To some people, graffiti is an art form; sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, but always poignant. To others it is an eyesore, linked to gang warfare, crime and the degradation of good “traditional” values and neighbourhoods. But whatever meaning people may find in graffiti there is one point on which I suspect they could all agree; graffiti has the power to change things.
There’s a lamppost in Cambridge called the Reality Checkpoint. It’s been called the Reality Checkpoint since the 1970s, when according to legend a group of students from what is now Anglia Ruskin University painted the words on under the guidance of one of their tutors. Since then, the words have been painted over and repainted countless times in an ongoing battle the city council are likely never to win. For a short time in the late 1990s the lamppost even bore a plaque bearing its name. These days the words “reality checkpoint” are just scrawled untidily on each of its four sides. But the ugliness of the writing doesn’t matter – it’s presence is what’s powerful. An inanimate object with no other claims to fame than possibly being the first electric lamppost in Cambridge is given both name and meaning by virtue of the graffiti written on it. It has become a marker of the boundary between student Cambridge and the “real world”, a place of pilgrimage for generations of LSD trippers (including, apparently, Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett), has inspired a crime novel, a drum and bass album and has even been deemed to warrant its own Wikipedia page.
Graffiti is powerful because it can change the ordinary. Applied to the mundane and dull, it can make it stand out from the landscape. Something that people wouldn’t normally notice becomes noticeable. Something that once had one meaning is given another. It communicates; the Reality Checkpoint is a fun, but tame example – I like it because it’s message is so unloaded and playful. Many perpetrators of graffiti seek to communicate more important messages – pictured is one of graffiti artist Banksy’s works, sprayed onto the West Bank wall that divides Israel and Palestine
What’s more, anyone can create graffiti. From tags scribbled in permanent marker to colourful murals painted with spray cans, their creators can alter their environment and claim space as their own. It’s illegality just adds to its power. Graffiti is most often associated with counterculture because almost by definition it can’t be controlled. As it becomes more accepted as an art form, and as a tool for communication, it is unlikely that more commercial uses of graffiti will ever be able to have the same impact. The effort from IBM pictured, entitled “peace, love, linux” was painted over the sidewalks of New York and San Francisco as part of an advertising campaign intended to make them appear less stuffy and corporate. But these images were non permanent (painted on with biodegradable chalk) and when IBM fell foul of city officials they promised not to mark the streets again. Their “graffiti” was short term and they allowed it to be controlled; it didn’t alter the meaning of the space where it was used in the same way, although it would be interesting to know how effective the advertising campaign eventually was. Enough to also be worthy of a Wikipedia note, but out of the two, it’s the Reality Checkpoint that I think will last. The Reality Checkpoint won’t be controlled – in the 1970s someone’s graffiti altered the meaning of that lamppost for good and ever since it’s had a life of its own. Cambridge City Council can repaint the Reality Checkpoint as often as they like, but there’ll always be someone to re-tag it again; because the most powerful graffiti is not necessarily the most beautiful or the most poignant, but that which changes things in the long term.