Graffiti Art

by, Susanne Schaefer-Wiery

One question should be put right at the beginning: Does one impart Graffiti with an additional right of existence when they become associated with art? Does one try to raise their value, as it were? As I am of the opinion that Graffiti do not need this support, and that both their form and their content constitute an independent medium, the following approach deals with the depiction of those elements of design that are relevant to Graffiti, as well as, in the chapter “Graffiti in the picture”, with the adoption of one genre by another. We shall have to consider two essential formalistic factors of a “picture”, namely the canvas on the one hand, and the material, i.e. walls and paint, on the other hand.
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One question should be put right at the beginning: Does one impart Graffiti with an additional right of existence when they become associated with art? Does one try to raise their value, as it were? As I am of the opinion that Graffiti do not need this support, and that both their form and their content constitute an independent medium, the following approach deals with the depiction of those elements of design that are relevant to Graffiti, as well as, in the chapter “Graffiti in the picture”, with the adoption of one genre by another. We shall have to consider two essential formalistic factors of a “picture”, namely the canvas on the one hand, and the material, i.e. walls and paint, on the other hand.

The wall

The German word “Wand” (wall), from Old High German “want”, is connected to the verb “winden” (to wind), thus meaning “something wound”, or also “something woven” as walls originally used to be woven. The word “Mauer” (also meaning wall) on the other hand, “mura” in Old High German, derives from Latin “murus” (wall, rampart) and was adopted at a very early age together with various other vocabulary items connected with the stone-buildings of the ancient Romans (cf. “fenster” (window) from Latin “fenestra”; “Ziegel” (brick) from Latin “tegula” etc.). Analogously to the German word “Wand”, the loan word “Mauer” changed its grammatical gender. In modern German there is no differentiation between the two words,

at least not in their everyday usage. The figurative use of the related verb “untermauern” means to support or to corroborate arguments by the means of convincing proof. Similarly, the verb “mauern” has a special meaning in the language of gamblers, signifying “to gamble carefully, in an over-careful manner”. In this instance the word may have merged with the Yiddish word “mora” (fear, anxiety). Similarly, “eine Mauer bilden” (literally, “to form a wall”) means to fortify oneself. In his “about painting” Leonardo da Vinci encouraged his students to develop a new “way of seeing” through the observation of walls (Stahl, Johannes, An der Wand. Graffiti zwischen Anarchie und Galerie. Köln 1989. S.137). He pointed out associations and interpretations that arise through observation of natural a well as artificially modified changes.

Walls have various functions:

safety and shelter from coldness, intruders and unwelcome observation: Apart from this private need, they also serve those in power to demarcate their territory and thus to impose law and order. One thinks of the Chinese or the Berlin Wall. Similarly, a wall can also be meant to ward off Time, which is, as we all know, not possible. To write on or sign these walls therefore draws domination into question.

a possibility to impart knowledge: After all, the wall was originally meant as a medium to convey information, which is perpetuated by Graffiti and posters. The Ancient Greeks and Romans considered the ornamentation of walls with paintings and calligraphy as an important and highly regarded occupation. In modern times the ruling powers endeavoured to curb “wild” engraving and placarding, especially “unwanted effects”. In the 19th century the invention of a man called Litfaß, “Litfaßsäulen” (the German term for “advertising pillars”) was used. It was thought that this might constitute a way to channel the use of free surfaces.

prisonwalls: The sheltering function of walls can change. It can denote enclosure and imprisonment. Felix Nußbaum’s self-portrait “Selbstbildnis mit Judenpaß” of 1943 clearly depicts this negative definition of walls. Nußbaum, born in 1904 in Osnabrück and murdered in 1944 in Auschwitz, is a representative of the “neuen Sachlichkeit” (new Realism). The wall in his picture signifies the end of all hope of a possible liberation. It fills the greater part of the picture; the painter is standing in front of it, waiting for the end of his life. The painting is part of a long-standing tradition of pictures depicting executions taking place in front of walls, i.e. pictorial presentations of the “standing-against-the-wall”, such as Goya’s “Erschießung der Aufständischen am 3. Mai 1880 in Madrid” or Manet’s “Erschießung Kaiser Maximilians von Mexiko”.

The function and history of mural painting

Mural painting is the purest form of painting in that it is principally disinterested. It is made for the public, for the people. As a result it is often misused by those political regimes that ostensibly promote a “class-less” society. The so called “Bible for the poor” on the walls of medieval churches a well as the 20th century slogans of marxists or national socialists exemplify an important function of mural painting, which depends on its function as a conveyer of information.

This is 1. the approbation of mural painting as an element of generating political opinions, regardless if it refers to the Murals of ethnic minorities such as the Chinese groups in the Chinatown in New York and the Graffiti on the Berlin Wall, or to critique on city planning. Some forms of mural painting are still reminiscent of the social realism of the early East bloc. One example is the Black Power wall in Chicago.

2. The ornamental function of mural painting: Especially fire-protection walls are frequently used to paint illusions, which are also often three-dimensional; and it has now become modern to use hoardings and the coverings of house-fronts as a medium to convey pictures, just as they had already been deployed by Keith Haring in 1986 in New York and Japan.

3. mural painting as a form of advertising: Especially in the course of the last couple of years a nostalgic reinvention of mural painting as an advertising medium has taken place, and frequently (and particularly in the advertising of washing powder) old motifs are used again. Gustav Wunderwald’s “Auf der Landsberger Straße” (“On Landsberger Street”) of 1928 is a very good example. It is necessary for the understanding of such a picture to gain access to a “society of signs”, a society that communicates via logos and signs. And Wunderwald does not forget one sign that is already nearly 2000 years old and generally well known, the cross used by Christian churches.

4. Mural painting also holds a magical function, which is predominantly connected to writing. One thinks of the Menetekel-function in the story of Belsazar in the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel, in which the king of Babylon is confronted with a suddenly appearing, to whom indecipherable writing on the wall.

The production of Pieces stands in a similar relationship to the traditional form of mural painting as scratching and engraving to traditional Sgraffiti-techniques. Most of the large and generally colourful pictures, which form a subgroup of contemporary Graffiti, can be seen within the tradition of mural paintings, which constitutes a part of Art History, even though choice of surfaces is no longer restricted to walls, but all other wall-like surfaces can be used. The spectrum of wall-surfaces has particularly expanded as a result of the development and variety of public transport systems and public institutions such as stations.

One decisive highlight of mural painting were Giotto in the Italian Quattrocento (cf. Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua, 1303-1305, as Giotto’s most extensive and most important work) and, a century later, Brancacci in the church Santa Maria del Carmina (1424-27), which heralded Renaissance painting. The “buon fresco” had been created. Throughout the Middle Ages religious and secular motifs alternated, which gave rise to what are nowadays regarded as astonishing curiosities such as the depiction of the Tristan-cycle in a nunnery. The Neidhard-cycle in Tuchlauben, Vienna, (around 1400) is a particularly beautiful example of medieval mural painting. Carpets constituted another favoured medium, which replaced mural paintings and, at the same time, served a practical purpose, i.e. protection from cold. The very well preserved mural paintings in the buildings of Pompeii form a particular highlight. Pompeii is, in fact, a decisive founding site for historical Graffiti-research. On the one hand, there are so-called “alba”, precursors of posters, which form a close connection to Graffiti, and which nowadays even serve to encourage the production of Graffiti. Such an album was a white board on which public as well as personal messages were written in red or black letters. In Pompeii all walls were inscribed:

The people of Pompeii loved inscriptions and produced them everywhere as long as it was somehow possible to do so. […] These greetings and well wishing were written with coals or a paint-brush, engraved onto the walls with a small stiletto or a chisel, or composed of little mosaic-pieces on the floor. (Massa, Aldo. Pompeii. Geneva 1972. p. 89; in translation)

Nowadays Graffiti are eradicated without any consideration of their value – even if such a differentiation were appropriate. If one had only destroyed one single inscription in Pompeii, Venus’s wrath would certainly have come upon the destroyer. However, there was one technique which it would be worthwhile to consider adopting today: When the owner of a house marked its walls with the sign of two snakes, this was to tell the “Writers” not to write on these walls. (Massa.Pompeii, p.94) What a simple method – what decisive results!

But the true origin of mural painting lies in prehistoric times, surfacing as engraved stone pictures and as extensive, relief-like mural paintings. There are also some paintings made on non-stationary media such as on stones or tools. Pictures on rock can be found on sheltered surfaces, i.e. in caves or under precipices. The paintings in Altamira and Lascaux, depicting highly expressive and realistic pictures of animals, are particularly famous. It is a matter of conjecture to what extent these depictions are invested with magical or ritual meaning, i.e. in what way they signify endeavours to impose control over evil or the animal; to what extent they narrate everyday stories; or whether their function is purely ornamental. Even though relatively much has been discovered about the lives of prehistoric man, especially about ways of hunting and food habits, there is hardly anything known about his beliefs. Only when design is recognisable in the various depictions, i.e. when visible nature is modified in favour of its mental representation, interpretation becomes possible. However, even then the viewer encounters the problem that he has to recognise this modified nature even from his own viewpoint. In addition, it has been shown that the theory posing that older pictures are more primitive than later ones cannot be validated. Pictures painted on rock are generally made with coal, which makes it possible to use the C-14-method in order to date them, even back 60 000 years. At times the mouth was used as a spraying-device: Coal or manganic oxide used to be chewed; and thus an early form of stencil-Graffiti evolved: in most cases hands were positioned against the wall; and then one ’sprayed’ around them. As manganic oxide is poisonous and can induce trance-like effects, it has been thought that these paintings might have been part of religious ceremonies. Historic mural paintings are part of all cultures, even though they are not all the result of the same intention (e.g. Egyptian mural paintings in tombs, which were meant to serve the dead) nor are they all still preserved (e.g. Greek mural paintings are predominantly known from ancient reports).

On the treatment of the material

Every artist chooses his or her own material and techniques. Frequently it is the material in itself that prompts a specific technique, i.e. it can demand such special techniques as well as conceptualisations. “Technique” derives from Greek “techne” meaning art. We shall now consider the materials that can be chosen by a painter; and this is the group that interests us in connection to Graffiti: First of all there is paint. Even though the choice of water-colour, acrylic paint, tempera etc. may be available to the artist, street-art demands paint that defies rain and wind. Spray tins, i.e. lacquer, are consequently the most apposite choice. There are, of course, Graffitists that make use of other materials. Indoors, i.e. for instance on toilets, choice of paint does not necessarily present a central problem; the use of (felt-)pens or pencils might be equally satisfactory. Choice of material is also a question of the size of the Graffito – the spray tin is a particularly well suited for large Graffiti as the spray caps can be exchanged. “Fat caps”, i.e. caps creating very thick streams, make the creation of particularly large pictures as well as a sometimes necessarily swift procedure possible. However, paint does not have to be applied with a brush or a scraper, but can simply spread over the picture. It can be emptied over the surface, running down according to the laws of gravity. Artists such as Morris Louis and Jackson Pollock as well as the 50s and 60s in general should be mentioned in this context. One speaks of a so-called “Staining- and Dripping-technique”. In the production of Graffiti drips are also used as a consciously chosen design; disregarding the fact that first spraying-attempts are usually accompanied by drips. Smooth surfaces make it increasingly difficult to avoid drips (cf. Krips and Mazurka). Apart from paint, it is the surface that determines the conceptualisation. It can be rough and irregular, like any house front. The applying of various layers can generate a three-dimensional impression – one can find this effect, for instance, in the works of Paul Klee, who also puts rags of cloth on his surfaces, which tend to relativise the sense of space.

The so-called “art brut” with it main representative Dubuffet forms the closest connection to the Sgraffito-technique. Dubuffet (1901-1985) starts with a rough surface. Plaster and sand are added; and then he commences to “paint” in that he scratches the material. The language of his pictures is as rough as his material – reminiscent of children’s drawings, rough and full of energy. In about 1923, when he was in the army, he started to collect the artistic works of children, mentally handicapped people, and of amateurs. In 1947 he opened a gallery in Paris, the Foyer de l’art brut, in which these works were exhibited. He also completed studies on them, the most prominent topic being his preference of the vitality expressed by the exhibits over conventional “arts culturelles”. Thus he started to incorporate this so-called “art brut” into his own style. Especially inscriptions on the walls of Paris were used as basic formulae or forms of inspiration.

Material that puts up resistance such as wood and especially metal invites scratching, grinding, or whetting. The medium is hurt, destroyed. Thus it is freed from its subordinate role: it becomes an intricate part of the picture. This method, which leads us back to the beginning, i.e. back to the Sgraffito-technique, is part of the so-called “scratching” of contemporary Graffiti-methods. Engraving and indenting are actions that attack an object. The material is “destroyed” by an aggressive intellectual action. Writing developed in this way: the spirit invades the material, the word is inscribed into clay. These inscriptions are thus Graffiti with a very long tradition, which date far back into prehistoric times, and primarily become manifest as prisoner- or remembrance-Graffiti.

I would like to mention one final possibility of using Graffiti-correspondences, which I would define as a form of “playing with the material”. Representatives of Futurism, in particular Carlo Carrà , started to work everyday materials such as scraps of newspaper, cards, ribbons etc. into their art. The Futuristic artist wants to present the speed of modern life, its urbanity, the prevalence of science and progress, in his work, i.e. modern existence at the beginning of this century. Even though the presentation as a whole is conventional, as it is, after all, a form of still-life, it is nevertheless eccentric in its technique. It is the so-called collage, which emphasises the idea of fragmentation. A certain treatment of posters constitutes one possibility to create collages in the open. Within the use of Graffiti in the original sense collages may evolve out of a specific relationship to their surroundings such as signs, inscriptions etc. or architecture, or may be deployed on purpose.

Carlo Carrà (1881-1966) was one painter who integrated Graffiti into his work. After 1915 Carrà , who had at first been a member of the Futurists (and had signed the manifesto in 1910), became together with Giorgio de Chirico one of the main representatives of the so-called “pittura metafisica”, which strove to capture the atmosphere of a room by depicting extraordinary objects or combinations within the picture. Later Carrà came to endorse a form of neo-classicism. What was essential in this context was the integration of language into the picture, which was, however, not new, as the cubists had already used it.

The picture is to be a form of “text”. What is very important for the Futurists is the impact of new media of communication, transport, and information on the human psyche, which demand that all the various manifestations of life are captured in order to convey one single complete realisation of reality, which simultaneously posits the viewer right in the centre of the picture. It is the picture’s purpose to represent dynamics. The keywords are movement, simultaneity, speed, and penetration.

Tags and signature:

Joseph Beuys: “Auch wenn ich meinen Namen schreibe, zeichne ich.” (“Even when I’m writing, I’m drawing.”)

An artist sets his mark (Latin “signare”, “to mark with a sign, to seal, to sign”) and thereby affirms the “authorship” of his work of art, his copyright, genius. He is the asserted author; and everyone is to see and read this assertion. Who does not know a form of playing with one’s own name – no matter whether it is engraved onto trees or written over the pages of schoolbooks. A name constitutes the definition of a single identity, a chance-product perhaps, an amalgam, hold together by ancestors, but also associated with something familiar. A name imbues a thing, a person, with its actual right to exist. Or would you like to be Nowhereman in Nowhereland? Especially in today’s anonymity and urban culture a name, a signature, makes a decisive comment on our personality. Just consider certificates, contracts, financial transactions. Throughout centuries it had been prohibited to utter certain names; others had to be worshipped; others still are now unthinkable without the icons that lie behind them: Diana, for instance, or Picasso, Max and Moritz…

We all know that the history of signatures was a very turbulent one. In ancient times they were a matter of course, especially the additional phrase “he has made it” in the context of antique paintings on Greek pottery. They disappeared in the early Middle Ages (apart from masons and stone-cutters). The medieval artist was seen as an anonymous craftsman, not as an individual creator. The rise of humanism and the concomitant increasing significance of merchandise as well as a new awareness of the self changed this attitude. The panel painting of the Renaissance was no longer restricted to altar-pieces. The artist did not necessarily live where he worked, or where his work went. A signature became a way of preventing imitation, and is therefore also often followed by “fecit” (analogous to the Greek version: “he has made it”) or “pixit” (’he has painted it”). The transportability of the picture changed the significance of signatures. Raffael, for instance, signed those pictures that were intended for his native Urbino with “Raffael”, but all others with “Raffael da Urbino”.

This connection of a name and a place is still frequently used today, as the works of by now famous Writers in New York clearly depict: Taki 183, Junior 161, i.e. name and street. Graffiti-signatures as tags or styles, which imply no legal acknowledgement, but simply assert their creators’ existence, are in themselves a picture, or are often juxtaposed with a small “associated picture”, a “character”. These Graffiti-signatures are as closely integrated into the architecture that conveys them as the, in various areas identical, logo-culture on our house-fronts. This logo-culture, drowning us in all respects, is primarily represented by pictures made by the neuen Sachlichkeit, i.e. at a time in which the phenomenon “metropolis” had a particular significance.

Signature and architecture are often united. Window sills and cornices serve to emphasise the artist’s name as if it were chiselled.

The placing of a signature within the picture also serves to convey a special relationship between the artist and his sujet. A particularly good example of this transfer of the name into a higher, more personal, sphere, in this case one of human interrelationships, is Goya’s “Portrait der Herzogin von Alba”. One has to take the passionate relationship between artist and model, which ended in 1797, into consideration. The two words “Solo Goya” written into the sand at the feet of the Countess, who points at them with an imperialist gesture, juxtaposed with the two rings, Goya and Alba, allow for various interpretations. It is difficult to say whether it is meant as a dedication, a signature, a wish, an assertion or a demand. Does he feel trodden on, or has he thrown himself to her feet? Does he try to tell us that love is as ephemeral as a Graffito in the sand? We shall never know, but what we do know is that the word “Solo” was painted over in the second version – it was only discovered in 1960 – so that the remaining word “Goya” gained additional importance as a signature.

Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini-Hochzeit” of 1434 is a much older example. It is a double-painting without title, which is now in the National Gallery, London. The bed, the one burning candle, the bridegroom’s raised hand, the shoe-less feet, which show that one treads the floor of a room in which something sacred is taking place – all that marks a moment charged with an extremely solemn atmosphere. And so it is, as the picture depicts the wedding of Giovanni Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, and Giovanna Cenami, also of a family of Italian merchants. They married in 1434 in Bruges. A convex mirror in the background shows the witnesses to the marriage. A dog, symbolising faithfulness, stands close to them. It was not unusual in 15th Flanders that weddings took place within private spheres rather than in churches. Just above the mirror there is an inscription saying “Joh. v. Eyck fuit hic”, meaning that he, too, was present. This raises the question whether it is merely his signature, a form of playing with his name. But as its central position and the solemnity of the atmosphere render this rather improbable, it might rather be the signature of a witness, signifying that Eyck had been present at the wedding.

Today such close connections between signature and architecture within pictures are rarely of significance. The signature, often accompanied by the year, is usually only a monogram put into a corner. But there are also pictures in which a Graffiti-like use of signatures serve to express the painter’s political attitudes. Such pictures exemplify the, at its best, revolutionary character of Graffiti, which has induced me to choose three pictures made during times of revolution. Graffiti as an intricate part of a protest-culture is, after all, not restricted to our century.

Louis David’s (1748-1825) “Der ermordete Marat” of 1793 is a political manifesto and, at the same time, a tribute to a friend. It is not the murder that is depicted, but Marat is painted in the pose in which David had last seen him one day before he was murdered by Charlotte Corday. The sparse use of technique and the empty upper half of the painting evoke an astonishing effect. But the real action in the picture is the signature “A Marat. David”, followed by the date. Inscription, dedication and signature combine to form a political and personal avowal. Directly referring to this picture, Jannis Kounelli’s painting “Untitled” of 1969 employs the ephemeral of chalk-Graffiti-techniques. Kounelli, an Arte-Poveri-Artist, critical of his times, depicts the international student movement of 1968 by referring to the French Revolution on the one hand, and to David’s rendition of the dead Marat on the other. It is a work that, like most Graffiti, depends on topical events.

Another example is David’s “Napoleon auf dem St. Bernhard”. Annibal, Carolus Magnus, Bonaparte can be found in the form of name-Graffiti, appearing nearly as incidentally as a Kyselak in the picture, at the feet of the horse and its imperial master. Originally David intended to paint Napoleon in battle, who, however, wanted to be depicted as a “quiet master on a wild horse”. Political intention are closely connected to the inscriptions; it is not the artist that has signed the picture, but the sujet itself. (Nevertheless, we should not forget that Napoleon had actually ridden on mules when he had been on St. Bernhard.)

Graffiti in the picture

With reference to the existence of Graffiti in pictures, I mean primarily traditional panel-paintings, which started around the end of the 19th century to depict Graffiti as an existing part of the delineated world. Around 1900 the first photographs were taken of Graffiti. Heinrich Zille, Man Ray, Brassai and Wols (Wolfgang Schulze) started to take pictures of partly ripped off posters, Graffiti and crumbling walls of houses. This is not merely a form of recording reality, but also of the rendition of all that can become reality through different ways of seeing. The possibilities opened up by photography are quickly integrated into the picture, i.e. it results in a mutual exchange between photography and picture.

Giacoma Balla’s “Fallimento” (“Insolvency”) of 1902 is one example. Balla was born in 1871 in Turin, a city that was of extreme importance in the development of photography. In 1904 the magazine “La Fotografia Artistica”, to which some of the best photographers (August Luniére, Nadar, Hans Hildebrandt et al.) of the time contributed, was founded in Turin. Balla, the eldest of the Futurist painters, who from time to time swerved back to conventional forms of painting, expressed a particular interest in photography in his work. This is mainly expressed by extensive, elaborate and decentralising framing, by extraordinary picture-fragments and the effects of back light. His “Fallimento” shows exactly such an extraordinary fragment, depicting the lower part of a door and the trottoir. The depiction focuses on chalk-drawings on the bolted door, presented in a veristic-objective way. A door sealed as the result of bankruptcy becomes the medium of what are apparently the chalk-Graffiti of children, and thus a change of meaning occurs; the door leaves the private space and enters a public one. Balla is said to have observed the door over weeks and to have frequently sketched the evolution of the Graffiti. Contrasting with Balla’s painting, the door-project remains unfinished and is therefore not static. It is the depiction of a snapshot.

Similarly, Marie Barschkirtseff’s painting “Das Treffen” (“The meeting”) of 1884 depicts children’s drawings on a wooden fence as the background of a group of meeting children, apparently gathering together as a suburban gang. It implies a new point of view as well as a new form of making points of view of reality visible. Such integration of children’s drawings into the art of the late 19th century and later their acknowledgement as a separate form of art, which supplants their previous dismissal as mere scrawling, are part of a general tendency. I shall not attempt to discuss the relationship between word and picture now; everyone who has some rudimentary knowledge of the history of art knows that this is an extensive topic, which cannot be briefly dealt with; and, after all, it is not the topic of this essay. What I consider of importance in this context is to emphasise the amalgamation of genres, the transcendence of lines of demarcation between genres, and the coalescence of “high” and “low”. It is a movement that started around 1900, and which can also be found in Graffiti: There expressed conceptualisations are juxtaposed with the apparently senseless, demanding texts with simple messages such as “I have been here”.

I shall now show three methods of deploying Graffiti in panel paintings:

1. Playing with the methods, expressions, pictures and techniques of Graffiti-products; the Graffitisation of painting

This method can be similar to that used in Jean Dubuffet’s Art brut, i.e. an integration of the Sgraffito-technique, of engraving rough surfaces. Thus a “rough” picture language evolves, similar to the rough and quickly scratched inscriptions on the various walls in cities. However, other than in classical Sgraffito-production, in which its function is primarily ornamental, it becomes the medium of a fundamental attitude; its vitality contrasts with convention; “low” art with “high” art. The surface and techniques correspond to that used in the production of Graffiti. In Hans Speckter’s painting “Gang in der alten Anatomie in Weimar” (“A Corridor in the Old Anatomical Institute in Weimar”) of 1882 one Graffiti-technique, namely the levelling down of the surface, was actually deployed in that Speckter scratched the depicted Graffiti into the canvas.

Another transposition of a Graffiti-appeal, of a form of “automatic writing”, and of a Graffiti-technique – in this case the rather transient method of applying chalk – was adopted by Cy Twombly: Untitled. 1967. It is similar to the lines and patterns drawn by children trailing a piece of chalk along the walls of houses, or to the drawings one produces on the surface of a desk while doing phone calls or concentrating on a conversation. It poeticises the visual banality of quotidian reality.

2. This forms the transition to integrate Graffiti directly, namely through a seemingly concrete representation of reality

It is seemingly concrete, as we shall see that it is no more than a simple photographic documentation. The presentation of the word is used to make thematically unequivocal statements.

John Nava’s picture “Der 2. Mai 1992″ is the best example of this expression. Nava, born in 1947, commemorates a contemporary event, yet uses the methods of the old masters. Even despite the title’s allusion to Goya’s “Die Erschießung der Aufständischen vom 3. Mai 1808″ it is modelled on David’s Marat. Its connection to Marat as well as to the curse of the Horatians is established through the twisted geometry of its composition and the arrangement of the figures, including the victim, parallel to the picture frame. The presence of figures in the room is massive. It could be the depiction of a traffic accident, but as we know from the title that this cannot be all. But it is the Graffiti that imparts its quintessence: RAC/G signifies “race” and “rage”, but also “rag”. It is, in fact, a pictorialisation with a political background. It is based on the 1992 racial agitations in Los Angeles, in the course of which Rodney King was mistreated by the police. It is, however, not a direct representation of the real event. The central figure is perhaps dead, perhaps not. What is conveyed is the tense atmosphere (the policeman’s threatening shadow on the wall) in Los Angeles, lack of social orientation (two figures in the background) and lack of moral orientation (the almost religious ceremony of covering someone up), which were occasioned by the agitations.

Wilhelm Traeger’s street-scene in his series “Wien 1932″ (“Vienna 1932″) is another picture on a political topic. Traeger, a member of the Viennese Sezession, commented on this series in 1979: “All pictures are evoked by oppressing experience; they are my life and my past world. I used to react just like a seismograph, presenting impressions. It evolved into a social documentary, not into a sermon, not into an appeal to one’s conscience – who in those times would have listened to me anyway?” “Like a seismograph” this captures the significance of Graffiti, which represent a mirror-image of the public’s wishes, needs, and attitudes. We observe a linocut that depicts a street of Vienna in the year 1932. It is again the title that tells us which time and thus which political situation is delineated; but even if there were no title, the depicted Graffiti would still narrate enough by themselves. We see a swastika next to the imperative “vote red” and the announcement of a mass gathering. We can also recognise various types of people, ranging from a worker and an apparently poor old woman to a representative of the bourgeoisie. And we can also see that nobody, apart from one innocent child, pays any attention to the signs on the wall – This tale is familiar to us all; and therefore we also know that such inattention is always met by its inevitable punishment. (It reiterates the tale of Belsazar, which is told in the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel, and in which the king of Babylon is confronted with an indecipherable writing on the wall. Daniel’s interpretation cannot ward off destruction. Its didactic element stresses that “pride comes before the fall”.)

We remain in the interwar-period, turning to Gustav Wunderwald’s “Fabrik in Moabit” (“Factory in Moabit”) of 1927, a typical representative of the neuen Sachlichkeit. Here again we find a swastika on the wall of a factory, this time juxtaposed with the word “Hingabe” (“dedication”), which leaves its interpretation open. It signifies a dedication, a “Hin-geben” or “turning over”, to Nationalsocialism or to the factory and thus to socialism, i.e. an action away from the actor’s point of view.

However, not all pictures discussed in this context are necessarily oppressive. There are also examples imbued with a certain cheerfulness, such as Josef Danhauser’s “Wein, Weib und Gesang” (“Wine, woman, and song”) of 1839. It is a typical sketch of a Viennese Heurigen of the Biedermeier period, a so-called genre-picture depicting the joy of life, and in which the painter produces a word-Graffito by illustrating and inscribing Luther’s aphorism: “Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang, der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang” (“Those who do not love wine, woman, and song, shall remain fools throughout their lives.”) on the wall. The date 1841 is very legible, which is especially remarkable as the picture had already been produced in 1839, but was exhibited in 1841. The painting was not appreciated by the critics of the time. The contrast between the miser, sitting at the left end of the table and drinking sugar-water, and the convivial gathering was to stark and far too reminiscent of the Everyman-motif. Through the preservation of overabundant cheerfulness on the wall a moment in time is fixed, but of a time that was everything but cheerful in reality.

Now we shall turn to another example of the Viennese Biedermeier, to a painting showing two different fringe-forms of Graffiti, namely Albert Schindler’s “Spärliche Einnahmen” (“The meagre income”) of 1883. On the one hand, there is the sign CMB, signifying Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and juxtaposed with the date, on the door, and on the other hand, there are a kruckenkreuz and the writing “pater noster” on the wall – a sign that one treads sacred ground; that the picture depicts the entrance to a monastery and the cloister lying behind it. This picture contains an important critical social commentary. The girl’s “meagre income” which she attains by selling pictures of saints, which are depicted leaning against the writing “pater noster”, can certainly be regarded as the realisation of such criticism.

Now to a painting of French Romanticism: Girodet’s “Grablegung der Atala” of 1808. This picture, deploying all the typical props of romantic painting such as a cave, a cross, a monk, and also young death, has a dismal, a Catholic, effect, which is chiefly evoked by smooth, lifeless patches of colour and by the Graffito: “Jà i passè comme la fleur, jà i seche comme l’herbes des champs.”

Graffiti as a form of art

With reference to Graffiti as a form of art it is usually Keith Haring who is named as a representative of “Graffiti-art”. Keith Haring is akin to the Sprayers in that he creates his Graffiti at the most conspicuous places. But he alternates between various forms and tends to experiments: in the New York underground he used to draw with chalk, he used a broad paint-brush when painting on the Berlin wall, and swerved back to white chalk on a trottoir in Tokyo. The work of the Zurich Sprayer Naegeli are also acknowledged within this area. Generally, it is primarily “american graffiti” that is associated with the realm of art, but also stencil-Graffiti, which is similar to printing because of its endless reproducibility, such as the work of the Banana-Sprayer Thomas Baumgärtel (b.1960): In 1986 he sprayed his first banana in Cologne, and subsequently everywhere where contemporary art is exhibited (galleries, museums). He works without a contract. More than 2000 art-sites have already been blessed with his banana. At the beginning, the banana was regarded as a stain; today it is a positive symbol, signifying distinction. Naturally, various fakes have already been produced, and sometimes even Baumgärtel himself uses an “unoriginal” stencil. In 1991 a text was added to the banana, which was integrated as a pictogram. The work of art is thus created by the correspondences between medium and picture; the banana is bound to a particular place in order to affirm its meaning. A separate graphic tradition has developed out of Naegeli’s Graffiti. Both the early Viennese Sprayer Bady Minck and the Cologne Sprayer Markus Krips, a member of the Art-pirates, are representatives of this tradition.

To return to stencil-Graffiti: As stencil-Graffiti are variably reproducible, they are also called serial Graffiti. In French they are also termed pochoirs. As stencils can be prepared at home in advance, it is not unusual that classical patterns are selected such as images taken from comics, for instance.

It is rather difficult to assess to artistic value of word-Graffiti. At times, slogans, poems and statements can be of a high literary standard; but when they appear in the form of Graffiti, they stand little chance of being accepted as a form of art.

Contact Susanne Schaefer-Wiery

Susanne Schaefer-Wiery, born in 1960, is an art historian and philologist. She lives in Vienna, has been working within the area of adult education since 1984, and is a foundation-member as well as the chairwoman of the ifg.

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