When I was a kid in Los Angeles, graffiti was a bad sign. It meant gangs had moved into the neighborhood. Or, at the very least, teenagers with a taste for vandalism. No respectable homeowner wanted to find spray paint on his fence. So you hung up lights and bought a dog.
Nowadays, graffiti is a tourist attraction. In my own hometown of Amsterdam. there are guided tours, a calendar of graffiti happenings and, coming soon, the world’s largest graffiti museum.
Graffiti placed second in a New York Times article on things to do in Bergen, Norway. So that’s what I did this week. I wandered the streets of Bergen in search of graffiti except they don’t call it that anymore. It’s neo-graffiti or post-graffiti. If you want to get political, you can call it independent public art. That’s the whole point of it. Graffiti is street art created out in the open where everyone can make it and see it.
spray paint graffiti
Graffiti has been around since humans learned to scratch a design into a surface. You can find it in the catacombs of Rome or the ruins of Pompei. According to Wikipedia, graffiti comes from the Italian graffiato or scratched, which in turns derives
from Greek γράφειν—graphein—meaning “to write”.
Maybe this is why graffiti artists refer to themselves as writers. Three London artists known by their writer tags Love, Trip and Kbag were killed last month when they were hit by a train in south London. It was at a track famous among writers, who gain fame and respect
not simply for the technical skill and creativity of their pieces, but also the inaccessibility of the spot and the risks taken to reach it.
The best places are called heaven spots. The locations are hard to reach, thus making removal difficult. They also offer high visibility like roofs, bridges and train overpasses. Getting there might also cost you your life. Graffiti is as much about the image as the significance of where it’s placed. Take, for example, the Berlin Wall, a magnet for artists through the 60s-80s when graffiti was first recognized as an art form and well thereafter.
long winter nights
In Bergen, the winters are long and dark. It’s an excellent time for making stencils. A street artist like Dolk (Norwegian for dagger) can require up to 20 stencils to create a single work of art. You can combine words with images as well as pervert existing icons into a work all your own.
But if wielding a scalpel is not your thing, you can always get out your knitting needles. Texan Magda Sayeg is generally regarded as the mother of yarn bombing, i.e. the act of covering a public object or structure in knitted or crocheted material.
Trees line the walk downhill from Mount Floyen, dozens of them wearing woolly wrappers. That’s a lot of Bergen artists quietly knitting during the aforementioned winter nights, waiting for the yarn bombing season to begin again.
Really, there’s no limit to the surfaces onto which street art can be applied. Walls and sidewalks, windows and doors, trash cans, subway trains moving or not. Ben Eine specializes in screen graffiti, the painting of the security shutters shop owners use to protect their wares from thieves. In 2010, UK prime minister David Cameron gave to US president Barack Obama a spray painting by Ben Eine. The gift made this spray paint artist famous (and mainstream) in one fell shake of the can.
But how can it be public art if it’s available for purchase? Therein lies the core conflict of any artist. You want people to see your work but you also need to eat. Most street artists hold down day jobs to indulge their passions in the off-hours. A handful has broken through like Ben Eine, whose work sells for a cool £ 6,000 these days. And then there is Banksy.
No one knows for sure who he is (or even whether it’s a he). Here in Amsterdam, we have a museum of his work. The irony is that you need to pay an entry fee to see work that once was free. Or maybe that’s not so ironic. The documentary Exit through the Gift Shop is about the famously secretive Banksy, his work and his self-promotion.
Yet once upon a time, he too was a struggling graffiti artist and not just in the financial sense. In the world of graffiti artists, you’ve got to finish before the coppers show up. Banksy realized at an early age that if he wanted to remain at liberty, he had to paint faster.
crime and punishment
Stencils were the answer. They require a lot of work in advance but relatively little on site. Plus, stencils have a legacy. As Banksy once said in a rare interview:
As soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there. I also like the political edge. All graffiti is low-level dissent, but stencils have an extra history. They’ve been used to start revolutions and to stop wars.
So street art isn’t just a lark for the lads. There’s both serious intent and real risk involved. From New York to London, graffiti is called vandalism and its purveyors
common criminals and scum.
Even Bergen, the street capital of Norway doesn’t allow graffiti everywhere. The more political the street art, the less welcome it becomes to the powers that be. In that respect, graffiti is no different from any other art form.
here and now
It wasn’t until the end of my stay in Bergen that I discovered there’s a protocol for street art attribution. You name the artist, the year and the location of the work. But those markers aren’t always visible. Some work is anonymous while others are collaborations, intentional or not.
Sentralbadet is a city block in Bergen where street art is officially legal. A pair of young men arrive on skateboard bearing spray paint cans, Coca Cola and cigarettes. They proceed to add their own work to the display to a wall that, moments ago, carried another person’s mark. I have to ask.
“What was here before?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does it matter?”
Online, I find a greyhound with a race number on his flank created by RIP ART. But I’m sure I saw the same greyhound. Here it is, though with a time bomb instead of a number and a rabbit wearing the same. JOY made the latter work. He calls it Mutual Assured Destruction.
Looking for street art makes me see the city through new eyes. There’s nothing to find at museums and high-end hotels where the walls are all scrubbed clean. You have to venture into the dodgier areas – docks, tunnels, university parking garages – to find large quantities of street art. Or you can keep an eye out for the guys on skateboards.
All you really need to find great street art is the desire to seek it out. Find the beauty blended into the buildings that feeds the inner life of the city.
Note: I've made grateful use of the treasure trove assembled by Ove Jæger Eriksen at the website Street Art in Bergen to identify artists, titles and locations. Any mistakes made are my own.