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Vandalism and Art

The problem of vandalism on contemporary outdoor murals and street art

Isabelle Brajer

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1The preservation of contemporary outdoor murals is confronted with very special challenges. There is a vast amount of murals, the need for conservation is great and the technical challenges are enormous. It does not require much time for deterioration processes to commence on contemporary outdoor murals, which are often exposed to harsh climatic conditions. Lifespans can also be short due to urban expansion and development. Compounding these problems are conflicting attitudes dealing with philosophical issues addressing permanence, function of this type of art in public spaces, as well as other symbolic values. These conflicts engage the artists who create the murals, the communities that live with them, and the general public that views them. Indeed, some street artists, such as Banksy, incorporate visual and symbolic (political) statements into their art that focus on the narrow path that vacillates between creation and vandalism, adding fuel to the discussion about preservation and treatment.

2Many outdoor murals are created while embracing the spontaneous spirit of street art, often as a quasi or outright illegal action (Figure 1).

Fig.1 Building in Lisbon

Fig.1 Building in Lisbon

An abandoned apartment building in Lisbon, used as a platform for political messaging by Blu.

Photo: I. Brajer, 2011.­

3In general, street art is characterized by a turbulence that is seldom encountered when dealing with objects that have achieved cultural heritage status, and tagging of newly painted pieces can occur as an extension of the same political statement that inspired their creation. Whether sanctioned or not, very interesting pieces have been created that have great artistic, aesthetic and/or didactic value and have a strong social function. Communities have become emotionally attached to murals, and have instigated programs for their preservation.

4Many urban environments house a large amount of outdoor murals that display clear signs of ageing – a patina that testifies to their authenticity, something conservators would usually like to preserve at all costs. Ironically, the presence of patina on contemporary outdoor murals is a complicating dimension – it is often its death sentence. The first signs of neglect or ageing invite vandalism, mostly in the form of tagging (Figure 2). The case story of the mural Evolution, in Copenhagen, can serve as an example of the fate of sanctioned street art that ultimately succumbed to vandalism. Painted in 1999, and considered a masterpiece in the street art category, tags first appeared on the mural after 12 years when it started to show signs of weathering. By this time, the mural had acquired age value, a rare occurrence in these types of works [Brajer, 2015].

Fig.2 Evolution (Copenhagen)

Fig.2 Evolution (Copenhagen)

Detail from ’Evolution’, showing tags that appeared 12 years after the pieces was created, when it started to deteriorate.

Photo: I. Brajer, 2014.

5Tagging has become a ubiquitous sight in cities. For many years, street art was not differentiated from tagger vandalism. In many parts of the world, outdoor murals are still referred to as ‘graffiti’. In more recent years, the proliferation of serious artists choosing street art as their creative medium has resulted in a recognition or even acclamation of this form of expression as bona fide art. Currently, street art is one of the most dynamic worldwide forms of cultural expression. This has unleashed another trending type of vandalism: theft by detachment. Murals valued as a tourist attractions and cherished by communities have been stolen for their commercial value (Banksy, for example, is a popular target). This problem has its root partly in the fact that some artists, such as Keith Haring, have been active both on the street and in the studio.

6Both tagging and theft are hard to prevent because of easy public access to the murals. There have been examples of artists ‘touching up’ their own murals to rid them of tagging. For example, the artist who created Evolution, Ulrik Schiødt, performed two tag-eliminating campaigns, which could be seen as an ultimate example showing that a differentiation between the creative drive and the destructive drive (tagging) is acknowledged in the street artist milieu. In 2008 (four years before the first tags appeared on the mural), a conference was organized around the question whether Evolution should be afforded official protection [Hansen, 2014]. Among the issues discussed was relocation to an outdoor museum environment (the solution preferred by the artist). Much of the debate, however, focused on the ethical implications of conserving street art, most of which is created with a limited lifespan in mind as a creative manifestation anchored in the present. Evolution remained on site, and currently no longer exists.

7The acceptance by other artists of tagging and spontaneous change as a part of what street art is has manifested itself in an active political stance against municipal authorities’ attempt to stem the appearance of dereliction in the urban landscape by overpainting tagged street art. Thus, we see drastic reactions to such ‘sanitizing operations’, such as the response by the Italian street artist(s) Blu, who have scraped off and overpainted their own murals in an act of self-sabotage, protesting against the oppression of youth culture. At the same time, ‘the establishment’ hosts exhibitions, such as that held in Palazzo Pepoli in Bologna that celebrated the street art of Banksy & Co.

8The problems confronted by vandalism on outdoor murals have created a situation that is unlike that of many other objects of cultural heritage. Complex theoretical issues are intertwined with serious technical challenges. The techniques of tag removal used on unpainted architectural surfaces are too harsh for most paint layers. Furthermore, tags are often applied in the same medium as the murals, making separation very difficult. Therefore, over-painting is a common treatment for tag removal. This is often not performed locally, but as an over-all treatment, in effect, renewing large parts or the entire painting. As a consequence, the mural’s ‘newness value’ is artificially preserved, at the cost of other values, such as ‘age value’ and material authenticity. A more holistic approach, where conservators work side by side with artists, preserving as much of the genuine material fabric as possible is ideal, but results in extremely high-cost projects, where acquisition of funding is extremely difficult. Developments in this direction are currently focusing on treatments based on nanotechnology. In successful recent laboratory experiments, tags were easily and quickly removed using nanogels and microemulsions, and fieldwork in the application of this technique is ongoing [Baglioni et al, forthcoming]. Finding a quick and easy solution for tag removal is important, as the threat of this type of vandalism is constant. However, currently, this need is challenged by the technology offering potential solutions, which is still anchored in advanced scientific techniques and has not yet entered the repertoire of practicing conservators.

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Bibliography

Baglioni, M., Alterini, M. Giorgi, R., Shashoua, Y., Brajer, I., and Baglioni, P. 2017. Nanofluids confined in chemical hydrogels for the selective removal of graffiti from street art. In: ICOM-CC 18th Triennial Conference Preprints, Copenhagen, 4–8 September 2017, ed. J. Bridgland.

Brajer, I. 2015. Values and the preservation of contemporary outdoor murals. In: Conservation Issues in Modern and Contemporary Murals. Eds. M. Sánchez Pons, W. Shank, and L. Fuster Lopez. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 39-58.

Hansen, S. S. 2011. Evolution. In: Dansk Gade Kunst. Ed. L. Korsemann Horne, Lindhardt & Ringhof, 450-461.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1 Building in Lisbon
Caption An abandoned apartment building in Lisbon, used as a platform for political messaging by Blu.
Credits Photo: I. Brajer, 2011.­
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5761/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 200k
Title Fig.2 Evolution (Copenhagen)
Caption Detail from ’Evolution’, showing tags that appeared 12 years after the pieces was created, when it started to deteriorate.
Credits Photo: I. Brajer, 2014.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5761/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
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References

Electronic reference

Isabelle Brajer, « The problem of vandalism on contemporary outdoor murals and street art », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 16 January 2019, connection on 14 October 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/5761

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About the author

Isabelle Brajer

Senior Research Conservator, The National Museum of Denmark

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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