City councils, tabloid newspapers, neighbourhood forum meetings call it vandalism – anti social behaviour. The graffiti art of Banksy hangs in art galleries and sells for tens of thousands and the Birmingham based ‘spiritual’ graffiti artist Mohammed ‘aerosol’ Ali has had his work exhibited in the UK, in Australia and in the Middle East. Is that what graffiti is, the new art? Or again think of the way that the Berlin Wall, the ‘security’ fence between Israel and Gaza or the murals that filled Belfast during the troubles became canvases for political protest. Is that it, graffiti as the new politics? Alternatively since its emergence in New York during the early 1970s has graffiti been a way in which alienated young adults have raised their voice and made their mark – graffiti as identity?
In a world where organised religion has less and less hold over people’s sense of value, purpose or truth is it possible as Tom Beaudoin (1998) suggested that popular culture has become a ‘surrogate clergy’ for a post-religious but not secularised ‘Generation X’ (and ‘Y’….)? After all from the slave spirituals of the 19th century, through the Soul music that accompanied the civil rights movement, the progressive anti-racist multiculturalism of Two Tone and the Black Power of early rap music has encapsulated movements for liberation and articulated truths in a manner not possible within many books or sermons.
I’m not suggesting that the spiritual graffiti of Mohammed Ali or the
challenging imagery of Banksy can be seen as a systematic, patient, doctrinally solid ‘theological’ statement….That’s not what they are and maybe that’s the way it should be. What I do want to suggest is the perhaps (just perhaps) such graffiti art can be seen as urban Icons -windows into meaning and questioning, just like the classical Icons of Christianity or the ornate calligraphy of Islam….What do you say?