Street Anarchy

“Anarchy is chaos. Chaos is the principle of continual creation. And Chaos never died.” Hakim Bey, 1987

Various artists, Hosier Lane

The streets are chaotic image of the mass of humans and a few other animals that manage to survive in such a hostile environment. The idea of a well-ordered tidy street is the image of a dystopic totalitarian state; disguising them as a garden city or behind historic facades only hides the fact. There are always back alleys, service lanes, the backs of signs; and as the philosopher, Max Stirner points out kids love getting behind things and seeing their backsides. The street is a media that the authorities cannot censor; it can never be controlled completely, stickers, dead drops and all kinds of uncontrolled communication (see my posts on Political Graffiti and Graffiti in WWII).

Graffiti gives courage to those who agree with the opinions that they are not alone while demonstrating to the authorities that their view is not universally accepted. Graffiti is about non-violent propaganda by deed, as much as, it is propaganda images and propaganda is so much more effective with cool images. As Sydney street artist Jumbo said: “sometimes the message is just in the action.” (“Vandals or Vanguards?” at RMIT 26/9/11) Graffiti, like the punk bands, says if they can do that then what can I do?

Maybe I should write an addendum about graffiti to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (Penguin,1989). Marcus brilliantly traces an element of anarchy from medieval Anabaptists through the Dadaists, the Situationalists and on to the punks. But do we really need the repetition of Situationalist slogans almost half a century after they were first written on the streets of Paris? Do we even need another slogan or a manifesto or Hakim Bey’s invocations to poetic terrorism to spell out what is written on the wall? Do we need to spell it out blockbuster style or is it enough to bring beauty to an abandoned place?

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

“Culture and the state – one should not deceive oneself over this – are antagonists: the ‘cultural state’ is merely a modern idea. The one lives off the other, the one thrives at the expense of the other.” Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols

From the deliberate actions of culture-jammers and slogan writers, to the basic anti-police and anti-authoritarian attitude of all graffiti writers, graffiti is political. And graffiti is political because it is repressed, because the government attempts to control chaos. For if you act like someone is your enemy then they will become your enemy.

There is a lot of hostility to graffiti because it is chaos (I choose to embrace the chaos). I catch the train and there is a wanted poster for some guy for doing a tag. There is a flier in my letterbox from a politician boasting about how they cleaned up a small patch of graffiti and replaced it with clunky but colourful painting by school children. The approval of a politician makes the illegal legitimate. It is hard to write about Melbourne’s street art and graffiti without talking about the influence of the law; what is a legal piece and what is not, the council’s rules and where they are ignored, overlooked or unenforceable. For an opposing view on “Graffiti and Anarchy” read Tom McLaughlin’s blog. In response to Tom teenage boys drawing phalli are part of the anarchy and chaos of human life and I would only criticize the culture where this is the best that teenage boys can graffiti.

There are plenty of self-aware anarchists doing street art and graffiti in Melbourne but flying the flag for anarchy is rarely a very useful activity. Walking through Melbourne I was handed a flier in the street by veteran anarchist, Dr. Joseph Toscano calling for a new people’s bank. It was a very old school demonstration out the front of a corporate headquarters that had ripped off some small time investors. Toscano talking with a megaphone to small a group of people, other people were handing out leaflets. It made the evening news that night.

I’ve said enough for now – I welcome your thoughts on anarchy and graffiti.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

8 responses to “Street Anarchy

  • rore

    Great, post, your last one also. your put in words everything i feel about graffitti, the intent is in the action, to resist the change for money and personal gain and to promote community voice, and what seems like the last true free speech, reaching it’s audience as they walk past.
    equality in that everyone can paint the walls and if your blind hell i’ll paint what you wanna say. Interaction from the youth even though it does get on your goat to be sure. To have the dark pisstained alleys as mines of art, the voices of the voiceless.
    It goes beyond graffitti and become a sense of freedom that i have felt threatened as Melbourne has become over gentrified and street art commercialized, the streets cleaned up and the leash tightened the noose hung. Money is the driving force behind this, hurrah, lets go out and get some. FUCK THY NEIGHBOUR.

  • Mark Holsworth

    No Rore, no. Don’t play their game. Do not wrestle with monster or you’ll become one. Do something better, funnier, or more beautiful. “Love and do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” St. Augustine

  • 815k1

    Your title says street art and anarchy but you only mention graffiti and some pamphlet. You can call graffiti street art it is considered that by professor Robert Sommers in his book street art but as a graffiti writer I find it offensive to be called a street artist. I have been doing more than just letters and never needed to categorise it as street art. To me a street artist implies you bypassed the risk, the effort, the time involved in doing graffiti, progressing up the food chain. A street artist can be successful they don’t necessarily have to make a good piece or a burners and there work doesn’t have a long term value like the history of graffiti. Graffiti after all is part of the four elements of hip hop. Councils don’t like saying graffiti projects it’s just not PC as it’s illegal and legal but street art that’s different it’s art. Graffiti can’t be art it does share similarities and elements of art but it’s not art it’s more than that and way better. Kings Destroy 1998 on YouTube is a good movie too watch.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Sorry for the offence at including graffiti with street art. Maybe I should change the title to graffiti and anarchy. I am aware of the distinction that graffiti writers want to make however art of any kind is resistant to hard definitions. One of the main problems that I face is writing about graffiti before 1970s hip hop graffiti, writing words on walls is classic graffiti, and that some of it (like the Situationalists) was also art. (I have recently been considering the possibility that of Catullus’s shorter poems were also ancient Roman graffiti.) So when I wrote this post I was wanting to use the words “street art” as broadly as possible, hence the title.

    • 815k1

      Graffiti isn’t art though and if you don’t do graffiti you really can’t understand it. It’s like the quote from Style Wars it’s not for other people it’s for other graffiti writers. You can go as far back as Egypt and call that graffiti but that’s not what I’m talking about. In today’s climate it’s a real struggle to define it because you get someone do it then they go do street art or art and they will say I’m a graffiti writer but they stopped doing graffiti to do art so they can’t be and some never were graffiti writers at all to begin with they claim it, maybe to be a bad ass idk. Many never got past the toy level it’s too hard or they don’t get the success they are after because in graffiti you are not successful for making $ or getting permission walls. It’s your post I’m not saying change it maybe think about a comparitive essay between the two idk you just wanted to know what I think of graffiti and I sorta told you what I think of street art as not being graffiti, it’s not authenticity ten years it will be kitsch crap on the walls maybe outdated by then technology will probably be the in thing in public art being able to interact with it not just look at it

  • Mark Holsworth

    Unfortunately the word ‘graffiti’ is millennia older than the hip hop graffiti style, so when you talk about ‘graffiti’ and mean hip hop style and only hip hop style then unless you are talking or writing for people who only use the word ‘graffiti’ to mean hip hop style (which I am not) then any unauthorised graphic mark is graffiti. To argue that it is not is to engage in a “no true Scotsman move”. The same applies to the word ‘art’, claiming that the calligraphic letters are not art would have calligraphers through out history disagreeing with you, although this argument might have more traction given how disputed the definition of ‘art’ is (compared to ‘graffiti’). There is a lot of kitsch and plagiarism in ‘street art’ and very few people would want to argue that kitsch and plagiarism are art. There is a lot of skill and technique in hip hop graffiti and many people would see that as indicators of art or, at least, craft. Some people don’t like the word ‘art’ and prefer the word ‘culture’ (I’m happy with both). Do you prefer the term “hip hop graffiti culture”?

  • rore

    any term or label with any measure of history will have disagreeing factions over it’s “meaning” art is probably a good example of one, graffitti as solely a hip hop element is no longer a truth, it was taken by skaters, metal heads, and all measure of people wanting to just get up. Even hip hop probably owes some of it’s influence from the punk and arts scenes of early new york, look at the photos of the early CBGB when the punk and post punk were in full sway. plenty of writing on the walls. The media also has a large hand in shaping popular terms and making consumable the cultures that are sometime more divided.
    Many of the early NY writers were very much artists also and gallery shows were just another part of their work. I can’t see much point in getting to hung up about the difference in either street art or graff, graff will be ongoing and so will street art, as essentially they are just different forms of creative expression they have been going on since time immemorial. we should be looking at our collective forms and trying to discern where they are heading, and what new styles can be incorporated into them. And we must resist the councils, that with one hand promote their frontier approach to street art and graffitti while relentlessly pushing the work of young and up and comming writers and artists from the walls. Without having walls that run for a few weeks, there is no culture, or a severly crippled one, the back lanes need to be sanctioned as freezones for whatever you want to do as long as it’s not destroying the property. paint, paste, whatever, just burn. keep it fresh.
    now more than ever we need some unity to smash the councils that think they can paint shit matt grey, muave and white and try to f@ck our culture in the eye. the councils force businesses to clean their own walls or face fines, making businesses hate the culture, they spout BS about the cleaning fees and the money it takes to destroy something that has played a part in Melbournes international standing. shame shame shame. waste of time, money, and resources, but a lot of free wall priming.
    stay fresh.burn∞

  • Mark Holsworth

    Thanks Rore for getting it back to the topic of anarchy. Many good points. Unauthorised acts of beauty challenge concepts of property, trespass (very important to all nomads in the world) and public space. We need tolerance for actions that do no real harm. Cheers.

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