Society - Art
By: - at March 5, 2013

Graffiti Artists and Radical Media

Graffiti as Radical Media
Obama, Hope PosterAccording to Downing, radical media is a form of media that is “relatively free from the agenda of the powers that be, and sometimes in opposition to one or more element in that agenda” (Downing, 8). It is hard to define a solid boundary for radical media though, lines become blurred when we introduce the concept of audiences. Looking at this concept we must look at the ideas of time scale and social movement. Radical media tends to portray the fact that a certain kind of change needs to happen urgently, which brings us to the idea of social movement. Radical media which takes on many forms, can help to solidify the concepts of a social movement, and it can help to unify people within the movement by bringing about social change. Graffiti is an excellent example of radical media, in that it originates from outside of the mainstream media leaving an audience with a powerful message.

Graffiti Background
Graffiti first became recognizable to the mainstream in the 1980’s in New York city. It began as a form of counter-culture in areas neglected by advertisers, where the artists used their work to communicate with their audience. It was in these low-income neighborhoods that empty billboards began to be used by graffiti artists to send a message. These pieces did not have much intrinsic aesthetic value, but they declared a message to the people who could read and understand them. Today this form of “art” is seen all across the world in countries like Syria, Libya, Egypt, Palestine, and Haiti. While in the Western world graffiti has evolved and turned into an aesthetically pleasing wonder while still maintaining its message. In second and third world countries it maintains the basic elements of lines, scribbles and words serving as a perfect example of radical media. Graffiti can be scrawled hastily to stir rebellion, cause incitement, and beg for freedom.


As with any form of media or technology, graffiti has evolved over the years. It started out as a guy with a spray can tagging a wall or a train car, but has transitioned into premeditated projects involving pasting up prepared posters or using stencils. This allows the street art to be placed in many more locations, decreases completion time, and decreases the chance of being caught by authority figures. This allows the artist to be more bold with their statements as well as to use more visual cues to help push their ideas. The artists I am going to discuss used their pieces to make statements about government, religion, art, war, society and so much more.

British Royal GuardBy far the most famous name in the street art scene for several years now is Banksy. He is based in Bristol, England and has been pulling stunts and spraying stencils since the mid 90’s in many cities across the globe. Marc Schiller, who runs a US based graffiti website stated, “Every once in a while, you meet someone who can do things other people can’t do, and I put Banksy in that category. Graffiti is something very inaccessible; it’s not something everyone likes or understands. But Banksy’s work appeals to everyone; it crosses cultural borders and age,” (Gopnick). Banksy is constantly pushing the envelope and reaching for that next big statement he can make whether it is about capitalism, war or famine.

Banksy, Graffiti ArtistBansky generally uses his wit and his creativity to make statements he feels the world should see. One of his earliest and most admired pieces relates very well with present times, even though it was painted in the late 90’s. It is a painting of a teddy bear throwing a molotov cocktail at a group of riot police, with the text, “The Mild, Mild West....” He used this piece to showcase the unnecessary violence the police used to break up a group of peaceful party goers in Ashton, England. The bear is representative of the group’s mellow attitude while the bomb suggests that they will fight for their freedoms if need be. This can so easily relate to the Occupy Wall Street movement that has gained popularity in the past few years . Hundreds of peaceful protesters have been violently assaulted by police forces, however they have not chosen to “fight back” which has made their case incredibly strong. Banksy also has a piece that speaks to this non violence, a “rebel” with his arm stretched back ready to throw but instead of a bomb he is holding a bouquet of flowers.

Banksy paradise graffiti wall in BethlehemAnother famous work Banksy created was in Bethlehem, on the concrete barrier, in 2005 during the height of political and religious conflict in the area. This piece looked like someone dug through the wall to show paradise beyond. Banksy did a couple of other works on this wall in the West Bank, all showing a break in the wall and a more beautiful place where freedom could be obtained. He has done many controversial pieces in countries all across the world, and as Marc Schiller stated he is enjoyed by many people from different walks of life. His messages speak to society and allow us to share our thoughts about heavy subjects which in other times and spaces have been taboo.

OBEY, PosterThe next artist who has had a serious impact on society with his street art is Shepard Fairey, more commonly known as OBEY. He follows a similar path as Banksy in that his pieces are generally large murals, which often times commissioned as opposed to placed illegally. Fairey started out the same way as all street artists, placing posters and stickers or spraying illegally on buildings, however his work has less of a sarcastic wit and more of a profound statement to it. This brought him into light as a spokesperson for the downtrodden and wronged classes in America’s society as well as a huge anti-war supporter.

OBEY derived his name from the John Carpenter film, They Live, where an unemployed construction worker finds a pair of special sunglasses. The sunglasses display the subliminal commands of those in power on billboards and advertisements across the country. It was the beginning of a war against the establishment and it had a big influence on Shepard Fairey. He felt that the movie had an oddly profound message despite it’s campiness, which was that society is being blindly manipulated and if one could just see past the surface they would recognize this fact. He began his street art campaign using the word OBEY, saying he wanted to mimic advertising but without a product.

He is a very good example of the counter-culture becoming mainstream, as he is most famously known by mass audiences, not just within the street art scene, for his HOPE poster. This was a poster he designed for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Shepard began fine tuning his messages to political statements around 2003, starting with anti-war posters and following those up with anti Bush posters in 2004. The Obama poster was actually his first poster in favor of something or someone and not against someone or something and it really pushed Fairey well beyond his usual audiences, bringing his message to not only his art fans and followers but millions of people across the United States.

Beginning with this campaign, his commercial empire has had much success. He has done graphic design work for Absolut, Queens of the Stone Age, and Guitar Hero as well as having a line of clothing that is enormously popular as well as fairly expensive. There have been complaints from his followers that he is selling out. Fairey responds to these charges that he is not, that “it hurts my feelings that people don’t recognize that I’m doing my commercial work with the best intentions, in an ethical way, and still making my artistic point” (Bearman). He also says that he does work for corporations and uses that money to fund OBEY and gives out a lot of other items for free. This raises the question of crossing over into mainstream territory. When the message is no longer radical although it’s delivery may still be, is it still a rebellion? Fairey argues that there is power in mass-media and he even quotes Marshall McLuhan saying, “The medium is the message.”

OBEY, Shepard FaireyHe has really taken the next step to show his “grassroots” are still intact, doing a lot of work for the Occupy Wall Street movement that has taken off over the last couple of years. He altered his famous Obama Hope poster calling for Obama’s support for the movement. He released the image, in which Obama’s face replaced with a figure wearing the Guy Fawkes mask, with the quote, “this image represents my support for the Occupy movement, a grassroots movement spawned to stand up against corruption, imbalance of power and failure of our democracy to represent and help average Americans. On the other hand, as flawed as the system is, I see Obama as a potential ally of the Occupy movement if the energy of the movement perceived as constructive, not destructive. Mister President, we HOPE you’re on our side” (NG).

Along with showing support for the Occupy movements he selected to inaugurate the Artist as Activist series put out by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. One hundred signed prints of the newest Fairey poster, “The Future is Unwritten” will be sold at an online auction with most of the proceeds going to help the nonprofit organization Coalition for the Homeless. While it is still debatable due to his enormous success and commercial endeavors, Fairey obviously makes an effort to show his thoughts and ideals in every piece he creates. Whether it is a message against war or a political statement of hope or a call to arms for a major social movement, he maintains his standards and uses his name and art to reach a massive audience to enact social change.

J.R., Eyes MuralJ.R. is a French artist, who does incredible work but is not as well-known as Banksy or Obey. He owns the biggest art gallery in the world and exhibits his work all across the globe. He began humbly, by taking photos in Europe and observing the people there. He is best known for creating massive photos of the downtrodden and unaccepted people of society and plastering these photos over entire buildings. He worked on a project he called “Women” in which he focused on the dignity of women who often are most affected by conflicts around the world.

J.R., Gaffiti ArtistHe makes it his goal to not only show the world the downfalls in society but to include that same society’s members as well. By using photos of members of the community and allowing children and other people to help distribute and put up his work, he is bringing the message of his work that much closer to home. After his works have exhibited locally they are transported to large cities such as New York, Los Angeles and London, where people in these communities can look upon them and interpret them in their own ways. This act spreads his message even farther around the world. J.R. has stated that his wish is “for people to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we’ll turn the world... inside out” (Public Art Review, 74).

Morley, Graffiti Artist PosterThe last artist I want to talk about is much smaller in scale, and he makes more of a social statement than political. His name is Morley and he is from Los Angeles, California. He has a day job, and in his spare time he creates posters and hangs them all over L.A. More recently he has gotten his prints in London and throughout Spain through trips abroad and friends of his living in other countries. He has also signed with a company who used to represent Banksy, to create several runs of screen printed posters available for sale. His posters consist of a hand drawn picture of himself, writing whatever the message of a particular piece is. In this way he feels he can connect with the audience by leaving messages of hope and concern for society to read and (hopefully) ponder.

Most of the time, Morley’s statements make an effort to include the viewer or to draw them into the message. He often leaves messages of hope such as, “It will get better” or “This is not it.” His thinking behind these pieces is that even if only one person sees his art and it can change their way of thinking or make their day a little less stressful, he has succeeded. In the L.A. street art scene there is a lot of competition. Walls get buffed by the city often and it is then a race to see who can get their new piece up first, and hopefully not get covered up by the next day. Electrical boxes are constantly being covered and recovered so that there are inches of layers of paper on them. The difficult part is creating something meaningful that the audience will get some hope for the future, for their life, for the understanding of it all.

He too puts Marshall McLuhan in high regard, making a poster out of his statement, the medium is the message. As Morley puts it, “the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived” (Morley). Morley’s poster says, “The Median is the Message” and it is placed on a median on Highway 110 northbound in Los Angeles, California. He left it as a message for people to read as they often get stuck in traffic on this highway and would have time to not only read the poster but to think about it’s meaning as well.

He has had a few posters that lead the audience to think about the advertising industry in our society today. One says, “I apologize for not trying to sell you something,” another says “I pledge allegiance to the ads,” and a third stating that “The revolution will have commercials.” With these posters he is trying to get society to notice how overrun we have become by advertising and consumerism. He uses the unique and simple way of street art to get a thoughtful message out to members of his community and he takes the time to figure out where specific posters will have the greatest effect.

Graffiti as Radical Media
Graffiti works as a radical media on two levels. First it is an unusual way to reach a large audience including some members who are harder to reach by other methods of radical or mass- media. Graffiti is enticing and may give people a reason to stop, look at it and then think about its message. Second it grasps an even larger audience because the original audience often takes photos or videos of the art or writes articles about it in newspapers, magazines or blogs. This increases the reach of the message behind the graffiti. It has now trickled through other radical media outlets and even some mass media outlets and influences an untold amount of people. The artists are fully aware of this and they take any opportunity to get their work on the streets and leave what they consider an important message, whether it is political, satirical or social.

Graffiti is an excellent example of radical media in the 20th century and for the years to come. Street artists are consciously breaking the law and using their free agency to break the structure of society to get out a message that they are repressed among the typical mass-media outlets, or are not reaching the target audience that the information most effects. Street art is often used to bring an audience closer to making an effort. Many times this effort has produced greater results than expected and becomes part of the mainstream, however most artists try to keep their original thoughts and messages in the pieces regardless of how mainstream they have become. There are multiple levels of graffiti ranging from the vandals who just leave sprayed scrawls on walls and electrical boxes just to be deviant, there are the people who care solely about the aesthetics of a piece and are not really leaving a lasting and meaningful message, and last there is the level which Banksy, OBEY, J.R. and Morley are notably a part of, who put themselves at risk in hopes of making a positive social change.

Banksy, I Want Change
This form of radical media not only creates a public sphere that is not effected by government or the economy but it promotes a solidarity among it’s viewers. Street artists take pride in erasing the false consciousness of a society and working against the oppressive force of that society. The graffiti of artists like Banksy or OBEY often make fun of or point out the inequality of the government and economy and the impact that advertising has had on our society. They try to extinguish the margin of difference between the world as it is commonly portrayed and they way it truly is. For all these reasons, graffiti is a very acceptable and noble form of radical media.

Works Cited
Downing, John. Radical Media Rebellious: Communication and Social Movements. California: Sage Publications, Inc. 2001. Print.
Wright, Steve. Banksy’s Bristol Home Sweet Home. UK: Tangent Books. 2007. Print.
Gopnick, Blake. “Revolution in a Can.” Foreign Policy Nov. 2011: 92-93. Print.
Gaddy, James. “Nowhere Man.” Print Jan/Feb 2007: 68-73. Print.
Bearman, Joshuah. Modern Painters October 2008: 68-73. Print.
NG, David. Los Angeles Times Blog. Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21, 2011. Web. April 18, 2012.
Heyman, Stephen. Poster Boy. New York Times, Nov. 13, 2011. Web. April 18, 2012.
Morley. I Am Morley. Web. April 18, 2012.
J.R. Web. April 25, 2012.
Forecast Public Artworks JR Wins Ted Prize. 22 .2 .44 (2010):74 Print.





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