I’ve always found graffiti fascinating: who paints it, why, what are they trying to express, do I understand it, is there a reason why they have put it where they have, is it any good, is it art, does it say anything? are just a few of the questions that always spring to mind when I see some. In fact I think I often pay far more attention and think about it more than any piece of art that I see installed in a gallery.
Much of this was brilliantly explained in the BB4 documentary ‘A Brief History of Graffiti’ which I found utterly captivating and informative. In in Dr Richard Clay goes in search of what it is that has made people scribble and scratch mementoes of our lives for more than 30,000 years. From the prehistoric cave paintings of Burgundy in France, through gladiatorial fan worship in Roman Lyons to the messages left on the walls of Germany’s Reichstag in 1945 by triumphant Soviet troops, time and again people have wanted to leave a permanent record of our existence for our descendants. In doing so Clay lays down the challenge that this is where what today we call art comes from – the humble scratch, graffiti.
During the programme there was one piece that I found really affecting and it was this statement that what Graffiti really is is truth speaking to power. This idea really struck a nerve when I saw a picture of the latest Banksy that he has put on the walls in the notorious refugee camp in Calais. In one piece of graffiti Banksy has laid down a challenge that looks to confront the negative attitudes towards the thousands living there and the many thousands of others that are desperately fleeing conflict across the world.
In the picture the late Steve Jobs is depicted on the move, black back across one shoulder, with on of his first Apple computers in the other. Steve Jobs was the son of Syrian migrant. Banksy very rarely comments on his work but he has said this about his latest piece:
“We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn (£4.6bn) a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.”
Truth Speaking to Power if ever I’ve seen it.