Opinions about graffiti being art or an act vandalism will always conflict each other. In most countries, marking or painting property without the property owner’s consent is considered defacement and vandalism, which is a punishable crime. The artists themselves will argue freedom of expression. What’s On walks the graffiti-tagged streets of the city.
According to dictionary definitions, any inscription on a wall can be named graffiti (from the Latin graffiato, or scratched). But in a modern context, those “inscriptions” are part of a rapidly developing art form whose value is highly contested and reviled by many authorities, while also subject to protection, sometimes within the same jurisdiction. Dating back to the times of Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, graffiti has always been around. The advent of permanent markers and aerosol paint collided with the rise of the hip-hop culture in the US to create a perfect storm that spread across the globe. But when it comes to graffiti itself, no dictionary or critic can interpret a work of art better than its creator.
One of Kyiv’s street artists, who signs his work along with other artists in his circle “FTE”, gives his rather poetic take: “I don’t think that graffiti is only about letters, composition, and font development. Graffiti is something more. If you practice it seriously, your life stops being cyclical and predictable. Graffiti changes a lot both in your attitude to life and to yourself.”
His love for graffiti began in 2002 when he watched a video from German dance music project U96 called Energie. He was hooked, and as access to information was limited, FTE would spend days watching the same channel just to see the video again. For him, graffiti is spiritual. “If you do it, you feel this spirit. It’s power. People don’t understand why I paint graffiti and I don’t understand why they don’t.”
In his early days as a graffiti artist his education came from the work of others, he began looking for graffiti on the walls of his native city and would rush to another part of the city just to stare at some newly created graffiti he’d heard about from somebody.
The Wall As His Canvas
He was inspired – there were so many styles to emulate, and with a group of friends he made his first graffiti with chalk, later saving money to buy spray-paint. “I remember how spooky it was to use paint. And the next day we would go and look at our own graffiti.”
What about the controversy of graffiti being on a knife-edge between art and vandalism? Our interviewee is firm in his beliefs. “Graffiti wouldn’t be graffiti if it was legal. Those who paint graffiti don’t simply draw, they have to think. You need to plan every step, do it as quickly as possible and get out of there, and that’s the best part. When I move around the city, I’m always looking around, looking for new places to create. I have many projects I want to complete, and for each of them I’m just waiting for the right time. It’s sort of a big strategy game, I enjoy graffiti being illegal.”
Street art is a global phenomenon, but as it crosses borders does it pick up some of the local culture? If you take Ukraine, the events of EuroMaidan leave no doubt, and pay testament to graffiti being reactive and reactionary to that which is going on around us. FTE says while his work might be reactive to an extent, it is also designed to provoke a reaction. “It is a kind of entertainment. It is always interesting to observe people’s reaction to a text I leave on the walls. Yet I cannot say there are strong national elements in Ukrainian graffiti. There are people writing in Cyrillic, but only a few. The language of graffiti is English.”
However, he has spread the Ukrainian take on graffiti beyond Ukraine’s borders travelling to Moldova, Bulgaria, and Albania in what is part of a spray-painting cultural exchange of sorts. Last year, artists from the Czech Republic visited Ukraine. For our interviewee those connections are invaluable for his personal creative development.
Speaking of that experience, does he aspire to become as well known as say the UK’s Banksy, who has gone on to create graffiti on walls all over the world, as well as branch out into other artistic endeavours? The artist is critical. “Banksy for me isn’t graffiti, but a commercial mass culture project. It is quite annoying to hear some people saying Banksy is everything and we (other graffiti artists) are nothing. Banksy has partially caused a negative attitude to graffiti, though it’s not his fault. It is all about people knowing little, yet arrogantly thinking they know everything.”
Various amateur videos litter the Internet showing graffiti artists running away from people who have intervened, security staff, or police. In our graffiti artist’s opinion this is due to the fact that graffiti has yet to gain mainstream acceptance. “For some reason, people imagine they’re super heroes instead of simply passers-by when they catch us. You never know what to expect. I will never forget when I had to jump off a moving train. But it was totally worth it. I don’t support covering graffiti in media. No article, no video will help prejudiced people understand what graffiti is. Real graffiti is radical. It disturbs people’s impression of having control over everything.”
And while the general public may not respect graffiti or graffiti artists, the artists do have respect for each other – a type of unwritten code...or at least there was. “I have never considered painting over the creations of other artists. Now kids with spray paint don’t know what they are doing. They need to learn to respect those who’ve painted for a long time.”
While there are clear personal motivators when it comes to graffiti, he concedes that the viewpoint on whether it is art or vandalism is equally as individual. You be the judge.
by Olga German