Graffiti: The spray can God

Illustration by LUEK.

Why are some businesses targeted by graffiti artists when others are not? Angelo Pricolo ponders an art form and irritant

Walking the perimeter of the pharmacy on a daily basis is a routine part of work. It’s an opportunity to peruse the front window display and see what customers see as they walk past or enter. But it’s also a chance to monitor for new graffiti and see whether it’s time to get the kit out and start cleaning.

Derived from the Italian word graffio (“scratch”), graffiti has a long history. Graffiti is a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group.

Although the common image of graffiti is a stylistic symbol or phrase spray-painted on a wall by a member of a street gang, some graffiti is not gang-related. Graffiti can be understood as antisocial behaviour performed in order to gain attention or as a form of thrill seeking, but it also can be understood as an expressive art form.

Usually morning is the time to check walls, outside signage and windows for any new graffiti. Obviously the most common time to strike is overnight with the protection of darkness. So morning can reveal all the surprises.

Now I actually admire some graffiti/art. I have commissioned an inspiring work in the pharmacy that gets comments on a routine basis. It celebrates pharmacy and it gave a young aspiring artist some work. But it’s the incessant destruction of property with a practice called tagging that really annoys me.

Graffiti tag is usually written with marker or spray paint and in one colour, which is sharply contrasted with its background. Tag is a stylized personal signature and contains graffiti writer’s name, also known as a moniker.

Your business is a reflection of who you are and the exterior is the frame it sits in. So the pride you have in your operation takes a hit when meaningless graffiti becomes an unsightly scourge. It tarnishes the image and lots of hard work you put into creating a professional and inviting environment.

I found it was a bonding mechanism between fellow businesses. For some reason the lawyer 10 doors down from me was also a frequent target. Some mornings we would wave to each other from 100 metres like duelling rivals with organic solvent in one hand and brush in the other. It was quite a sight for peak hour traffic on a main road. Two men in ties with sleeves rolled up and sweating brows.

But early action is important, something always told to me to get on top of it quickly. Studies in fact show that the best graffiti prevention strategy is early removal. It’s like rubbish dumping spots; they become habitual if not cleared quickly.

So the morning assessment also becomes a window into how you will spend your time that day. Unfortunately, often this will be removing graffiti. The first step is establishing the surface it appears on and the extent of the assault. How noticeable and sometimes offensive (hence the urgency to act) and the type of paint used are also important factors.

Sounds pretty technical but when you have scrubbed as much graffiti as me you realise it’s important to take these things into consideration before you roll up your sleeves. If the graffiti is on glass or tiles then usually the job is a lot easier. Smooth surfaces require less scrubbing and also less harsh solvents.

Walls are usually the biggest problem, especially if the finish is textured. Removing spray paint from uneven surfaces takes its toll on your fingers. Finding the ideal solvent is the key. Organic solvents often do the trick but sometimes still require lots of work and lonely, reflective think time.

If you scrub with something abrasive you can damage some surfaces, remove the underlying paint or leave behind an annoying sheen. This is especially the case if you clean over your own sign writing.

Sometimes the only alternative is painting over the graffiti. My mate the lawyer often employed this technique when all else failed. I likened this to failure and kept trying different sprays until the paint dissolved (or my fingers did).

The graffiti was so bad at the pharmacy at one point we talked to the council and they suggested commissioning a mural.  Being situated at a street corner with an extensive wall to cover it was impossible to keep up with the numerous spray can operators.

We agreed the mural would be partly funded by the council but we had final say on the composition. It took the artist almost three days to complete and although I felt the colour was a bit too dark, by the time it was finished it really looked amazing.

It still intrigues me to this day how so much detail can be formed through the nozzle of a spray can. The combination of a valve and actuator produce the vehicle for art. I’m sure the inventor never expected their humble device would be used to illuminate so many lives and maybe irritate so many others.

So the new mural I was told would be seen as a no-go zone by would-be taggers. An inner sanctum of respect that anyone in possession of a spray can would honour (in fact it is even included in small print on the side of the can just next to the poisoning advice).

For a long time this rule was honoured and the picture was often commented upon, photographed and critiqued by customer and passer by alike. But eventually little blemishes in the form of mini-taggs started to appear. They were sympathetic to the content, so not on the subjects face. The artist lives locally and quickly attended to them.

But the graffiti got bolder and more extensive and soon it seemed the dam wall had broken. The beautiful lady created in paint, primarily as a deterrent, had become a lauded work of art initially. But she too was now defaced and defeated and reduced to someone else’s canvas.

I often thought it was karma. The places with lots of graffiti did something in a previous life, or maybe previous week, that displeased the graffiti gods. But now I think that some gods are just bored and enjoy dabbling with spray paint.

Angelo Pricolo is an addiction medicine pharmacist and former National Councillor of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

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  1. Jeff Lerner

    Angelo, I really wish that you hadn’t referred to these people (other than the one you commissioned) as “graffiti artists”. Regardless of any perceived merit, without the permission of the property owner they are nothing more than vandals. Anyone who wishes to be an artist must provide their own canvas. How would you feel if your house and/or car were defaced by these morons? Describing them as you did diminishes the value and work of real artists.

    • Jarrod McMaugh

      Jeff you’d be surprised how much art – including fine art and significant pieces from history – are riddled with criminal activity.

      Even the Sistine Chapel has art within it that would have seen Michaelangelo executed if those looking at it had understood who was represented within that work in unflattering ways… let alone the nudity (which was frowned on at the time….)

      Art requires transgression. Graffiti is art, and is sometimes legal, sometimes not; sometimes it’s good/interesting, sometimes it’s not.

      • Jeff Lerner

        Jarrod, I guess I didn’t make myself clear. Your comment about the Sistine Chapel seems to be a non sequitur. I was not referring in any way to the content of what was painted — only whether permission was sought and obtained. Graffiti can be illegal for various reasons such as defamation, racial vilification or incitement to violence. But it can ONLY be legal when done with the consent of the property owner. Otherwise it’s automatically illegal vandalism. If you found your car daubed by these idiots I doubt you’d stand back to contemplate possible artistic merit. Local councils pay substantial sums each year (from the rates that I pay) for graffiti removal — this robs other vital causes of much-needed funds. The mindless morons, if they can’t get jobs, could perhaps do some voluntary work. I would favour fining them at least double the cost of removal.

        • Jarrod McMaugh

          Funnily enough, my car is the only piece of my property that has ever been a canvas for graffiti, so it’s a stroke of luck that you chose that analogy

          I don’t disagree about your point – I live in Caulfield, and I’m often disgusted by the racially motivated crap that is painted on fences etc.

          At the same time, there are some amazing pieces of work that are available here in Melbourne an in cities around the world; often they are done with permission, but some of the best works are done without permission, including some the famous artists that are associated with graffiti; and also some really important political statements delivered as graffiti is almost never with permission…….

          it’s not a simple issue I guess, and will never be solved by this kind of discussion, but I think there is merit in graffiti – permission or not – in some situations.

  2. Jarrod McMaugh

    Angelo, you need to include a photo of the murals

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