Neil Coppen

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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.”

©Neil Coppen
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posted under Uncategorized, articles
31 Comments to


  1. On March 10th, 2010 at 6:46 pm Roger WHiting Says:

    The whole idea of scrubbing art is very beautiful…Not sure if there’s anywhere near me that would be grimy enough…

  2. On March 10th, 2010 at 6:59 pm ryan Says:

    Interesting piece, especially the bit about the tagger who was given a jail sentence. Tried doing a google search but couldn’t find anything. could you perhaps shed some light on what happened.

  3. On March 11th, 2010 at 1:21 am REVERSE GRAFFITI: South African Artists Tag Walls By Scrubbing Them Clean | Style of Design Says:

    […] about it here and here before – but awesome examples of it keep popping up. Case in point: one band of students in Durban, South Africa who’ve been gracing spaces with works of the subversive street art form in their […]

  4. On March 11th, 2010 at 4:00 am C. Tucker Says:

    I’m going to print this out and give it to my little graffiti friend tomorrow in art class. See i fight for legal street art walls and promoting graffiti as a legal and respectable art form. He tags and goes out bombing with friends all the time. I hate that he does that because he’s not to anything to help the situation. This, on the other hand, is beautiful and amazing. Street arts don’t have to live in fear if they do this. Great job guys.

  5. On March 11th, 2010 at 7:06 pm Bending Rules with Reverse Graffiti | Great Green Design Says:

    […] BEAUTY: 10 This band of students has created a whole series of murals in Durban & London, creating a Vega-like street art […]

  6. On March 12th, 2010 at 2:20 am REVERSE GRAFFITI: South African Artists Tag Walls By Scrubbing Them Clean | Blog do Leo Suganuma Says:

    […] about it here and here before – but awesome examples of it keep popping up. Case in point: one band of students in Durban, South Africa who’ve been gracing spaces with works of the subversive street art form in their […]

  7. On March 12th, 2010 at 6:53 pm Bronwyn Lace Says:


    I’m loving the site and your words - well done friend and keep going!


  8. On March 13th, 2010 at 6:02 am Bloggery Gone Awry » A Gorgeous Example of "Reverse Graffiti" in Durban, South Africa Says:

    […] To see more photos and to learn more about the full piece, click here. […]

  9. On March 13th, 2010 at 8:40 am A great way to clean dirty walls – South African artists tag walls « Anuj Choudhary Says:

    […] about it here and here before – but awesome examples of it keep popping up. Case in point: one band of students in Durban, South Africa who’ve been gracing spaces with works of the subversive street art form in their […]

  10. On March 15th, 2010 at 6:33 am Reverse Graffiti – scrubbing walls clean for design « Seeing Things Differently Says:

    […] about it hereand here before – but awesome examples of it keep popping up. Case in point: one band of students in Durban, South Africa who’ve been gracing spaces with works of the subversive street art form in their […]

  11. On March 15th, 2010 at 10:40 am Catherine J. Cruz Says:

    this is amazing. the fact that this takes so much more work, yet is just as easily taken away as those who just “put up” for the sake of getting their names on a wall. it’s funny how different people see art…hope this catches on though…w/o being discouraged…i’d sure like to see this view more than the undeserving tagged up murals on the L.A. freeways. those commissioned works were so nice. i’m glad i saw it before it was trashed though. i wish those taggers saw the art on those walls too, but i guess everyone has different points of views and priorities. my 2 cents. :) great post!

  12. On March 15th, 2010 at 10:54 am Reverse graffiti en Afrique du Sud. « A Slower Blog Says:

    […] Pour plus d’infos, vous pouvez visiter la présentation du Reverse Graffiti, ainsi que le blog Neil Coppen. […]

  13. On March 15th, 2010 at 10:59 am Julien CORDELLE Says:

    Hey Neil.
    I already know Reverse Graffiti and I really love this movement.
    I just discovered your work, and I really like it.
    those trees and animals (fishes) bring some nature into the city, that’s nice.

    My french blog speaks about you and encourage your work.


  14. On March 16th, 2010 at 7:27 pm TheFourthEstate Says:

    Hey! Look! More reverse graffitti! On the same bridge as the fish, except now there’s bird aswell! Wow! Go check it out!

  15. On March 19th, 2010 at 6:35 pm Reverse Graffiti : The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts Says:

    […] About | Neil Coppen. […]

  16. On March 19th, 2010 at 8:46 pm ishkuR Says:

    like this

  17. On March 20th, 2010 at 1:16 am Is it art or graffiti? (Urban Art) - Tilted Forum Project Discussion Community Says:

    […] a link to an article and a couple of examples, and the article in whole printed below as well. About | Neil Coppen […]

  18. On April 7th, 2010 at 5:01 am 汚れをゴシゴシこすって絵にしちゃう、逆発想のらくがきアート「SCRUBBERS」 | グリーンズ Says:

    […] Paceらのプロジェクト「SCRUBBERS」が制作した「Reverse Graffiti(逆らくがき)」の作品だ。 Copyright (c) 2010 Neil […]

  19. On May 14th, 2010 at 3:45 pm Nick Says:

    Check out more on!

  20. On May 17th, 2010 at 2:07 pm GorillaMan Says:

    We do reverse graffiti on a professional basis and have done campaigns for the police.. Check out our reverse graffiti marketing for examples of our work.

  21. On July 21st, 2010 at 9:14 am Реверс граффити /  В мире позитива Says:

    […] группа студентов из Дурбана (Южная Африка) решила высказать свой […]

  22. On August 15th, 2010 at 7:05 pm Liesl Says:

    I love what you’re doing - keep it up and ignore the old hags!

  23. On August 16th, 2010 at 10:15 am Sandor Oroszi Says:

    Screw the prison sentences.
    I say IF punishment is to be dished out, then make the guy pay for the paint or cleaning materials, and then make him cover up or remove his artwork. That I believe is punishment in itself. Graffiti is a powerful artform. Cutivate it by giving the artists a legitimate canvas, and perhaps, “some” boundaries to work within, like nothing offensive, sexually explicit, etc.
    Although I do believe some would use this artform as a political “soap box”.
    Big-it-up to the artists.

  24. On October 1st, 2010 at 8:37 am jenine Says:

    Amazing - how stunning! I didn’t see you after Tree Boy at Hilton this year - but I just LOVED - an amazing piece of work.

  25. On January 1st, 2011 at 12:26 pm Canelle Friis Says:

    Thank you Neil, for this greatly informative and interesting article. I have just phoned to tell you, but think it worth repeating: THIS BLOG IS FABULOUS! Lots of love… .

  26. On April 9th, 2011 at 4:32 pm Reverse Graffiti | Bravdesign Says:

    […] contributing for a more sustainable world while painting your city’s dirty walls. A group of South African students have started quite the amazing flash mob movement. Inspired by the works of Paul Curtis (pictured […]

  27. On July 23rd, 2011 at 11:27 pm Dutch Ink – Reverse Graffiti | Mooki Says:

    […] and when we answered no, they gave us thumbs up and said keep doing what you are doing.” (Via Neil Coppen and Wooster […]

  28. On August 17th, 2011 at 2:02 pm Los Grafitis Verdes | descontamina Blog Says:

    […] variante ecológica tiene otra ventaja, no se puede multar a nadie por limpiar las paredes. Vía iaminawe.comVisto en También Te Puede Interesar:Estadios Verdes En La Copa Del Mundo […]

  29. On August 19th, 2011 at 12:26 am Revel » Los grafitis inversos o grafitis verdes Says:

    […] variante ecológica tiene otra ventaja, no se puede multar a nadie por limpiar las paredes. Via: Share and […]

  30. On January 19th, 2012 at 9:12 am jep Says:


  31. On May 10th, 2012 at 9:56 am Reverse Graffiti – Cleaning Not Staining | Says:

    […] dirt. Using stencils. Water. And scrubbing brushes. British “reverse graffiti “artist Paul Curtis. Aka moose. Comments on runaway consumerism. And shows us how dirty we really are. Curtis’s […]

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