A renowned hip-hop poet and Graffiti artist friend of mine and I recently engaged into a drunken dinner-party debate/row over the ubiquitous tagging of public property going down in Durban.Tagging to my “mother-Grundy” mind, is a creatively hollow pastime appropriated and practised by bored “Banksy-befok” adolescents who like to think of themselves as “urban anarchists”.
The subject of our row was a local Durban tagger who had been recently trialed in court for 850 counts of tagging and now found himself slapped with a hefty prison sentence.
While I would not wish a prison sentence upon anyone, I would imagine that after 850 counts of tagging, one might decide to shift their lacklustre modes of rebellion in favour of a more effective means of urban commentary.
Time it would seem to grow up and move on.
“It’s not considered vandalism” my friend had argued, “if it doesn’t break or defeat the purpose of the object. Spraying something on a wall doesn’t destroy its function, the wall still stands. How can you tell me this is a punishable crime” he ranted, “when murderers and rapists in this country get off from their charges scott free?”
While (sub)urban hip-hoppers may consider it an “innocuous” and even “subversive” act, one must pity the grouchy local residents digging weekly into pensions for the buckets of paint to erase the offending marks from their walls.
Offering a refreshing and very welcome take on the contentious art form, is a group of ex Durban Vega Brand and Communications School students, who were inspired by the work of British street artist Paul Curtis (AKA “Moose”) who began pioneering his form ‘Green’ or ‘reverse Graffiti’ three years ago.
Curtis (legend has it) first hit upon the idea while working as a kitchen porter in a restaurant scrubbing mountains of pots and pans. One dreary evening while trying to erase a grease stain on the sink wall before him, he discovered he had cleaned a large white patch onto the grimy surface.
It didn’t take long before the aspirant street artist began conquering the cityscapes of London, applying his vigorous selective scrubbing to more prominent walls and bridges. (see 2 images below)
“I’m not the world’s biggest environmentalist” Curtis stated in a documentary focusing on his work “, but it’s impossible for me not to toe the environmental line. The whole core of what I do is based around drawing in pollution and writing in nature. Cities are really dirty places and I think my type of art draws attention to that.”
Curtis gradually scrubbed his way to fame using giant stencils and high-pressure water hoses to wash reverse images (mostly of trees and nature) onto soiled city surfaces.
In was an idea that Durbanite Martin Pace borrowed and adapted while rushing to meet a deadline for a final second-year creative project at VEGA.
Sighting a polluted free-way wall in Essex Terrace Westville as an experimental canvas and armed with a metal scrubbing brush (purchased at a local hardware store) Pace proceeded to hand-scrub the defiled 17 m wall with a pictorial time-line of Westville’s architecture.
It’s an impressive cleaning feat that sees higgledy-piggledy kraals and tents subsiding into Cape Dutch style houses and pointed cathedrals.
Encouraged by the success of his efforts and the mostly complimentry responses he recieved (“there will always be the one old hag”, he assures me, “who misinterprets our efforts as vandalism and tries to set the police on us.”), Pace united with fellow Vega students Stathi Kongianos, JP Jordaan and Nick Ferreira and began to tackle more ambitious city canvases.
Over the next few months the Dutch Ink clan had etched a florid set of trees into a Durban North wall, and later a mammoth Sardine Run (featuring a school of stencilled fish) darting across the surface of a city bridge.
It would of course defeat the object in employing such a benign artistic method to scrawl agro-urban city typography across sullied city surfaces, which is why Dutch Ink have wisely eschewed ‘angsty expletives’ in favour of depicting more organic and natural imagery in their murals.
Further encouraging aspects of the technique is that unlike graffiti, such etchings are ephemeral, gradually fading from the effects of time, sunshine and carbon grime.
While this sort of collective flash-mob scrubbing is often referred to as “Green Graffiti”, when I mention the term, Pace and his cronies begin to shift uncomfortably in their chairs.
“It’s more of an etching” He corrects me, “or green tagging, but even tagging comes with its own set of territorial connotations which we’d like to avoid.”
Whatever you may term it, there is nothing, it seems, illegal about the technique. One cant really be accused of vandalism when all they have done is set out to wash (albeit selectively) a mucky city wall!
It’s not hard to imagine the absurd Monty Pythonesque trial that might ensue should the artists ever be brought to book.
The judge suppressing a snigger, as he cranes forward and declares: “We hereby imprison you all for the er…. unlawful selective-cleaning of city property.”
“That’s the beauty of the whole project” says Pace chuckling maniacally at the thought. “We have had council guys in police cars stop us in the middle of the day while we are working and asking us if we have been commissioned to do this and when we answered no, they gave us thumbs up and said keep doing what you are doing.”
“Our work” he adds, “merely highlights how siff (a derivative of the word syphilis and popular Durban colloquialism for ‘disgusting’) these city walls are.”
While law enforcers and municipalities have no legal grounds to stop reverse graffiti they are, it seems, overly eager to eliminate evidence of their neglect by swiftly painting over the murals.
Ironically, such actions makes these walls ideal targets for taggers to leave more permanent stains.
“The art on the walls draws attention to their states of neglect” confirms Pace. “Municipalities don’t recognise the worth of our art and simply end up painting over them. Of course a concrete wall is porous, so the enamel of spray paint doesn’t take so well but white-paint on the other hand just seals it. So really they just shoot themselves in the foot every time they decide to remove of our pain-staking scrubbings.”
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