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Taming the Drew? Graffiti as art, Jen Pearce

(September 01, 2012)

Taming the Drew?

Wales has a long tradition of graffiti. From pre-historic 'rock art' to the famous graffiti near Aberystwyth (used as a call to arms in response toflooding the village of Capel Celyn, in the Treweryn Valley, in 1965, to supply water to Liverpool), now an iconic national landmark; people in Wales just keep painting on walls.

Graffiti - Cofiwch DrywerynCofiwch Dryweryn (Remember Tryweryn)

Jennifer Pearce looks at more recent developments …

Graffiti stencil art began in the early eighties. Its inception is normally credited to Blek, known as The Rat. Blek often chose to depict rats, as they are urban dwellers who "will survive when the human race has disappeared", to quote Blek, with whom I partly agree. Will graffiti art survive if it is taken away from the streets? Can you tame these drawings and keep their wild spirit alive?

Graffiti - BlekStencil art, quoting Blek le Rat
photographed in Roath, Cardiff, July 2012

Internet searches under 'graffiti', reveal countless news items linked to vandalism, criminality and, of course, to cleaning it up. This example of tagging and style writing (fig 2) is what most people think of when they read these stories. Having lived in a cast-concrete university campus, I seem to have acquired the (admittedly rare) love of new-brutalist architecture. Most people will find this splash of colour and invasive buddleia a nicer find than litter and the smell of urine. I have seen graffiti on beautiful stone walls and ancient monuments, and I have unprintable words for those who desecrate memorials of all kinds; unthinkingly or for protest. Better ways are available to make a point.


graffiti 2Fig 2: Many people's idea of graffiti - tagging and style writing

The internet also uncovers graffiti artists' websites, allowing plenty of opportunities to buy canvases, t-shirts and other merchandise from some (now professional) street artists. Or, depending on your point of view - perhaps more purist, or negative - street artists who have 'sold out'. Also available for hire ... graffiti collectives and individual artists. Fancy having a mural painted, or being taught to do it yourself? Urban youth workers have harnessed this once-edgy medium, to encourage kids to be creative and expressive.


Graffiti 3Fig 3: Graffiti wall in Grangetown, Cardiff

Usually found in urban areas, dedicated graffiti walls are used for regular competitions; many of these walls are renewed annually. At this one, in Grangetown, Cardiff (fig 3), they begin again from scratch each August. A vast range of styles and techniques is on display; many show true artistry, and creativity. "Tag bombing", where competing graffiti practitioners cover walls with their stylized signatures does not achieve the same, satisfying results. This work has a sense of its location. Note the train reproduced behind the figure in the cap, the CCTV camera and the lively dog (figs 4-6).


Graffiti 4Fig 4: Grangetown graffiti wall (detail)

 Graffiti 5Fig 5: Grangetown graffiti wall (detail)


Graffiti 6Fig 6: Grangetown graffiti wall (detail)

Northcote Lane behind City Road, Roath, Cardiff, has become a haven for people starting out in wall art. Here we can see some inventive ideas; unpolished, but interesting (figs 7-9).

Graffiti 7Fig 7: Roath graffiti


Graffiti 8Fig 8: Roath graffiti


Graffiti 9Fig 9: Roath graffiti

Then, you have the political, as here found in the Roath Park area of Cardiff (fig 10). These often peak at election times, for example the 2010s "Don’t forget Tories tell Stories" national stencil campaign. Although not aesthetically delightful, they have a certain witty charm and are part of a long tradition of protest and egalitarian political input throughout the world. You may not be able to vote, certainly not freely or in safety, but you can adorn a visible wall with your true feelings; taking a stand to influence others. You also have the witticisms; the sort of slogans you may see on alternative greetings cards or 'cool' t-shirts (fig 11).


Graffiti 10Fig 10: political statement from Roath Park Graffiti 11Fig 11: stencil graffiti near Roath Park

Then there are the accomplished commercial artists. Here is the Panda by RMER, part of the Cruel Vapours Collective of commissionable graffiti artists based in Wales (figs 12-14).


Graffiti 12Fig 12: Panda by "RMER", part of the Cruel Vapours Collective

The beauty of the perspective and composition of the overall piece, the texture of the fur and the cracked motif in the lettering, are impressive.

Graffiti 13Fig 13: Another aspect of Panda by "RMER"

Graffiti 14Fig 14: Panda by RMER (detail)

The realism and detail in this piece, tagged as "HOXE" and "RMER" of the Cruel Vapours Collective, is splendid, as well as the use of perspective (figs 15 & 16). Maybe this is an apprentice of the man himself? These are well loved pieces in the locality; brightening up otherwise dull and uninspiring spots. It helps that much of the housing nearby is inhabited by students and artists - not likely to be sources of 'not in my backyard' attitudes.


Graffiti 15Fig 15: more work from "RMER” of the Cruel Vapours Collective, this time with "HOXE"


Graffiti 16Fig 16: work tagged "RMER" and "HOXE" (detail)

The debate about the legal and moral grounds of these works on the streets will continue. I would argue that the joy of happening upon decorative, funny, or provocative art is a gift, given generously by the artist.

Some artists have chosen to become commercial: you can commission originals, buy reproductions, or even see this work in gallery spaces. The original artwork of Banksy's often-reproduced work Girl and Balloon sold at auction for £169,250. Printed canvases of this work are available for under £300. But I suspect it will never reproduce the delight and surprise of happening upon a 'Banksy' where you least expect it; still a privilege.

Artists need to make a living. And they have as much right as anyone else to seek fortune, if not fame. But the spirit of graffiti art is about communication to passers-by, about competition within a locality, territory marking and dialogue with the space it inhabits.

We need this art on the streets to survive, and we need people to see it and be inspired by it, in order to make art part of everyone’s lives. Graffiti art is truly democratic - a gift to us all. Especially to those who would never consider entering a gallery space or auction room.

For commissions:

For Graffiti lessons starting at £25 per person go to

Jennifer Pearce, 1 September 2012

Jennifer is the founder of Art Club, follow her on Twitter

If you liked this, you'll also enjoy:

Eight and a half Welsh comedians
, December 2013
The Albany Gallery, Cardiff
, Christmas Exhibition, December 2013
John Gingell Award at g39
, September 2013
Response, Annie Giles Hobbs, June 2013
     Review: Arcadecardiff, June 2013

     Review: St David’s Hall exhibition space - Triad and Mount Analogue, January 2013
Review: St David’s Hall Christmas Exhibition, January 2013
     Taming the Drew? Graffiti as art,
September 2012
     Review: Nothing Like Something Happens Anywhere - Chapter Arts Centre, Canton, Cardiff, August 2012
     National Museum of Art, contemporary galleries, March 2012


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