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Julia Mendel is ready to give a spray to those who question the relevance of tagging becoming graffiti becoming street art becoming art…
King Sisyphus of Ephyra was punished by the Father of the Greek Gods, Zeus, for chronic deceitfulness, fated to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. Just as he would get to the top, Sisyphus would lose control and the boulder would roll back down to the bottom and he would have to start again.
His story has been interpreted in many ways – Sisyphus is the sun rising and setting each day; he is man’s never-ending quest for knowledge; to the author Albert Camus he is the embodiment of human life in all its absurdity.
Today, Sisyphus is the graffiti writer.
Summarising the futility of this predicament is the Beastman and Numskull mural in Sydney’s Foveaux Street, which reads ‘They keep painting, we keep painting.’
Ironically, this piece was created legally. The phrase foretells the fortune of most scrawled tags, sprayed fills and stickers stuck, all too soon to be removed or covered over by council workers.
While the task of removal somehow mirrors the predicament of the writers, the difference lies in the self-motivated sense of purpose in spite of the inevitable eradication.
Graffiti’s absurdist nature extends to the tired debate of legal as opposed to illegal. Formally termed ‘street art’ if created with prior permission, and graffiti if not, this line is blurred by the deliberate decision of many graffiti writers to straddle the definition. Two thousand and eleven was a great year for legitimising graffiti in the mainstream in Australia with legal projects such as Sydney’s Outpost Street Art Festival and the National Gallery of Australia’s Space Invaders exhibition. As well as these events the city of Melbourne is a great supporter of legal graffiti with its street art permits process, which adopts the evolving aesthetic of spray-paint, stickers and paste-ups as part of the city’s visual appeal. Despite these initiatives however, graffiti is firmly rooted in the margins due to the unavoidably bedrock of the subculture; that is its illegality.
Epitomising the sheer nonsense of these distinctions is the case of Barry McGee, an American street artist who held a major retrospective last year at the Berkeley Art Museum. In 2011 he was commissioned by the Sydney City Council to paint a wall along Tank Steam Way as a part of the Art and About Festival. Instead of drawing on his more accessible style of characters and sign painting, McGee covered the wall in sprayed red tags. Gail Minnerva, the director of Art and About, stood by McGee’s piece, however what he did with the wall was marked by controversy and deemed vandalism by critics.
While there is a growing acceptance of street art and, to a lesser extent, graffiti in Australia, graffiti writers love to tag. This is undeniably about getting your name up, marking a spot and not giving a damn, as opposed to fills or pieces, which are more elaborate and time consuming. Tagging is often arrogant, thoughtless and ugly. The flip side to this is that graffiti is an engagement with one’s surroundings, spontaneous, participatory and reactionary. Tagging can also be beautiful. It is a sign of life uncensored until it is buffed.
Termed antisocial by many, it is an undeniable hallmark of urban culture.
Recognised by galleries and museums all over the world and sold into private collections, graffiti writers have been called artists. Importantly, they puncture this art world bubble, specifically in relation to the commodification of art and the sense of reverence that often surrounds artists and their works. This can be attributed to the fact that graffiti has risen separate to the art market and art institutions, forever in the margins due to its divisive nature. The anonymity achieved through monikers, the unsanctioned use of public spaces and the acknowledgement of the brief lifespan of a piece or tag makes it what it is.
Of course, there are many different motivations for this practice, which include contributing to the street art cannon, getting your name recognised or simply the belief that a blank wall is bettered by spray paint. Aside for these reasons however, in its fleeting display to the public graffiti is, in a way, more art than…well, art.
So, with the disclosure of graffiti’s absurdist nature, we have arrived at Camus’ final realisation. While Sisyphus represents man’s existence, futilely trying to make meaning in an unreasonable world, the acknowledgement of this predicament produces a sense of bliss and liberty.
In embracing the unreasonable we are gifted with revolt, freedom and passion. And in keeping with this theme of the absurd, perhaps graffiti is the secret to happiness, world peace and enlightenment.