On the one hand Graffiti and the other advertising, two star-crossed mediums, which for mostly superficial reasons aren’t comfortable occupying the same space. Okay, I don’t fancy myself much of a writer but, I’ll get the ball rolling here and hope I make sense. When one thinks of graffiti, the mind generally tends towards its more notorious associations with vandalism, which is a powerful though negative moniker that while apt detracts from its more aesthetic derivatives. As a result, lately, the term graffiti is being substituted with the euphemism ‘Street Art’ that translates the art form into a more palatable media, less linked to the culture of unsanctioned murals sprayed across urban landscapes and more so considered as a commercial derivation. These days, street artists are growing increasingly popular with events being held ever so often all around the globe in honour of what is now generally accepted as a lower form of art that features in galleries at times, some streets even achieving fame the world over for the murals adorning the walls along them.
So how does advertising fit in to the narrative? Advertising’s main objective has always been to; firstly, capture the consumer’s attention, followed up by creating a growing desire for the product on offer, a formulae that in simple terms means, buy, buy, and buy some more. The intention is quite simple and will probably never change, but, with the world perpetually moving toward the future, a few adjustments may in fact be necessary. The development of technology has in essence made the world today a smaller place, and information on almost everything is now available at the click of a button, giving rise to the digital age of advertising. The gist being that in this day and age people are constantly bombarded with various modes of advertising and generally on the devices they use on a daily basis, so what happens to the more tactile forms of advertising in the competition for attention is the question. The traditional poster medium which in my opinion is generally perceived as flat and disappears into the background or monotony of mediums just like it, is becoming outdated.
Enter guerrilla advertising, the markets have become a warzone and the consumers are the target, so ads have to employ more, subversive means to lure in the consumer. Ads these days have to sell themselves to the consumer before even selling the product or service on offer. Guerrilla advertising quite literally catches the consumer off guard by blending into the environment through something as simple as a decorated street fixture or as complex as an interactive instillation that may draw the curiosity of crowd. Commercial graffiti works off this same premise as the mural is either spectacular in its delivery, in that it’s a gigantic art piece sprawled on the side of a building or a less imposing but, interesting composition in its execution. The recognition of graffiti is in general owed to a variety of factors such as style, location, colour, message, public appeal and even the notoriety of the artist. Graffiti is fame driven art form and its commercial value can be heightened for even the biggest brands around if the artist is well known. And as suggested by Nancy MacDonald and her work through her seminal book: ‘The Graffiti Subculture’, “fame, respect and status are not naturally evolving by-products of this subculture, they are its sole reason for being” (MacDonald, 2001: 68). In the same breath graffiti advertising comes with a slew of controversy with the commercialization of the art form drawing critics on all sides, its proponents arguing that its endorsement allows for the graffiti artist to take on a more responsible lifestyle through formal employment as anything otherwise is frowned upon when measured against societal standards. Its detractors viewing the endorsement as a way of legitimizing illegal forms of graffiti and others likening the shift of the art form into the commercial arena to ‘selling out’, seeing it as profit driven and less about the message. The art form often addresses issues relating to politics, social matters and popular culture, and because of its usually raw explicit nature it rarely enjoys public approval. Its lack of inhibitions can also be deemed as part of the aesthetics, opening a dialogue with the viewer in ways that other art forms simply cannot.
Graffiti’s vivid use of colour, radical use of imagery and letterforms, and blunt confrontation of social and political issues make it a unique method of delivery whether advertising on buildings, through making prints and logos for clothing and gallery showcasing the versatility of this practically new media is virtually untapped. According to MacDonald, commercial graffiti artistry “moves writers out of the boundaries of the subculture”, because artists “no longer paint for their peers and themselves, they have a new audience”. As a media outlet graffiti has a youthful appeal that can autonomously generate social media attention, launching an advertising campaign further than into the public sphere than previously imagined. I suppose graffiti and advertising share a Shakespearean back-story, though I doubt there being a tragic end to the union of the two, at best the future is branded in vivid colour.
Written by Tsholofelo Kapiwa – design intern
MacDonald, N ‘The Graffiti Subculture: youth, masculinity, and identity in London and New York’ Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001