'Unstoppable by nature - The resistance of graffiti' / Emmanuel Bovell

'Unstoppable by nature - The resistance of graffiti' / Emmanuel Bovell

Camera scans left and camera scans right, it saves what it sees. Wire cutters snip a hole just big enough to squeeze through. Through it they slip, quick. It’s muggy so their chests are bare, their faces are tied in t-shirts -- they look like Chechen guerrillas. They scan left and they scan right: it’s clear, so they get to it. They smash train steel with chrome and black -- quick, brutal, beautiful. Heady off the fumes now, they are out the yard and on the move. Tomorrow will bring new spots, new chances for fame and new hopes to cement their name.


Graffiti is a simple, pure and widespread form of globalised social resistance. Since it was first scratched and sprayed in New York in the ‘70s, it has become unstoppable. From Madrid to Ho Chi Minh, graffiti writers do damage with tools of their choosing. Those who write have an insatiable appetite for gaining reputation, destroying things and leaving dope art behind along the way.


Graffiti’s uncontrollable and pervasive nature makes it a particularly interesting social phenomenon. In the relentless pursuit of their art, graffiti writers disregard the carefully constructed laws and social norms that render the majority of us docile. The hostility of the graffiti writer to authority, laws and social norms is eye-catching. It's also especially important in a time when surveillance and bureaucracy dictate so much of our day to day life.


In Australia, we are constantly controlled by surveillance. Everywhere we go, we are watched. Our actions are recorded and used to build a profile of who we are and inform authorities of how we might behave in the future. This process is made easier by the interlinked nature of our social lives and digital existences. As we carve out digital versions of ourselves, we deepen our entrapment in an algorithm of feedback. When surveillance mechanisms leave gaps in control, governmental bureaucracy fills them: who we are or what we do is micromanaged at every level by laws and rules. There are forms to be filled and lines to be queued in. We must collect our ticket, wait patiently and at no point step out of line. In response, people have become passive and overwhelmed by the constant monitoring and bombardment of digital interaction and the invasiveness of these laws.


If you are constantly watched or engorged in the steady stream of information, you are unlikely to envision different ways of living your life. More importantly, you are unlikely to rise and make change for those less fortunate than yourself. Graffiti is a way to challenge such docility. Every time someone paints a train in the dead of the night, resistance rages. Graffiti writers rarely paint as martyrs of social resistance, they paint because they want to. Their addiction to their culture means they will continue to paint under the gaze of any security camera or in the face of any social norm, which is what makers their actions so powerful. Graffiti is a culture that has resistance and subversion at its very core and it directly challenges the idea that people will blindly do as they are told.

Graffiti also persists in the most unlikely and hostile environments. On a trip to Myanmar, I met a graffiti writer who was born and raised in Yangon. It was 4AM on a sweltering night and we ate noodles with paint stained hands. He explained that the graffiti scene in Myanmar was small, and struggling against the oppression of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Despite all this, his fledgling community of writers persisted with pockets full of nibs and nozzles. My friend wasn’t painting as an act of revolution, he was painting because he loved it. The act of resistance lay within his desire to be out night after night after night, refining his craft and bringing colour to his grimy streets. Even though it was not the core motivator for his practice, the resistance of his graffiti is still of vital importance. Every burner he paints on the streets of Yangon is a constant and colourful reminder that the Tatmadaw can never completely control the people of Myanmar.  


Undoubtedly, graffiti is selfish. It is a world largely populated by disenfranchised people who don’t care for much other than their desires to paint, create or destroy. But this is what makes it so interesting. It is an unconscious form of resistance that contrasts jarringly with the hyper controlled nature of modern-life. This resistance is important, it helps remind us that there are always alternatives to docility and mindless adherence to the way things are. In places like Myanmar it helps to undermine oppressors. For as long as I walk through streets smeared with the names of fame chasing vandals, I know that resistance is all around me, I know resistance is alive.

Image Credit: BART



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