Tag Archives: propaganda

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.


Stencils – propaganda in WWII

This is written for all the stencil artists out there on the streets, especially the ones doing political stencils. Or anyone wondering when did stencil graffiti start? This is also for all the politicians who think that they can stop graffiti; yes, I’m talking to you Steve Beardon. (But I suspect that it will probably be mostly read by WWII buffs.)

Italian fascists, Americans and local resistance forces, used stencil graffiti for propaganda in Europe during WWII. The  French street artist, Blek le Rat became aware of stencil street art after he saw a stencil of Mussolini amongst some WWII ruins during a trip to Italy. “The fascists in Italy used a lot of stenciling during WWII. They would do Mussolini’s portrait. I had seen this when I was young, and I remembered that when I was considering how to interface with the street.” (Blek le Rat in Swindle Magazine)

The use of stencils as propaganda tools is described in declassified OSS files (the OSS being the forerunner to the CIA) from WWII:

“These (stencils) have been especially designed for clandestine work and are small enough to be concealed in shirt or coat pockets…A special paint brush combination is designed for use with the stencils also small enough to be carried in the pocket. No special paint container is necessary…Any paint can be used, old or fresh…it is necessary to carry a rag with which to wipe the back of the stencil…Little risk is involved in the use of stencils, and a sign can be painted in 7 seconds, with implements concealed immediately. This method of spreading propaganda has a special appeal to the young who can have little other part in the action against the enemy.” (Quoted in Psywarrior)

The final two sentences of this description makes it clear the futility of anti-graffiti campaigns; even in Nazi occupied Europe there is “little risk” and “this method of spreading propaganda has a special appeal to the young”. So unless an anti-graffiti campaign is more draconian than the Nazi occupation of Europe there is no hope of its success.

The OSS stencil “Parole Heimat” (Password Homeland) was approved on 7 July 1944 and 300 stencils were delivered on 9 August 1944. What happened to them then is not known but there is photographic evidence of the Polish resistance use of stencils.

WWII graffiti - Grunvald on a wall, from Wikimedia Commons

It is interesting to note, in this propaganda war, that the ethics of graffiti is the same for military and anarchic psychological operations. Melbourne street artist, Junky Projects says: “Never hit churches, houses or small business” and the Canadian PYOPS manual: “PSYOP personnel should discourage graffiti on historic, religious, or private structures.” (Canadian 2004 Joint Doctrine Manual B-GJ-005-313/FP-001 Psychological Operations)

It is important to note that, as is the case now, most graffiti in WWII was not propaganda but personal – basically tagging. Examples of WWII tagging can be seen in the photos of American WWII graffiti by Paul and a gallery of photos of Soviet WWII graffiti at Trend Hunter.


Peter Propaganda Garrett

When Peter Garrett was still Shadow Minister for the Arts I wrote about his arts policy – Burning the Midnight Oil.  I did not hold out much hope for his arts policy at the time. On that occasion Garrett calls his political opponents “philistines” but in the Bill Henson controversy one of these alleged philistines, Malcolm Turnbull has defended the Henson against philistine attacks by the ALP. Garrett also said that he and his party would talk more about the arts but on the first major arts issue Garrett has remained silent.

I emailed Peter Garrett to find out what the Minister for the Arts was doing to reduce the chill effect from the recent censorship or if he wanted to reduce the arts to a mouth piece for government propaganda. I have heard nothing, not even an acknowledgement of my enquiry and I am not alone. In the open letter leading writers, dramatists, filmmakers, musicians and artists called on the Minister for Arts Peter Garrett to “stand up for artists” against the “encroaching censorship, which has resulted in the closure of this and other exhibitions”. Garrett ignored their letter too.

Garrett like other Christian socialists wants the arts to be a well-crafted propaganda suitable for the masses, without subtly or any genuine insight. This sums up his entire artistic career as front man for Midnight Oil.

If Garrett now wants to do something for the arts he should resign as Minister for the Arts. He has failed according to his own standards. He has lost the confidence of the arts community. He does not even have the courage even reply to the concerns of the Australian arts community.

Unlike Garrett, the ABC is doing its job and educating the public about the arts with multiple repeat broadcasts of a documentary on Bill Henson, as well as another story about Henson on Sunday Arts. And unlike Garrett, the ABC is unconcerned about prejudicing an ongoing and going nowhere police investigation. 


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