legible and text is printed in typographic form rather than calligraphic. The sign codification of stencil graffiti is more universal and is tightly related to popular culture and iconography. Images are often appropriated from media and advertising where their familiarity triggers an immediate response in the viewer. Styles are much more akin to screen-printing and graphic design than the more painterly qualities of other graffiti forms.
Manco also notes that: "In twenty-first century graffiti there has been a shift from the typographic to the iconographic...icons predate words, using the more emotive visual language of symbols."
This relationship to the popular icon has created something of a feedback loop between street art and corporate advertising that always seeks new ways to capture the consumer eye. As Joanne Finkelstein writes in her book Slaves of Chic: (Advertising) is a source of fresh ideas which find their expression in street language and changing aesthetic standards."
The danger of this image aesthetic feedback is the ability for culture jammers, such as stencil artists to be jammed themselves. Guerrilla marketing is becoming increasingly common, whereby companies employ street artists to stencil logos and images in between other stencil artworks in a clever form of underground appropriation. Street culture now informs corporate branding and marketing in ways that we are only beginning to understand in cultural terms.
In urban cultures, not just here in Australia but in many other cities around the world, corporate ownership of public space is reaching saturation point. This saturation reinforces the lack of independent ideas communicated in public space, an apathetic demarcation of democratic principles. Where public art is often relegated a simply decorative function in the urban landscape, street art steals space, acting as an antithesis to advertising and a way of reclaiming the public space that is increasingly being denied us.
Contemporary Street Art
Contemporary street art has evolved incredibly rapidly in the last two decades. The last five years in particular have seen a massive worldwide movement in artists returning to the streets. In almost every country, it would seem that street artists are actively working to alter the concrete metropolises that are developing around us. The revolution of the urban renovation is being matched with a revolution to claim the ever-shrinking public space within the modern cityscape. Essentially, street art is not trying to sell anything, except perhaps for an idea or a critique and it is this very function of art that has become so diluted through the saturation of advertising.
So while the techniques and tools of stencil artists may have changed slightly over the millennia, from mouths to the spray cans and from natural ochres to chemical pigments, the practice of stencil art has until quite recently remained largely the same. Current practice is evolving to incorporate other practices within single pieces. It is becoming increasingly common to find works that use posters and stickers overlaid with stencils and hand drawn elements.
In Melbourne there are a number of highly active street artist groups at work. Some choose to sell stencils on canvas in markets, which has proven to be a highly successful venture. Others work solely on the streets, whitewashing alleyway walls such as those found in Canada Lane in Carlton and beginning stencil 'wars' with other artists. These contemporary, and very temporary, exhibition spaces are full of postmodern connotations owing to their hybrid nature of forms, styles and techniques, as well as the large number of artists working within the one space.
The condition for a postmodern text is described by Richard Osborne as "shifting, ironic and playful in character, seeking to subvert the boundaries between old-fashioned distinctions like 'high culture' and 'low culture'." And nowhere is this more exemplified than in a wall covered in stencils, stickers, tags and the fragmentary remains from the junk of modern life.
Acknowledgements go to Andrew and Vladimir at Citylights and to Prism at Stencil Revolution for providing some of the images in the slideshow. To those of you who are interested in delving more deeply into contemporary street art, I would strongly recommend you look at Tristan Manco's recent publications (Stencil Graffiti and Street Logos – both available through Thames and Hudson) and at some of the many graffiti websites including Graffiti.org, StencilRevolution.com and Cleansurface.org to name a few.
Joanne FINKELSTEIN. Slaves Of Chic: An A-Z Of Consumer Pleasures. Minerva. Melbourne. 1994.
Dario GAMBONI. The Destruction Of Art. Reaktion Books. London. 1992.
Norman LALIBERTÉ & Alex MOGELON. The Art of Stencil. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company. New York. 1971.
Tristan MANCO. Stencil Graffiti. Thames And Hudson. London. 2002.
Tristan MANCO. Street Logos. Thames And Hudson. London. 2004.
Susan P. PHILLIPS. Graffiti in Dictionary Of Art: Vol.13. Jane TURNER (Ed). Grove Macmillan. New York. 1996
David ROBINSON. Soho Walls: Beyond Graffiti. Thames And Hudson. London. 1990.
Sarah GILLER. Graffiti: Inscribing Transgression On The Urban Landscape. http://www.graffiti.org/faq/giller.html
Din HEAGNEY. Urbangarde (Part 1). Desktop. July 2003. pp.34.
Din HEAGNEY. Urbangarde (Part 2). Desktop. September 2003. pp.44.
Christopher HEATHCOTE. Discovering Graffiti. Art Monthly. (113) September 2000. pp.4.
Alastair JOHNSTON. Graffiti. Idea. (35) Nov 1987. pp.36.
Cedar LEWISOHN. Signature As Content: Where Words Become Pictures. Flash Art. Jan/Feb 2002. pp.76.
Tristan MANCO. Centrefold. Creative Review. April 2002. pp.51.