Reverse graffiti? Emerging art medium raises all kinds of interesting questions…

Okay, this is brilliant. I never heard of it until this morning and now I learn that there’s apparently a whole movement afoot, with a project and everything.

From the Wikipedia entry:

Reverse graffiti, also known as clean tagging, dust tagging, grime writing, green graffiti or clean advertising, is a method of creating temporary images on walls or other surfaces by removing dirt from a surface. It is often done by removing dirt/dust with the fingertip(s) from windows or other dirty surfaces, such as writing ‘wash me’ on a dirty vehicle. Others, such as artists Moose use a cloth or a high power washer to remove dirt on a larger scale. 

Aside from the obvious aesthetic value, this genre, if we can call it that, plays with some other interesting artistic and social questions. For instance:

  • The medium is dirt – pollution on infrastructure, if you will. The “canvas” is a function of the very air we’re slowly choking on and it’s just about impossible to create a piece that doesn’t, at some level, embed a comment on environmental degradation.
  • It’s art by subtraction – one creates by removing from the canvas, not adding; in this way it is arguably more like sculpture than painting.
  • Reverse graffiti is transient – like the work at the Denver Chalk Arts Festival that I commented on Sunday, this art is built not to last (as I noted in the poetry community, there’s some Ozymandius at work there, and there’s some sort of twist on it here).
  • Even more interesting, though, is that reverse graffiti is fighting a two-front war to survive. It can be destroyed by cleaning (the macro application of the very technique that created it) or by the continued accumulation of pollution, which generated the canvas in the first place.
  • As with any art these days, I suppose, there are always going to be issues surrounding its relationship to capitalism and the political economy. This may already be  true with reverse graffiti – Clorox seems to have sponsored the work you see above as a way to promote a new green cleaning product, and the Wiki entry notes it as an ad medium (also, note the logo on the left end of the mural); click the image for more details.
  • One can’t help wondering at the socio-political implications embedded in the genre: your regular old garden variety spray can graffiti is illegal – it’s vandalism – but you can hardly be arrested for cleaning a wall, or parts of it, can you? (Although I guess a duly motivated gendarmery could find something to hassle you with, like creating a public disturbance or something – the cops do appear in the video below.) So there’s perhaps a cheeky resistance gesture underneath it all, as well.

So there, off the top of my head, are at least six dissertations waiting to written. I just got here and am obviously shooting from the hip, so any readers with a greater knowledge of this movement are invited to jump in and educate me. Please – this is fascinating. How William Gibson hasn’t written a novel about this yet I have no idea.

Here’s Environmental Graffiti‘s take on the 35 greatest works of reverse graffiti and we’ll conclude with a neat vid of Alexandre Orion working on “Skulls” in Sao Paolo, with a conclusion that feels like a violation.

Even more to explore here…


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  • I was a window cleaner but now I have set up a business that does exactly this! That is reverse graffiti advertising.

    Until the law changes this is a perfect way to advertise events, because they will wash away once the event is over instead of leaving messy looking posters around the place. And it’s legal! For now anyway.

    Great article.

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