by Leo Quick
Graffiti: the obstinate, acne-covered teenager of the Arts. It wants to be noticed, to be valued, but at the same time shirks acceptance, awkwardly lurking in the shadows of society, preferring nocturnal thrills and bricked-wall canvases to sober gallery exhibits. And Street Art divides opinion like no other medium. Depending on where you stand – you might be an anarchistic advocate or an unimpressed traditionalist – graffiti can dazzle or disgust. But whether you think it’s the scourge of the city or a vibrant channel of urban expression, graffiti is finding itself a home in Norwich. Should it stay?
Recent decades have seen a mix of political markings and subversive tags appear on our walls, coating underpasses, car parks, doorways and alleys. Until a few years ago, authorities in Norfolk had adopted the reactionary ‘broken windows’ policy; perpetrators were arrested and spray paint instantly hosed down. But a controversial policy change in 2014 saw Norfolk and Norwich councils reduce its spending on the removal of graffiti by only cleaning markings considered ‘offensive or racist’. The resultant buildup of scrawls in public spaces and on private property has seen an upsurge of complaints from locals, fearing that by deterring tourism and investment, graffiti is losing Norwich the revenue and jobs it needs to prosper.
But is that completely fair? Look at the iconic Snap Dragon mural on Red Lion Street, or the bookshelf panorama of famous Norwich buildings on the bricks of the Virgin building, both part of the ‘City of Stories’ project run by Norwich Business Improvement District (BID). Look at Anmar Mirza, the now-global artist from Norwich whose explosive Spanish-style mural, commissioned by the ‘Get Walls’ project, can be seen on the side of Bar Tapas on Exchange Street. Anmar has helped raise the profile of Moosey Art, a Norwich-based art supplier which sells his work. And it’s not just an en plein air phenomenon. Walk down the Lanes to The Birdcage, go to the toilets and muse at the satirical scrawls adorning the bog walls. Tiffany, who works in the building, says they don’t deter people from adding to the walls despite being on private property. ‘It adds to our aesthetic’ she says, and she’s right. What the old guard have to accept is that culture has become a public event, no longer sequestered off in gallery frames and privileged living rooms. This liberation of art has fostered a new urban environment, where street art offers people the language to articulate their relationship with their public space.
Isn’t street art then an inevitable byproduct of urbanisation in liberal times? Should we not look to the places where this audacious artform has been harnessed, not simply hushed up? Bogotá, for instance, where graffiti has been decriminalised in an effort to remediate hostilities in Colombia’s capital, which is home to an estimated 500 gangs and has seen a number of gang-related deaths in recent years. “Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing” says Banksy, and this is perhaps what Bogotá’s mayor, Gustavo Petro, had in mind when he gave free roam to street artists (Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall). Giving people a space to criticise, satirise, and exercise their creativity may go some distance towards detoxifying gang conflict. However, while Petro’s bold move has yielded a number of beautiful and politically-raw pieces across the city’s walls, it’s also seen a surge in unsightly daubs and tags on shop-fronts, houses and monuments. In Norwich, we see this flip-side in the bubble-lettered tribalism of ‘Shook’, ‘Baza’ and ‘RASPY’ tags, which we can’t really define as street art.
What Norwich is crying out for, rather than a complete decriminalisation, is more permissible spaces and projects to give street art the controlled environment it deserves. The Grapes Hill underpass and the legal wall at Anglia Square have shown that if you allocate a space to art, artists will come. The ‘Underground Gallery’ hosts pieces of genuine skill and thought. More permissive spaces can only bring more of the same. At this point Norwich City Council has no plans to increase the number of legal walls, despite a spokesperson admitting that removing graffiti “costs a significant amount each year”. The writing, then, is on the wall – an investment in street art would give those out tagging a creative frame to put their artform to practice, brightening up our spaces and perhaps saving the council a penny or two for other, more necessary services.
Featured image by Alex Valente
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