One day, probably a year or so back, I walked past the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square on my way to work and I was intrigued by some writing across the front of the building, which proudly proclaimed:
Each day I wake from slumber shouting I am the fastest thing alive.
Given the placement – on a prominent building in an area with plenty of CCTV cameras pointed at it and tourists passing throughout the entire night, I was uncertain as to whether it was graffiti or some kind of a modern art installation. It looked like graffiti, it was daubed across the grey stone in big black letters, apparently created with a spray can. But it was inspiring and interesting, and it was on a building meant for displaying art. I asked around the interwebs and all I got was the National Gallery Twitter account following me. Googling the words revealed nothing, nor did trying to decipher and search for the tag at the end of it. The next day it was gone and I conclude it was a fast working graffiti artist of little note.
I was reminded of this, and a post I’ve been meaning to make, when I found this photograph today. I would include the image here, but the photographer’s Flickr account suggests he’d want me to pay to do so. In case the link ever fails, a description: It’s a stenciled piece, depicting an older gentleman sitting on the floor and drinking from what appears to be a can of lager. The stenciled section is in black and it’s painted on a concrete background that’s been painted white. Above the stencil in red sprayed writing are the words “GOING NOWHERE!”. There is a small logo next to it that seems to read “icon” in a stylised fashion. The photographer has labelled it as “The new Banksy in Thamesmead”.
Whether it’s a Banksy is questionable. It’s definitely in a similar style. For those who don’t know, Banksy is perhaps the best known graffiti artist out there. He started life in Bristol but has had a lot of impact in London. The recent film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is a documentary about him and a man he inspired to follow in his footsteps. His art involved guerilla attacks on buildings in the dead of night, uses large stencil templates and spray paint, and is often obliterated shortly after it goes up. I’d highly recommend the documentary, and I do think there’s something quite special about the art work.
What is particularly interesting to me, though, is that last week I walked past some art that I’m pretty sure must have been by the same artist as the piece put up on Flickr. I took a couple of shots of it on my iPhone. I’m glad I did because they were gone within a day or two. In the same style as the one above, this one depicted a runner poised on a starting block, with the phrase “RUN OR DIE”.
It’s not the first graffiti I’ve seen around the area, either. The large expanses of concrete make a perfect backdrop for sudden street art, and while there is sometimes some ugly uninspiring tagging, I’ve seen some excellent art as well.
Here’s a little inobtrusive space invader:
This one’s a sticker rather than spray paint.
Similarly understated are these flowers, which are sprayed into position:
They don’t really give very much of a clue about their origin, although I did see one elsewhere and alongside that one was a logo that seemed to say “lolly”. Given the time that the pretty little flowers appeared, coupled with the similar artistic style, I believe the same artist was responsible for perhaps my favourite bit of graffiti in the area.
This one depicts a man in a triangular frame, bursting out of said frame to offer the viewer a flower. It’s black and white except for the flower head which is red. The man seems to be wearing a bowler hat, and there is heavy make-up around one eye.
In short, it’s derived from the famous poster for A Clockwork Orange. But while the movie depiction shows Alex looking menacing and thrusting forth a knife, this image has a benign tulip. What does it mean? I couldn’t say for sure, but for me it’s a nice symbol of the area, speaks to its reputation in a playful manner whilst acknowledging that the area is linked to the violent film. This one has come and gone a few times.
Personally, I’m a fan of this kind of art, but I recognise that it’s illegal and many see it as destructive. There are parts of Thamesmead where a form of graffiti is encouraged, but it’s a sanitised short lived celebration of the art – more of a community mural than an example of real graffiti. The footbridges that cross Yarnton Way and the walkways that lead to Lesnes Abbey have some decent spray-art across them. More recently Trust Thamesmead had a bunch of 100 youngsters come and decorate a park in Wolvercote Road (the Graffiti Art Project), but this is decoration by committee, a more touchy feely kind of project and not at all the same as the gritty one-man vision that leads to the unofficial stuff.
The question is, where do you draw the line? In art terms everyone has an opinion and they don’t always overlap. I see a tongue in cheek look at the area and a bit of social commentary, someone else sees a messed up wall. I see ugly tags, the artist sees a physical representation of taking a risk. What art is good and what’s offensive is very subjective and when it comes down to it, without permission, putting art somewhere it wasn’t wanted is vandalism.
I pay council tax, and on top of that I pay standing charges to a local housing company that disposes of rubbish and whitewashes the unrequested art. They’re efficient, but I doubt it’s cheap. This short lived cool artwork costs me money in a very direct sense. I’m loathe to admit it, but I kind of think it’s worth it.