Streets are home not only to all sorts of signs and a great deal of advertising, they also function as a medium for yet another form of communication. One that defies the prevailing linguistic code of the city as it doesn’t urge us to abide by the law, or lures us into irrationally purchasing things we don’t need. Instead, it encourages us to think critically and challenge the status quo, arouses our curiosity and, if we’re lucky, even makes us smile. I’m talking about word-based messages that are illicitly sprayed on, or attached to walls, drainspouts, lampposts, and traffic lights among many other places.
Like other types of street art (most of which of course are image-based and convey messages in their own way too), they demonstrate there is more to the cityscape than standardised architecture, chain stores and omnipresent corporate logos would suggest at first sight. Read between the official lines of the urban fabric and you will discover plenty of grassroots efforts to reappropriate and reinterpret the streets by according a new meaning to specific objects. Put more dramatically, every single dissident message in this category can be considered a battle cry in the struggle over public space, as it relentlessly ends up in private hands.
The question is, however, to what extent such small acts of subversion actually catch the eye of the general public. Shepard Fairey once called them ‘secret subcultural handshakes’, implying they may easily be overlooked by those not directly involved in the street art scene. Do ordinary passers-by (not glued to their smartphone) possess the right tools to discern and comprehend street art messages? Could it be that an overexposure to adverts outdoors has rendered a lot of people unsusceptible to things beyond commercial parameters? Worse still, could this have numbed some people’s senses altogether? Let’s hope reality is brighter than that. Whatever the case, in most cities, a sticker, tag or tile containing a message that deserves to be noticed, is never far away. And surely, a good line or slogan can make daily life a little less monotonous and a little more bearable.
So what does the observant homo urbanus come across in this respect? Basically a potpourri of social critique, pointed one-liners, poetic pretensions, references to pop culture, and plain but really rather witty hogwash. It may concern a brandnew phrase, but could just as well be an existing combination of words that the artist, or handicrafter – or perhaps more fittingly still, the eloquent vandal – has taken out of God knows what context. The common denominator is the seemingly random environment (the new context) in which the (usually anonymous) transmitter has embedded and left behind his or her message. Orwell’s ‘equal animals’ stick to an electrical cabinet simply because they can and someone felt they had to. Isn’t it great to state on a wall that nothing happened on a particular spot in 1765? Or, for that matter, to simply proclaim that we ought to ‘unfuck the world’? It can be somewhat baffling for the recipient though. But bafflement and arbitrariness are precisely what allow for a surprise effect and therein lies the strength; something that is surprising captures your thoughts just a little bit longer.
Light-hearted, scriptural interventions such as these are rarely as conspicuous as paste ups or stencils, let alone murals obviously, but once encountered (at close range), they too make us more aware of our urban surroundings, and that, arguably, makes our relationship to the city more exciting. When it comes to flicking through images online or on paper, however, it goes without saying that doing so naturally doesn’t trigger the same sentiments that are likely to occur in the open-air gallery. Or, as one artist from Amsterdam somewhat similarly asserts on a parking meter; ‘the emotions of the street is [sic] something museums can’t buy’. (Hover your mouse over the photos for translations of texts not in English.)