Let’s say you’ve known me for years. Or months. Or even… ten minutes. If you would have to choose one word to describe me after this time, it would probably be, “Street.” “Raw,” “Tough,” and, “Hustlin’” would also come to mind. Which is why I appreciate graffiti.
Oh! That’s sgraffito, a technique that uses differently-colored plasters layered upon one another. The upper layer is scratched away to create contrasts in color and light and an image emerges. The one above is from a small zámek (chateau) in the quiet town of Brandýs nad Labem, north of Prague. This mid-16th-century image stared at many Habsburg emperors and even Empress Maria-Theresa as she waited for her betrothed, Francis-Stephen of the Lorraine. Sgraffito appears on many late-Renaissance walls in the Czech lands, intricate patterns on high royal structures.
But graffiti – Intricate patterns generally on bland concrete walls…
… I like graffiti.
For every elephant and frolicking-in-the-glade scene the Habsburgs etched into plaster, the communist regime saw and raised the ante with concrete. Durable, grey, stolid concrete. Large flat walls of it. Build. Build. Build. These structures, and ones raised by democratically-elected governments since, have become perfect surfaces for the art of graffiti.
Before we go further, I will split graffiti down into down into the murals you will see on this page, and tags. Murals are the often-intricate, intensive renditions of an artist’s street name; tags are the quick marks of the artist’s street name or symbol. Tags appear in a lot of places that irritate municipalities, in parks and on residences. Murals almost need tolerance on the part of authorities, because they take a long time to create.
Most people reading this blog probably take it for granted that graffiti / street-art is socially acceptable. But if graffiti is socially acceptable on some level, it is also dangerous, which is probably why it is acceptable today. That last sentence is not circular logic. If one is under 50, one’s been raised with it to some degree in hippie / hip-hop / protest-ish american culture. Or it might jive nicely with the rebellious or wishing-to-be-so part of one’s psyche. (These are my own observations and assumptions). An example of the above ideas is this photo:
This is a section of the Lennon Wall in the malá strana district of Prague. Decades ago, when it was truly dangerous to do so, students started posting images and quotes of John Lennon on a wall in a quiet square, a symbol of resistance against the communists. Czechoslovakia became maybe more “Lennonist” than “Leninist” in 1989 (not my original joke), and the years that followed have seen thousands of tourists walk by, take a picture or draw a picture, and leave. The sticky notes show solidarity with the current election protesters in Hong Kong. As these notes are in Prague, the personal risk of protesting election procedures on a small Chinese island is small – but they relate to a rebellion! For some, the frisson caused by an illicit statement on an “illegal” surface is the goal and reward. For some, it is a true act of solidarity. As many reasons exist as sticky notes, but this protest in Prague is acceptable here, possibly encouraged, even if it is threatened with batons in Hong Kong.
But graffiti (usually the tags) can spontaneously combust beyond our level of acceptance. Occasionally, but rarely, in Prague, a hastily-drawn swastika stains a pillar – revealing and encouraging old hatreds for the short time before someone covers it up. “But I’m not like that,” one says. Probably true, but any image that threatens upheaval of a region’s current situation for noble or nefarious reasons is uncomfortable. “Give peace a chance,” was revolutionary on the Lennon Wall; the statement still is, if but for its ubiquity.
If it is dangerous why do city governments tolerate it? I assume, because 1) fighting it exhaustively would be a costly and exhausting battle, 2) some of the younger councilwomen and men have elements of the attitude mentioned earlier, and 3) the concrete is grey, and often out of historical city centers.
Around Prague, a lot of great murals glimmer and shine next to bike paths heading south. Passing under the bridge between Braník and Barrandov (With its communist-issued concrete “Y” statue above) is a stylistic, colorful study in anthropology and art. So are the tramwalls in front of the Nestlé offices in Modřany. You can see 20-somethings, 30- somethings, painting away in the daytime. And last time:The boy painting is 13-years-old. He and his friends were with a young woman, who was spraying her own picture. I asked her why she doing this street art. “The colors,” she said. They were all a little wary of an adult male interested in their work blubbering semi-correct Czech, and I didn’t stay too long.
Two weeks later, I passed to see their finished products. Both had been painted over. Graffiti can have a display life of days, making it the urban, secular equivalent to a buddhist sand mandala. So the images you see below, they might still be here if you come to the Czech Republic, but probably not.
(Colors and Contrast have been heighten on the following photos)