What is reverse graffiti?

A wall washed by “Moose” (photo by mrsmullerauh – CC-BY)

I have only once in my life created graffiti. in 1980, a  friend and I were visiting Melbourne where the City Council had just installed a public graffiti wall. We thought this was a great idea, so we bought a couple of cans of spray paint and set to work on our masterpiece.

We were almost finished when a very upset City official arrived and chased us away. He was shouting that we were using the wrong kind of materials and our work was too big. Without a touch of irony, he screamed angrily “What gives you the right to deface the public graffiti wall?”. Oh well, I suppose everyone learns sooner or later that the cake is a lie.

I was therefore pleased to discover that there’s a legal form of graffiti. Instead of marking a public surface, the reverse graffiti artist washes away the accumulated grime. Done selectively, the effect can be most artistic. Reverse graffiti can be carried out “Sadie-like”—with trusty scrubbing brush and pail of water—but it’s faster and more precise to work with a jet of detergent and water from a pressure-washer.

Is it really legal? It’s hard to imagine anyone being prosecuted for washing a wall, and I can’t find any such case. But many authorities are uncomfortable with individuality and personal expression, and don’t like their power to be usurped, so reverse graffiti artists can expect to be given a hard time. When Alexandre Orion was creating his artwork by cleaning a street tunnel in Brazil, the police accosted him regularly but couldn’t find a way to charge him. So the establishment beat him at his own game: they washed off his artwork, and for good measure they washed all of the underpasses in the city to deny him his canvas.

The Yorkshire graffitist who calls himself Moose turned reverse graffiti into a business by undertaking commercial works for corporate advertisers, and was threatened with prosecution by Leeds City Council. Rather than risk a confrontation, he removed the rest of the grime around the work in question, making it invisible.

Some artists prefer to produce eco-graffiti using natural materials such as moss and mud.

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1 Comment

  • larry says:

    In 1998 in Melbourne there were signs warning of a A$3000 fine for graffiti. Now I see that they are really cracking down – and that “graffiti” has become a verb.

    In Germany, transformer houses and similar small utility buildings are aften covered with graffiti artwork by artists hired by the owner companies, the artwork often vaguely related to the purpose of the building. Lesser artists and taggers respect the works.

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