A small victory for ugliness

There is a great deal about illegal street art that I like. Some of the more complex works that are sometimes undertaken can be stunning and inspiring. They can transform otherwise tediously sterile public spaces. Graffiti can be intelligent and thought provoking. Some of the best work in this vein is provided by stencil artists.

The illegality of the process is central. Illegality demands of the artist speed and proficiency that is less necessary in other forms of praxis. It was this restriction on time, in part, that saw the development of stencil art as a means by which to quickly render complex imagery.

Graffiti can do these things, but it doesn’t always.

One of the things I find unattractive about graffiti is tagging. In fairness, it’s the very same demand for speed that drives this aspect of graffiti. In tagging is found the bravado that is necessary if graffiti artists are to progress onto more complex work, even if in Australia that complexity doesn’t seem to extend much beyond bigger, more colourful tags. This is a bit of a quandary for me, because I’m almost forced to concede the necessity of tagging for the development of street art.

But there’s something far more base and territorial about tagging that grates. I’m just not that interested in pissing contests.

I also think tagging is ugly. Now, I know that this is a matter of taste, and will concede on occasion that things I think ugly may still be important or significant or any other of those ‘ant’ words. But for me the cultural significance of tagging was probably established with any originality a couple of millennia ago. Now, all that’s left is ugliness.

It’s this ugliness, if not the disorderliness, of tagging that I think has driven a community response to preventing graffiti. If all graffiti was complex, mural style designs, I’d suggest, we’d see far less vitriol, far less discussion about the destruction of property values. And I for one can’t really blame people for complaining about the ugliness of tagging.

The complaints about this ugliness make the decision that Sydney Buses have made about the upholstery for their bus seats all the more unfortunate, albeit fathomable. If you’re in Sydney, and you haven’t paid attention, take a look.

The fabric they’ve gone with (and I don’t know how long ago this happened so sorry if I’m way, way, way behind the news) features a kind of blue and purple background with black and yellow scrawling all over it. This black and yellow scrawl is a copy of the effect resulting from thorough tagging and vandalism.

So the solution to graffiti, if Sydney Buses is the example, is to pre-empt it with manufactured ugliness that not only replicates the very problem you’re trying to combat, it applies that ugliness uniformly in a way that had previously only been achieved in an ad hoc way.

That, my friends, is how Sydney Buses has surrendered the field in a small victory for ugliness. Perhaps you have examples of similar small victories. Please feel free to share them.

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