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Stainless Steel Extinguishers And Urban Art: The Controversy Over Graffiti

Sep 3, 2008
A stainless steel extinguisher: a classy piece of decor. A vital tool for fighting large, dangerous fires. And, in some urban areas--an art supply. Not that the graffiti artist's arsenal needs to be limited to co-opted extinguishers: the traditional spray can is still popular, and other industrial sprayers, stencils, and tools for putting up illegal art are well-known around the world--yet no less controversial.

Graffiti is one of the most controversial of the modern arts, although it's hardly a modern art at all, considering its long history. The history of art and graffiti is arguably one and the same history, considering the roots of art in the cave paintings and the origins of cartooning in satirical scribbles applied to public monuments. Soldiers recorded their dead using graffiti, and the technique has always been a means of "speaking truth to power": using the powers available to the lower classes to subvert the higher classes and their property.

To simplify the argument in favor of graffiti: it costs thousands to rent a billboard for a week to provide one voice to one company. The ideal of Athenian democracy is for one person to have one voice and one vote in the public sphere. Democracy isn't preserved when inherited wealth allows some people to have vastly more political power and "voice" in American society than others. The graffiti artist, then, climbs the billboards and paints his own message over them. His message is heard, and the company spends more of its own money to remove it: either way, the situation moves closer to the Athenian ideal.

It's this politically-motivated argument that led to the super-popularization of graffiti among the hip-hop and punk cultures of the 1970s. Following the precedent of the French during the fallout of 1968, when students covered the walls of Paris in radical slogans against the police, punk fans and hip hop lifestylers in the rich Manhattan and Brooklyn scenes of the 1970s covered walls, the sides of subway trains, literally everything in tags and slogans explaining who they were and what they were about. The graffiti style developed in Brooklyn became the visual signature of the late twentieth century, with artist Keith Haring in particular and his thick-lined cavorting human figures dancing into the public eye.

Yet the argument against graffiti is no less compelling, especially when websites begin to offer tutorials on how to convert fire extinguishers into graffiti equipment, or on how to most effectively "tag" hard-to-reach yet highly visible locations. Not only is it dangerous and wasteful to co-opt a fire extinguisher even for the noblest political reason, but more often that not innocent people get caught in the crossfire of the lower-class art and high-class property. The best graffiti artists break the law to equalize power relations. The worst graffiti artists--usually young "taggers", obsessed with personal fame--break the law for no other reason than that laws ought to be broken, and spraypaint their names across the property of innocents (under the rationalization that "all property is theft", or some such argument.)

Whether the argument goes for or against, one thing is clear: graffiti is dangerous, and not simply because using a stainless steel extinguisher as an art supply removes its effectiveness in fighting fires. Graffiti is dangerous to the people in power and to the innocent alike--and the war for graffiti's soul will determine which of these groups becomes caught in the political crossfire.
About the Author
Stainless steel extinguishers are elegant and timeless for any premises so see what's available at at www.FireProtectionOnline.co.uk
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