Graffiti exists because it is on the streets. In a recent article on the covering of swastikas by graffiti artists in Berlin, I discussed the difference between established art, and street art. Graffiti is not accepted by the same people who will curate galleries and auction off canvases. With the exception, perhaps, of Banksy. It seems, however, that the point needs repeating: graffiti art is not fighting to be inducted into the mainstream or the elite, and neither should it be. It is a response, a reply from the working classes to the wealthy, or to each other, or even just for themselves. It is often called vandalism, and artists are arrested or fined, and plenty decry the mess that is made on the walls of cities. Whatever the opinion of graffiti, it is a necessary output. It is a language as well as an art that lives between restriction, and needing restriction to exist.
In an article at Quartz, AR graffiti is explored as some kind of evolution: ‘Virtual graffiti would allow budding artists to be creative and push boundaries in the public domain without creating an eyesore, allowing local governments to clean up the actual streets of traditional graffiti while letting young artists have a creative outlet.’ My understanding of graffiti, and I believe I am not alone, flies directly in the face of this promise. To appease those who see it as an ‘eyesore’ is no advantage, but a neutering of the art. AR graffiti is about the same as treating a patient with a VR needle.
That isn’t to say that graffiti artists shouldn’t use AR if it’s being made available, it just shouldn’t become the primary outlet. The Quartz article goes on to tell how some artists are using AR to leave political messages, signals of their fight for social justice, to others users. This means that they can be everywhere and anywhere, yet invisible to the naked eye. Useful, yes, but not a replacement. If graffiti shifts to the digital, to the half-real, it has been policed. The rules of decorum have succeeded and those who once used graffiti to speak, would be made mute. What quicker way is there for a kid to express his anger than spraying it over a brick wall?
A city without graffiti is a two-dimensional landscape. London, Manchester, Birmingham, are covered in the tattoos of local graffiti artists. They are used to connect passers-by, as reference points, as inspiration for other artists. Most significantly, they are the city’s expression. To walk around and see all the walls blank of spray paint, unless of course you have your phone ready to aim at that wall or this street corner, is a depressing prospect. The digital, though it tries and often succeeds, cannot conjure alternatives for everything, and it certainly never should when it comes to the world of graffiti.