Monday, January 7, 2013

Literary Delinquents

Ladies. Gents. My last two posts were a tad verbose... so I'm reining in the voluminous petticoats for now. What can I say-- I get carried away...

But passion for literature is in the air! Just take a look at these photos from a recent Flavorwire article. The photos have been gathered from around the world and feature literary references in graffiti.
 Jean-Paul Sartre's likeness found in Yerevan, Armenia.
Over the past two decades, graffiti has gone from being a rebellious act, carried out by malcontent teenagers, gang members, or adrenaline addicts, to a high form of art, featured in prestigious art galleries near and far. Graffiti writing 20 years ago meant simply stealing public space, not asking permission, and attempting to construct a powerful visual identity from a position of perceived socioeconomic powerlessness. Now, you have graffiti writers developing their art (with permission) in the public sphere, teaching classes, running workshops, selling their work for millions of dollars.

Although more socially accepted, the criminal element of graffiti is still present today. I feel like the content of graffiti pieces has expanded in this new and slightly uncomfortable limbo of acceptance/illegality.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found in Frankfurt, Germany

Aldous Huxley in Montreal, Canada 
But stealing-- or "reclaiming"-- public space is a major part of what makes graffiti important. Generating a body of visual artwork that is in the public (and not separated by the walls of a museum or gallery) is at the heart of making large mural graffiti pieces like these ones. Furthermore, I think that another element that makes graffiti a particularly beautiful art form is its inherent transient quality. It is here today, eroded by rain or the sun tomorrow, and painted over by another graffiti artist or a city worker tasked with "removing" it.
Pablo Neruda in Santiago, Chile
I love the idea of these eternal denizens of the literary canon now being represented in this way: in stolen/reclaimed space and in a very temporary way-- the public will watch the graffiti fade over time but perhaps will guard the image in their hearts forever, the way the writers depicted are guarded forever in the libraries of the world.... 
A line from Lord Byron's poem "She Walks in Beauty" found in London, England 
See more of these literary graffiti images here and here.

What are your thoughts on the state of graffiti art? Don't you love these images? My favorite is the Lord Byron stencil...

Until next time, fair petticoat wearers!


  1. As I was reading this and reviewing the photos I paused at the suggestion that 20 years ago graffiti was considered peripheral to a visual canon. I realized later on when you used the word "mural" why I the timeframe of acceptance seemed off- the graffiti shown of literary greats is more like mural than the graffiti of New York in the late 70s, at least in these examples. And that suggests to me that these portraits exemplify how graffiti and public murals are kindred spirits, which I had never considered before! Thanks for the post! I also like this portrait of Neruda from the Bellavista Feria de Artesania

  2. Lindsay- thank you for your great comment! And you bring of a heckuva good point....

    The reason I remark on how different graffiti culture is today from 20 years ago is because, as an art form, it has secured a much higher degree of "legitimacy" in the mainstream commercial art scene over the past two decades (including a retrospective of graffiti artists from the 80s held in 2006 at the Brooklyn Museum), changing the way we as viewers feel when we look at it (and where we look at-- now available in the 1994-initiated Juxtapoz magazine!).

    I think that these changes in the way the public views graffiti murals (which can be both script and figural) have affected the entire culture of graffiti, including the possibilities of its content. The examples of the figural graffiti murals above represent graffiti artists working, still in an illegal way, but now without needing to, say, subvert symbolic representations of the "ivory tower." Instead, the art reflects a mutual appreciation for things that have not been traditionally classified as "urban subculture" but certainly share a similar rebellious spirit (in particular, I look at the piece of Sartre and think of how he refused his Nobel Prize in 1964).

    When I think of murals --that is, not a graffiti mural but state-sanctioned public art-- I think of something that has historically represented the mainstream ideals of the state (think Mexican mural movement during the revolution). Though murals and graffiti murals share many similarities, and are perhaps now have more in common than ever, I think that the above images reflect an evolution of the graffiti mural and its shifting sensibilities.

    In any case- I like your idea of seeing them as kindred spirits, because they totally are! By the way, wonderful portrait of Neruda- I will always love that poem! Thank you for sharing... AND, stay tuned because tomorrow's post is about literary graffiti in Brazil! :)