Leonardo Da Vinci castrated for graffiti crimes

BanksyI came across this online Age newspaper article by Kylie Northover, ‘Graffiti is enough to give a critic an art attack’ (8 May 2010), a response to ‘Hey Banksy, graffiti is vandalism not art’ by Charles Purcell (4 May 2010). I was duly horrified.

Purcell concludes his smug, ignorant rant with the following outrageous suggestion:

Note to Banksy: graffiti is not art, it is vandalism, no matter how many vapid celebrities or art world luvvies tell you otherwise. My advice for Customs is to search Banksy thoroughly for spray cans upon his arrival in Sydney, along with a stern warning that we won’t tolerate any of his nonsense. He should be allowed to present his film, then driven directly to the airport, without the chance to stop and deface some great public building with kitsch commentary. And perhaps given a gentle kick up the arse and the exhortation to ”wake up to yourself, mate” at the departure gates.

(Note to the Age: why condone the exhortation of harassment, violence and the suggestion of some kind of state-sanctioned unlawful extradition? Particularly as bad-taste jokes are not in vogue at the Age.)

Northover’s defence of London artist, Banksy,was sincere, but struck me as lukewarm.

Whether you love his work or not – and I’m well aware of the criticism of his work as lightweight socio-political bumpf – it’s hard to deny that Banksy is an artist of sorts. He may well be a prankster with a spray can merely exploring the concept of art as a commodity, but he’s still an artist, not a vandal.

In an online interview, Snarl tells us ‘Graffiti is to art, what death metal is to music’. I think this sells the genre short. Clearly, Banksy is an artist and not ‘of sorts’. Not conforming to the laws of society has no bearing on such a definition – or shouldn’t have.

But what really rankles is a chunk of the respondent comments. For example, here is Margaret from Sydney’s response to Purcell’s article:

Here here [sic] Charles, I say that we go one step further and castrate all teenagers who are caught grafitting [sic]our fair city. This would ensure that they can never breed children who grow up in a society where painting on walls is considered acceptable. And yes, I agree with your last point that we should indeed be searching the bags of all foreigners whom [sic]enter this country to ensure that they do not have any spray cans.

Now, Margaret may be joking – the idea that anyone would be carrying spray cans on an aeroplane is certainly amusing – but disturbingly: I’m not sure! Even if Margaret has been too clever for me, the suggestion of a crusade for methodical child-abuse strikes me as several giant leaps in a very frightening and humourless direction. But potential fascist-perversion, xenophobia and general stupidity aside – where is Margaret talking about when she says ‘our fair city’?

Ours? Hers? Mine? The graff writers/artists shouting out with their irreverent voice?

With our permission, the ruling class foists its materialist-capitalist manifesto on this country, controlling us with the threat of violence. Contravene the laws and be arrested. Resist arrest and be shot. A little extreme, perhaps? Kids are hardly likely to be shot for resisting police? Think again.

But say it is ‘our’ fair city. Corporations pollute the public space and have done so, unchallenged, for years. In fact – we pay them handsomely with our consumer dollars to clutter up ‘our city’ with images and slogans. Advertisements intentionally erode self-acceptance, vilify difference and sell us the destruction of nature and wellbeing. Advertising images are designed to inculcate consumerism and chauvinism of all kinds.

Free art, on the other hand, is a crime.

Victoria’s penalties for graffiti offences include imprisonment of up to 2 years.

Yes, folks will say ‘tags are not art, some of that crap I’ve seen is not art’. Have another look around the galleries and what’s hanging in people’s homes. Art doesn’t have to be ‘legal’ or ‘nice’ to be art. And if you’re still not sure: check out MelbourneGraffiti.com and Art Cries Out.

Unless I have again misinterpreted the irony, with this idiotic response to Northover’s article:

No matter how much artistic merit a painting may have, it is pure vandalism if placed on the property of another person or body without permission.. If Leonardo Da Vinci were around today and dared to paint the Mona Lisa on the wall of my home without my prior permission, I’d have not the slightest hesitation in suing him for every cent of the cost of removing it!!

Ron from Armidale sums up the materialist/capitalist ideas of property and ownership that the best (and worst) graffiti artists challenge.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

More by Clare Strahan ›

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  1. Nice choice of topic Clare. Whenever I go to Melbourne, I always do a tour of the alleyways in the CBD to spend time with the graffiti. You’ll find sneering comments about Banksy all over the place, often from art critics (see Jonathan Jones in The Guardian). I love graffiti, tags and all. I wish it were plastered over every hideous corporate skyscraper in the country.
    Graffiti is mostly done by kids and young adults (I’d think) and dismal laws to prevent them buying paint, are a reasonable indication as to how antagonistic we are to children generally.
    Some years ago, I was running a program offering consultation for early childhood services who were having difficulties with very young troubled (ie: severely maltreated and distressed) children. The NSW government offered funding to programs such as mine for innovative approaches for working with young children at risk. When I got hold of the funding application, the priority was the prevention of behaviours which might lead to adolescent graffiti activity.
    What is it about children and graffiti that sends politicians into a foaming psychotic rage and has them promote jail terms as a response?? Seriously, such a demented response to the combination of children and young people and paint has to be sign of something pathological.

  2. Thanks Stephen. Pathological indeed. I really think it’s the threat to property (and all property represents) that freaks our ‘authorities’ – the rebellion. I have heard of families being ‘raided’ like some b-grade show on channel 7 and computers and books confiscated in the search to identify artists. There’s a $550 on-the-spot fine, too, which can only lead to real financial trouble for lots of young adults and their families.

    It does seem to attract the young (who else has the energy?) but I notice from reading interviews and blogs by artists that some are still working on into their 30s, while holding down ‘respectable’ daytime jobs.

    It’s not that long since we sent children down the mines, so no surprise, really, that we’re prepared to lock them away for damage to property (and it’s not even permanent for goodness’ sake!)

    Argh, it makes me cross.

  3. Thanks for an interesting post Clare. I don’t have a problem with graffiti at all but have rued that it often doesn’t say much that challenges authority or laments the worst aspects of our society. While I’ve seen it as a way for (young) people to express themselves, and that’s a good thing, I rarely think of it as art unless it appeals to my idea of art which is terribly limited. So, you’ve opened my eyes. And in the end, anything to beautify or brighten the suburban landscape shouldn’t be penalised.

    I also couldn’t agree more that the over-the-top response to it by the authorities is absurd and much more to do with the value we place on property than much else. Just think how many times police chase young kids in stolen cars until they crash and die often taking others with them. All for what.

  4. Cheers Trish.

    Protest graffiti does seem thin on the ground, perhaps, and I was sorry to see much of the white-paint gems from the 70s disappear. Is MEAT IS MURDER still about? I don’t remember seeing it lately – (and I didn’t mean this: http://www.earth-photography.com/Countries/Australia/Melbourne_subgallery/Australia_Melbourne_Meat_Is_Murder.html) But I think the form itself – whether pieces or tags – is a protest and a cry out: I am here! I exist! I have a voice!

    Interesting that we are ‘allowed’ films depicting murder, rape and violent and/or immoral crime of all kinds … but not graffiti crimes – as you can read here: http://www.graffitistudies.info/leader.htm

    Unfortunately, no doubt despite the efforts of lots of forward-thinking individuals working in the system, there seems to be a real antagonism from under-trained/wrongly-trained police toward youth (and anyone in or causing ‘trouble’ for that matter). What ever happened to the idea of police officer as public servant? http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/new-victoria-police-uniform-to-give-cops-harder-edge/story-e6frf7l6-1225844064981

    I wonder – if authority sanctions graffiti, does it cease to exist?

  5. Nice piece. When it comes to graffiti the hypocrisy of the Melbourne City Council and Victorian Government is quite absurd. They market and brand Melbourne as the Stencil and Graffiti Capital of the world, yet have quite draconian legislation that makes this brand hard to achieve. I guess it’s not surprising as Capital rules both these moves- branding to bring the tourist in, fines to raise more revenue- still it’s pretty atrocious.

  6. Slightly OT but I’ve always been fascinated with graffiti from the ancient world. There’s a nice collection of scribblings from Pompeii here. Choice selections include:

    (the Lupinare): I screwed a lot of girls here.

    (the Lupinare): Sollemnes, you screw well!

    (Vico d’ Eumachia, small room of a possible brothel): Gaius Valerius Venustus, soldier of the 1st praetorian cohort, in the century of Rufus, screwer of women

    (Vico d’ Eumachia, small room of a possible brothel): Vibius Restitutus slept here alone and missed his darling Urbana

    (above a bench outside the Marine Gate): If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii.

    (in the basilica): No young buck is complete until he has fallen in love

    (in the basilica): Epaphra, you are bald!
    (in the basilica): Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they every have before!

    (in the basilica): Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!

    (in the basilica): The one who buggers a fire burns his penis

    (House of Poppaeus Sabinus): If you felt the fires of love, mule-driver, you would make more haste to see Venus. I love a charming boy; I ask you, goad the mules; let’s go. Take me to Pompeii, where love is sweet. You are mine…

    (bar/inn joined to the maritime baths): Apelles the chamberlain with Dexter, a slave of Caesar, ate here most agreeably and had a screw at the same time.

    (bar/inn joined to the maritime baths): Apelles Mus and his brother Dexter each pleasurably had sex with two girls twice.

    (in the basilica): O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.

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