Unsightly buildings are part of every urban landscape. Whether it’s complete ruin or at an obvious stage of disrepair, the resolution to the question of ‘what should be done about it’ often falls on the shoulders of the council, perhaps prompted by neighbours.
So what do we anticipate from the voice of the council – a body whose purpose is to speak for all its residents and at the very least allows a fair chance for them to speak for themselves. October 2014 saw graffiti’s Godfather figure at the centre of what became nationwide news – and entertainment. Tendring District Council, acting on behalf of residents, censored politically-loaded Banksy graffiti, in fact they destroyed it days after it was put up. Banksy’s work has a reputation for carrying a moral and ethical message and for reflecting on contemporary, local events, he also provides a lucrative source of income for those whose walls he paints, all this was missed by the decision-makers here. Its swift destruction is therefore telling of the position that the council feel they are in. It’s probably fair to say that given they took less that one working week, that the decision did not involve a democratic decision-making process.
In Brighton earlier this year, the council advised home owners that they needed to ‘tidy up their houses’. Brighton is a city of artists and the seat of the first Green Party MP, as well as having an increasing student population. It also continues to attract a high number of tourists, and the houses lining the arterial road in question, have a lot of student-rented properties. This invariably leads to untended gardens, but the properties are often less-well maintained as well. The result of this letter was the property owner’s employment of a graffiti artist to paint the front of the house. It subsequently happened again on another road, again prompted by a letter from the council. This willingness to engage graffiti represents a comment on the city’s artistic liberalism but also provides a contrast to Tendring District council’s decision late last year. There has been no further news on whether the council thought the decision to graffiti buildings was a method of purposeful maintenance. I’m sure the conservative call from nearby residents will be that it will have a negative effect on property value, but for Brighton this probably isn’t the case, and it probably isn’t the case for many other occasions of this type of countercultural arts practice across the UK. Rather it should be encouraged. These houses stand as beacons for a city that is imbibed with art, representing both its residents and its values.
In Channel 4’s documentary, following Grayson Perry’s commission from Living Architecture, the artist meets with local residents to discuss his plans to build ‘Julie’s house’, a structure that would combine art and architecture, but also have practical value. Key to the interplay of art and architecture was Perry’s theme of feminism and of connecting art to realistic situations. He is first met with resistance from residents, but once the purpose and theory were elaborated upon they were enthusiastic. I want to draw comparisons – the art works of graffiti and their role within institutions is traditionally fraught, but graffiti also represents an inroad for grasping art, its theory and effect are on display to a vast number of people, far more than will grace the biennials, exhibitions and festivals. Additionally, the fact that it is in-situ reflects the community, the history and the place in which it is on display. Public perception will only grow through this kind of exposure, and its censorship will ring alarm bells for those left out of the decision-making process.
It also nods towards making art more accessible, and therefore to the social comment within it, like in the case of Banksy, more relevant and vital. New York artist Basquiat began his comment and critique of contemporary art by capitalising on the anonymity and exposure that graffiti had. It might not always be the platform, but it is an invitation to look, think and have an opinion through this urban spray tapestry which continues to challenge.
Born in Scotland and raised in London, Lou Clement now resides, works and studies on England’s South Coast in Brighton. Having read Human Biology at King’s College, London and done further study in Developmental Biology at postgraduate level at Sussex, she works full-time in research & academia. She has long been engaged in cultural and artistic studies, and is studying for a Creative Writing MA. She is currently involved in several projects as writer, poet, and artist working in collage.
Feature Image: Aroe MSK’s mural on Viaduct Road, Brighton, image courtesy Louise Clement