Speak Softly But Carry a Big Can of Paint

“Speak Softly But Carry a Big Can of Paint” – Banksy, Wall and Piece

Banksy  is the now-legendary guerilla street artist from Britain who has painted the walls, streets, and bridges of towns and cities throughout the world.  He has smuggled his work  into four of New York City’s major art museums,  “hung” his work at London’s Tate Gallery and covered  Israel’s West Bank barrier with satirical images.  Banksy’s identity remains unknown, but his work is unmistakable with prints selling for as much as $45,000.  Here are a couple of his images, but visit the website if you want to  be amazed.

I’ve had to walk away from this post several times to figure out what I was trying to write.  I woke up this morning thinking about writing a piece around my graffiti pictures, but I knew there was more to it.  It’s taken several redrafts, but I think I have it now.

  1. Writing is therapeutic for me, so I need to keep writing.  But I refuse to have me, or my writing, defined by the events of the last few months.  I don’t want to keep writing about cancer or bad breakups (though if those unsent emails sitting in my drafts ever get accidentally sent . . email nuclear bomb!!).  So I have to remind myself that I have so many other interests and by exercise of discipline remember that they matter to me and then write about them.
  2. About graffiti in particular  – that’s two-fold.  As a blogger, I identify with the need to create, to express myself and I love the freedom to do it whenever and wherever I want.  In many ways blogs are the graffiti of literature.
  3. Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram are in many ways another form of graffiti.  A place where people can express themselves freely in a multitude of forms, without any particular training (or skill in a lot of cases!).   It has also occurred to me recently that FB has become the 21st century version of the ubiquitous “little black book” and perhaps in some trashier instances, the old “notches on the bedpost” – but then I’d be digressing into 1. above . . .so back to the discipline of writing about graffiti!

Wherever I go I seek  out graffiti both for the immediate visual gratification and also as a way to understand some of what’s going on at a very fundamental level in that city.   It’s the expression of those who have no other way to express themselves.  It’s bold, raw, often crude, in your face, but never dull.  You never see a vase of flowers sprayed onto a brick wall.    It is, by definition, the illicit defacement of public spaces.   One local municipality has said that the difference between art and graffiti is that art is done on property with the permission of the property owner, it is a creative and productive form of expression and that graffiti is an act of vandalism and a crime.   I think they have it all wrong. Graffiti is the art of the disenfranchised, who don’t have access to art programs, studios, materials more expensive than a can of spray paint.  It is art at its most basic, human and elemental.   Check out the work on FatCap if you are in doubt.

Some cities are setting aside specific walls or alleys for these street artists to display their work, although this goes against the very ethos of what graffiti is.  But it’s a place where the art form can find expression, without the artist fearing retribution or jail.   In Baltimore earlier this year I visited “Graffiti Alley” an ever-changing mural of art.  It was fascinating.

I have no idea how this was created, but that it is on the side of a brick wall was incredible.

There was even graffiti sculpture – welded iron gates made from found /salvaged objects at the entry to the alley.

There are a lot of angry people out there.  I have been schooled in too much civility, but it doesn’t mean there haven’t been times I wish I could do this.

Other cities have made genuine efforts to support and legitimize graffiti, which by its nature remains chaotic,  anonymous, illegitimate.  A well-known New Orleans artist sponsored a one-night graffiti event by convincing a local warehouse owner to donate the use of the walls for one night.  Here is a look at some of the work.  But it was one night.


And sometimes more traditional artists make “real” art out of someone else’s graffiti.  I shot these at a gallery in Chicago.

In my home town of Vancouver, a community policing group organized a program called Restart (restorative justice through art) to find a way to reach youth “offenders” who saw graffiti as a victimless crime, the city walls as a free canvas for their artistic expression.  The program has these young artists meeting with community members, older mentor artists and the police to help everyone involved understand the dynamics.

And we even have our own Graffiti Alley just of East Hastings.

Victimless crime?  Blight on the urban landscape?  Art in its rawest form?  Pure self-expression?  I’m not judging, just appreciating.

Three Days Grace have a new song out that is perfect for this post – Chalk Outline – but its way too emo, even for me!

How about some old school The Cure – Pictures of You.  Because it’s all in the pictures.


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