Reclaiming Urban Landscape: Graffiti Subversion
Ideas that claim our urban space back from the gruesome grip of commercialization, concrete and the general ugly of the city, or what manholes and Stanley Kubrick have in common.
By Maria Popova
What bigger mark of a city’s self-expression than its graffiti culture? The tricky thing is that much of urban graffiti has become contrived, sliding by our attention as expected graphic clichès. The ones that break the norm manage to leave a cultural mark bigger than the physical paint-on-concrete one, and here is our curation of the top 5 unconventional urban graffiti executions.
BRAZILIAN RUIN GRAFFITI
Ruins. Landslides. Demolitions. To the average pedestrian, these are the most brutal architectural scars and open sores of a city. But to one Brazilian artist, they are a canvas of the imagination, an opportunity to imagine and re-imagine — the graffiti equivalent of looking at clouds and seeing magical shapes.
And, not unlike the great art of yore, these contemporary urban masterpieces remain unsigned and unclaimed. The images popped up randomly with the plain descriptor “Brazilian Graffiti,” leaving us with nothing less than utter awe and respect for the anonymous artist.
JULIAN BEEVER OPTICAL ILLUSIONS
From graffiti art on the remains of what once was, to graffiti art on what has never been and will never be. Confused? That’s usually the first reaction to Julian Beever‘s chalk drawings anyway. “The Pavement Picasso” creates trompe-l’Å“il drawings (2D images designed to create an extremely realistic 3D optical illusion) using anamorphosis projection — a technique requiring the viewer to look at the drawing from a designated vantage point in order for the illusion to work. Too much fancy talk for saying the guy’s art extracts more holy-shit’s from passersby than a 5-legged purple elephant.
Watching him work his magic is even more fascinating:
The Pavement Picasso finds inspiration in a wide range of niches — from the art of the great masters, to nature, to famous people, to low-brow pop culture currency. (Spiderman, we’re looking at you.)
Since the early 90’s, the artist has anamorphosized the streets of England, Germany, Australia, the U.S., and Belgium, using nothing but chalk, a camera and buckets of patience to transform our magicless urban sidewalks into fantasy scenes that truly suspend disbelief.
It’s official, the best street art does come from Brazil. What a culture of seeing a canvas where no one else does. Case in point: storm drain graffiti by Brazilian duo 6emeia — artists Leonardo Delafuente (a.k.a. “D lafuen T”) and August Anderson (a.k.a. “SÃƒO”).
The team also decks out fire hydrants, manholes and various other urban hydraulics standbys. Their projects are inspired by the need for change and color in urban landscape, driven by the idea that artistic tradition has always inspired the greatest social change. They aim to create a new language between art objects and art audiences, calling their art “drops of color in an immense gray bucket.” Eggg-zactly.
At a superficial glance, the following street art may appear to be just another not-all-that-exceptional piece of graffiti. But what makes it exceptional is its cultural context: it’s situated around one of the largest surviving monuments of Communism left untouched in Bulgaria as sombre reminders of life before democracy.
And what makes it so powerful is that it truly takes graffiti culture to its roots of anti-authority rebellion: under Communism, free expression and the artists who practiced it were severely oppressed, if not persecuted, their creative vision squeezed tight in the crushing fist of the regime. Today, this graffiti fence is how artists have symbolically and physically confined Communism to its tiny and uncomfortable compartment in culture’s collective memory, where it slouches gray and demolished in the grip of free creative expression.
Some of the most successful graffiti and guerrilla work has an element of mystery to it. (No, we’re not talking about Banksy here — the dude now has a website, we think he’s got about as much mystery left as a Red District “exotic dancer.”) We’re talking about what could easily be one of the largest guerrilla art mysteries of our time.
It all began sometime in the 80’s when the cryptic Toynbee tiles first started appearing on sidewalks, inscribed with some variation of the semi-articulate phrase “TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUBRICK’S 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” Since then, more than 250 plaques have appeared in a number of major U.S. cities and a few South American capitals.
Like in this one spotted on Juniper and Filbert streets in Philadelphia, the main inscription is sometimes accompanied by other cryptic messages and political allusions.
The tiles have expectedly attracted an enormous amount of attention from conspiracy theorists and mass media channels alike, but the only widely agreed upon interpretation has to do with references to 19th century religious historian Arnold J. Toynbee and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the material used in the plaques was a mystery until recently, when it was finally confirmed to be layered linoleum and an asphalt filler compound.
The leading theory suggests the movement was started by Philadelphia carpenter James Morasco, in his 70’s at the time, who claimed in a 1983 newspaper interview that Jupiter could be colonized by bringing dead humans there to have them resurrected. Although Morasco died in 2003, new tiles have since been appearing consistently, particularly in the Greater Philadelphia area (with the latest reported sighting as recent as a week ago), leading some to speculate that the entire endeavor is the work of a single person and Morasco was only responsible for the first few.
At the same time, plaque size and styling vary greatly across locations, suggesting there may be a multitude of artists involved — in which case we have to wonder what kind of Mason-like secret subculture is so cohesively mum about such a large-scale public space movement.
To this day, the phenomenon is a complete urban mystery that, despite prolific coverage in thousands of newspapers, blogs, local TV specials and even a feature-length documentary, remains unsolved.
Left you high and dry? Thank you, thank you, we’ll be here all week.
Published May 6, 2008