Friday, 10 July 2009

Good graffiti, bad graffiti

A stone's throw from my office is the Trasa Łazienkowska viaduct leading to the Łazienkowski bridge. Until last month, the pillars holding up the viaduct were a typical inner-city landscape of brutalist concrete spattered with primitive tags and statements about the parentage of Legia football club's chairman, directors and owners. In other words, not a place one would like to be.

Last week, a group of street artists has reclaimed this area and has painted dozens of excellent pieces of art on what were until now filthy, malodorous, urine- and obscenity-stained surfaces.

Above: Not sure whether this is meant to be the late Michael Jackson in his prime, but it is certainly a whole lot better than how this particular wall looked before. The mix of techniques suggests the amount of care and time taken to do this work. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, "what is painted without effort is looked at without pleasure".

Left: Stalin's gift to the people of Warsaw, immortalised. With a raccoon peering around it (rather than King Kong on the Empire State Building) and a rather fat cosmonaut in orbit overhead. Humour and localisation. Pure Warsaw. I like it. It's great having a free contemporary art gallery so close to my place of work.

I like this pop-art style (right); the artist known as Simpson has a fine line in 1930s and '40s Americana; this Disneyesque laughing horse, roller brush in hand. The technique used (Ben-Day dots) harks back to the comic books of the day and to artist Roy Lichtenstein.

Below: Street art takes on a political dimension - Lukashenka, Europe's last dictator and hilarious mustachio'd comb-over merchant, is sent into orbit by the people of Belarus.

A peacock (left), symbolic of the nearby Park Łazienkowski. Behind, on another pillar, more street art. This is such an improvement over what was here before - guys, keep it up!

Prior to this sudden outburst of quality street art under Trasa Łazienkowska, Warsaw's main claim to fame in this area is the eastern wall of the horse-racing track at Służewiec, running alongside ul. Puławska. I'm surprised I've not blogged this one before.

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, this has become legendary as Europe's longest unbroken stretch of street art.

It's been here for as long as I recall - I first remember seeing this back in 1995, and by then it was already established as a local landmark. However, 70% of the content is boring big tags - a few distorted letters, a bit of shading - nothing new or original, but colourful and infinitely preferable to grey concrete. The city gets its public art for free.

Above: This wall goes on for one non-stop kilometre. Here and there, you will find interesting pieces. But they are rare, and typically, works don't stay on for long, they get painted over (so the wall is fresh and lives a dynamic existence). Although the elderly fabric is crumbling.

Right: my current favourite on the Słuzewiec graffiti wall. A reference to American WW2 feminist icon Rosie the Riveter? Work signed Simpson.

As a society, we need to distinguish between primitive graffiti and decent street art. A mindless tag on someone's property, the visual equivalent of a dog peeing up against a wall, deserves punishment: 100 lashes, or being made to inhale the content of your spray can, or being chained to the nearest railing for 48 hours with a sign around your neck saying 'VANDAL'. Yet street art, which elevates passers-by, causing them to pause and reflect, and which brightens otherwise brutalistic grey expanses of concrete, is a social GOOD.

My tips to those wishing to go out and do some:

* Know what you want to do before you start
* Seek to enliven drab expanses of grey concrete but-
* Don't paint on brick
* Don't paint on private property
* Leave public transport - trains and stations - be
* Graffiti in pedestrian underpasses frightens people
* I really don't care who your favourite football team is
* If you can't do anything more advanced than a tag, don't bother.

The street art pictured below fails to make the grade. It's in the wrong place - the beautiful Most Poniatowski bridge, vandalised by graffiti; it's derivative - a second-rate Banksy rip-off, and it's in poor taste.


DC said...

Excellent post and pics. More please. Oh, and uh, inhaling paint fumes probably isn't considered punishment.

Aphelion said...

I definitely agree with you on the graffiti issue - the kind you can see in the first pics you posted is good graffiti that can really enrich a city. I really love the cosmonaut; looks as if he's had a few too many pelmeni with sour cream! :-)