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Chris Dew on Stencil Revolution.

Melbourne has an underground tourist route not promoted on the usual itineraries. It has galleries you won't find listed in the Art Almanac or reviewed in the weekend papers. These are the stencil and graffiti art galleries in the laneways and railway cuttings throughout the city that seal Melbourne's reputation as one of the great graffiti cities of the world. Centre Place and Hosier, Caledonian and Canada Lanes are just some of the places people visit to see the stencil graffiti that has put Melbourne, home of the international Melbourne Stencil Festival, on the graffiti map.

To some this may seem a dubious honour, but for stencil and other graffiti artists, as well as many urban dwellers who consume but do not produce graffiti, it is part of what gives the city its vibrancy. In a society increasingly geared toward the privatisation of public amenities and spaces, where domestic and civic architecture turns its back to the streetscape with large inward-looking walls protecting the inhabitants of buildings from the 'outside', where advertising dominates the visual landscape and communities struggle to survive the destruction of the 'local', stencil art and graffiti can appear as reassuring signs of life--of a public discourse, a thriving arts culture and of humans interacting with and animating their neighbourhoods.

Even if they dislike graffiti 'in general', many people will have a favourite piece of graffiti or graffiti story, a sign that forms part of their personal map of the city. This might be a political slogan, a piece of whimsy, a colourful mural or a stencil image that stands out from the city's walls for them. Such pieces of graffiti are like the punctum of photography in Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, something that 'rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me'.

The stencilled graffiti we see on streets makes a new use of an old technology whose recent origins are traced to the work of Parisian stencil artists of the 1980s, but which also references the political graffiti of Latin America, the packaging and public signage of some Asian countries, and the screen prints of pop art. Stencils have a noticeably different aesthetic to the hip-hop-style graffiti that has dominated graffiti culture in recent years.

With the significant exception of tagging, hip-hop-style graffiti continues a tradition that has its origins in New York subway graffiti of the 70s and early 80s. It makes large images geared towards train travellers and passengers in moving vehicles. Throw-ups (large, quickly rendered bubble letters) and highly stylised graffiti 'masterpieces' are images to be viewed from a distance.

By contrast, most stencil graffiti and tags address the pedestrian and thrive in areas where there is significant pedestrian activity. Stencil images tend to be smaller in scale than hip-hop graffiti, and to differ from it in their aim for clarity in mode of address, message and design. The scale is partly a response to the smaller spaces available for graffiti as popular walls fill up and others are regularly painted over to deter street artists--but also of the practicalities of the form. Small stencils can be held in place with one hand while paint is swiftly sprayed to form an image with the other. Larger stencils are conspicuous in transit and cannot be so rapidly executed.

The freeform of subway-style graffiti is not limited by the size of a template, only by the availability of paint, space and opportunity. Hip-hop graffiti art aims for opacity in its highly stylised calligraphy and it tends to address other graffiti writers rather than the general public. As a result, the clean, clear, more 'readable' images of stencil artists have enjoyed a more favourable response from the public than graffers and certainly taggers, although these are not necessarily different constituencies of street artists.

Stencil images favour strong, simple design, single, high impact messages and a utilitarian aesthetic borrowed from the functional graphic conventions of packaging and public signage. As Tristan Manco notes in Stencil Graffiti, these signs need to be clear, instructive and consistent. They are often the chosen style for temporary signage on construction sites and road works. Stencil graffitists play with these conventions, instructing the public to beware of existential hazards. 'Danger--you are here,' a gutter warns. 'Nothing', is the stenciled message on a wall.

This directness and clarity of message, along with the military and do-it-yourself feel of stencil graffiti, also make it a recognisable medium for political messages, a kind of guerilla war against corporate consumerism or the politics of the day. There is a fond nostalgia for the revolution in a stenciled image, a retro reference to the utilitarian aesthetic of the workers' struggle. An image of a skeletal child asks, 'Is this what a war victim looks like?'; a sinister collection of black-suited men accompany the slogan 'Suspect the alliance'.

Other stencils reinterpret corporate logos or question materialism. A reworked image of the sacred heart of Jesus that once adorned so many Catholics' lounge room walls reads, 'Jesus says consume!' His fingers gesture to his chest where a dollar sign has replaced his bleeding heart.

Perhaps most significantly, in their simple slogans and strong imagery stencils also owe a debt to advertising, and many stencil artists see their work explicitly in these terms. Stencil artists respond to the dominance of advertising in the urban landscape, reclaiming the streets with uncommissioned art and unsolicited slogans, circulating outside the market economy but alongside its signs: the billboards and hoardings that fill our public spaces.

Stencil graffiti is a form of advertising and a form of anti-advertising, both 'an expression of our culture and a counterculture in itself', as Manco notes. Like taggers and graffers, stencil artists advertise themselves when they put their work on the street, but they also animate public spaces with signs that are not about commerce. They offer the rare pleasure of a visual stimulus without the hard sell.

There is, of course, nothing inherently liberatory about a stencil image, any more than they necessarily question the dominant values of our culture. Some stencils are pure pornography, celebrations of retro chic or of celebrity. The familiarity of their references to popular culture, advertising tropes and graphic design has a lot to do with their greater acceptability to the public.

But the affinities with advertising can be uncomfortable. Some of the first stencils to be seen in Melbourne around the time of the recent explosion of stencil graffiti were in fact advertising, guerilla marketing campaigns for companies like the bag manufacturer Crumpler. If for a time we cannot tell the difference between the intervention of a stencil artist in public space and the brand saturation of a company's entree into the local youth market then this is both the strength and the danger of the form.

It is the do-it-yourself look of stencil and other graffiti that attracts our attention. More traditional forms of advertising are too slick. Homemade stencils placed in unlikely places engage the viewer in a very different way than traditional advertising because we don't know why they are there. We think it is unlikely that they are selling us something even though they work because their repetition is another form of branding. Stencils are, after all, literally a template for mass production. But their technology is charming and simple, and the human labour involved in their production and circulation is only too evident.

We are more inclined to have a personal response to this personalised communication--to wonder about who put this message here and why. We may like it or loathe it but we are less likely to be indifferent because an individual has addressed us in public, and had the cheek do so 'without permission'. Many stencil artists see their activity as personalising public spaces and 'softening' harsh urban landscapes. They mark public spaces with evidence of human occupation, creating something small-scale and random amid the overwhelming and impersonal monuments of the cityscape. And they invite us to respond, to have thoughts in public spaces. It may not be a revolution but it might be one part of the resuscitation of public life.

Chris Dew is a senior lecturer in Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Studies at La Trobe University. She is working on a study of graffiti and street art in Melbourne. With thanks to vexta, xero, DLUX! and ha-ha.
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Title Annotation:graffito decoration
Author:Dew, Chris
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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