Despite centuries of credentials and a following that continues to grow, helped along now by its popularity online, graffiti, we are told by those who decide such things, is not to be taken seriously. As an art form, its qualities do not make it favourable for, say, art critics or visitors of galleries. It is literally on the streets, it is often temporary, is often depicted as vandalism. Graffiti is different to gallery art, however, and to help its cause, should not be too closely compared to a distant cousin. But there is no ignoring the fact that graffiti and its producers are seen as part of the grotesque stereotype that is thrown at the working-classes.
However, whatever else might be said about it, graffiti is a versatile form. It can be – usually has to be – completed in haste, and can appear almost anywhere. Great murals become tattoos on the skin of cities and towns, while rushed scrawls of teenagers crop up on the flanks of businesses. It can be professional, inventive, awful and ugly, and can be almost anything. The fact is that, day to day, graffiti as an art connects with more people than canvases. Which is why it is important that, in Berlin, a small group of graffiti artists are currently using their paints to alter the swastikas being daubed on their city’s walls.
Ibo Omari, a resident of Berlin and a shopkeeper, has brought together a number of artists to remove the swastikas appearing on the streets. To cover the symbols, they are using their talents to produce images more appropriate for a modern city, and more uplifting to catch sight of on the way to work. The result is cartoons, vibrant colours, and what Omari calls their desire to “answer with love and happiness.” Just like covering an old, now-embarrassing tattoo, the German artists are coating the swastikas in simple, cheerful creations. Because there lies a problem with graffiti: it is wide open to the political side of life, and if you see enough graffiti, you’ll eventually start seeing the propaganda. Short words and quick little logos that ruin an entire wall of paint. Graffiti is the people’s art, but that means all people, even those who will pick up a spray can to insult their neighbour.
“Paintback first started after a man walked into Omari’s store two years ago, asking for spray paint to cover up a swastika in a playground.” It’s strange to think that someone, at some point, had the urge to spray a swastika onto a kid’s playground, and perhaps they even found some pleasure from the image of kids using the slides and, spotting the symbol, instantly beginning to goose-step and shave back their heads. It is a fruitless exercise that only serves to disappoint the parents and bemuse the children. And from it has come a small band of artists who are purposefully looking for swastikas, and erasing them beneath, for example, the image of two men embracing, one named ‘Peace’ the other, ‘Love’.