Keith Vlahakis, We the People piece outside the drawing romm cafe, Observatory Cape Town, Saffari.

Word off the Street

Ok, ok, so this academic, Alex Kataras has some interesting views on what gets graff artists ticking and “the role of advertising, propaganda and graffiti art” in shaping the collective consciousness of a society. It’s a pretty heavy read, so here’s a condensed version, infused with what I’ve learnt on the street so far.

Alex starts by explaining how advertising’s goal is no longer to simply sell you a single product, but instead it “plays a major role in the formation of one’s self.” They explain this using very complex ideas along the lines of; you become what you see but in a phenomenological way. Which is to say, not as a direct result of the material at hand, but rather as a result of the interaction between what you see and how you think about yourself in relation to it. Citing those who create media, which intends to influence, such as advertising and propaganda, employ strong cultural signifiers and symbols, which are used to evoke emotion in the viewer. Thus using and shifting the values instilled within us, to suit their own ends. “Advertising is like propaganda, because it makes itself ubiquitous, while the message it carries is one that has been born out of ulterior motives by people who want to make money and maintain the status quo. Alongside the news, advertising is a tool that shapes public opinion.” The details of how are not central to the topic at hand. But you can check out the dissertation at the bottom of the article if that’s what gets you going. The whole point here is – Our environment has an effect on us, that is far from negligible. 

Now we needn’t look much further than the mega-famous of the graffiti world, to find the culture’s opinion on mass media advertising. Take Banksy for example. His rant on advertisers, fittingly moulded into the shape of a coke bottle, is a strong indictment on the way the world is organised to place adverts into your sphere of perception while hiding behind a host of law and regulation to protect their brand from misappropriation. In Banky’s own words “F*ck that.” Do yourself a favour and check the whole thing out.

Alex draws similarities between the art form as we now know it and the environment from whence it spawned. (More on that now now), Being New York City circa 1970. Being the world’s most media dense city. They propose that, “the main agenda of a graffiti artist is exposure by means of guerrilla tactics,” which is not much of a stretch. They then go on to say that “essentially, one can argue, graffiti and advertising are the same ball game, only difference being the league they are in.” The only contention I can muster to this is; It is not from the standpoint from the below-mentioned fame lust but rather for share of consciousness if you will, through share of attention. At least this is the case for the puritans amongst writers. Others, well, it is all about the props – Read: fame. 

Alex then gets into what it is that spurs someone to begin a life of crime if the motivation isn’t money, as is the case with graffiti – because as it turns out, cans are hella expenny. They go about unpacking this by quoting Manco –  author of Stencil Graffiti (2002) – saying:  “Graffiti street signs and logos become a symbol of individuality, fulfilling man’s basic urge to leave a trace on the world” and McDonald – being the author of The Graffiti Subculture (2001): “Fame, respect and status are not naturally evolving by-products of this subculture, they are its sole reason for being, and a writer’s sole reason for being here.” As far as my street game has come, this seems to be at least partly true, although it’s rather broad and bold to suggest that it is the sole reason for the existence of the subculture, with many writers not signing character pieces or bits of protest. 

Sure, they are still building a “brand” through their style, but this is only a choice to a certain degree. Leaving a bit of wiggle room in these guys’, and thus Alex’s hypotheses, no matter how certain they sound. In fact, Manaco later goes on to say “Reclaiming the city space is often seen by graffiti artists as their main mission, either as a reaction against consumerist advertising or a need to make a personal mark on their environment.” Which is a far fairer statement. Monaco substantiates this with “Graffiti has always been the voice of the underdog, whether on trains in New York, as stencils, tags or simple slogans.” 

They follow this up with a very wordy version of, you bloody losers are a product of the very thing you’re fighting. To which I reply – sure mate, we usually are, that’s why we pick the battles that we do – speaking in a broad sense about sub-culture and its propensity to be reactionary. Which they get around to agreeing with by saying; “Graffiti is advertising for the disenfranchised… It’s subverted advertising by the ‘masses‘; a response to the establishment that propaganda cannot only be used by the dominant elite to promote its capitalist agenda, but by ordinary folk too.”

What is also fair to say is that; “The nature of graffiti means that public space is reclaimed for the purpose of creating art that is not meant to be there; it isn’t sanctioned by any governing body, and evidently not by the owners of the vandalised property.” In opposition to this, there seem to be some unspoken rules – depending on who you speak to, that run contrary to this – particularly to which property is fair game and which is not. The roots of graffiti, however, do run deep in the dark underground, this is unavoidable. But Alex does go on to shine a slightly more rosy light on the art form by stating. “One can draw a useful parallel [between], with the evolving democratisation of information, through the advent of the internet and most importantly open-source information, and the democratisation of art, as it were. Graffiti is free, no entry fee is required to view it.”

Alex then goes on to describe the apparent trajectory of the scene. 

“Politics and morality seem to be more central in the ‘new school‘ artist’s agenda. Social, political, economical and environmental issues have taken centre stage in the past decade that have moulded a new reality; a ‘new world order‘ as it were.” Which is personally a keystone reason as to why we’ve decided to have a good long look at this culture. Another reason is the temporary nature of the art. One thing that stood out in the dissertation was the word ephemera, which is something that exists, is used, or enjoyed for a short time. It stands out because the illicit nature of the art leads to it being scrubbed, often almost as soon as it is created. Alex goes on to say. “What better tool to use for instant art than the spray can, its use rendered obsolete as soon as the paint inside runs out; disposable tools for disposable art.” Which is perfect, without the change the art would soon become a blasé patch of colour void of the meaning that inspired it in the first place, at least in the case of protest.

The glaring point that concerns disposable tools and the like, is that of ecological impact. One of which all the writers and artists, I’ve met with thus far, indicate they’re well aware of, but have yet to find a solution to. They see it as a secondary concern. No matter how pertinent in their day to day lives, secondary in reference to their art. Given that there is little they can do to correct for this, other than seize their art altogether. 

In closing here’s a snippet from the concluding paragraph of Alex’s dissertation.

“I looked into the way graffiti developed as a tool for the marginalised sector to make its voice heard, by appropriating the elite’s mouthpiece: propaganda, or as some people might call it; advertising. Having looked at all this evidence, and joining the dots together I can only come to the conclusion that graffiti art is the logical progression of art. A combination of art, popular culture and the guiding principle of advertising which is omnipresent… The one thing that remains clear is that graffiti is a potent tool.”


Alex Kataras: Advertising, Propoganda and Graffiti Art

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