Reverse graffiti: dust thou art

April 7, 2010 | Cities, Graffiti, Innovations, Law, Paul Curtis, South Africa, United Kingdom

By: David A. Smith


Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

– Genesis 3:19


Is it vandalism to clean selectively? 



Filthy, isn’t it?  Or is it?


Not according to Inhabitat, where I found this little parable of our internally combustible cities:


Graffiti is one of the most controversial art forms out there since it defaces public property – but what if graffiti artists actually cleaned up the walls they tagged up by etching their sketches into the grime that already exists on them?


The delightful process, called reverse graffiti or “scrubbing” isn’t new – we’ve written about it here and here before – but awesome examples of it keep popping up.



Reverse graffiti in San Francisco, done with stencils


Case in point: one band of students in Durban, South Africa who’ve been gracing spaces with works of the subversive street art form in their area.


Inspired by the works of Paul Curtis (a reverse graffiti pioneer), South African student Martin Pace decided to “scrub” the walls of his own town.


Actually, the history goes way farther back than that, to Attic Greek red-figure pottery.



Remember, it starts all black, and then you scrape some off


Reverse drawing was revived in the Renaissance and Mannerist traditions of etching:



If I draw with etchings, I can make many copies!


Patterns are the means by which we sign ourselves onto our environment – they are conscious, cognitive, and personalized – and thus why tattooing is so often a tangible expression of rebellion: I write upon this body, and therefore I demonstrate it is my property to deface.



If it’s a foolish defacement


Conversely, failure to impose a pattern signals neglect, immobility, even abandonment:



Think anyone’s driven me recently?



Last bankrupt flyer out of Dubai, you wash me, okay?

(Note the license plate.)


People respect patterns, particular home-grown ones.


While others have used giant stencils and high-pressure water hoses to “wash” reverse images onto, or technically off of their canvases, Pace decided to use a metal scrubbing brush on his first project – a filthy freeway wall. The result was a charming pictorial timeline of Westville’s (the town where the wall is) architecture.



Do look like vandals to you?


Pace eventually formed a gang of reverse taggers with his friends Stathi Kongianos, JP Jordaan and Nick Ferreira called Dutch Ink.



The Gang of Four


The band’s triumphs include a beautiful mural of trees on a Durban North wall as well as a giant “Sardine Run” (featuring a school of stencilled fish) swimming across a city bridge.



Like fish out of water


Reverse graffiti is thus a negative image of the broken windows effect.  As I posted previously:


Long ago I formulated a more general version of this as the law of the observant herd:





Think this might influence someone’s behavior?




[The experiment was] brilliantly simple.  The conditions showed two instructions, one directed at our test subject, the other providing an observant-herd data sample as to whether rules are actually enforced.  The experimenters provided the simplest of visual evidence. 


Order.  Four bicycles parked nearby, but not locked to the fence.

Disorder.  The four bikes locked to the fence, in violation of the sign.


In the “order” condition, 27% of people were prepared to trespass by stepping through the gap, whereas in the disorder condition, 82% took the short cut.


Tripling the non-compliance rate


What makes graffiti – whether regular or reverse – a behavioral cue is that it visually signals having been seen.  When a community demonstrates the police are watching, crime goes down – even if the having been seen occurs at a time different from the potential criminal activity.



“Most homeless people have moved on/

But their problems haven’t gone away”


The best thing about reverse graffiti is that it’s not illegal! Think about it – you can’t really arrest someone for cleaning up city surfaces.  


Unfortunately, reverse graffiti sends a curiously conflicted two-part message:


1. Officialdom is not paying attention.

2. Others with civic interest are.


As described on Durban Live, whose countercultural triumphalism gets a tad carried away:


Perhaps revolutionary creativity shocks, rather than entertains the bourgeoisie –


Who you callin’ bourgeois, bro?



Surreal, man


  but there’s no doubt Dutch Ink brings a humanistic quality to otherwise drab urban areas. To some they are celebrated and appraised, while in the eyes of a few they have become urban vandals. No authority has found legal ground to prosecute those who perform reverse graffiti. And how can they?


Reverse graffiti uses no paint or ink and thus cannot be said to actually deface an object.

The murals will degrade over time and revert back to simply being dirt.


Needless to say, passing a law preventing the creative cleaning of public property could be problematic. Surely the only concern lies with why our municipality isn’t keeping the walls clean in the first place?


The Durban police, at any rate, think this little bit of community self-policing is fine:



You tell me


Pace said, “That’s the beauty of the whole project. We have had council guys in police cars stop us in the middle of the day while we are working and asking us if we have been commissioned to do this and when we answered no, they gave us thumbs up and said keep doing what you are doing.”


That may work in more laid-back South Africa, but in England, some local authorities have sought to prosecute:


In his home town Leeds, the local authority has had a sense of humour failure and has condemned Paul Curtis’s work.


So he has now [October 15, 2004 – Ed.] left a series of designs in Manchester‘s Piccadilly Gardens and is awaiting to see if he will be banned from the city.


Mr Curtis, who works during the night to avoid the authorities, can earn up to £600 a day from advertisers.


He said: “I love what I do because it’s totally subversive. And all I’m really doing is cleaning. Surely people can’t have a problem with that?”



Clandestinely cleaning the city


While anyone can understand Mr. Curtis’s frisson from tweaking authority, to drive it underground implies either that Mr. Curtis sees himself as undermining police authority (which is not a good thing) or that the Leeds police have decided to treat reverse graffiti as a criminal activity. 


But, in Leeds, they do have a problem. Gerry Harper, a city councillor, described it as vandalism.



Harper doesn’t like vandalism


Although shortsighted, that’s understandable, for the issue for some authorities is permission:


As the Santa Ana city council neatly defined it:


In most cases, the difference between graffiti being art or a crime is PERMISSION



I contemplate obtaining permission


Without permission, it’s defacement.



If the city did it, does that make it okay?


A more plausible justification is that reverse graffiti, by expunging grime, also exposes officialdom’s inability or unwillingness to provide the civic service of clean streets:



I’m being arrested for cleanliness!


“It’s totally ridiculous really,” Mr Curtis replied. “All I am doing is cleaning their walls. Councillors only want me prosecuted because they’re embarrassed by how dirty their cities are.”


He claims his art is legal because he isn’t actually painting anything on to the walls or street.


That’s a nice claim, Mr. Curtis, but what does the law say?


No other similar case has come before a court, but the crown prosecution service says he may be in breach of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act.



Wearing a hood is prima facie evidence, now innit?


I’m no fan of ASBA, for in its recourse to euphemisms, it has created a statute that is nothing but fuzzy boundaries – making its enforcement a matter of discretion and caprice:


The city council demanded he clean-up a piece of graffiti promoting Smirnoff Vodka in one of the city’s gloomiest underpasses.


Does commerciality matter?  Would sidewalk art be illegal but pavement advertising illegal?


The vodka company regards the artist’s work as a perfect way to reach a teenage market bombarded with multi-media advertising messages.


Fake them out – go low tech!



Rage, rage against the griming of the night


The row is a source of dismay to Mr Curtis. “As soon as I’ve done one it creates a lot of buzz,” he said. “A lot of people start talking about it. It means I can create images in horrible, shitty tunnels, dirty walkways, anywhere.”


And in so doing, to call these places to the city’s attention, and its officials’ embarrassment.  Fake them


A Leeds city council spokeswoman said: “Leeds residents want to live in clean and attractive neighbourhoods, and expect their streets to be free of graffiti and illegal advertising.


They also expect the streets to be clean, not covered in grime.


“We also view this kind of rogue advertising as environmental damage and will take strong action against any advertisers carrying out such campaigns without the relevant permission.”


Oh, lighten up.



Girl, thou art dust